When his doctor broke the news that he had leukemia, Ian MacLeod gathered up his emotions and figured out a way to fight. Later, when he was told he needed a bone marrow transplant, Ian again summoned the strength to cope. It was while saying goodbye to his children just before that transplant that his resolve began to waver.
“I hugged my kids and said, ‘Daddy will be back,’” says Ian, who was 34 when he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2013. “But deep down I didn’t know whether or not I was going to be back.”
Ian trudged through the transplant process filled with fears — from immediate ones like whether he would find a compatible bone marrow donor (his brother was later identified as a match) to the more distant variety like whether he would be around to walk his daughter down the aisle on her wedding day.
Some days during treatment, Ian felt so weak that he stayed confined to his small hospital room. The room became a metaphor for how lonely he felt. But after a few days inside that literal box — and a figurative one in his mind — Ian decided to expand his outlook.
“I’m like, ‘OK, this is the room that’s going to save my life,’” says Ian. “And so I really tried to shift the mentality of what my stay at City of Hope would be like.”
Around the same time, the questions he had been asking himself — the kind that can consume cancer patients — also began to shift. He stopped asking, “Why?” he had cancer, and started asking, “What?”
“I remember saying to myself, I’m not going to ask why I was given this sickness,” says Ian. “I’m only going to ask what — what am I supposed to learn from this experience?”
That attitude buoyed Ian throughout treatment, and even afterward, when he was dealing with post-traumatic stress he hadn’t expected to encounter after a successful transplant. Moment by moment, he climbed out of emotional darkness and began to see the world differently.
Today, almost three years post-transplant, Ian is in remission and says he is not simply surviving, but thriving. He describes himself as the spitting image of the man he was before cancer, but with a more polished spirit.
“I’m lucky enough to have that hindsight of knowing what it’s like to almost die,” he says. “I now understand that focusing on the past and the future doesn’t pay you dividends.
“I do not procrastinate joy. Right now is the time to experience all the things you have.”
Soon after transplantation, Ian began mindful awareness training, a regular meditation practice and, as a result, he started spending more time in the moment. He says he stopped thinking about what he doesn’t have, and began to focus on gratitude for what he does have.
“Every day now I wake up and when my eyes open and my kids jump into bed, I’m completely surprised that I’m still here,” says Ian. “I wake up and I’m just blown away. I’m just so excited to get into the day.
“It’s like I was seeing the world in black and white … and now the world is very vibrant.”
Learn more about City of Hope's acute myeloid leukemia program and research.