Fear, Valour, Humour
My autologous bone marrow transplant experience began with my admission to Vancouver General Hospital on January 24th, 1994. I was thrilled to receive the news that I would be on 6 West because I had heard it had the best care, and I had always received great care at the clinic. I was diagnosed with peripheral, subcutaneous T-Cell, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in March of 1992, and since then I had two courses of treatment and two disappointing reoccurrences. A bone marrow transplant for me was a wonderful 40th birthday present. Deep down I knew that it would take this drastic treatment to kill the monster I had been battling the past two years.
My wife Janine and I arrived as late as possible on admission day and moved into room 678. The view was spectacular and the room looked comfortable. However, I knew it would be difficult to be confined to the ward for any length of time. We quickly unpacked and asked one of the nurses if we could leave. She said, “What time do you plan on getting back?” I immediately felt frightened of losing control of my life so quickly. We then escaped to a restaurant for one of our last dinners and enjoyed our freedom. I felt anxious, excited and certainly afraid of the severity of the transplant treatment. But I was optimistic that this would end our years of battling cancer. The other alternative was less attractive, to be sure!
I strongly believed in my body’s ability to fight, and in the power of my mind to visualize a successful treatment, despite the low statistical odds. I knew from experience that I do very well in treatment and this was just a bigger and scarier hurdle for me to overcome. I had read numerous books suggesting that visualization and the power of positive thinking went a long way in healing.
To that end, I created a huge militaristic metaphor for this experience that would help me cope. Room 678 was a lucky number because it was progressive, starting with a six and ending with an eight. This was a good sign! My room was immediately transformed into a “jungle command centre.” I called myself the General who was in charge of the big attack. My Assistant General, Janine, who was by my side for the duration of the battle reworded the sign on my door that said, “Visitors please report to nurses station before entering.” The new version told visitors they were entering the “Jungle Command Post!” I referred to the rest of the unit as the village that I would visit occasionally in the weeks to come.
My cancer, in the form of pink spots on my skin was innocent looking enough, yet devious and deadly. I knew it would take a major offensive and destructive force to kill. I called the cancer cells, “the Viet Cong of the cancer crowd,” who conducted themselves like jungle gorilla warriors within the deep recesses of my body. At any moment they could sneak up on me when I would least expect it. I knew they would show no mercy in disrupting my life and threatening me with their power. In conjuring a strong symbol for the medicine which would totally destroy these cells, the movie Apocalypse Now came to mind. I remembered Robert Duvall’s lines in that movie. He said, “Son, smell that? Napalm, I love the smell of napalm in the morning!” I thought, that’s it, the fury of napalm; the chemical that totally devastates and kills everything in its path! Finally a force more powerful than the chemotherapy and proton radiation I had received earlier.
On Friday, January 28th at 0600 hours F4 jets, (my pumps), started dropping their deadly concoction of three different varieties of napalm; two intravenously and one in pill form. We attacked the enemy for six days and nights. We flew sorties in the middle of the night and at all hours of the day so the enemy never knew what to expect. The bombing was unrelenting and devastating. The cancer on my skin disappeared in a day. In case the bastards made a run for it and tried to hide out in my central nervous system, we launched a special mission, (spinal tap), to head them off leaving no escape routes. For the duration of the engagement, temperatures, heart rate, urine output and breathing functions were monitored around the clock to assure I was in the best possible fighting shape.
In addition, I transformed the white board in my room into an inspirational message board that consisted of the name of the duty nurse, the positive thought for the day, the brigade motto, Fear, Valour, Humour and the orders for the day. My goal was to maintain as much normality as I could, and at the same time have fun. Some mess (clinic kitchen) personnel thought I was a real four star General because they saw four stars beside my name on my door along with the title General! As the assault continued I created another metaphor to protect my healthy cells from the devastation of the napalm. I visualized a powerful female tiger with massive clawed paws swiping at any toxic chemicals threatening my healthy cells. I used this image for the duration of the combat missions until new reinforcement troops were called in on Infusion Day, February 4th, 1994.
After the successful infusion of my treated bone marrow, I began to push for getting out of the unit in record time. I drove the nurses and my doctors crazy with my wild projections of a discharge date. They showed remarkable patience with me during this phase and knew that I was going crazy with “cabin fever.” The harder I pushed to be discharged on a certain date, the slower my counts rose! How ridiculous of me to be pushing my wonderful body to recover so quickly, especially since it had responded so well to treatment! I discovered a demon, a pusher, a harsh cruel inner voice that was totally disrespectful of my body’s natural ability to heal itself. After this realization, I changed my treatment and recovery strategy.
Symbolically I changed my command centre room into a nursery for my new immune system cells that I called “baby tigers.” It was a place for my cells to grow, to play, to rest and be nursed by their powerful, fiercely protective mother tiger. At night, I played relaxing “nursery music” to lull myself to sleep. Ativan helped too! Miraculously, and with the help of growth factor injections, my counts began to rise to a safe level, and I was granted a day pass! Yeah, off to Starbucks we went for a cup of coffee and a bit of real food! Then more freedoms came quickly with no pumps, more day passes, and soon discharge day, which I thought would never come! We would soon be on our way home, and that day came on February 25th, just 21 days from infusion day, and only one week longer than the unit record!
I celebrated my first bone marrow birthday on February, 4th, 1995, and I hoped for many more. Today, almost 25 years later, I feel great and lead an active, healthy life with Janine and our two dogs.
Updated December 2019