A Cancer Survivor Shares: Chandler’s Story

I had just turned 15, it was the end of my freshman year of high school and I was enjoying being the shortstop for my softball team, when I began to get tired easily. My coach, mom and others were telling me to hustle and give 110%; they didn’t know I was really doing my best. This went on for a few weeks and I told my mom that I was tired. Her comment was to stay off my cell phone and computer at night and get some rest. On Sunday, June 1st, 2008 I felt dizzy when I stood up. My mom though it was low blood sugar and told me to eat something.

The next day my mom had to go to work. I stayed home because I was exempt from all my exams. While I was getting out of the shower, I passed out. I fell and broke my front tooth (I was supposed to be getting braces on Wednesday). I called my mom at work and she sent my Memaw over to check on me. I was ghost white with purple lips so we headed to a clinic that is close to my mom’s school and she met us there. They took some blood and said I probably had a virus. Then we went to the dentist to fix my tooth. I felt a little better but still really tired.

My doctor called to tell my mom that she didn’t like the way my labs looked and wanted to run them again. Memaw picked me up again and we picked up mom from her field trip and this time we went to a larger clinic. We had only been gone from the clinic about 20 minutes when they called my mom and told her “something is wrong…something is bad wrong…take her to the emergency room to see a hematologist.” My mom tried to act like it was not a big deal and they just wanted to double check my blood but I was starting to worry. So Memaw, mom and I headed to a local hospital and after about three hours, they told us that they had an appointment for me the next day at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas and that I either had a virus or leukemia!!!

“While most teenagers were moving through a carefree summer chasing a good time, I was forced to stop, pull back, and look at the stuff that I normally took for granted… like walking, brushing my now sparse hair or getting dressed. All of these activities now completely wore me out and I need assistance to do everyday tasks.”

Needless to say this was not one of my best moments. What was going on??? I had plans to get my beginners driving permit that summer, practice driving and hang out with my friends. Things were not looking good! We headed home with very little conversation. When we were a block from the house, my sister Lauren called to tell my mom that my little12-year-old Yorkshire terrier, Angel, was dead under my bed. WOW, what else was going to happen today? I couldn’t help but think, “What have I done to deserve all this?”

We got home and mom and I packed for our trip to Dallas and buried my dog. Some friends and family came over to cheer us up. It was a long night but we made it through and headed to Dallas. My lab work came back with “NO BLASTS” and they said it was probably a virus but they wanted to do a bone marrow test the next day to make sure. We got a hotel and had a fun night in Dallas. The next morning they did the test and we headed home…still hopeful that it was just a virus. We had only been home a few minutes; I was already asleep in my mom’s bed, when the phone call came.

Dr. Paul told my mom that I had acute lymphoblastic leukemia and they needed us back in Dallas the next day to start treatment. My mom just came and crawled in the bed with me; she did not want to give me the bad news. I didn’t take the news too well and there were lots of tears but we repacked and headed back to Dallas. So on June 5, 2008, I was at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas getting 3 units of blood and 2 units of platelets and being admitted to the hospital for my first of several visits. My port was placed the next day and then chemo was started that night. I was in the hospital for six days and then allowed to go back home. We made weekly visits to Dallas for chemo and I was back in the hospital in July of 2008 for fever and infection but only had to stay eight days.

The first month of treatment is called induction and the goal is to get rid of 99.99% of the leukemia cells. Induction was tough. I lost all my long brown hair and I barely had the strength to brush my teeth. It was a struggle to get out of bed or off the couch. For the first few months of treatment, I slept on the couch and my mom stayed on the other couch with me. If I did go sleep in my bed, my mom would sleep with me so she could watch for fever or problems. We enjoyed watching the Food Network Channel and planning what we would cook as soon as I felt better. It gave me something to look forward to.

While most teenagers were moving through a carefree summer chasing a good time, I was forced to stop, pull back, and look at the stuff that I normally took for granted… like walking, brushing my now sparse hair or getting dressed. All of these activities now completely wore me out and I need assistance to do everyday tasks. My only hope was that I would be strong enough to start back to school in August. I finished induction in July but did not make the goal of 99.99% so I was labeled a “Slow Early Responder” which meant I would have to repeat two phases of treatment and get cranial radiation….uggh!!!

August rolled around; I was now completely bald but had a pretty cute wig. I made it to school the first day and continued to go everyday unless I was in Dallas receiving treatment. Even when I was really sick, I would just throw up and go on. I was determined to graduate on time and with my friends. In January of 2009, I was going through “delayed intensification” and it was a really hard time. My ANC was zero and I started running a fever. After a visit to our local emergency room, I was flown to Dallas where I remained for a couple of weeks.

I was homebound that semester due to my weakened immune system and low blood counts. I had cranial radiation in June of 2009 and was back in the hospital again. August was coming around and I was back in the hospital again but I managed to get out and start school the first day of my junior year. I was back with my friends and having a good time. My strength was still not good but I just pressed on. I had a pretty good junior year and was now driving myself to school. I finally finished treatment on October 14, 2010…my senior year.

I am now dealing with a few side effects from the chemo and steroids but I will be attending college in the fall. I have already been accepted into the college of my choice and will study to be an occupational therapist. I have osteonecrosis in most of my bones and will be having the first of many bone grafts this spring. I will be wheelchair bound for the remainder of my senior year but I am praying that I will be healed in time for college.

Having cancer has changed my life. I doubt I will ever take for granted the pure pleasure of going to church, walking the dog or just going to the mall without a care in the world. And I know I will never again take friends for granted. I am constantly reminded of how lucky and blessed I am to be surrounded by such amazing people. Although these have been the scariest years of my live, this experience has provided another example of how amazing people are. I have so many people to thank for helping me get to this point. I’m awed by the generosity and pure concern of so many.

This experience helped me find strength in myself that I did not know I had. I was strong enough to get up each morning knowing I would have to face needles, pain, wobbly legs, nausea, the mirror, and the self-conscious feeling that people were looking at me. But I did it EVERY DAY. The kindness and prayers of other helped chase the blues away and brought a reassurance that with all this support, I could get through anything. God is good all the time and he has blessed me throughout this whole ordeal. My advice to anyone facing cancer is to LOOK UP! God will see you through. We do not know what he has planned for our life but we are promised that we can do all things through Christ. Lean on the Lord, lean on your family, lean on your friends and when you can’t lean anymore…just lie down and rest a while. Find peace in the moment and take one moment at a time, sometimes that will be all you can handle. It will get better and you are stronger than you know! My banner at Relay For Life said: “Admiring the survivors, supporting the fighters, remembering the taken and NEVER GIVING UP HOPE!”

Remember…Faith, Hope and Love…and the Greatest is Love.

My story is not over. I will continue to raise money and awareness until we find a cure for this terrible disease. I am a Hero of Hope for the American Cancer Society and I will try to do my part by encouraging others and fighting back.

My treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia was two and one-half years long. During my treatment I had over 20 spinal taps with chemo injected into my spinal fluid, eight bone marrow aspirations, cranial radiation, weekly sometimes daily chemotherapy, blood and platelets, home injections and tons of medication but I am currently in remission. I am a survivor! I am thankful for the opportunity to share my story and I hope it will remind you that you are not alone in your struggle. Hang in there and fight, fight, fight!

My name is Chandler Russell and I am a 2 ¾ year leukemia survivor.

Category: Survivor Stories

Tags: adolescent & young adult/pediatric cancers, bone marrow test, CancerForward Survivor Story, Chandler Russell, Hero of Hope, induction, leukemia, spinal tap