My first long walk starts – or has started, depending on when you read this – on May 11, 2018. It will be across an entire country. Okay, it will not be a terribly wide country, and it will not be even the widest part of that country. But, nevertheless, I will be pleased with myself for having done it – or I am pleased already, depending on when you read this. Why I am doing it? Well, it is certainly an age thing partly, but also, with me, a surviving cancer thing. I had leukemia not so long ago – actually, I had it twice! – Oh, and I will also take these walks, because I simply like walking.
Turning 60 years old crept up on me. I think somebody said once, “Don’t regret getting older. The alternative isn’t so great.” Some years ago, as I was approaching 60, another quote – this one by the author William Styron – stuck in my mind. He described turning 60 as “that hulking milestone of mortality.” It’s true. Somehow, 60 years old ends middle age and starts old age. So, I decided that when I turned 60 I would take a very long walk, in order to demonstrate my still youthful vitality and, along the way, kick this “hulking milestone of mortality” to one side in passing. Since, at the time, I had lived in Switzerland for 15 years, I decided that my long walk would be across the entirety of Switzerland, from the eastern border to the western border, crossing over the Alps like Hannibal, but without the elephants. I planned out the whole route, day for day, and set a start date. I was going to take my dog, Kenai, who would take the place of an elephant.
However, during my “planning” of the walk, something happened.
On April Fool’s Day, 2015, I received an evening telephone call from my doctor. He told me that they had diagnosed acute myeloid leukemia. We knew something was going on, but this was the worst case scenario. I was to pack, report immediately to the university hospital in Zurich and begin chemotherapy. The next morning, I was there, and – apart from a couple of short breaks between chemo rounds – I spent nearly 6 months in a hospital room. The view out my hospital room window was onto a construction site – the hospital was building an addition to house a new leukemia ward! Anyway, my odds of surviving my illness were not good – about 10% at the start (note: if you get sick, don’t necessarily “google” everything). The only cure for my type of leukemia would be a stem cell transplant. That transplant would then also have to be successful, which is too often not the case (I didn’t have to google this, the doctors told me outright). After four extended sessions of chemotherapy, I received my new stem cells on August 20, 2015. My 60th birthday took place before that, in mid-July, in my hospital room. So, that “hulking milestone of mortality” loomed large over me. Today, almost 5 years later, I look back on that time period with a sense of surrealism, except that the whole thing happened to me again in 2018 – a relapse! Well, through 5 years of fighting this disease and two stem cell transplants, I am pleased to be this far, and I am grateful to all of the nurses, doctors and other hospital staff at the University Hospital of Zurich who contributed to my getting well again. I am also grateful to the friends and family, who stuck with me through thick and thin.
Both of my donors appear to have been a near perfect match-ups. Through regular biopsies of my bone marrow since my second stem cell transplant and for two years after my first transplant, my doctors were and have not been able to detect the disease. But, I don’t trust this disease one bit. Still, I need to live every day as if everything will be okay. There is no other good way to live.
Donors and recipients are not disclosed to each other, but I am, of course, also deeply thankful to these two generous individuals, who donated their stem cells to me (I do know they were male, but that’s it). I encourage everyone to consider signing up as a potential stem cell donor. It is not a big procedure, at all, to donate stem cells. You walk out of the procedure completely intact! Before my illness, it hadn’t even dawned on me to register as a donor, and now they won’t let me.
The illness did table my walking plans. I changed the first walk. Walking across Switzerland is an ambitious undertaking after a long illness and recovery. However, the walk I took instead – as my first one – is quite famous and a really good one! Now, I am planning a second long walk, which will also be quite good.
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