How tennis helped me recover from leukemia

I grew up playing tennis with my father down the block from our summer house in Atlantic Beach, New York. I'd often wake up to find him in his tennis whites, long legs stretched out while he read the New York Times. After his doubles game, when he would "hit a few" with my sister and me, he seemed just as happy when we made a good shot as when he hit a winner.

Courtesy of Ronni Gordon

Ronni Gordon at her tennis club in Enfield, Connecticut.

Wanting to keep playing tennis motivated him when he was recovering from two heart surgeries. He died a year before I was diagnosed in 2003 with acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive blood cancer.

Throughout my treatment, which included chemotherapy, a subsequent stem cell transplant and recovery -- which I wrote about in the New York Times -- I walked, then ran, and played tennis. During those hospital stays at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, under the care of doctors from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, I'd look at a can of tennis balls on my windowsill when I felt well enough to ride an exercise bike in my room. That can was a reminder that one day I would be back to the game that was a staple of my youth -- the game that connected me with my father. I am a worrier, but when I'm on the court I focus on the ball, savoring the simple joy of hitting it well. If my game is off, I'm even more eager to play again.

Between chemotherapy sessions, breathing fresh air and playing tennis brought a sense of normalcy. I had a double-lumen Hickman catheter implanted in my chest, but I managed by tucking the tubes (one for medicine and the other for blood samples) into my sports bra. I leaned on my extended tennis family, especially when things got even more difficult before my final round of chemo before the transplant, when I developed a fungal pneumonia -- pulmonary aspergillosis -- and needed lung surgery.

I got the surgery, I got the transplant, and I got stronger again. My doctors said I had an advantage because I had gone into the treatment in good physical shape. I returned to work at the newspaper where I was a reporter and to my tennis team, which had helped see me through those scary times. I passed the two-year mark, after which the chance of relapse decreases substantially.

On an August weekend in 2007, I won in first doubles at a district tournament with the captain of my USTA team. That Monday I went to the clinic to get the result of a bone marrow biopsy, the painful diagnostic test for leukemia. My doctor had shocking news: I had relapsed.

He said I would get another transplant with stem cells from a donor he would find from a national registry, but first I would need more chemotherapy. I got the transplant, but six months later, the donor cells disappeared -- a complication called graft failure. Since it was considered a fluke and the donor was a good match, he agreed to donate again, for which I was grateful. More chemo and transplant No. 3 followed. Six months after that, I relapsed again.

I was afraid it was the end, but my doctor offered a fourth transplant with a new donor. (I've since learned that while two transplants for leukemia are not uncommon and three are given occasionally, four is extremely rare.) I told my social worker I hoped the new donor was a woman (I knew it didn't really matter, but I was buoyed by the thought of that bond), and I joked that it would help if she was a tennis player with a good backhand. Of course, you don't acquire any characteristics other than blood type from a donor, but the thought made me smile at a time when I was feeling beat up, and that helped.

The new donor's cells entered my bloodstream through my catheter in January 2009 without incident. But about two weeks later, I developed multiple life-threatening infections and went into a coma resulting from kidney failure. One night my doctor called my family in and said I might not make it.

Courtesy of Ronni Gordon

Gordon and her longtime doubles partner Donna Young at last year's US Open.

I woke up after about a week, confused and unable to speak. My legs were swollen, my face black and blue. I went to dialysis every day. For weeks I was unable to get out of bed. When I first got out and into a chair, I could barely lift a leg for the exercises a physical therapist wanted me to do. After that I progressed to trying to walk along part of the nurses station. Even holding onto a nurse or my sister, I nearly fainted. But gradually I got stronger.

After about four months, I returned home and started to walk around the lake where I used to run. I was so wobbly that someone had to stay by my side to keep me from tipping over. Once I fell backward and hit my head, earning a trip to the emergency room.

I went to physical therapy. I did chair yoga. I kept asking my regular doubles partner and friend, Donna, "Is it time?" -- wondering if she thought I was ready to hit tennis balls with her. The first few times we rallied, she made me promise not to move more than one step in either direction. Pros from our club brought me back as they had before, first hitting the ball softly, directly to me. Gradually they moved me around and hit with more pace. I squeezed a hand grip to build strength. I couldn't lift the racquet so I served underhand. I got stronger and steadier.

Today, I am back on a team and playing three, sometimes four days a week, for hours at a time. I work on my slice, the shot that sustained my father into old age: 45-degree angle, arm straight. I win some and lose some, but I figure I'm winning by being there.

When a kidney doctor once told me upon discharge that he would see me in four months, I was surprised he thought I would live that long. I was afraid to plan anything. Then, two years ago I hit a milestone: five years in remission, when you are officially cured. I met my donor, who did turn out to be a woman, and also a friend of a childhood friend of mine -- so we really did have a connection. Not a tennis player, but she gave me the biggest gift of all, the gift of being alive and well.

And so, I make plans. They include an annual bus trip Donna and I take from our club in Enfield, Connecticut, to watch the US Open. This year will mark our fourth trip, and I'm looking forward to all of it, starting with printing out the schedule of play and feeling the buzz of excitement when we get on the bus, where we compare notes with our tennis friends about which practice sessions and matches we'll watch.

I can't wait to get in as much as we can in one day. And as we rush back to the bus at the end of it -- a dash of at least 15 minutes because the buses park a good distance from the tennis center -- you can bet I'll be thinking about how far tennis has brought me.

Advances in leukemia treatment, my doctors and my bone marrow donor got me to where I am. But tennis proved to be powerful medicine too.

Ronni Gordon lives in Western Massachusetts, and her work has appeared in The New York Times magazine and The Philadelphia Inquirer, among others. Follow her on Twitter @Ronni_Gordon.

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