Giving everything to the fight

Parkview Cancer Institute patient Christopher Anderson shared his inspiring testimonial, from startling diagnosis to healing with the help of his trusted physician and treatment team.

I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (UC) in 2005, when I was 23, but other than that, I’ve been pretty healthy. Having UC has taught me to be in tune with my body, so when something is wrong, I know.

On January 15 of this year, I went to work like normal. In addition to my primary job, I also do some auto detailing on the side. That morning, I was feeling drained and a little out of control. I was dizzy and my head was pounding. I just didn’t feel right. I thought I’d possibly been exposed to some propane in my shop.

Around noon I went to the Emergency Room at Parkview Regional Medical Center. They started tossing around a lot of numbers … my platelets were 43 and my white blood cell count was 153. By then I had this tearing feeling in my abdomen and it was horribly distended. It felt like someone was cutting me with razor blades. My bloodwork showed a lot of abnormalities. They admitted me and did some x-rays and more bloodwork. Then, Dr. [Alexander] Starodub came in to see me.

I was alone in the room when he told me. He’d found lymphoma. He said, “I have some bad news and I don’t want to sugarcoat it.” It was one of those defining moments of life, and I was just like, “OK, what do we need to do to fix this?”

Dr. Starodub felt like there was something more, so he brought in his colleagues, Dr. [Abhijit] Shukla and Dr. [Michael] Toole and had them take a look. I shared with them that I’d been feeling like I had an upper respiratory infection, but wasn’t coughing anything up. I’d had asthma since I was little, so it was pretty typical for me to have something that time of year. We decided to get an x-ray of my chest. That’s when they found the softball-sized mass above my heart.

That day, when I met Dr. Toole for the first time, which was a Thursday, he did a bone marrow biopsy. By Tuesday he called to tell me I had lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL). If everything had happened just two weeks later, I wouldn’t have had a chance. I received my diagnosis on January 22.

On January 23, I got married. We were engaged, and had a date set in August, but then everything happened and we didn’t want to wait. We called to tell the woman at the place where we had planned to get married, who was a friend of ours, about the situation, and we asked if she knew anyone who was ordained. “I am,” she said. So, she came out and our parents were there and we had a little ceremony. On January 24, I got my port put in.

The x-rays showed my entire rib cage was full of cancer. Dr. Toole estimated it had been growing for about a month. If we didn’t start chemo within days, I wasn’t going to make it. We were in a time crunch. He called that first round of chemo “Pegasus,” and I had a 0-5% chance of making it from that treatment alone because it could be so destructive to the body. We had to go with one of the hardest regimens if we were going to attack my cancer at the level it was at. We had to come full force and I was more than willing. I was raised to believe you don’t give up. You don’t quit. I wanted to run at this cancer and give it hell.

The second time I met Dr. Toole was the day we started the chemo. It was a rough day. My platelets were low and I had a reaction when they tried to give me some. I had issues with my port shortly after that. But looking back, all of these hurdles were blessings in disguise. Because of those complications, we learned how to give me platelets without triggering a reaction. We were finding our way through a situation we’d been thrown into.

After Pegasus, my body responded very well to chemo. Every time you get chemo, your body’s supposed to go through a week and then start falling apart. My body worked alongside the chemo. Every time I got it, my body would start repairing what the chemo destroyed. That first Monday after getting Pegasus, Dr. Toole came in and looked at me like, “Who is this guy?” My numbers were climbing, not falling apart. That was the first sign of how things were going to work with me. We had some down days, sure, but for the most part, from January until my last chemo treatment, it went well.

There were a few instances where my body did fall apart. In March, I woke up on a Thursday and didn’t feel well, but my son had just lost his best friend and I didn’t want to call an ambulance and put him through that trauma. I had labs that Friday, so I willed myself along. On the morning of my appointment, my family got me up out of bed and to the Parkview Cancer Institute. While I was waiting, I told my wife I couldn’t feel my tongue or toes. Within minutes, my temperature jumped from 98.6 to 102.3. I took my first ride in an ambulance that day. I was in one of the bays there at PCI and Dr. Toole came flying in and got down in a baseball catcher’s stance, inches from me and said, “I got you. Don’t worry, I’ll fix this. Don’t worry, I got you.”

Those words stopped me from a panic attack. A chaplain came in and got my family. They transported me to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). My body was shutting down. I spent five days in the ICU then time in Oncology, as Dr. Toole worked to make everything OK.

Any time I went to the Emergency Room he ended up showing up. He’s an early riser and he’d come down and we’d joke a little bit. “I just sent you home,” he’d say. “Well, I missed your face,” I’d answer.  

He trusted me to know if something was wrong. He knew I’d tell him. He kept me safe. He was so honest and open and I truly couldn’t have asked for a better guy or a better doctor. He has a special place with God, I truly believe that. The way he handles himself, his mannerisms, the way he conducts himself, he was very direct when it came to what we needed to be doing, but jovial, too, to make me feel comfortable. He sat there until all my questions were answered, and I knew I wasn’t the only patient he had. I consider him a friend. Leukemia is very personal – though I recognize others likely feel the same way about their form of cancer – but the way he does his job is amazing.

In early March we went in and did another bone marrow biopsy and found out that I’d beaten the cancer. They sent the samples off for confirmation and they came back clean. Dr. Toole looked at me and smiled, and we started discussing the next steps. Early on, he’d told me to expect a bone marrow transplant possibly in November, June would be a best-case scenario. So, June was always my goal. I needed to beat cancer, keep it at bay, wait for my turn then get my bone marrow transplant. So that’s what I did. We kept fighting and keeping it at bay, and on June 21, I had my bone marrow transplant

My relationship with God is really strong. I’d come to terms with what was happening to me. A lot of people have regrets, wishes, a bucket list … but I believe you have to be grateful for what you do have and have done. If it’s meant to be, you’ll do those things and if not, it shouldn’t be a regret. I’ve lived a good life. I have great family and friends. If it was my time, I wouldn’t have regrets. A lot of people feel they have unfinished business, but that’s not a way to live your life. You end up chasing your tail and looking behind instead of forward.

Dr. Toole took me from 2 weeks short of being in the grave to resting in a home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, recovering from a successful bone marrow transplant. Any number of things could have been different in my scenario, and he talked to me about that.

I’ve always said, I’m glad it was me because I knew I was strong enough mentally, emotionally and physically to fight this. It could have been my son or daughter or parent, and I would have been helpless. I gave this fight everything I had, on the strong days and the weak days. Being on the other side of it now, I’m humbled. I was gracious before, and I knew I was blessed, but now I can share the things I’ve been through because I have this story.

I know there are people right now facing and fighting worse things. Don’t give up. I know it’s hard. When you get a hard diagnosis or prognosis, it’s a lot to take in. But know that there are stories out there of people who survived. You have to be strong. You could be a shining light for others who may not make it, but they’re going to live the last of what time they have from a happy place.

 

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