Saturday, September 10, 2011

Happy Third Birthday to Me, Stem Cell Transplant Survivor

Today is my birthday. Well, my stem cell transplant birthday. I’m officially 3 years old, according to my new post-cancer, post-transplant vocabulary.
I started a new life on September 10, 2008, when my own baby stem cells were infused back into my disease-ravaged body. That morning, my nurse, John, arrived in my room with a wide smile on his face. 
He sang the whole “Happy Birthday” song to me, bless his heart.
I was terrified and trying to be cheerful. It’s easier for me to be upbeat now, three years out. Three years I might not have lived, were it not for the miracle of stem cell transplants (also known as bone marrow transplants).
And like any birthday, I have a meaningful ritual. It involves California Pizza Kitchen and key lime pie. I will go to my local CPK and eat some sort of pizza, then I will top it off with key lime pie -- the restaurant and the dessert are joyous markers of where I’ve been and how far I’ve come.
My actual birthday was not so happy.
After a 15-month intensive chemotherapy attack on my non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the cancer reappeared a year later. My oncologists said my only choice was a bone marrow transplant. 
I embarked on a grueling repeat chemo program and a host of more tests and scans in  preparation for the transplant. It was autologous, meaning I could contribute my own stem cells. They harvested them in a remarkable method. It was like a reverse blood transfusion where the blood came out of my body and got separated in a machine that took the baby cells and sent the rest back into my body.
The night before that occurred we were looking for a place to have dinner near the hospital. We settled on California Pizza Kitchen.
It was the first restaurant I went to on an “away pass” from my rehab center more than a year earlier after four months in a hospital bed. That day, my husband pushed me in a wheelchair to CPK for lunch. I wore a large straw hat and rhinestone-studded sunglasses my girlfriends had brought me as a gift. I had to protect my scalp -- about a quarter of it had been shaved for a brain biopsy. I was wearing a back brace that was more like a torture device, a hard Ninja Turtle-type shell that was supposed to prevent me from breaking more bones, but was almost unbearably painful.
I don’t remember what I had but I remember the sense of freedom. No doctors or nurses or beeping IV machines. My husband and I felt like we were playing hooky.
The night before my stem cell collection, we went to CPK again. This time, I was walking with a walker, my hair was completely gone from my latest round of chemo and I had shed the dreaded brace a year earlier. We split a pizza and when it came time for dessert, the waiter recommended the key lime pie. I was a huge fan of authentic key lime pie and when he said they flew in their key limes from Florida, I was sold. It tasted amazing.
In the coming weeks, I was on a schedule like the countdown for a rocket launch. Day -9, Day -8, toward Day 0, which was my transplant day, my new birthday.
My first chemo regimen, I was given an extremely powerful dose, enough, my oncologist said, to kill an elephant. Each time it was administered, I had be on a rescue drug for days until it was flushed from my system.
This time, I was hit with four days of radiation and seven times the amounts of chemo I had had before. It felt like I was run over by a steamroller. Bald, bloated and blotchy, I felt like crap the morning of my transplant. 
Laura Laughlin undergoing transplant
After John sang his song, serious technicians warmed my stem cells (which had been frozen while I was prepped for the transplant)  and hooked them up to infuse them back into my body. The little pouch of hope looked like V8 juice, I said.
Then, with a sucker in my mouth -- to prevent nausea that can come with the foul taste when the new cells are infused -- I began to cry.
“Why?” my husband asked, happy that the day was finally here.
“Because it’s so important,” I replied. “And what if it doesn’t work?”
I had tried to be upbeat during my difficult fight for life the past three years. But this seemed do or die to me. And because I had forced my doctor to tell me how often stem cells don’t engraft (attach themselves to the inside of your bone marrow and begin regeneration), I knew two or three people a year don’t survive my type of transplant performed each year at this hospital.
What if I were one of those three?
But I wasn’t.  And while it was an experience I call my second visit to hell and back, it’s one I am grateful I went through.
On my first and second birthdays, I went to our local CPK. I had a little pizza and some key lime pie.
Around that time, I was asked to speak to a friend of a friend about my experience. Also fighting lymphoma, she faced a stem cell transplant, but was deciding whether to proceed.
I told her it is definitely tough and there are no guarantees, but in my case, a month of hell had given me two years of life. If that’s all I had, it would have been worth it, I told her. 
I feel the same way this birthday. No one really knows how much time he or she has  left.
Because I won’t have cake and candles, I won’t make a wish. I am happy to be alive, sharing some pizza and pie with my loved ones.

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