I’m living with LEUKEMIA

Leukemia — cancer of the blood and bone marrow — is a killer. Today, a new treatment is helping some victims to survive. Here a famous Canadian tells how this little-known discovery has kept him alive, and describes the hope it may hold for others

J.A.D. McCURDY May 21 1960

I’m living with LEUKEMIA

Leukemia — cancer of the blood and bone marrow — is a killer. Today, a new treatment is helping some victims to survive. Here a famous Canadian tells how this little-known discovery has kept him alive, and describes the hope it may hold for others

J.A.D. McCURDY May 21 1960

I’m living with LEUKEMIA

Leukemia — cancer of the blood and bone marrow — is a killer. Today, a new treatment is helping some victims to survive. Here a famous Canadian tells how this little-known discovery has kept him alive, and describes the hope it may hold for others

J.A.D. McCURDY

ALL I KNEW about leukemia until nearly two years ago was what I had read about it, plus the fact that three of my friends had died of it within a tragically short few weeks or months.

Like other Canadians, I considered leukemia perhaps the most dreaded word in the language. Many doctors described the disease — cancer of the bone marrow and blood — as the great villain of the nuclear age, the disease that already was attacking fifty percent more Canadians than a decade before, the killer that could strike millions in an atomcontaminated world.

What, like most other Canadians, I did not know was that in the past few years new methods of treatment have been developed that, in some cases, prolong the lives of leukemia victims.

That fact has become the most important fact in my life today. For on an August day in 1958 I was to hear the stunning verdict: “You have leukemia.”

It began a few days after my seventy-second birthday. I climbed the fifteen flagstone steps to the lawn of my summer cottage and, as I had done countless times before, turned to look back over Baddeck Lake.

That lake, really an almost landlocked arm of the sea deep inside Cape Breton Island, was part of my life. 1 was born within sight of it; I learned to swim, fish and sail on its tideless waters. From its frozen surface nearly fifty years before I had lifted the Silver Dart and became the first man to fly in the British Em-

pire, and the first in the world to take off from ice.

But on this August afternoon in 1958 the familiar lake suddenly looked frighteningly different. I saw it mistily, through a haze of exhaustion. 1 was so weak that I could barely reach the nearest garden chair. It was the hottest day of the summer, but I shivered with cold.

I lay there bewildered, trying to fight this incredible thing that was happening to me. I told myself, “You’re getting old and tired, that’s all.” But I knew that age could hardly have overcome me in that instant 1 reached the top of the steps.

I had never had a really sick day in my life, but I realized now that I must be seriously ill. I managed to reach the cottage and collapsed into bed. When 1 came to, two hours later, my wife and Carleton Macmillan, the doctor from Baddeck, were at my bedside. Dr. Macmillan found I had a temperature of 102. He ex-

amined me all over, gave me a shot of penicillin. and told me he would be back in the morning. I had no pain, only this drugged weariness.

In the back of my mind was a sense of unpleasant familiarity with what had happened. Then I remembered. It concerned Alexander Graham Bell, the great man who had attended my christening and presented me with a silver cup, who had been my friend and senior associate since my teens, and whom I had helped build the Silver Dart. On just such an August afternoon at his summer home a short distance from where I lay, Alexander Graham Bell had fallen into a chair complaining of great weariness. That night he died.

It was not a pleasant coincidence, but it didn’t run its course. Next morning I actually felt a little better. Dr. Macmillan took me to the Baddeck hospital for X-rays and blood tests. Later he suggested I fly to Halifax for

further examination, CONTINUED ON PAGE 40

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“For the first time in my life, I didn’t want a drink before lunch. I didn’t want lunch at all”

At Victoria General Hospital I reported to Dr. Harold Read, a specialist in blood diseases. After some preliminary tests I was taken to a small room where Dr. Read told me he would perform a breast-bone puncture to get a sample of my bone marrow.

I knew enough about medicine to realize what bone-marrow tests diagnosed: leukemia, cancer of the blood.

