Erin Zammett Ruddy is a magazine journalist and blogger who was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia at age 23. Today, she is a 40-year-old mother of three.
On January 30 I turned 40. The big 4-0! My grandma Adele and I shared a birthday, and she’d be aghast if she knew I was telling all of you my real age right now. Grandma Del was a Radio City Rockette and very glamorous—and she never turned a day over 29, despite living to 85 (sorry, Grandma). But I am damn proud of being 40, newly-formed wrinkles and all.
As a cancer survivor, I feel like any year I’m still here to celebrate a birthday is a good one. Of course there is something about this milestone that makes you pause and take stock of your life. I’ve been looking ahead but also looking back and because so much of my past has involved cancer, I’ve been revisiting that part of my story— remembering some of the harder times, but also the triumphs, the breakthroughs, and how far we as a blood cancer community have come.
It’s been 16 years since I was diagnosed with cancer. I was 23 at the time, living in New York City and working at Glamour magazine. My biggest worry was where I was going to meet friends for dinner. Then a routine blood test at my annual checkup revealed I had leukemia: chronic myeloid leukemia or CML, a rare and, up until that point, often deadly form of blood cancer. I honestly thought my life as I knew it was over.
But here’s the crazy part: it wasn’t. Six months before I was diagnosed a brand-new drug was approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, a little orange pill that targeted the bad cells without harming the good ones, which meant I didn’t have to get sick to get well.
The pill, called imatinib (Gleevec), was called a miracle drug. And, for me, it was just that. I went into remission quickly and I’ve pretty much stayed there since. I still take my pill every day.
Being diagnosed with cancer was a major bump in the road for me, and there were rough days for sure, but when I look back now all these years later I see that it did not derail me. I did not let cancer define me or keep me from going after all the things I wanted in life, specifically having a family.
It says right on the bottle of imatinib: “Do Not Get Pregnant While Taking This Medication.” But I was diagnosed so young and I was living a completely normal life thanks to that very drug. My husband and I wanted kids so we started asking the hard questions: Could I stop treatment? Would my remission hold? What if it didn’t? We did a ton of soul searching, talked to a bunch of experts, and researched all the options for becoming parents.
Fortunately, I had a team of doctors I trusted and a deep support system in place—two things every cancer patient needs from the start. Ultimately we knew that my stopping treatment to have a baby was a risk but it was a calculated risk and one we decided to take. My doctors believed I would be okay, and I did too.
During my pregnancy I worked closely with my doctors and was monitored religiously. I saw a high-risk OB and had a PCR blood test every single month to see if my remission was holding. Waiting on those results was incredibly nerve-wracking, but as each month ticked by and my cancer stayed away, I became more and more optimistic. Turns out the leukemia never made a peep the entire 10 months I remained off treatment. On September 2, 2007 I gave birth to a healthy baby boy named Alexander James and I went back on my treatment about a month later like I never skipped a beat.
And now for the Cliffs Notes: Two years later we did it again and I had Nora Jane and then a few years after that we had Molly Kate. So I now have three kids that I was able to have despite having cancer. How awesome is that?
At my 40th birthday party, which I turned into a fundraiser for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society*, I spoke about my kids and how grateful I am to not just be surviving but thriving. I like to share my cancer story with others because it’s always going to be a part of who I am. It’s part of my history, sure, but it’s also part of my present. Some days more than others.
Most importantly I share it because I’m still here and, despite officially being 40, I’ve never felt better. And I know how lucky I am to be able to say that. I’m lucky to have so many treatment options available to me. Lucky that I was able to go off treatment so many times, and that I was able to go back on. Lucky that my kids — Alex is now 10, Nora is 8 and Molly is 4 — have a healthy mother. But if I’ve learned one thing in the past 16 years it’s that not everyone is as lucky, not everyone’s cancer story has such a happy ending. And that’s why I’ve dedicated myself to LLS — to fund more drug research, to find more cures, to help more patients. Because thanks to LLS and the doctors and researchers they support, there is a whole lot of life to live after cancer, and life with cancer. I’m living proof of that.
I know some of you are still in the early chapters of your story. Hang in there. As someone who was diagnosed at 23 and just turned 40 — and has three kids I never thought possible when I first heard the words “you have cancer” — I can tell you that you have every reason to be hopeful and to expect awesome things ahead.
*For my 40th birthday I vowed to raise $40,000 for LLS. Our event, which we called 40 for Forty, was a huge success but we didn’t just raise $40,000, we raised….$74,000! Best possible way to ring in a new decade and to celebrate life.
To learn more about my story and how I made the decision to go off treatment not once, not twice, but three times, listen into the podcast I did with my awesome oncologist Michael Mauro at The Bloodline with LLS.