The Gift of Life: 30 Years Cancer-Free

A Guest Post by Joy Anderson

When your children are born, you count their fingers and toes. After the pediatrician examines them and tells you they are healthy you breathe a sigh of relief. You don’t think about something going wrong with them later on.

In July of 1982 our perfect life fell apart. I had just given birth to our third child. Our oldest daughter was almost six and our son, Gary, was almost three. We had rented a house at the beach and were preparing for a family getaway. Just days before departure, I noticed some large bruises on Gary’s leg, and he just didn’t look quite right to me. I didn’t want to have our vacation interrupted with a trip to the doctor so I took him to his pediatrician. I expected to be given a bottle of antibiotics and sent back home.

When a second doctor joined our pediatrician in the exam room, alarms started going off in my head. I called my husband at work to come join us. It was then the doctors told us Gary might have leukemia or aplastic anemia. They wanted him seen immediately at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. It was so urgent that they suggested we go by ambulance. For whatever reason, we chose instead to drive together, as a family.

With three small children in tow we took off for the hospital, and things started moving really fast. You see rooms filled with very sick children. Until a few minutes ago, these were other people’s children. Now one of them was yours. You start asking yourself what could have caused  this. I hadn’t taken any drugs during my pregnancy, and Gary was delivered by natural childbirth. Maybe, at 33, I was too old? Could it have been the electrical box close to our property? You can’t believe your child could be this sick. You’re mad it happened to your child. It would have been easier to accept if it had been me and not my child who had his entire life ahead of him.

After three days of painful tests on my sweet boy, the hospital staff took us to a room and sat us down at a large table. I will never forget that room. Because that’s where they told us that Gary had Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia, and that, even with three years of chemotherapy, Gary had just a 50 percent chance of survival. They threw out other frightening terms like “cranial radiation” and a whole list of drugs that would soon be coursing through his little body.

None of it meant anything at the time. All we heard were the percentages. Fifty percent chance of survival. We desperately hoped and prayed that Gary would be in the right 50 percent.

Joy and her husband Karl, after much deliberation, started Gary’s treatment at City of Hope, and their young family began the process of settling in to a new normal.

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So Gary started his three years of chemotherapy– still a clinical trial — with weekly hospital visits for chemo injections and oral medications which I would administer at home. He also had six scheduled, week-long hospital stays. Despite having other young kids to care for, these hospitalizations were surprisingly easy to handle. Grandma would watch Gary’s sisters in the day, while I stayed with Gary in his hospital room. I could help him through his vomiting, give him a bath, and countless other little things a mom wants to do for her sick child. At night, my husband would sleep in Gary’s hospital room and then go to work in the morning, so that I could be home with the girls.

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Following these weeks, Gary’s white blood cell count would drop so low that he would often be back in the hospital with a fever. Sometimes it would be pneumonia. We were especially frightened when he contracted spinal meningitis while on treatment.

During these three years of chemotherapy, Gary remained in remission, and we tried to keep life as normal as possible. Gary attended nursery school when he was healthy, and his older sister stayed in soccer and ballet. Gary was six years old and starting first grade when his treatment ended. I was looking forward to a normal life for him free of drugs and hospital stays, but I guess I knew something was up because I remember breaking into tears as he blew out the six candles on his birthday cake.

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Gary’s cancer returned, and he was categorized as an “on-treatment relapse”, since the cancer-fighting drugs were still in his system. Doctors told the Andersons that without a bone marrow transplant, Gary would likely not survive the year. Unbelievably, Gary’s two sisters, ages three and nine, were both perfect bone marrow matches. 

I knew we were in the wrong 50 percent. It was really hard to tell Gary that the bad cancer cells were back. He had new friends and loved playing soccer. All that was to come to an end. But God blessed us with a real trooper, and Gary took it all in stride. In December 1985, at six years of age, Gary had his bone marrow transplant from his nine-year-old sister. Even though his treatments were rough and he spent much of his seven week hospital stay in complete isolation, his biggest worry was that Santa Claus wouldn’t know that he was sleeping in the hospital. (Gary did get out of isolation before Christmas and needless to say, Santa found his hospital room. I don’t know where all the gifts came from; they weren’t the ones I had purchased.)

It has been 32 years since Gary was diagnosed with ALL and almost 30 years since his bone marrow transplant. Gary’s cancer has not returned, and he has been able to lead a completely normal life.

At the beginning of our plight I cried because I thought Gary may never get to go to preschool or start kindergarten or learn to ride a bike. I would get a lump in my throat every time he would say, “when I grow up I want to be…” I would drive by our junior high school I’d wonder if he would ever have the opportunity to be a student there.

After so much distress and worry, I can say with tremendous relief and gratitude that Gary has met so many milestones that I feared would not be in his future: making the high school honor roll; graduating from UCSB, finding work in a meaningful career. He’s remained an avid surfer for years and even completed six marathons and ten half-marathons. Just this March, Gary married Becca, the love of his life, and they are embarking on the next season of their lives together.

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People often say to me that those years during Gary’s treatment must have been terrible and yes, they were very scary. They were something I wish he never would have had to go through, and an experience I would wish on absolutely no one. But they were also good years too, for the simple reason that I became very close to my son, and our family, tightly bonded to each other.

Last month, watching Becca walk down the sand at their beach wedding, Gary waiting for her at the altar, I couldn’t help but be filled with swirling emotions, like any mother. It turns out that Gary was in the right 50 percent after all.

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Gary Anderson, shown above with his parents, received a Cancer for College scholarship in 1998. We are enormously proud of him and all he has accomplished.

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