1 tried to react casually. A pretty little nurse was standing beside me. I reached out and took her hand. “As long as you stay with me I don’t mind what they do to me,” I told her. She squeezed my hand.

The puncture penetration of the breastbone by a sort of human-sized diamond drill under local anaesthetic, wasn’t as great an ordeal as it sounds. But I had until the next afternon to worry about what they were discovering in my marrow.

When the doctor came into my room 1 knew I could stop worrying and start knowing the worst. “Doctor,” I told him, “my psychology tells me that when a doctor comes to see a patient, with no nurse tagging along, and closes the door, he has bad news.”

Dr. Read performed the unpleasant duty for which he had come to my hospital room. He told me quietly that I was suffering from acute leukemia.

How does a man feel when he hears sentence of death pronounced against him? I can remember only being dazed, shaken, by the doctor’s words.

“How long can I expect to live?” I asked the doctor. It’s not a question doctors care to answer offhandedly. But I persisted, and the doctor admitted that most cases of acute leukemia ended in death in less than a year, many in three to six months.

For two days I remained in a shaken condition. Friends who heard I was in

the Halifax hospital telephoned me, but I wouldn’t take their calls. I didn’t want to talk even to my wife just then. Meanwhile treatment had started. I was given a daily assortment of capsules, and two or three bottles of blood. The latter was not so much a transfusion as an exchange. Some of my own blood would be withdrawn and replaced with healthy blood (my own hemoglobin count was a low thirtyseven percent). I started to feel better almost immediately. It was then that I made a resolve: I was going to beat this thing, and meanwhile I was going to lead my normal active life.

For example, I was going back to Baddeck to finish my summer holidays. I informed Dr. Read of this, and eleven days after I entered the hospital, with my hemoglobin count up to sixty percent, he agreed to let me go, provided I continued the medication and blood transfusions. He suggested that when I returned home to Montreal I report to Dr. Louis Lowenstein, in charge of the hematology department of Royal Victoria Hospital, where a special study of leukemia was being made.

But back in Montreal I felt so well that I decided to follow my resolve to lead my normal life. Instead of making an appointment with Dr. Lowenstein I took a plane to Toronto for a board meeting of one of the companies of which I am a director, I put up at the National Club, on Bay Street in downtown Toronto where (fortunately for me, as it turned out) the meeting was also being held.

When we adjourned for lunch and a waiter came to take our orders for drinks, 1 suddenly realized that (for the first time in my life) I didn’t want a drink before lunch. I didn’t want any lunch, either. I began to feel as I had felt that day a month before in Baddeck.

I excused myself and managed to reach

my room. I wanted nothing more than to fall into bed and let my weariness overpower me. But I mustn’t. I had to get back to Montreal, to the doctor I had neglected to call before setting out for Toronto.

1 sat on a chair by the bedside. The room was warm, nearly eighty degrees, but I shook uncontrollably with cold. I looked at my unsteady hands. They were literally as white as the sheet on the bed.

Luckily, I hadn't had the strength to close the door of my room. An employee of the club walked past, saw my condition, and came in. He wanted to call for help, but I wouldn’t let him. “Just help me pack,” I told him.

I don’t know how a man in my condition could manage to appear normal enough not to attract attention, but 1 had to. I was afraid that if I seemed ill the airline people wouldn’t let me board the Montreal plane at Malton airport. Somehow I made it. and got into a cab at Dorval airport. Halfway home, though, I had to ask the taxi driver to stop. 1 was going to be sick to my stomach—for the first time in my life.

As I leaned against the cab, the driver said: "Thanks, mister. Most people don’t have the decency to ask me to stop.” It dawned on me that he thought I was drunk. Then he got a good look at my face. "Gee, mister, you’re sick!” He helped me back into the cab and we roared through traffic like an ambulance up to my home on Mountain Street.

Once again I barely made it to bed. This time I fell in wearing hat, coat and boots, and passed out: My wife called Dr. Lowenstein. He found I had a temperature of 103.5. and gave me a massive injection of penicillin. I stayed in bed for three days and then was taken to Royal Victoria Hospital, where I received many transfusions and was put on a regimen of twenty assorted pills a day. In twelve days I was allowed to go home.

