Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | January 23, 2002

Learning life lessons from leukemia

Sunday was an auspicious date for our family – the fifth anniversary of the day our daughter, Katie, was diagnosed with leukemia. Although we did not mark the day in any special way, I found that as I tried to sleep Sunday night, my mind kept drifting back to that day that sometimes seems like yesterday, sometimes like a lifetime ago.

My husband John and I had taken Katie, on her 19-month birthday, to her pediatrician because her tummy had grown alarmingly large over the weekend. Katie’s doctor examined her swollen abdomen and told us that Katie needed blood tests for a diagnosis to explain why her liver and spleen were dramatically enlarged.

“It could be mono, but it could be something worse,” I remember the doctor saying.

The blood was drawn at a nearby lab – the first of innumerable blood tests for our tow-headed, soon-to-be bald-headed toddler – while Katie sat on my lap and we both cried. I remember the lab technician assuring me that Katie would be just fine.

In spite of the diagnosis, and the sometimes-hellish two-and-a-half years of chemotherapy treatment Katie would undergo, it turned out she was right.

When her pediatrician called late that afternoon with the leukemia diagnosis, he told me, “Your lives will not be the same.” He was right, too.

I’m a world-class worrier. I can fret about anything and find a frightening answer to that question that’s meant to bring perspective – “What’s the worst that could happen?” One change is the vast reduction in the number of things I now deem worthy of worrying about. Life-threatening illness – yes. Not much else rates. It’s not that I never worry now, but I can usually quickly gain perspective by measuring the problem against the leukemia yardstick.

I also learned in dramatic fashion how fortunate my family is. I can list child after child with whom we crossed paths during Katie’s treatment who did not survive cancer. I wonder how their parents endured such unimaginable loss and pain, and am thankful that I haven’t had to learn how for myself.

I am eternally grateful that it’s been more than two years since Katie’s leukemia treatment ended, and we’re still happily counting the cancer-free days.

Katie was diagnosed with a relatively treatable form of leukemia – something other families we met can’t count among their blessings. She was very young, which, of course, presented problems, but also has a silver lining – Katie doesn’t remember much of her experience. There is, however, a treatment room at the hospital’s clinic where most of her bone marrow draws and spinal taps were done that she refuses to enter and doesn’t even like to walk by during her quarterly check-ups.

We became involved with the Leukemia Society’s Team in Training program as an honoree family, and met many wonderful people, a fantastic bonus for our family, which had moved to the Bay Area from Ohio just a few months before Katie’s diagnosis.

We had excellent health insurance, my husband had a good job, and even though we were new to the area, close friends nearby who were happy to help. Some of the families we met had none of the above.

Katie’s pediatrician was right – our lives did change. Few of the changes occurred immediately; most were wrought by living through a heart-wrenching period. Not all of the changes are good ones. The specter of cancer will forever shadow our lives, and I wouldn’t wish what we went through on anyone. But on that dark day five years ago, who could have guessed that in some ways, any of the changes would be for the better?



  1. […] topics ranging from the anniversary of my daughter’s leukemia diagnosis (the subject of my first column), to travel travails and DIY dilemmas, for […]

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