23 years old and fresh out of college, in love with her boyfriend Nick, and having just started a great new job as assistant editor at Glamour magazine, Erin Zammett was looking forward to a future of unlimited promise.
A routine checkup by her doctor seemed to indicate that she was in perfect health, until she was called back just a day later to be told that a blood test revealed she had a type of cancer, Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, the only known treatment for which was a bone marrow transplant; without treatment, she had roughly five years to live.
After the initial shock wore off, and with the support of her family and friends, her own inner strength, and a recently approved experimental drug, Erin Zammett immediately began the journey that would lead her to recovery. Below, is an excerpt of her book.
Chapter 1: A Fork In the Road
I was living the life I’d always said I wanted. But I was afraid if I slowed down to really enjoy that life, I might not be able to get enough items checked off my to-do list. I might not be a huge success, and nothing could be worse than that. Then, when I was 23, busy plotting my next move, stockpiling my hopes and dreams, I was diagnosed with cancer. So much for my big plans. There is no preparing for news like that, no penciling it in to your otherwise packed schedule. It just happens, without warning. No symptoms, no heads-up, just cancer handed to me on a perfectly nice Tuesday afternoon.
On Monday, November 12, 2001 I went to the doctor for a checkup. I wasn’t sick, but I hadn’t been to a regular physician in a while so I made an appointment. He was a brand new doctor for me, and I figured it would be a good opportunity to get to know him in case I ever really needed him, for a real reason. A friend from work had recommended him: Eric Lutsky, nice, smart, close to the office, took my insurance. Perfect. I also wanted a referral to go to physical therapy for the herniated disc in my back, which I thought was just about the worst thing that could happen to a 23-year-old. I’d been an athlete my whole life—I played Division I volleyball in college—so I’d always taken great care of myself. I ate right, I slept right, I exercised. I figured the doctor would just give me a pat on the back, a “keep up the good work!” Approval and reassurance were two of my favorite things.
I can handle this, I thought, as I walked out of his office. I had no idea what it was I’d have to handle but I told myself I could do it. In a way, I was prepared for something like this, expecting it even. My whole life I’d lain awake at night having horrible thoughts about my parents and my grandparents and my sisters—plane crashes, car crashes, heart attacks, cancer. My family had it pretty good, and I always felt like our number would have to be up sooner or later, like it was only a matter of time before the dreaded phone call came. I just never thought I’d be the one that call was about.
Desperate to talk to my mom, I scanned the streets for a payphone. Of course I had walked out of my apartment without my cell phone that morning. I crossed the street and fumbled through my bag for some change.
“He thinks it could be something bad,” I told her, unable to just say the word.
“Did he say what?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“What did he say, Erin?” she was getting annoyed.
“He said that it wasn’t good, and it could be really bad if it wasn’t a mistake,” I said, desperately trying to come up with a way to sugarcoat the news. I suddenly understood how Dr. Lutsky must have felt.
“How bad, Erin?” she pressed.
I leaned into the phone booth and whispered, not wanting anyone—especially myself—to hear me say the words out loud.
“Like . . . leukemia, Mom.”
And just like that, it was real. “What?” my mom shrieked. “Holy shit. What’s the doctor’s number?” She sounded like she was going to yell at him, like it was his fault. Then we were interrupted: “Please deposit 10 cents. Ten cents please.” I pumped dimes into the phone and tried to relay every detail. On the third interruption by the operator, my mom got really frustrated. “Don’t you have a goddamn quarter?” she fumed. I knew she wasn’t mad, just scared, like the time she yelled at me for getting lost on our Brownie field trip to Radio City Music Hall (I hadn’t actually been lost, I just followed the other leader into the bathroom without telling my mom). I told her that Dr. Lutsky didn’t want to talk until he knew more, and that I wished she wouldn’t bother him. But I knew she’d call. She’d ask a million questions and get some answers too. Then she’d talk to more doctors. My mom works in a hospital and makes friends with every janitor, X-ray technician and surgeon she meets. She was going to use her connections.
My mom is a tough lady, and she’s great in emergencies—medical, fashion and otherwise. She always knows the right thing to do or say and manages to stay relatively calm. In a crisis, my two sisters and I would usually go to my mom, who’s the far more rational of our two parents. Then she’d decide if it was worth telling my dad. Certain things—my 12 parking tickets sophomore year, Meghan’s shamrock tattoo, the price of Melissa’s wedding dress—were better kept between the girls. My dad is a complete alarmist and just a tad temperamental. When Meghan, my younger sister, tore up her knee on a ski slope in Vermont a few years back, my dad was so upset, he took her skis, snapped them in half over his knee and heaved them into the woods. He hasn’t skied since. My mom and I decided it would be best if we waited until my dad was back from his business trip to tell him in person. We hung up and I headed back to work.
As people on the sidewalk bumped past me with cigarettes burning, I wanted to shout, watch where you put that thing, I have cancer! But I had a sudden sympathy for these strangers. Who knew what was going on in their lives, if they had just gotten similar news. I certainly looked like a normal person, but I wasn’t. Not anymore. I put on my sunglasses and let myself cry.
From the book My (So-Called) Normal Life, copyright (c) 2005 by Erin Zammett. Used with the permission of The Overlook Press.