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Facing Your Mortality in Split Seconds

by Ariane AmbrizSurvivor, Acute Myeloid LeukemiaJanuary 4, 2021View more posts from Ariane Ambriz

When discussing the most consequential moments in anyone’s cancer journey, you hear about the initial diagnosis, relapses, or the surprisingly debilitating side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. I agree that these momentous occasions are life-changing to survivors. However I must add that the comparatively minor, unceremonious and unceasing split-second confrontation with your mortality is a force to be reckoned with. In my case, after 8 years in remission, it’s still looming over me like a dark cloud that often sprinkles a few drops to remind me of my impermanence. The following is an account of one of those moments.

October 13, 2009
I’m under the influence of a massive headache so bear with me…

I keep remembering what happened last night around 1,600 hours. I’m getting my usual monthly rounds of blood transfusions. I get about six to ten transfusions per month. It’s an outpatient procedure. It begins with preventive medications: two Tylenol and an IV bag of Benadryl. Then it’s rock and roll time. This is not new to me. The PA checks my blood count and this time I need a platelet transfusion. I begin watching a Project Runway Columbus Day Marathon on Lifetime. I’ve never seen the show prior to this, but it catches my eye seeing how they make something out of pretty much nothing. It’s an art form. I dig creativity.

Suddenly out of nowhere, without having done nothing more than munch on popcorn and hear Tim Gunn use the word “conundrum” for the gazillionth time, I feel this immense rush of pain and itchiness overwhelm my entire body. Desperation and fear come over me as I see my skin turn red. Large bumps are growing on my skin right before my eyes. It’s happening so fast. I call the nurse.

She walks in, looks at me, and asks, “Have you ever had an allergic reaction to a platelet transfusion before?” I shake my head and feel like a small child in need of a mother’s comfort.

She says nothing more and walks out. During those five minutes, thousands of thoughts run through my head. “Did they make a mistake and give me the wrong bag? The wrong blood type? Could I possibly die alone in this cold and dingy hospital room?”

She comes back with two IV medicines and immediately connects them. She glances over at my worried face. “Is this a bad thing?” I ask while scratching crazily. I beg the creator of the universe to turn me into a goddess like Durga with her many arms.

She smiles. “Nope, sweetie. Sometimes it just happens.”

I stop scratching and wait for the nurse to leave the room. I sink my face into the pillow and let out a scream. I break down and shed a record number of tears in under a minute.

Then I feel a million hot needles poking my skin. It’s a pain I have never experienced. My mind sets in motion the echoing of doctors’ voices warning about how acute leukemias are unpredictable and how fast they can wipe you out. And how the chemotherapy can lead to dying of a simple infection or a hemorrhage or some kind of internal bleeding. This is why whenever a new excruciating pain comes my way, I think about how this could be it for me.

I’m forced to face my own mortality in split seconds.

I take a deep breath and feel the pain and itchiness melt away. The resurgence of the ever reliable survival mode kicks in and I regain composure. The bumps disappear. I go back to watching Project Runway.

All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at

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