I am a general physician and a two-time blood cancer survivor. I was first diagnosed with AML in July 2012. Before that, I completed my MBBS in January 2010 and worked in a hospital. I had no health problems and was completely healthy in all aspects. I had the habit of having routine checkups, and I had one done when the blood reports showed that my WBC count was around 60,000, which is way above the average count. I was not experienced in the field of cancer, but as a physician, I knew the reports were abnormal.
I discussed my reports with my senior physician, who was also my mentor, and he was also shocked with the results and told me to do the test again because the first thing that came to our mind was an error in the results. I did the blood test again, and the reports showed that I had blood cancer.
My senior physician referred me to a hematologist. He looked at the report and was pretty sure it was blood cancer, and two days later, he sent me to get a bone marrow biopsy. I gave the test in the morning, and the results were available; by the afternoon, it confirmed that I had blood cancer, and by evening I was admitted to the hospital to get started with my treatment.
I began with the first chemo that night, and with blood cancer, the chemo is administered continuously for seven days, and I was in the hospital for 30 days.
Our first reaction to the news
The diagnosis was a big shock to me, but surprisingly I did not react much. My parents knew about the news only after the biopsy results came; before that, only me and my physician were dealing with the process. When everyone at home came to know about this, the only thought in their minds was that I wouldn’t survive because that is the general stigma surrounding the concept of cancer.
Everyone was crying, and there was no hope. Finally, in the end, we spoke to the hematologist, who was supportive and gave us a lot of hope and confidence. With that in mind, I began my cancer journey.
Cancer treatment and its side effects
The initial chemotherapy caused me many side effects; I had almost all the typical symptoms of an average cancer patient. Vomiting, pain, infections, fever and all sorts of things. After the first chemotherapy, I had three more rounds and a stem cell transplant in December 2012.
The stem cell transplant is a really good treatment for the patient, but it was a very horrible experience for me because I had to be in isolation post-surgery for 14 days, and my parents could only meet me for 10-15 mins every day. I was alone the rest of the day, and it was difficult for me. I had a few post-transplant complications too, but ultimately the surgery was a success, and I recovered.
Despite the transplant being a success, ten months later, I somehow had a relapse. Even the doctors were surprised because it was not logical, but these things happened, so I again went through some rounds of chemotherapy. I was supposed to have another transplant, but due to some reasons, I did not go through with it.
Instead of the transplant, I had another procedure done. It was a mini transplant called the Donor Leukocyte Infusion (DLI). This procedure took place in December of 2013, and I haven’t had any relapses since then.
I do have a lot of post-treatment issues because of the DLI. There is something called the Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD), where your cells fight the transplant cells. It has a few benefits, but it also causes horrible side effects. To treat GVHD, I had to take immunosuppressants and steroids for almost four years, which caused many steroid-induced complications.
I had a cataract in both my eyes, and it was operated on. I also had arthritis and had to have hip replacement surgery. One side of the operation is done, and the other is still pending, and I had to use a walking stick. I had my experiences, but overall, I would say I am doing pretty well when I see other cancer patients and survivors.
Mentally, I was pretty intense because I had a great support system. My family has been of phenomenal support through the journey, my sister was my donor, and I am not even a hundredth for the good person she is. I have very few friends, but they were so supportive through and through. I don’t think I would have been as supportive as they are if they were in my position, and financially also, we were stable, so we did not have to worry about it either. I was also blessed with a great health care team, and being a doctor myself; I had better access to doctors. Things have been entirely in my favor, I would say.
Things that kept me going
I love traveling, and even during the initial treatment, I had my chemotherapy in Gurgaon and had to move to Vellore for the stem cell transplant between them; my family and I took a Pondicherry trip; looking back at the photos, we were all happy and smiling, and I think those were the good times during the whole process.
The relapse affected me more mentally than the first time because I thought I had won cancer and that everything would return to normal again. The second time was also more challenging because of the GVHD. But even then, after I had taken the initial treatment for GVHD, my friends and I also went on a trip, and I think that is what it is all about.
Cancer and its treatment is a long process, and I guess the one thing I learned is to make the best out of the good times that come by because I could have a relapse again, and with a stem cell transplant, the chances of getting other cancers are higher. Anything can happen at any time, and until things are going well, we must learn to live it.
Apart from traveling, another thing I did was share my experiences on social media platforms. I am not someone who shares a lot of stuff, but the little that I do, I feel like is helpful to people.
My message to the patients and caregivers
As I had mentioned before, try to do whatever makes you happy. It would help if you focused on not becoming antisocial, but at the same time, don’t give too much thought to what people might think. Do whatever you like while also not hurting anyone around you. Live for yourself. When you live your life well is when you can help others. It is not an easy task; there will be bad days; let those days pass and don’t hold onto them. Whenever things are in your control, make them as good as possible.