My Leukemia Relapsed When I Was 19

“You have leukemia.” The doctor says.

The words don’t have time to sink in before you’re whisked away to the corner room on the north wing of the fourth floor of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. You’re fifteen, and those words are never really going to sink in. You’re mother is at your side, and she’s holding your hand and she’s crying harder than you are. The words have sunk in for her. Not you.

“You have leukemia.” The doctor says.

The Google search tells you that it’s a blood cancer. The Wikipedia page tells you that in the year 2000, it killed 209,000 people. The doctor tells you not to do a Google search.

“Leukemia.” The doctor says.

With each time you hear him say it, with each nurse and family member and friend that comes into the room, the word echoes louder. “Leukemia?” They’ll ask. “Leukemia.” They’ll say. And no matter how many echoes, no matter how many asks, no matter how many times they all say it, it doesn’t become any more familiar.

You’ll spend the next eight months “ill,” as they like to call it. You’ll remember when all “ill” really meant was a cold or the flu or the – god forbid – chicken pox. When “ill” meant mom’s hand on your forehead, pillows propping you up in bed, days off from school, The Price Is Right on CBS, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, ice cream. This isn’t “ill” like you thought you knew “ill.”

“It’s gone.” The doctor says. “The leukemia. It’s gone.”

No matter how many times he says that goddamn word, you still don’t know what it means. You’ll stand in front of the mirror and pull at a loose strand of hair still tied to your head. It will fall away fairly easily, because you didn’t have to pull at all for the rest of your hair to fall away, for your eyebrows to disappear, for your eyelashes to slowly vanish. Your skin will be a dull kind of pale you barely recognize, and your lips will be white and wrinkled and chapped. This is not you. This is leukemia. What does he mean? It’s not gone.

You’ll leave the hospital that day. Not for one of the short breaks the doctors would give you in-between cycles of chemotherapy. Not for the ten minute walks the nurses would force you on, where you’d lean into the walker and you’d squint into the painstaking light of the sun, where mom would be following right behind with a readied wheelchair. You’ll leave for good, this time. You’re cured.

On the drive home, you’ll remember eight months ago when you first came to this cold place, when the doctor first said, “You have leukemia.” The words linger just as fondly as the ones he’s just said. “The leukemia. It’s gone.” How could something come and go without you ever figuring out quite what it was?

It’s four years later, and your fever is well over 100°. Your body aches a dull sort of pain that you can’t shake. Your brain pounds as if it’s been beaten. Your forehead sweats even though the air conditioning teams out of the central cooling system, and your body shivers even though the room feels to be a thousand degrees. You’ve been five days like this now, and the Tylenol isn’t working. The water and the vitamin C and the rest isn’t working.

You’re lying in bed, under the covers, with your knees tucked to your chest and your arms folded under your pillow. “It’s the same.” You whisper to yourself. “It’s the same. It’s the same. It’s the same.”

You analyze the yellowish bruise on your forearm you can’t for the life of you remember getting. You cough even though you don’t really need to, because a cough isn’t the same. You wouldn’t be coughing if it was the same.

A tear rolls away from your cheek as you sit in the cab on the way to the hospital. You’re alone this time. Mom isn’t here to drive you anymore. You pay the meter and you check-in at the desk and you wait for your turn and you prop your arm up on the pillow for the nurse to take the blood sample.

“It’s the same.” You’re repeating to yourself, over and over again, remembering the night very similar to tonight, just four years ago.

“You have leukemia.” The doctor said. As if you were supposed to know, as if you would ever know. You were fifteen then. Now you’re nineteen, and it’s the same.

It’s not the same.

The doctor will send you home with a prescription for an antibiotic. It’s a severe case of strep throat, and it will go away. It’s not the same. It’s not leukemia.

One day, leukemia came into your life. Not the day the doctor first said it. No one will ever really know which day that was. One day, the doctor said that leukemia was now gone. That it had left your life. But it never really did. Leukemia will always be there. It lingers in the back of your mind, and creeps towards the front with each fever, with each sore throat, with each cold and flu and strep throat. It lingers on each bruise, in each ache, with each Tylenol pill. One day, leukemia came into your life and leukemia never left. You never managed to understand what leukemia really meant, what impact leukemia really had, what “ill” could really be.

“At this point, you have a better chance of being run over by a school bus than you do of getting leukemia again.” The doctor will say.

You’ll laugh. And then you’ll leave the office and you’ll drive home. You’ll take the usual route. Life is normal now. You have routines. You have responsibilities. You have friends and family and loves ones. You have health. You’ll think about all of these things on your car ride home, and even though you never pass a school, you’ll see a big, shiny, yellow school bus across the intersection. You’ll smile. Leukemia lingers here too, now. TC mark

image – Daniel Flower

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