By: Stacey Town
September 6 of this year marked 22 years since my second birthday. On that day the blood in that bag was eye-catching and appealing, not because it was really blood, but something so intriguing I couldn’t look away. The liquid in that bag on that day was not only helping me get through the day, it was saving my life. It was bone marrow, but not my own; it was the marrow of a stranger. This stranger, my unknown hero, stepped up to help another stranger and was giving me a second chance at life – my bone marrow transplant, my new normal, the first day of the rest of my life. My second birthday!
Until then my life had been great. It was 1994. No one in my family had ever been seriously sick. I was healthy, worked out, ate well and played sports. I got married, lived in Sicily on an Air Force base, and three years later had our first child, a daughter we named Natalie. The next year was wonderful with a new baby. I coached volleyball that spring and settled in our new home that we had purchased the year before. Then within three weeks my world was flipped upside down; from that moment, my life changed. I was diagnosed with leukemia the day before my daughter’s first birthday.
Three weeks before I had quickly and suddenly felt very tired, had a sore throat and headache, so I went to my doctor. He prescribed antibiotics, the first treatment of choice; I trusted him so I took them but they didn’t help. Then I noticed bruising and small red dots on my leg and deep down I knew something was wrong. The only reason I finally went to the hospital was because I tripped over my cat. The next day my ankle was swollen and I knew it was time.
I didn’t want to go to the hospital because I had a bad feeling and my daughter’s first birthday was in two days. I am not the type to wait when I know something is up, so I went to the local hospital. After the blood work, began countless CBC’s done over three years. The doctor told me to get to my insurance-covered hospital ASAP because I had a life-threatening illness. The day before my daughter’s first birthday I was diagnosed with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML). I won’t get into specifics, but most people at age 26 are not diagnosed with AML. It is a quick, progressive form of leukemia which means you can’t delay. It needs to be treated immediately. The world became so small that day. I cared only about doing what had to be done to get better and return to my one-year-old baby.
From that day until after my transplant I was in the hospital for seven months. They were spread-out, but painful months to be away from my daughter while she was growing. Then my second worst nightmare happened. After being in remission for a year and a half, I relapsed in January 1996, and I knew the AML was back before the doctors knew. I had to be my own advocate and force them to do a biopsy. They were stunned that I was right. We know our own bodies, so never let someone second guess you. Two more treatments got me back in remission and then the search was on for a donor because now I knew I needed a bone marrow transplant.
My family was tested and no matches were found. I then went through the National Bone Marrow registry, which is known as Be The Match. I was lucky. I had three matches, but two fell through. Eventually I got my match!
My bone marrow transplant was in 1996 and I was in the hospital for only 27 days, which, back then, was a miracle. Bone marrow transplants were a fairly new procedure, and thankfully, U of M was one of the hospitals that specialized in them. My main goal and inspiration was to get home to my three-year-old daughter.
As I stated previously, seeing someone else’s bone marrow that was flown in a cooler from Virginia (that was all I knew about my unknown hero), infused into my body and find its way to my own empty bones was amazing. I received strong chemo to basically kill my own marrow in order to accept the new “stuff.” Can you imagine? The doctors gave me toxins that killed something that gave me life for 26 years; now I was in a hospital room feeling its demise.
On September 6, 1996, my second chance, my second birthday, had arrived. Then I had to wait; wait for my new marrow to work, and hope it didn’t reject me or I reject it; wait for 21 more days to feel like myself again and know that soon I would finally be going home to my family. Most of all, home to my daughter, Natalie. I walked every day around U of M’s transplant floor and I think that helped me get strong faster.
Since being diagnosed in 1994, I have had over 22 bone marrow biopsies and have many hip scars to prove it. I have had over 50 cbc’s, but only get them once a year now. Also, during those first two years, I had many infusions. Now 22 years later, all of those episodes are almost a faint memory of a scary time.
I have had 22 years of bone marrow transplant anniversaries on September 6. My mom started them a year after my transplant. Each time, while my husband worked, my mom and dad were with me every night while I was in many different hospitals. My sisters, my mom, mother-in-law and sister-in-law helped take care of Natalie. All of them were my rocks. I have cried; laughed; been infertile; had great joy, like adopting my son, Benjamin; had become menopausal; gained weight; lost weight, gained it back; gone on great vacations; worked; coached; was an exercise instructor; and have enjoyed life immensely since that day in 1994. I have celebrated every waking moment. You have to live, that is the best way to recover and move on. Then my next worst nightmare began.
Right after I celebrated my 10th anniversary in September 2006, my mom, Diane, was diagnosed with stage-4 uterine leiomyosarcoma. To say the least, my world was flipped upside down again. I was angrier than I was when I was sick. It wasn’t fair! We all remember the good years and we also remember the bad ones. Well, 1994, 1996, 2006, 2007 and 2008 were my bad times. The mother who was my caregiver was now the patient and I was one of her caregivers. Watching my mother go through this illness made me realize how hard it must have been for her to watch me go through cancer treatment. It was awful watching her slip away. Sadly, on December 16, 2007, a year after she was diagnosed, my mom passed away at only age 59. The next year was difficult. I was angry but had to keep going for my kids.
The beautiful, simple, spirited, carefree, kind, loving and compassionate person I looked up to and wanted to be like was the person who helped make me who I am, the one who sat by my bed every night when I was sick; the best grandma, my best friend, my mom, Diane, was gone. After all we had been through, I knew she would want me to keep living, so I have. I have kept living, loving, coaching, and trying to be a good mom, wife, friend, daughter and sister.
It has now been almost 11 years since she died but what keeps me living life to the fullest is my faith, my family and my friends. Things will never be the same. Life changed for me 22 years ago and I made enjoying every day a priority. Since being sick and then losing my mom, I realize life is too short to worry about silly things like whether people like me, where I work, school, my yard, my house or who our President is. I have become simpler, kinder (I hope), more compassionate and realize family and my faith in God is what pulled me through so many years ago and still does. Take this to heart: “don’t worry, be happy;” be spontaneous; be brave. Cancer sucks, death sucks; but if we believe in ourselves, let our family and friends help us and realize life is what you make it; things might not be the same, but they still can be wonderful!
PS-I met my donor in 2003 and we stay in touch. If not for her I would not be having any second birthdays!
So thank you to my hero who was a stranger at first and is now my friend!