After a leukemia diagnosis as a young adult, Jen Biondi has shifted her focus toward embracing the important things in life, one day at a time.
As told to Britt Julious
I found my first taste of being completely independent.
I’d actually recently moved out of my parents’ house. I got my first desk job. And I was living in Madison, about an hour away from my parents. It was a really exciting time, like a new chapter in my life. Everything seemed to be going really great.
One thing about the symptoms is that they’re almost random. Like, one of the first symptoms that I started noticing around December 2020 was really bad joint pain. I kind of assumed that it was from sitting at a desk all day. I was finding all of these different ways to fix the symptoms that I was getting, and I didn’t really think that much about it. I went to a chiropractor.
And then I started getting really sensitive gums, but I kind of ignored it. And I started getting really, really tired. I assumed, ‘You know what? It’s probably because I’m not getting enough sleep.’ I was working remotely and I was living in a studio apartment that didn’t have a lot of windows. I thought, ‘I don’t go anywhere. I’m not getting enough like vitamin D, because I’m not going outside.’ Then I started losing my appetite. And I’m like, ‘Maybe it’s because I’m stressed at work and with COVID, it’s kind of hard on everyone’s mental health. But I just kept on racking up all of these really random symptoms.
Over the weekends, I would visit my family and I would always be sick. It was always something new. At that point, I had been sick with these really small things for about two to three months [and knew] something was [wrong]. At one point, my mom said, ‘This isn’t right. You’re generally a really healthy human being.’ She was the one that pushed me to go to the doctor and see what was going on.
I was very, very sick by the time I was brought to the hospital, so they had to do some tests to figure out if it was really cancer. They were pretty sure it was.
It was really hard to kind of wrap my mind around cancer because I think everybody in the world knows what cancer is, but they don’t really know anything about it unless they have a family member with it or they’ve experienced it themselves. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I have leukemia, but what does that mean? And I had no idea what my life would turn into and I had no idea what treatments would be like.
It took me about a week to really realize I have cancer and I can’t do anything about it. And the only way that I can really handle this is either give up and refuse treatment, or say, ‘Okay, let’s do this. Whatever needs to be done, I’m going to do it. I’m going to just keep on fighting until there’s no cancer left in my body.’
Once they figured out that it was acute myeloid leukemia, they started me on chemo and they did 7+3. They had me on it 24 hours a day for seven days, and then an additional one that was administered through a really big syringe for three days. And then after I finished that chemo, they started me on chemo pills. And then once I finished that, I stayed in the hospital to sort of recover from all of my symptoms. As of right now, they’re not planning on a bone marrow transplant and I’m just going to have additional chemo for four months.
It’s very hard for people to wrap their heads around what I’ve gone through. As much as you can explain what chemo is like and how it makes you feel and the side effects and everything, it’s really hard to wrap your head around. So having emotional support that makes you feel heard is really important.
I think I’ve been pretty lucky. Everyone has responded really well and been super supportive.
Me getting diagnosed kind of changed the whole dynamic of my family. I think that we were always kind of close, but we never really expressed that. And then once I got diagnosed, it really just brought everyone together and made us realize how much we cared about each other, and how much you realize how important these people are in your life. When anything can happen at any point, you just have to always be grateful that they’re in your life.
It’s really hard to look to the future because there’s so many things that could happen. If I respond well to chemo, then great, it’s just gonna go to plan. But if I get really sick again, then they have to figure out something else. And if my cancer comes back, then there’s the possibility of me getting a transplant, and that’s a whole other thing, something that I can barely even wrap my head around. I can only hope that everything goes the way that it’s supposed to. I just kind of have to take it day by day because I have no idea what the next day is going to be like.
I think when you go through something like cancer, you really start to realize how important life is and that you never know what’s going to happen. It’s really important to focus on doing things that make you happy. Like if I’m working a job that I don’t like, then I should look for something that’s going to make me happy because if one day I’m on my deathbed, I want to be able to look back and be say, ‘I did something that made me happy, and I never like settled for anything less.’
You only get one life. So you should live it the way that you want to live it. Don’t just live it because that’s what everybody said you were supposed to do. You know—get the office job, the nine to five, whatever. Just do what you want to do, because you never know what’s going to happen.