My name is Jennifer Warden, and my cancer story really begins with my little brother Josh, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in 1981. He was very ill upon diagnosis, slow to achieve remission and relapsed within months. His only hope was a relatively new procedure called a bone marrow transplant. Much testing began (it wasn’t as easy back then) and I was a match. In the summer of 1982, he entered a small five-bed unit for treatment and to receive my marrow. Five weeks into the process he acquired an infection, which took his life. Our sweet Josh was gone. The grief was unbearable, but a few weeks later I went off to begin college with a broken heart.
My junior year, I felt a lump on my neck which was dismissed by our family doctor as a “viral thing” that should work itself out. Two months later this lump was now quite large, so I took myself to The Ohio State University emergency room where they wasted no time determining that it was probably Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
I left Ohio State to come home and receive treatment (I could not conceive of getting chemo and living in a dorm) at The Cleveland Clinic. I completed my treatmentin ten months with few setbacks and was encouraged by my good prognosis. I gathered myself and went about building a life.
Six years of remission later, I relapsed (a statistical unlikelihood). It turns out my only shot for a cure was…you guessed it, a bone marrow transplant! Because my disease was a solid tumor in my chest with no bone marrow involvement, I was able to donate marrow to myself and have an autologous transplant.
While being in the bone marrow transplant unit wasn’t the most pleasant twenty-three days of my life, I pushed through. On July 17, 1991, I walked off of that unit into the brilliant sunshine taking in every sight and smell. It seemed as if everything was in Technicolor. I have enjoyed a cancer-free existence since that day and this summer marks my 25th anniversary.
Many people ask, “Why do you still talk/write about this? It’s old news; just enjoy your life.”
Here is the thing. Cancer is ubiquitous. It seems a week hardly passes without hearing of someone’s recent diagnosis, which always reminds me of my own struggle, as well as my good fortune. While its old news for me, it’s not old news for the young person entering the transplant unit today. It’s not old news for the parents admitting their child for this difficult (yet life-saving) procedure. In 1991, I had no reference point or anyone to look to that had long-term survival post-transplant, so if my twenty-five years can provide hope to any patient or family in the throes of transplantation, I certainly want to speak up.
I never want to forget my experience. It informs every corner of my life and how I live it, savor it. To find meaning in those messy parts and to use it in service for those that are still in its midst is a privilege.