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Coming Face-to-Face with the Unimaginable

By J. Gibson Henderson, Jr.

My health was so good for so many years that I took it for granted. Rollerblading, bicycling, walking, and working out were integral parts of life for me and my wife, Faye. We marked my 50th birthday in Scottsdale, Arizona, celebrating how young I felt by basking in the sun to the strains of a steel band and singing karaoke at night.

I spent my 51st birthday on a pass from the hospital, having a beer with my wife and friends at the aptly named Train Wreck Saloon, celebrating that I was still alive. I had no hair or eyebrows and carried a portable IV pump slung over my shoulder to stay on schedule with my chemotherapy. I was in the middle of a 16-week experimental, inpatient chemotherapy treatment —with 12 cranial radiation treatments thrown in for good measure—for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (Burkitt's type). When I was diagnosed, in April 1996, this rare subtype of leukemia hadn't been successfully treated in any American adult.

Leukemia is a form of cancer for which there are no known risk factors. My doctors said it results from a random mutation in a white blood cell that has nothing to do with heredity or lifestyle—just one of life's random sucker punches.

This kind of event is most people's worst nightmare: a catastrophe that derails our well-planned lives. For the last 11 years, I've been a living testimony to what life can do to you while you're making other plans. The catastrophic changes in my life were ones I never would have imagined being possible. Had I imagined them, I never would have thought I could endure them. Yet against considerable odds, and as a person of ordinary temperament, I've found a way not only to endure, but to thrive.

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