Michael Weber: overcoming leukemia

When junior Michael Weber looks back on the years of his early life he spent afflicted with leukemia, he doesn’t bring it with him to the present; it is in his past. "They say you’re healthy again after ten years, and that’s how long it has been," he said, recalling the day that he was declared cancer free. He would not even compare being declared cancer free ten years ago to winning the class 4a boys state basketball championship almost a month ago. "They’re different; cancer free affects your life a lot more," he said. Weber lists no current repercussions from his sickness, but he remembers the awful effects leukemia had on him while he was sick. "It affected me emotionally and physically," he said, "I lost all my hair… Mostly it’s just a lot of memories of terrible back pokes and bone marrows." Spinal taps and bone marrow biopsies are tests necessary to diagnose and prognose leukemia. The entire diagnostic process for changes the life of a patient into the life of a test subject, as physical and pathological examinations are conducted, and a blood count and blood smears are taken. Along with the bone marrow biopsies and spinal taps, patients may undergo ultrasounds or CT scans. For Weber, these tests showed that he had developed Acute Lymphoblastic, or Lymphocytic, Leukemia (ALL), one of several types of the disease, and the most common in children. Usually, a child’s chances of survival are high (the survival rate is about 85%), but the likelihood of survival does not make the disease any less sinister. Leukemia is a cancer of the blood or bone marrow. The bone marrow of a patient with ALL produces immature white blood cells, whose continuous multiplication eventually crowds out healthy red blood cells and platelets, preventing them from functioning properly. For this reason, people developing ALL may experience immunodeficiency, inexplicable bruising and bleeding, anemia, weakness, or swelling of the lymph nodes or lower limbs, as well as other symptoms . If left untreated, the accumulation of these cells can cause death in weeks to months. The symptoms are just the beginning of the nightmare, however; treatment is a further horror. Chemotherapy is painfully administered in many ways, most notably by injection into muscles of the body or directly into the cerebrospinal fluid. Radiation therapy and bone marrow or stem cell transplants may also be administered, and steroids may be prescribed as well. Exhaustive treatment is necessary to ensure that each cancerous cell is killed, or else the condition will return. This can take quite awhile (Weber missed all of kindergarten and half of first and second grade). To compound the issue, the emotional effects of cancer can spread as easily within the family as the malignant cells within the patient’s body. Eric Weber, a 1999 Ames High alum and older brother to Michael, spoke in an email about the resulting tense atmosphere. "I was very scared," he said, "…[Mike] was part of a group all going through the same treatments and many had relapses and didn’t make it." A junior in high school at the time Michael was diagnosed, Eric said his parents tried to minimize the stress for their children so that they could focus on school. "I think the only extra responsibility we all took a big part in was trying to have fun with Mike so he would escape the surroundings for the moment." While the responsibilities of the Weber children may not have increased, there was no shortage of thoughts for Michael. "With Mike only 5 years old when diagnosed there were also many times that with the treatments it was very painful…These were also very tough times for me and the family; I think we all wanted to take that pain on ourselves and away from Mike," Eric said. Much of the added stress in the family of a cancer patient comes in the form of time constraint. "[My sickness] cut into my family’s free time a lot," Michael said, "my brothers had to come visit me in the hospital." In response to this, however, Eric said it was not a burden to make the frequent trips to Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines and that the growth that resulted from the family’s situation was worth it. "Mike had a lot of prayers from all over (friends, church community, etc) and the family daily. This part of the experience really grew our faith and helped our family become closer," he said. The days of Michael’s sickness are a memory now; the pain has passed. The growth of abnormal cells is left behind, but the growth of people through their response to the circumstance is held onto. It is true that not everyone is fortunate enough to survive a bout with cancer, and that our existence is pervaded with more deathly prospects than are pleasant to dwell on, but it is a marvel that from these horrifying notions comes perhaps our greatest opportunity for growth. Perhaps when Michael Weber looks back on his sickness, the significance of his family’s growth eclipses that of the pain he felt, enabling him to keep the memory a memory, and live each day as a changed person.