For every cancer patient, there are definitive milestones that are never forgotten. The first one is the visit to one’s primary doctor about some sort of suspicious spot or lump. The next step is being diagnosed. For some patients, it is caught early, stage I or II. Others catch it when it has metastasized to other major organs throughout the body, making treatment long, tedious and sometimes futile. After being diagnosed, treatment is an emotionally and physically life-altering event, from the realization of one’s own frailty to the eventual morphing of the outward appearance, and then dealing with all sorts of new health issues due to treatment. Eventually, however, if treatment is a success, then the first year of remission is a truly exciting one. Two years is even better and a very good sign that certain cancers may not be returning. Five years is the goal. After that, most patients are considered in the clear and that their cancer will not be recurring.

Personally, as a Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor, I am now at the two-year remission mark, with my PET (positron emission tomography) scan this week and the results in the next couple of weeks. Diagnosed at stage IIB, my doctor said the cancer was likelier to recur than at stage II, but I am stubbornly optimistic. At age 30, however, when I was diagnosed with that cancer, I had always thought cancer happened to other people and that it would never happen to me. Clearly, I was wrong.

The last two and half years have been a real eye opening experience, not only in understanding how fragile our bodies are, but also in having a dire need to give back. I had never seen such generosity from my family and friends, and even complete strangers donating money to help my son and me through such a tough time. But I also learned about the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, which reimburses an array of patient medical costs. So when the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society came to the VCReporter for coverage of blood cancer-related events, I felt that while news coverage is good, giving back is better. In volunteering with the organization, I found that beyond the patient services, it has donated nearly $900 million toward blood cancer research.

Prior to 1949, when the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society was established, being diagnosed with blood cancer was a death sentence. In fact, it was not until the 1970s that doctors had finally found a cure for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma that didn’t result in some rather dire side effects. Not only has the organization made major strides in the diagnosis and treatment of blood cancer for the last 70 years, in the last 20 years, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has funded numerous projects that have led FDA approval of targeted therapy for chronic myeloid leukemia,  myeloma, mantle cell lymphoma, follicular lymphoma, as well as other types of blood cancers.

In my work with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, it has become very apparent that blood cancer is not an elusive ailment in Ventura County. For every five people I spoke with, at least one person knew someone currently undergoing treatment, knew someone who had it, or had a loved one or two, die from it. According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, every four minutes, someone in North America is diagnosed with a blood cancer; every 10 minutes, someone dies from one of these diseases. More than 1 million North Americans are presently fighting blood cancers, which now account for a third of all cancer-related deaths. It is also nondiscriminatory, affecting people of all ages, race and gender. Furthermore, many blood cancers have no genetic links and are not connected necessarily to one factor or another, and rarely do patients have symptoms of major concern that would lead them to be tested early.

What was once a personal cause has now become a harsh reality that too many have faced or may face in Ventura County. In an effort to find the cure for the wide range of blood cancers, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is organizing a local effort to bring together those affected by blood cancer to learn about the work the organization does, and for survivors and families to share their stories about the disease. The Ventura County Meet the Friends and Family Mixer and Luncheon will be held at the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach on March 16, at noon (free to the public), and will serve as the impetus for a nationwide fundraiser event called Light the Night, which will be held at Plaza Park on Sept. 28.

As someone who is all too familiar with the disease, not only through my own health but also through having lost a young friend to lymphoma when I was a teenager, finding the cure for all blood cancers as well as increasing the survival rate for those who have been diagnosed has become a high priority. For those battling the disease or who have lost someone to it, I hope it becomes a high priority for them as well.