“It is very rough and rocky, but it is beautiful. Going through the chemo, bone marrow transplant, and putting my family through all of this was very rough, but we all became a closer, tighter family which is a beautiful thing.”

“Before, I thought I was tough. My body proved me wrong.”

One man’s battle with leukemia — and how it has changed him

At 46, Jim was always busy, often working 16 hour days as a vibration analyst at a power plant. When he wasn’t at work, Jim enjoyed helping his friends and neighbors running a side business as a mechanic. In the time leading up to his diagnosis, he spent over two years building the house he and his family now share.

When he first noticed symptoms, Jim had just completed the construction of his home. “I’d been working over 80 hours a week for a couple of months during an outage at the power plant. I was really tired, but I just blew it off thinking it was exhaustion.”

Unfortunately, it was something much worse. Jim remembers finding a weird rash on his legs. “It was rough like sand paper,” he recalls. “The scabs on my legs were close together. I just thought I’d scraped my leg against something. I didn’t really think much of it at the time. Shortly after, I got light headed at work and blacked out. They took me to the ER and they ran a complete blood count (CBC) test on me.”

When the results came back, the doctors told him they thought he had a blood virus. They scheduled him for a bone marrow biopsy the next day to be sure. The results showed that Jim had Philadelphia chromosome-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). “They sent me home before they gave me the results, so when I got the call 3–4 days later, I was alone. All I remember thinking was, ‘I wish I could lie to my wife and kids about this one, but it’s not possible.’ When I told my wife, she broke down. I had to tell my kids, my mom and my sister. It wasn’t good news. The ALL was bad right off of the bat, but I wasn’t even thinking about me. I just kept worrying about my family.”

Five-year survival rate for ALL. Of those diagnosed, only 67% are still alive after five years.

Before Jim was diagnosed, he knew a couple of people who had leukemia. “I didn’t think a lot of it. They straightened up and got over it. What I didn’t realize is that there are a lot of different types of leukemia. The Philadelphia chromosome-positive type of ALL that I had was a bad one. There was no chance of survival if I didn’t go through with a bone marrow transplant. My doctor kept telling me the whole time that I needed to prepare myself. The chemo therapy is nothing in comparison.”

Jim remembers his life before cancer and how he used to be a daredevil. “I used to think I was indestructible. I’ve been in several car accidents; I’ve been cut up in my garage; I’ve had horrible experiences with kidney stones, but when nine and 22 chromosomes switched places in my body, it almost killed me. The human body is not strong. Before, I thought I was tough. My body proved me wrong.”

Jim proceeded with treatments at the best cancer center near his home. “When I went to the cancer center they told me I had two weeks to live. You would think you get a bit more warning, but you don’t.” Jim had to endure five and a half months of chemo therapy before he hit remission.

“My first round of chemo was 34 days straight. I lost all of my hair in a matter of weeks. They gave me several liters of solution a day. They didn’t hold back, really pouring it on heavy. The worst was the vincristine. It took the feeling out of my hands and feet.”

However, the hardest part was yet to come. Chemotherapy helped Jim hit remission. However, it wasn’t enough to keep the cancer at bay. He needed radiation and a bone marrow transplant. “As soon as I finished up chemo, I did full body radiation to prepare me for the bone marrow transplant. I had some matches lined up, but every single one of my donors backed out. My oldest son, who had just turned of legal age, donated his. They drilled 13 holes in his pelvis to extract the bone marrow.”

“I made myself eat because I was worried about them. I felt like I was short changing my family.”

Jim gets emotional when he thinks about the special moments he’s missed with his family, and all they have had to give up to help him through his time of need. “I missed Christmas and my anniversary. I tried to hold strong, but my family was torn up. I couldn’t help it. I was weak, and I couldn’t do anything. They had to take care of me. I made myself eat because I was worried about them. I felt like I was short changing my family. I prayed all the time. I have two young boys, my mom who’s a widow and my wife. I couldn’t give up.”

While Jim was fighting for his life, the sickness was wearing on him. “Before it was time for the bone marrow transplant, I did some stupid things. One day, my wife went to town and the boys were out and about, but I had the urge to go sit in the garage. At the time, I was completely bald and as white as a sheet of paper, but I wanted to be around the cars and feel like I was doing something. So, I made it to the garage all by myself, and I sat there and drew up some buildings I wanted to make. When I tried to get back to the house, I ended up falling and just laying in the yard until my wife got home. She scolded me pretty good for that one.”

The doctors were right. Jim’s bone marrow transplant was much worse than he imagined. “After the bone marrow transplant, I was in the hospital a lot. My doctor was right, the procedure and its effects were 10 times worse than the chemo.” Jim’s immune system was so low that he caught several infections that almost took his life.

He got fungus in his lungs, battled the BK virus, and ended up with the flu. “The BK virus was terrible. I had it for two weeks, and it felt like I was passing a kidney stone every 10 minutes.”

Jim, now 48, spent the past year and a half recovering from his bone marrow transplant. “They said it would be a year before I started feeling better. I had my procedure in May of 2014, and I was in the hospital on and off until about July or August of this year [2015].”

Today, Jim enjoys working around his garage. “It’s getting better, but I’m just not too quick at it, and I get short of breath easily. I couldn’t get out of bed for a long time, but I made small steps. One day, I could get up by myself. Then, eventually, I was able to get to the living room. Now, I can go to the garage. I’m definitely making headway and hoping to be back at work soon.”

One of the biggest lessons Jim had to learn was how to accept help. “I was always one of those people that was constantly doing something. I had to learn patience and to keep my mind on the right things. I was just trying to make it through everything for my family. They needed me as much as I needed them.”

Jim took large amounts of prescriptions to manage the side effects of the bone marrow transplant. “I was once taking over 100 pills a day in the hospital. It tapered to 60 pills a day, then 40 and now it’s down to 15. My wife had to keep track of it all. I’m so very grateful for her.”

After having dealt with such a huge struggle, Jim views life in a completely new light. “I appreciate my wife, kids and my good friends so much more than I used to. I appreciate the simple things. When I’m able to get out of bed and go to the living room on my own, it’s an accomplishment. You have no idea how great it feels to be able to pour your own cup of coffee. I’m grateful for the ability to shower by myself, dress myself, and just get out of bed. You don’t know how fortunate the life you have is until it’s gone.”

“If you’ve got a good family, you’re rich…I didn’t used to think that way. I didn’t realize I was so rich.”

Jim’s battle with leukemia has also given him a newfound appreciation for the people around him. “They stepped up. My wife took care of me. My two sons stepped up and took my place and became the men of the house. My friends, neighbors and family really helped me out. You wouldn’t believe how valuable that is; you can’t put a price on it,” Jim says. “If you’ve got a good family, you’re rich. That’s what I’ve learned. I didn’t used to think that way. I didn’t realize I was so rich. I’m richer than half the world. I have the best family and friends that a man could ask for.”

For those struggling with leukemia today, Jim says: “Focus on family. Focus on things you want to do. My wife was wanting a garden shed before I got sick, so I got the materials ready even though I couldn’t physically build it. Plan for things you want to do. You can’t let the disease get to you. It’s already there. Don’t let it conquer you. Stay educated. Ask the right questions to the doctor, and force yourself to think positive. It truly helps when your family is positive too. When you have a good doctor, you need to work with them. I listened, and it paid off. I think pushing yourself helps too, keeping your mind occupied on something else. Most importantly, don’t think about you. Think about your family, your friends, the people that need you. That’s your motivation. That’s what will keep you going.”

By Ashley Spencer, Writer’s Ink Copywriting

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