The Full Circle: The Stem Transplant

In February, after being bed and house bound for almost a year from spinal fractures, I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. For that past three months I have been getting weekly chemotherapy to battle the cancer. There are good days and days that could be better. I The treatments have been effective and after years of low blood counts ,attributed to menopause, stress and aging, my counts are returning to normal as the drugs do their job and kill off the cancer that was slowly eating my bones.

Last week, I received the call from the University of Minnesota Stem Cell Transplant folks informing me of an appointment time in two weeks. After all I’ve been through in the past three months this shook me up. I know I have to have a stem cell transplant to get into remission. I know that they do them every day and that the success rate is like 99 percent. I also know that this cancer is considered a chronic disease and that I will most likely have to do this all over again throughout my remaining life. While I am not looking forward to the bone biopsies and all the other stuff that I will learn about in two weeks, I am not so much afraid of the process is that I am sad that this process will now become my own. You see it is a process that I am familiar with.

One Sunday two weeks before Christmas, thirty years ago when our son was only four years old, as I was leaving church our pastor pulled me aside and said he had a favor to ask. Then, he told me about Eric and his parents.

Eric was my age, in his early twenties, he had been in the Navy and served on a nuclear submarine. He had been diagnosed and successfully treated for testicular cancer the year before, then he got leukemia. It was a very aggressive form of the disease and they wanted him to try a new experimental treatment called a bone marrow transplant at the University of Minnesota.

Knowing that he would be in isolation in a hospital room for months, he had asked his parents for a special Christmas gift, a picture of an eagle soaring free that he could have in his hospital room. They had looked everywhere for an image and couldn’t find what he was describing. As a last resort, they had contacted Pastor and asked if he knew of anyone that could create the image and that’s what he was asking me to do.

At that time in our marriage, I was still recovering from a major depression that developed after we lost our second baby. We were still paying off medical bills from that and having our son born by C-section when we were unemployed and uninsured. I did not paint anymore, because we did not have any money in the budget for art supplies. At that time we were eating Golden Treat macaroni and cheese twice a day, hot dogs for protein and had saved up $48 dollars total for Christmas dinner and gifts for our son.

I told my husband about pastor’s request. He just drove right to an art store. After buying a canvas, brushes and paint…we had less than $10 to spend on our Christmas. So, feeling like terrible parents, we next stopped at the dollar store and bought our son, as many plastic dinosaurs as we could afford and a plastic airplane as a gift for our nephew Sam.

I spent the next week watching our son during the day and painting at night, while my husband, after working all day, watched our son. The next Sunday, we delivered the painting, still wet, to the pastor. The painting was of an eagle flying over the St. Croix River valley with the cliffs covered with white trillium flowers. Trilliums always remind me of the love of our triune God. Pastor said that Eric’s parents and Eric loved it. That painting remained in his room with him during his transplant and long hospital stay.

As I painted that picture, I knew what it was like to be young and very sick, but I had never had cancer and that was always my greatest fear. I prayed many times for Eric. That he would beat his cancer and fully recover…he didn’t.

What he did do was give his life in the war against cancer by trying new therapies that would in the future help people like me. When I got the call from the University of Minnesota, I thought of him, and how it had come full circle for me. Then, I mentally thanked him and all of the brave patients who have advanced the treatment of cancer and other diseases by agreeing to experimental treatment to advance cures.

Now, it is my turn to be a good soldier in the war against cancer a second time. The first time was when my daughter was only 14 months old and I was diagnosed with Thyroid cancer. I plan on doing whatever I can to beat this monster back and send it packing. I will be having that stem cell transplant, at the University of Minnesota and I can’t help but feeling I will have an angel on my shoulder named Eric.

Note: Our son loved his dinosaurs and thought it was the best Christmas. That little boy has grown up to be a Senior Research Scientist at Mayo, Clinic.  We are very proud of the life saving work he is doing in the field of Newborn Testing.

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