Sometimes life just stops, or so it seems. One day you feel like a million bucks, with your life in flow and balance, and the next you are scared to death. It’s a fact of life, every 24 hours the world turns over on someone who used to be on top of it. When that happens, where do you go? How do you face your new reality? Can your life really be transformed in the balance?
This is The Sunday Series.
The Sunday Series (56): Radio Silence
A voice gone silent, but not because of an inability to speak. Even though there was that one day when words seemed impossible to find. For Maria Dennis, a popular radio personality in Baltimore for nearly two decades, it was the day she turned off the microphone and turned on a more powerful force – her will to live, a battle to survive.
On March 12th of last year the music of Maria’s life changed its tune, the signal now being emitted was one of shock, sadness and disbelief. “We believe you have leukemia”, were the words spoken by Maria’s good friend, Dr. Will Zirkin at GBMC hospital. Maria was in denial, “are you sure?” But in any life there is the way you think things should go and then there is the sometimes stark, cold reality…yes, the tests showed Maria Dennis had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, one which normally targets children, but for this adult a childhood disease was her new reality.
Yet in the midst of reality there was clarity, there was courage, there was a change of heart, one which may only come about because of a moment of crisis, a life-and-death struggle which can manifest a new perspective. Health wasn’t the only thing about to change for Maria. She would be coming home.
As it turns out the leukemia diagnosis was two weeks away from a divorce agreement being signed by Maria and her husband Eddie, but the illness brought reconciliation. It turned out the problems in the marriage which at one time seemed insurmountable, when looked at more closely, and under the microscope of a cancer diagnosis, were simply the hills and valleys of any relationship. “It was a slew of little problems that added up to a mountain and we dissected each of them one by one and decided that together we can overcome. Let’s put aside our different parenting styles and meet in the middle somewhere. It’s worth it, we need to be together because I only had a 50% chance of survival. The s*%t hit the fAN and we now really knew what life is all about… we have two boys and they were super excited about us getting back together.”
Intense chemotherapy treatment began at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Saint Patrick’s Day 2014. Thirty days of the poison being pumped into her body, a process to actually knock out Maria’s entire bone marrow. On top of the diagnosis of the leukemia, Maria also had Philadelphia chromosome, a reciprocal translocation of chromosomes which can lead to complications at any time. The bottom line was despite any success to defeat the leukemia the cancer could one day recur in Maria’s brain. She just never knows when.
The positive news was a match for a bone marrow transplant was found right away, in fact three matches, on the worldwide bone marrow registry. The team of doctors at Johns Hopkins selected the best match and on June 26th Maria underwent a bone marrow transplant — and the trouble shortly began. Her body started rejecting it, beginning a seemingly never-ending roller coaster ride of hospital stays, and high-grade fevers. Maria says between the initial round of chemotherapy treatment in March, to the time she finally felt better in August, she was in and out of the hospital constantly except for maybe two weeks. “It was terrible, really, really terrible”, she says. I lost 30 pounds, my hair, my eyelashes, it was bad.”
The complications included something called graft-versus-host disease, which reared its ugly head about three weeks after the transplant was complete. The new transplanted cells were attacking her body. The attack caused Maria to develop a rash from her neck to her toes. The rash caused severe, painful itching. She was re-hospitalized, given intense Prednisone treatments and another new drug. Maria faced the intense complications for three months. She says the doctors told her a little bit of the disease is a good thing because your body is recognizing what is happening and is reacting to it. But she says, “the way I got it was so severe I almost had to go through light therapy treatments. I was still being treated for it six months after the transplant, even though my symptoms went away at three months. I have to be careful about being out in the sun – it can be deadly. There have been so many setbacks on this journey and that was a big one. I never thought it, (the transplant), wasn’t going to work, but if there was a complication I got it. It just sucked.”
Despite setback after setback, Maria has greatly improved, enough to be defined as cancer-free. “But even to this day I don’t totally celebrate cancer-free”, she says. And it is the “feelings” of each day which seem to present a daily reminder of how her life has been transformed.
