The worst kept coming – Killing Cancer with Good Vibes
Full Name: Lyndsey Harhay
Type of Cancer: Acute Myeloid Leukemia
I was 23 years old, and was really living. I had just moved back to California after spending four years in Barcelona getting my undergrad. I had a new job, was loving being around family again, and was living a relatively healthy lifestyle. I began to have extreme back pain, and complete exhaustion. After three months of endless doctors and zero results, my skin turned jaundice, and I contracted pneumonia. My immune system was fully crashing. I went to the hospital, and the doctor drained 1.5 liters of liquid out of the lining of my lung… I was basically drowning. The next day, my doctor came in to break the news, “You have AML Leukemia, you need to be transferred to a hospital that specialize in this, and you need to go now.” Its crazy to think that my first reaction was to be so upset about losing my hair (boy did I learn that this was the last thing I had to worry about). I didn’t even have time to freeze my eggs, the doctor said treatment needs to start immediately. I had no idea that I had the biggest battle of my life coming for me. My journey was the opposite of easy. Each time that I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did.
I was transferred from Laguna Beach, up to UCLA, and would spend the next 11 months in the hospital on and off. This first hospital trip would end up being 3 full months without feeling fresh air or sunlight on my skin. My tests came back, and my doctor was shocked to find my bone marrow was 99% cancerous. Normally you start treatment and you receive one induction round of chemo (the strong stuff) to kill everything off in your body. After my first induction round, I started getting this rash looking thing on my legs and arms. I was then diagnosed with Leukemia Cutis, or Leukemia of the skin, which at the time was 99% fatal and an extremely poor prognosis. Because of this, I had to have another round of induction chemo. This killed all the bad stuff and the good stuff in my body, and my immune system was close to zero. I was quarantined in my room, and still somehow contracted a fungal infection called Candida Tropicales and Candida Glabrata. This came out in severe mouth sores and a different kind of visible rash looking thing. This was so damaging to me, that I spent the next month and a half in ICU.
Luckily for me, I had all the support a girl could dream up. My father is a retired Captain in the fire department, and between his whole department, and my family and friends, I never felt alone. I was dealing with things from kidney failure, to feeding tubes, severe bloat, full muscle atrophy, and hallucinations. My white blood cells just would not recover. I ended up being the 50th person at UCLA to get something called granularcytes, which is basically transplanting donated white blood cells from my family members (and some strangers) in order to boost mine. It worked. Slowly but surely, my numbers started to recover, and I began a long recovery process. I remember the first time learning to sit up again, standing again (it was so painful), and even my first step. It didn’t come easy, or quickly, but I had a team of people in my corner, and people from all over the world sending me their good vibes and prayers. My hospital rooms were filled with decorations, different statues from every different religion, and the good vibes cow (I will explain this guy later). One thing I didn’t have, was a bone marrow match. The only way to completely cure my disease would be to have a stem cell transplant, and out of the 5 million people in the registry at the time, my DNA was just “that special”.
The next year would be spent searching for one, throwing fundraisers, and swabbing everyone I knew.
When I finally started to recover and was re-learning to walk, I got another blow to the heart. My mom went in for her routine check up colonoscopy and was diagnosed with stage 3B colon cancer. I remember thinking this was some sick joke. Here I was, bed ridden in ICU, and my mom is now going in for surgery at a different hospital. She ended up having her own blood clot complications, and was there for over one month. When I was finally being discharged (for a couple of weeks until my next round of inpatient chemo), I started having stroke like symptoms. I would just fall out of nowhere, couldn’t screw the cap on a water bottle, and had no balance. My dad was driving me home and we were going to stop by the hospital on the way home to see my mom, and I just felt so terrible I asked my dad to go home instead. That night, I grew very ill, and my body was reacting. I was rushed to the ER at the same hospital that my mom was at. They took some scans of my brain, and the ER doc was quick to tell me that the cancer had spread to my brain.
This was the first time I saw my family break. My parents were so strong, always there, taking care of me and making me laugh. My dad kept his composure until they were moving me into my own room. The hospital arranged for me to be on the same floor as my mom. I will never forget being able to see my mom after a month and a half. They wheeled me into my moms room, and we were both in our hospital gowns, beyond defeated. It was truly a memory that will always be ingrained in my brain. If we can get through this together, we can get through anything. This is when we all broke, with uncontrollable tears. My family was crying, the nurses were crying, and we had all lost hope. Luckily, my mom’s doctors and my own Oncologist questioned this diagnosis and did a plethora of other tests. THE ER DOCTOR MISDIAGNOSED ME. The fungal infection had spread to all of my organs, including my brain, which made the scans light up with an infection everywhere. He had no idea of my past history and should never had said that to my family. Instead of brain cancer, I actually had neurotoxicity, or poisoning of the brain. While that was terrible, I didn’t have brain cancer to add to my other list of diseases. With the neurotoxicity, I lost all ability to walk again, ability to balance, and use basic motor skills.
So here comes the reason for Killing Cancer with Good Vibes. I truly believe that this is just as much a mental battle as a physical one. I had a father that lived with me, had a background in medicine, and kept a smile and positive attitude even when I couldn’t. My community rallied behind me. Friends, family, and strangers alike threw me fundraising events, came to visit me, and donated platelets and blood regularly. My faith in humanity was stronger than ever, and people were proving how much good there was in the world. I would never have gotten through that 11 months without the positivity of my people, and the good vibes and prayers that were coming my way. Dying was not an option, I was going to beat this thing, and work my ass off to do so.
Two of my best friends were traveling to Australia, and they weren’t sure if they were going to see me again. They left me with this Aztec cow little statue, with a headdress and all. Michael called it the good vibes cow, and that went with me to every room I was in. This Good Vibes Cow became the mascot for my journey. After the 11 months in the hospital, I spent the next year going through physical therapy, perfecting my ability to walk again, gaining some weight, and growing some hair. Two years from the diagnosis, and I was finally able to get back to real life. The good vibes cow was with me through it all. I became a mini poster child for UCLA and my doctors. I began speaking to young adults that were diagnosed at UCLA, mentoring them. I was heavily involved in Be the Match Foundation. My doctor was able to get me through this hurdle, but if I ever relapsed, then a bone marrow transplant would be my only option. Every year “my people” would join me in a 5k walk/run for Be the Match. Multiple years in a row we had the largest team of about 160 people, and raised the most amount of money. We run or walk, all wearing Team Lyndsey shirts, that have a graphic image of our beloved Good Vibes Cow. Man I love that cow. “My people” and I together have swabbed over 3,000 new people into the registry and over $50,000 for the Be the Match Foundation. I could volunteer every day for the rest of my life and I feel like I have not repaid all of the people that carried me through my battle.
After going through something like this, you are changed. How could you not be? I cherish things so deeply, and my desire to live is so strong. My hair has grown back (differently i might add), I hit my 5 year cancer mark, and I can even run/sprint for goodness sake! My legs and arms are heavily scarred, but they are my battle wounds and I have learned to love them. They are a daily reminder to live your best life, to love, to not take things for granted, and most of all to be thankful. Going through this kind of battle was hard, scary, and I hope no one else ever has to endure it. For all other patients out there, I stand with you. Your mind is your strongest tool, use it. Challenge your doctors, do your research, and put good things into your body. I am rooting for you, and sending all of the good vibes <3.