At age 22, Sarah DeGraves was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, and underwent a stem cell transplant at the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center. She marked her five-year post-transplant anniversary by running a half-marathon and raising $12,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Read about Sarah's cancer experience, and her recent update to the story and her second chance at life.
It was while I was away at college in spring of 1999 that I first started noticing my symptoms. I would get out of breath easily and was feeling tired all the time. I also had some pain in my hips and jaw. I thought that I was just out of shape and probably partying too much. I remember going out with friends one weekend while home for a visit, and I actually felt so exhausted that I couldn't even dance. That night I told my mom that I needed to go to the doctor.
A test revealed that my blood counts were so low that I had to be immediately admitted to the hospital. I was given blood transfusions and underwent a number of tests, including what would be the first of many bone marrow tests. (I would later come to find out that the disease I had can be difficult to diagnose in the early stages.) With prednisone and blood transfusions, my blood counts began looking better, and I so moved home from college to rest and recover.
We thought I was out of the woods until a few months later, in July, just a month after my 21st birthday. I woke up with swollen tonsils. My throat hurt so bad that my mom called the hospital and we were told to come in that day. After a blood test, the doctor on call told me I had acute myelogenous leukemia, cancer of the bone marrow and blood. The doctor explained what leukemia was and what my treatment would involve.
After my dad and brother arrived, we sat quietly around my room, wondering how we all got there and not really knowing what to say to one another. Eventually they left and I was alone with the news that I had cancer. Around midnight, a resident physician came into my room to talk with me. We sat in the dark eating ice cream and talking about what was ahead for me. It's really hard to give your life over to your doctor and the nurses that you've just met. I soon came to find out, though, that these were the people I would depend on -- to answer my questions, to help me get better and to be my friend.
I got through my first round of chemotherapy and it took another week or so for my hair to begin to fall out. I decided it was time for it to go, so one of the nurses helped us shave my head. I had a pretty positive attitude and imagined looking like Demi Moore in GI Jane. Instead, I looked in the mirror and saw someone who was very sick. I think that's when it really hit me that I had cancer.
After two chemo treatments, I was allowed to go home. I still had to come to the hospital every day for a while, until I had a bone marrow test confirming that I was in remission.
I began to get better and resumed normal life. I went back to school and work part-time. I had regular bone marrow and blood tests and, for about 10 months, the news was always good.
Then, towards the end of June of 2000, my bone marrow test showed that the leukemia was back. We had already performed genetic testing and found out that my brother was a match for bone marrow donation. I returned to the hospital for some intense chemotherapy, followed by total body radiation, and then a stem cell transplant. This time I would stay in the hospital for 45 days.
I know that I would not have been able to get through my treatments if it weren't for my parents, my brother and my fiance. They took turns staying with me always, even sleeping on a fold-out chair in my room. Having them there encouraging me, talking with me, playing UNO, painting my fingernails -- and sometimes just sitting in silence -- is the reason I'm here today. My family also spent time at Hope Lodge and found that it helped them to have a place to go and be with other families who were going through the same things.
Throughout my treatment process, the nurses on the BMT unit became my friends. They talked with me about my wedding plans (I got married a year later), what they did the previous weekend, or just listened to my problems. The UMGCC staff was also especially kind and helpful to my parents, who always seem to have an endless list of questions.
Once I was released, I had to come back to the hospital every day. For about a month, I wasn't allowed to eat fresh foods and I had to wear a mask. Eventually, though, I started feeling stronger and more confident that I was really going to get well.
Sarah DeGraves (left) and her friend Kim ran in the Virginia Beach Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon to benefit leukemia research in 2005.
"The accomplishment of training for and running a half-marathon to raise money for leukemia research is a testament to Sarah's determination to return to a life of high achievement and productivity and to her grateful and generous spirit," says Dr. Aaron Rapoport, Sarah's oncologist at UMGCC.
July 20, 2005, was the 5-year anniversary of my stem cell transplant! Although having cancer has made me who I am, I feel like I am finally able to let it go. This summer, four friends and I ran the Virginia Beach Rock 'n Roll Half Marathon and raised over $12,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Training for four months and completing the race was an amazing experience and made me realize how far I've come. It also felt good knowing that I could be helping someone just like me along the way.
My advice to others facing a similar illness is to keep your family close and stay positive. As bad as my illness was, we always found something to laugh about. We look back and remember the hard stuff, but we also remember the lighter moments, like the day I felt so good, I decided to eat a Slim Jim. I got incredibly sick afterwards, but thought it was totally worth it because it tasted so great!
I would also say, try not to feel sorry for yourself; you are stronger than you think. When you feel like giving up, dig deep inside. You'll surprise yourself!
About 5 years after my transplant, my life had drastically changed and I found myself single again. I needed a change so I decided that I wanted to take some time off and travel. I had a friend working in Honduras as a dive instructor, so I went and visited her, planning on backpacking around Central America for six months and then back to real life. A few days after I arrived on Roatan, Honduras, I fell in love with scuba diving and that island became my home for the next five months. Over that time I became a dive master and realized that I could travel around the world and get paid to go diving! I left Honduras for Thailand where I spent six weeks on my own traveling and diving. It was one of happiest times of my life. I knew that I couldn't move back home, at least not yet. I went home, sold my car and most of worldly possessions and left again for Asia. I met up with a friend, Cameron, a dive instructor I met in Honduras. We worked in Malaysia, Egypt and then Mexico, where I completed another course becoming a scuba diving instructor. Since May, 2008, Cameron and I have been living and working in diving in Malta, a small island in the Mediterranean south of Italy, and plan to stay here through next summer. I'm excited to see where life takes me in the future, and being a leukemia survivor only makes it all that much sweeter. I have been in remission for 8-1/2 years, and am trying to take my second chance at life and make it count.
Watch Sarah's award-winning Video.
For more information on treatment for leukemia and other blood disorders, or on our Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, please contact UMGCC at 1-800-888-8823.