They were all set to mourn me

Every week after that I went back to the Royal Victoria’s hematology department for blood tests and transfusions. Then came the visit of February 10, 1959. It was a crucial day to me, for two reasons. It was exactly six months since the day I first felt the dread symptoms of leukemia—and six months was the probable span of survival I had been offered.

Not only was l alive, but I was going to ask the doctor if I could fly out to Baddeck to be guest of honor at a strenuous three-day celebration in two weeks time. February 23 was to be the fiftieth anniversary of powered flight in Canada —my flight in the Silver Dart to be exact. The various aviation organizations, the industry and the RCAF were planning a big affair with testimonial banquets, presentations, speeches, an air show and a re-enactment of the Silver Dart’s flight —with a young stand-in for McCurdy at the controls.

I had let it be known that I might not be well enough to attend. In fact, word had got around among aviation people that I probably wouldn’t live to celebrate the event. I think they were preparing to make the anniversary a sort of memorial ceremony to the old pioneer pilot so recently departed.

To my delight, after Dr. Lowenstein checked my tests and charts he agreed that I could go to Baddeck. Also to my delight, he accepted my invitation to accompany me. 1 believe he enjoyed himself. and 1 know I had three of the happiest and most heart-warming days of my life.

But I couldn't help feeling just a little

bit of a fraud. There I was, accompanied everywhere by an eminent medical specialist and attended by a strapping Mountie, presumably to pick me up if I fell down. (Actually he was there to defend me against flattering but exhausting demands for autographs.) When people asked me how I was and I replied truthfully, “I feel fine,” they would nod solemnly and shake hands sympathetically. When I spoke at gatherings I could feel a warmth directed at me from the crowds. At church on Sunday the minister held me up as an example to the young people present with a sermon on the text: "He who does well should be emulated.”

It was all genuinely kind and sincere, of course, but I did feel fine and it was a little like attending one’s own memorial service.

Soon after my return from Baddeck I went to Royal Victoria Hospital for a regular check. Dr. Lowenstein looked at the reports of my tests. He excused himself and left the room. When he returned he explained to me that he couldn’t believe what he read in the reports, and had gone out to re-check personally. My blood tested normal, with no signs of leukemia. My hemoglobin stood at ninetysix percent.

"I told you I’d beat it,” I said. "Does that mean I’m cured?”

"No,” he said. "We can’t use the word ‘cure’ but it means the leukemia is in remission.”

“You mean it may be lying under a stone and may sneak out some time?”

“Something like that,” he agreed.

I take twenty pills a day

That was fifteen months ago — nearly two years since leukemia first appeared —and my periodic tests show no recurrence. I feel better than 1 have in years and lead as active a life as I ever did. I still take twenty pills a day, which is a nuisance. But the doctor recommends that I continue them and I do so as cheerfully as I can.

What do those pills contain? My doctors’ explanation does not leave me much the wiser, but this is what I gather: all cells, including malignant cells, need certain chemical substances for their growth, and they absorb these substances selectively from the tissues and fluids of the body. In the new treatment of leukemia, chemicals which resemble the essential substances in many ways, but lack the growth element, are administered. The leukemic cells absorb these substitute substances — since they are deceived into thinking they are the “real thing,” and literally starve themselves to death.

By finding the right combination for individual cases of leukemia, doctors in a number of hospitals where these special studies are being made are now able to prolong the lives of children with leukemia in as manyas sixty percent of cases; of young and middle-aged adults in ten to fifteen percent of cases. What makes my own case remarkable is that at my age the remission rate is terribly small —one percent.

And I’m happy to be that one case in a hundred. I have reason to hope for continued long life and normal activity. A lot of people, including doctors, are surprised that I have beaten leukemia. But my wife recently told me she never doubted l would.

"How did you know?” I asked her.

"Tve lived with you for forty years,” she said.

I'm not sure if that’s a compliment or a comment on the stubborn, contrary kind of man she's had to live with so long. ★