The L Word

April 5, 2011
By , Colorado Springs, CO
Leukemia. L-E-U-K-E-M-I-A. It is a hard enough word to spell, and even harder to hear coming out of your mother’s mouth. Ask somebody what it means, and they will tell you it is a terrible disease. It is cancer. It is a terminal illness. It is hopeless. In a way, they are both right and wrong. The way Americans define leukemia rings of truth, but not the whole truth. The whole truth is that people, and their families, can survive leukemia; that leukemia is a terrifying word but it is not always as bad as it may seem; and that perhaps our misconceptions and over generalizations about leukemia make it even harder to deal with than it needs to be.
When I found out on the first Sunday of spring break that my mother had leukemia, my parents couldn’t even call it that at first. They told my sister and me that she had been diagnosed with CML. When they finally had to break the news that CML stood for Chronic Myeloid Leukemia, I cried. What else was I supposed to do? It is leukemia after all. Then I started to read. I devoured the pamphlets and scoured ASU’s Academic Search Database. You know what I found out? My mother is going to be okay. Now that I’ve done my research, leukemia is no longer a reason for fear or pity or tears. In fact, according to the National Cancer Institute, leukemia is nothing more than mutated white blood cells (blast cells) that do not fulfill their function within the immune system. Due to its non-acute status, Chronic Myeloid Leukemia can be treated with a pill a day that prevents normal white blood cells from becoming blast cells. For my family, leukemia is merely a bump in the road, another difficulty to overcome, a chance to bond, a reminder of how lucky we are, a word whose bark is worse than its bite.
My mother spent the rest of that day calling all her sisters, brothers, and parents. She cried each time, even though she knew that all she had to do was take a single pill to stay alive and well. Each person in turn had their own melt-down; one of my uncles even asked where he needed to go to donate bone marrow for a transplant. Each conversation she had was driven by the universal fear of the word leukemia. For the majority of the nation, leukemia is a cancer, and cancer kills. This broad conception of the disease makes it difficult to keep a clear head and face the coming months without dread. This fatalist definition is propagated by doctors’ shows, news reports, word of mouth, and even outdated statistics. Every other person knows someone who died of cancer, and if they haven’t, they’ve seen people die of it on Grey’s Anatomy or ER.
Every day now, in the back of my mind, sits the fear that my mother will follow the stereotype. I still question whether the “L-word” can truly be conquered by one little pill. When I do this, I have to stop and remind myself that this fear, this doubt, only comes from 18 years of society implying that leukemia equals death. Not only does this implication mislead people who currently have no connection to leukemia, but it also makes life harder on those who are living with or around it. So when I tell you that my mother has leukemia, don’t pat me on the back, start talking about your aunt who died of it, tell me not to be afraid, or suggest that I cherish every moment I have left with her. Acknowledge that I am in a difficult situation, and know that in the end it is nothing more than a hurdle that my mother is already leaping over so we can all move on with our lives.

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