“I don’t feel like myself and I feel like I had a bone marrow transplant.” I asked Maria to expand on that comment – what does that mean? “No one ever asked me that question”, she said. “It’s interesting. I guess it means there are certain times of the day I get a hot flash and I’m not in menopause, it’s the different medications I’m taking and the side effects. I feel my skin at certain parts of the day. Normally you go through the day and you don’t feel your skin, but I do. I feel the hair on my head, never felt it before unless I actually touched it. I just feel things. Also there is something I can’t feel well – my feet. I have severe neuropathy in my feet, I can’t feel them and I fall all the time. It’s just certain things that make me feel like I’m not myself.”
Now the treatment for Maria consists of chemotherapy pills – twice a day – which interferes with her stomach and digestive system and really makes her nauseous, so there are other pills to fight the side effects. It’s a cycle which is expected to continue the rest of her life.
But while life will undoubtedly throw you a curve now and then – sometimes even a hairpin turn – the goal is to hold onto the wheel as tight at possible, navigate the sharp bend and come out on the other side. For Maria – getting her family back – and a new shift on the radio is just the medicine she has needed to get through all of this.
For about a year before her diagnosis Maria was doing the morning drive-time radio show on Mix 106.5 in Baltimore, from 5:30am to 10am. And just last month, she was invited to return to that morning show, once she was well enough to do so, but her doctor told her it was a bad move. The doctor said the 3:30am wake-up call necessary to work that shift was not in her best interest, especially with her health status still borderline…white blood cell counts not even in the low-normal range, and platelets and red blood cells still on the low-end of normal.
Instead Maria opted for the mid-morning gig, 10am-2pm. It has been a blessing in disguise. “Now I can wake up with the kids and take them to school — it’s a really big deal”, Maria says. “I loved the mornings, but the hours are brutal. I can take the kids to school and pick them up and be there in the afternoon to help them with homework. Her boys, 8 and 10, are thrilled to have Mom back home and in the game.
And then there is gratitude. A ton of gratitude especially for all of the support she received during her most difficult periods. “Oh my God, it was overwhelming”, Maria says. “Thousands of e-mails and texts to people who listen to me every day. My mom is one of ten children, so I am inundated with people reaching out. It was so nice. My Aunt Sarah who lives in Connecticut, wrote me a letter every day while I was in treatment. My relatives and friends had their churches and synagogues praying for me. I had prayer circles everywhere and anywhere from Florida to Connecticut. The sheer numbers of people praying for me, it totally helped.”
And so what is the lesson learned? What message do you share with others when you face and defeat the demon of a health challenge that threatens your very existence and your family’s future? Maria says, “you just never know, so you have to live every single day like its your last. I used to say this all the time to people when we would host radio-thons for the Johns Hopkins Children Center, but I never thought I would be taking my own advice. I knew it was true, now I really know it’s true. Never take family or friends for granted, because they could be gone tomorrow.”
“Gratitude was a big word in my life, but now it has an even greater presence.” I am grateful for my family, friends and the wonderful people at Hopkins who saved my life…and my bone marrow donor.” It’s the unknown donor who has given Maria a new lease on life, in March of this year she will have the ability to learn where the donor came from. A day Maria is looking forward to.
It’s the new normal for this popular Baltimore personality – the radio silence that lasted for nearly a year is history with Maria back on the air full time. Her listeners, fans, friends and family are thrilled.
And what about the future? “The road ahead looks cancer-free”, Maria says. And who knows, whatever God has in store for me.”
Until next time, thanks for taking the time.
Mark Brodinsky, Author, Blogger, Free-Lance Writer, Emmy Winner, Speaker, Financial Services
Author: The #1 Amazon Best-Seller: It Takes 2. Surviving Breast Cancer: A Spouse’s Story
Get the book: (http://www.spouses-story.com/)
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