You were so far off my radar that when you showed up I dismissed you as commonplace things. I was young and the fittest I had been in a long time. You first arrived as bruises on my shins in November 2020. I was getting back into rock climbing and of course, I had bruises. Soon it became comical how bruised I was. I shared you with friends and family. Look at this, I am so clumsy.
“Maybe you’re low on iron. Eat a steak and some spinach.”
Then you came as bleeding gums when I brushed my teeth. OK, dentist gods. I will make my new year’s resolution to floss more, I get it. Even the universe was on your side. I got a letter in the mail saying my primary care doctor had left the practice and to call in the new year to find out who my new doctor would be. Great, health insurance, fun. It is going to be at least six months before I can get in. You got bold and bruises showed up on my butt in late December.
“Babe, how did you get those bruises on your butt?”
I looked in the mirror. I…I don’t know. It is really hard to get a bruise on your butt and not know how you got it. You became a blip on my radar, an unknown threat.
In the new year, I called my doctor’s office.
“None of the other doctors are taking patients right now. You will have to find a new doctor.”
Great. I pushed back and they put me on the cancellation list, took down my symptoms, and checked with the clinic doctor to see if anybody could fit me in the next day. A new doctor was able to squeeze me in at 2:30. I joked that it was a better time to see the dentist and I could hear her eyes roll through the phone.
I showed up, checked in, and went back to my car. At the height of COVID-19, the precautions were high. I get called in and showed the nurse all my bruises and gums. She asks if I have petechiae, explaining they are little red dots usually on my hands and feet. We both check my hands. Nope. I took off my shoes and we looked at my feet. Oh snap, I do. Cancer, you sneaky little thing. She passed this on to the doctor who also saw all my bruises.
“Well, something is going on with your blood. Let’s get some tests done to figure it out. You will most likely have to see a hematologist. Now, they treat a wide range of blood disorders, so I don’t want you jumping to the big C. You might have to go on steroids for a bit to help manage the symptoms…”
Panic…STEROIDS! No, no, no, no. I have a friend with Chrons. She said steroids were the worst. They made her hangry, pudgy, and hostile. Even then cancer, you weren’t my biggest fear. You were so stealthy I didn’t even register you when the doctor tried to slip you in. I went straight to the lab to give blood and was told they would call me with the results. I went home and cried about having to go on steroids, then went on with my day.
Later that night my phone rang.
“May I speak with Carli Ruskauff?”
“How are you feeling?”
“You don’t feel sick? Have you had a cold recently?”
“Your blood work came back and your white blood cell count is elevated. You need to go to the ER.”
“Like, call an ambulance?”
“No, but you need to go as soon as you can.”
“Is tomorrow morning OK?”
“No, you need to go tonight.”
What the f*ck? Tears stung my eyes. Something was clearly wrong, and you still didn’t cross my mind, cancer. I was dropped off outside the ER—because of COVID, nobody could come in with me. Tears and snot soaked my mask as they took more blood. Finally, the ER doctor came in.
“They were right to tell you to come in. Your white blood cell count is extremely high. We think you have a blood condition” (I honestly don’t even remember what it was). ”We are going to admit you and have the hematologist meet with you in the morning.”
It was now 10 pm. More tears as I told my family over the phone that I was being admitted. The doctor came back a while later.
“I am so sorry honey, I misread your labs. You have leukemia.”
Shock came over me. I knew leukemia was bad but at that point, I couldn’t tell you what it was or why it was bad. I STILL couldn’t even fathom it was you, cancer. Radar confirmed a collision course but I didn’t tell my family that night.
The next morning I met with my kind hematologist who explained to me in person with my family over FaceTime what was going on. There was a lot of information. It wasn’t until he said “…with these types of blood cancers…” that it hit me. F*ck. He said cancer. Wait, I have cancer? So that’s what the other doctor meant when he said “the big C.” But I am healthy and young. I don’t feel sick.
It would have to be repeated over and over to me by my doctor, nurses, and my support network that I had cancer. I fully grasped that I had leukemia. I could tell people I have A-L-L Leukemia. I was owning that, but cancer? Nah, you weren’t a part of me. I couldn’t process that leukemia WAS cancer. It didn’t feel right to tell people I had cancer. Cancer is bad. Cancer is death. Cancer is for the old. Leukemia was for kids. Leukemia was something you could live with. Clearly, I needed to learn more about my blood cancer because none of those things are true.
I sometimes still don’t believe you were there, cancer. I know I went through chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant, but you being a part of me never felt real or true. I don’t feel like I can claim I am a cancer survivor because you were never there, at least not to my mind. Maybe there was something wrong with my radar.
– Your unaccepting host