Hope Travels: Trip Planning For Treatment In The Face Of Cancer

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Travel is the ultimate act of hope and optimism.  It screams, “No matter what is going on in my life, I choose to believe that there is a tomorrow and there is a place beyond the one I’m in.”  After all, a journey -- in and of itself -- is choosing to move on.

When cancer strikes a family, it hits hard and fast.  There’s really no time to think or plan.  Everyone is forced to pull together and react the best way possible under the worst of circumstances.  The entire family has no choice but to embark on a journey together.  Sometimes, literally, but always metaphorically.

My brother was diagnosed with leukemia within two years of returning from his second tour of Iraq as an Army helicopter pilot.  A seasoned veteran of the military and of life, he was just beginning marriage with his first baby, and he finally resided in his home state of Alabama after living all over the world.  At last, my extended family lived less than two hours from my big, busy, bustling brood.

We were all looking forward to making lasting memories together.  We just had no idea the significance of that time in our lives.

Just after the baby was born, my brother, Al, couldn’t shake an upper respiratory infection, and after months of dealing with it, he shuffled into the base doctor’s office in Colorado Springs where he was conducting a short-term flight school class.  This was in the spring of 2011.

Upon examination, the doctor grew suspicious of his symptoms and drove him immediately to the hospital where additional tests were administered.  Meanwhile, back in Alabama, Al’s wife and newborn awaited the Army doctor’s call which changed the course of their lives – and the entire family’s -- for the next two years.
It seemed that the thought of having everyone in “Sweet Home Alabama” at one time during treatment became just that…only a thought.  As much as I love to travel, my home is always in Alabama, and I relish my time at home with my family.

Immediately, my brother was admitted to a hospital in Colorado for chemotherapy and forbidden to travel during treatment, and my new sister-in-law with baby in tow flew west to join him shortly thereafter to set up a temporary home.  My parents – who deal with major health issues of their own – chose to make the trek across country in their RV which proved to be their tour bus as they followed my brother’s treatment from one place to the next.

After six months of treatment, Al was sent back home to Alabama to stand the test of time.  The chemotherapy had successfully annihilated the leukemic cells but had almost obliterated him in the process.  He rested and recovered over the next few months while the cancer secretively crept back into his bloodstream.

We weren’t “home” yet.

In the spring of 2012, the second diagnosis of leukemia didn’t quite hit as hard but the blow was infinitely more painful – if that’s even comprehensible.  We anticipated the news, but we knew that everything became more serious, more real and more difficult instantly.
Looking at my brother's hospital room at MD Anderson in Houston.
This time, Al’s treatment moved west to Houston at M.D. Anderson (MDA) Cancer Center as did his immediate family and my parents.  It seemed that the protocol for this go around was a bone marrow transplant.  Therefore, the search began for a donor.

From the time my brother was diagnosed, a thought was planted in my heart and mind that I would give him my bone marrow.  I didn’t tell anyone.  I just expected it.  However, it wasn’t until over a year later that my brother introduced the idea to me that although I was only a haploid match, the MDA doctors wanted to pursue me as his donor.  Like He had with our entire journey, God had paved the path long before the doctors, my brother or I knew what Al needed.

Leaving my family at home, I flew to Texas solo and underwent extensive testing over several days.  It was one of the scariest trips I had ever taken but one of the most healing.  After months of being separated from my brother, we were able to connect on a level most siblings never are privileged to reach in their relationships.  Through the counsel of his physicians and the sheer gravity of all the examinations, I realized that I was potentially saving his life – not just doing him a favor.

It was exhilarating and frightening as I weighed out all the possibilities.  What I was doing for him could kill him or give him life, and when I would go back to my hotel room at night to ponder after a long day at the hospital, all I wanted was the noise and chaos of my husband and children to snap me out of the crushing pressure of my thoughts and feelings.  I wanted to go home.

There were ten days from the time I left Houston until I returned for the transplant.  My brother was escorted as close to death as possible by more potent chemicals designed to prepare him to receive my bone marrow and essentially start him over again.

On the return trip, I brought along my strength and support (my husband, Scott) and three of my four distractions (my three youngest children).  The transplant went smoothly, and they were able to harvest much more than anticipated.  My recovery was more involved than I had anticipated but nothing significant.

In the fall of 2012, Al and his little family returned to Alabama and remained there until a couple of months after his “rebirth” day in July.  He gets stronger every day, and although he suffered a few setbacks in his year-long recovery after the transplant, his blood continues to check out with no leukemic cells and 100% of donor cells…that’s me!

Ironically, the military recently assigned them to a base in Colorado Springs where they moved in September.  Talk about a journey coming full circle.  They are home.

Cancer affects millions of families all over the world.  Join me in a celebration of life conversation on Twitter with TravelingMom.com -- Monday, October 21 at 9 p.m. Eastern/8 p.m. Central.  You can RSVP here for the chance to win prizes! This post is sponsored by the SunChips' Fight Against Breast Cancer Campaign for Susan G. Komen and in honor of October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month.


  1. You are an amazing woman, and obviously come from an amazing family. XO Andi!!

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