There is never an easy way to find out you have cancer. No matter how you prepare yourself in the days or weeks or months that lead up to your diagnosis, the words cut to the core of everything you have ever known and leave a raw-edged wound you believe, with all of your new-found fear and uncertainty, will never heal. It was on a day exactly like this, when the words from my doctor’s mouth morphed into the walls around me, and my ability to hear and listen and understand was paralyzed by my fear. I was terrified of something I knew absolutely nothing about. No matter what we think we know about cancer, we know more of nothing in the times when we need it most. CLL, or chronic lymphocytic leukemia (if you need one of the many technical and “legal” titles less apt to instruct a lay person such as myself) was the diagnosis handed down to me after six months of searching for reasons for my incessant fatigue, loss of appetite and debilitating night sweats.

Once the phone calls were made to family and friends, all Internet searches for cures had been exhausted, and the hysteria of this being my third cancer diagnosis before the age of 48—I had melanoma at the age of 35 and thyroid cancer at the age of 39—I was left with some empty time at which I was overcome with a sadness I had never experienced before. That my two young daughters, ages 10 and 12 at the time, would have to bear the cross of my bad luck terrified me and equaled a level of desperation I didn’t know I possessed.   It was then, in the instant of that desperation, I decided that if cancer would knock on my door three times, then I would not only answer it, but I would welcome it in and listen to what it had to say.

Something I always say to my girls when they complain about some of the things young girls have to complain about is “pull up your big girl panties and get it done,” and that’s what I did. Since I live in the Boston area, I was able to make an appointment with Dr. Jennifer Brown from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, who is one of the world’s leading CLL specialists. She is an encyclopedia of CLL information and various drug combinations and possibilities. And even though I rarely understood some of the technical information she reported, she left me with the absolute hope of not only surviving CLL but also of living a prosperous and healthy life. She would serve as my primary oncologist, but I still needed to speak to more CLL people. I needed more experts to confer with, more information, more contacts, more knowledge, more of anything I could get my hands on that was related to CLL. My second stop was with Dr. Michael Keating at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center. He called me a medical anomaly, humored me with funny CLL antidotes, biopsied my lymph nodes, and quieted my fear with his information and dedication to saving and curing people just like me.

About six months after my visit with Dr. Keating, a blood test at Dana-Farber revealed beyond a doubt that I tested positive for CD38 and ZAP-70. I’m still not sure to this day how to best explain what that means in technical medical terms, but I do understand that it makes my CLL tricky to treat if and when I need treatment. Dr. Kanti Rai at Long Island Jewish Medical Center was my next destination. Dr. Rai is best known as being one of the founding fathers of CLL, and I thought he would be a good source of information regarding this new glitch in my CLL. He is charming, funny and an unending resource of CLL information. He told me to live my life and come back in six months.

It has been 27 months since my diagnosis, and I can honestly say they have been the best and brightest months of my entire life. In that first month of dark and confusing despair, I could have never imagined they would turn themselves around, but they did. Once I understood that what I feared most was not necessarily the cancer, but the unknown of the cancer, I was able to focus on the known—what the experts already knew about CLL and what they were continuing to know. I educated myself, learned the language of blood tests and measurements, sold myself to administrative assistants for appointments, sent thank you notes, and followed up with emails and phone calls until I was on a first name basis with everyone. I became my own primary care taker, therapist and best friend, all in the name of saving my life. The power of knowledge and the fight to find and understand it have elevated me to a height of absolute clarity regarding not only my CLL but also my own ability to care for and protect what I value most—life. Today I am grateful for everything, and continue to stay teachable and humble to what I do not know. The fear I once had has turned itself into a beautiful story of learning and growing—where fear has been replaced with knowledge, and a diagnosis has become a blessing.

Grateful, thankful, blessed for today, tomorrow and the next!

Jennifer Abraham