The Real Hero
As I sit here, enjoying my hot coffee in the early morning hours, another young mother is in the hospital, fighting for her life. It takes me back to two years ago, when I was this woman. I was nine months post-partum when I was diagnosed—she was fifteen weeks pregnant. I too was bald, sick, weak and struggling, like she is now. I had no idea if I would make it. But I am Caucasian, so I had several donor matches in the registry, and because of my highly aggressive form of AML, I had a transplant almost immediately after my first remission.
This woman is Vietnamese, and because so few Asians sign up to be donors, she can’t find a match. She has relapsed and her cancer is now very aggressive (when leukemia comes back, it is smarter and more vicious). If she doesn’t find a donor soon, a beautiful little girl will lose her mother. A husband will lose his wife.
My heart hurts when I think of her. My throat closes. I can smell the horrible pink hospital soap. And at the same time, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Life is weird that way.
A few weeks ago, I raced my first ever Olympic-distance triathlon. After all the poor prognoses and myriad doctors and training and injuries and setbacks, it was an utterly amazing victory. I swam in the ocean in Vancouver, my heart city, I cycled around UBC, my alma mater, and I ran along Spanish Banks, my old stomping grounds.
Getting to the start line was a victory. Surviving the full contact swim was a victory. Racing the bike was a victory. Passing people on the run was a victory. Crossing the finish line was…let’s just say that I hugged my kids, husband, sister, friends and parents and then cried like I won the Ironman World Championships.
I did it.
My hope was just to finish, ideally in under three hours. But somehow I also won a medal. I ended up finishing second in my age group and nineteenth overall. I was genuinely shocked. Not only did I finish, I was actually fairly competitive in a large field of West coast athletes.
Cancer girl to podium? Who would have guessed it?
I do have to thank one anonymous male competitor on the bike leg, who, upon passing me on a very slight incline (ahem, not a hill), told me in a condescending tone that I should come out of the aerobars on the “hills”. He didn’t have aerobars himself, and I don’t like being passed by snide people who give unwelcome advice on things they clearly know nothing about. So I shifted, mashed the pedals and silently whipped past him, never to see him again. Don’t mess with cancer girl.
(As a side note, before the race I was going to write: “I beat cancer and now I’m beating you” on the back of my shirt. My husband thankfully convinced me not to do such a foolish thing, but in that moment I sort of wished I had.)
That said, I clearly wasn’t going hard enough before that encounter, so thank you, Unsolicited Advice Man, for annoying me enough to make me ride faster.
Two years ago, accomplishing something like that race was nowhere on my radar. Doing a triathlon was on my bucket list, sure, but once I got a bit too close to that bucket, it didn’t really seem possible. I could barely walk one hundred metres without needing to sit on the curb. I was an emaciated, hairless, eyebrow-less wreck (it paints such a nice picture, no?). I had days where I crawled up the stairs to my room. Somehow, with every painful slow step, girly pushup and yoga session, I clawed my way back.
But only because someone gave me the chance.
With my donor’s immune system running through my veins and organs, I was able to survive not only leukemia, but also what came after: H1N1, multiple bouts of pneumonia, a sprained ankle, many rounds of gastro viruses, shingles, a pulled hamstring tendon, a torn calf muscle and a stress fracture. Through all that “bad luck”, I still broke twenty-one minutes in a five-kilometre running race, taught myself how to race a road bike, and built over fifteen pounds of muscle. And then I raced an Olympic-distance triathlon and landed in the top twenty women overall, winning a silver medal in my category.
The sky’s the limit now.
Looking back at my 2012 emaciated self, I am really not sure how that happened. And I certainly don’t recount these things to sing my own praises. I recount them because I want my kids to learn what it means to never, ever, ever give up. I recount them because I want people like Mai Duong to keep fighting when they hear my story. I recount them because I want people to join the stem cell and marrow registry. I recount them because I wouldn’t have done any of it without my donor, and I don't know how else to thank him.
I write and share my personal triumphs and heartaches because I want other people’s worst nightmares to end with a swim in the ocean (and ideally, a medal). If you have followed my story and it has inspired you in any way, please spread the word about Mai Duong. She should get to swim in the ocean too. And then go online and get registered. It really only takes a few minutes. When you save a life, you really do save a whole family.
Because in the end, I am not the real hero of this story.
(This entry was originally posted here.)