Sitting in an exam room waiting for blood test results, Jonathan Palmer – then age 33 – expected to have a routine physical. He remembers guessing, “I wasn’t getting the right vitamins, or maybe I had the flu.”
Weeks earlier, Jonathan had begun experiencing several worrying symptoms. “I began feeling tired, having difficulty walking upstairs, losing my appetite, experiencing night sweats, and regularly running fevers,” he recalls. But when his doctor returned, she sat down to deliver the news: Jonathan’s blood counts were irregular and could indicate cancer. Instead of returning home, he was headed to the emergency room.
“When I heard those words – ‘may be cancer’ – I couldn’t believe it,” Jonathan says. As a younger man who exercised, didn’t smoke, and tried to eat a healthy diet, he had never thought about the possibility of developing cancer. He was shocked.
Facing a Cancer Diagnosis
Jonathan was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, often referred to as ALL, on May 14, 2019. For Jonathan, leukemia was a “foreign word [he’d] heard before but never really knew exactly what it meant.”
His diagnosis was a “sharp turn,” a sentiment his wife, Kallie, echoed. “All I could envision was the future we had planned, the life we built together vanishing,” she says.
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia is most common in children and affects the blood and bone marrow, which is the spongy tissue inside of bones where blood cells are made. For children, the disease has a much higher survival rate than for adults – a statistic that initially worried Jonathan. He read everything he could about ALL, but eventually decided to avoid the statistics. He says, “I told myself that I was more than a data point.”
The Leukemia Journey
As a nurse at Emory Healthcare, Kallie approached the diagnosis with a medical background. She pulled out her nursing school textbooks and began learning about cancer treatments, writing down questions and bringing long lists to Jonathan’s appointments. She remembers how they settled into a new pattern, describing their familiar routine.
“Treatment every Tuesday and Friday, bone marrow biopsies and lumbar punctures every few weeks, lab reports, doctor visits … Cancer and treatment became our new normal.”
A year into Jonathan’s treatment, Kallie transferred to a new job in the infusion center at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Watching Jonathan’s care at Winship, Kallie knew she wanted to be a part of the same experience for other patients.
“I saw the nurses treating their patients with so much compassion,” she says. “I saw them laughing with their patients. I saw them hugging their patients. I saw the kindness and the dedication.”
To her position at Winship, Kallie brought a deeper understanding of what patients and their loved ones were feeling. She explains, “I’ve experienced all their emotions firsthand – the despair, the fear, the helplessness of being a caregiver and wanting nothing more than to take away the pain and fear your loved one is feeling.”
Jonathan spent 22 days on the inpatient oncology floor of Emory University Hospital in June 2019. He emphasizes the challenges of living as a cancer patient while also working to hold together his “old life,” managing bills, work, and other personal and financial decisions. Despite some awkward experiences and the disruption of hospital life, he found friendship from many of Winship’s staff and doctors.
During Jonathan’s inpatient stay, he was offered the option to participate in a clinical trial and chose to participate. “I could shape the future treatment approaches and maybe help others,” he says. Two and a half years later, Jonathan is now in “maintenance therapy,” which consists of a monthly IV treatment of vincristine and daily oral chemo tablets.
With the perspective of a patient, caregiver, and provider, the Palmers’ experience is unusual, and both have found valuable lessons for their futures.
“I learned to live each day, and that the loss of time made it that much more precious,” says Jonathan. “I let myself be honest with my feelings – some days I’m happy, some days I’m sad, anxious, tired, hungry, lazy, active. I allowed myself to experience what I was feeling and move forward.”
However, he knows that might sound overly optimistic to some. “Life hasn’t returned to normal, and the clichéd ‘new normal’ might never be achievable – and I’m OK with that.” He explains, “I’m not trying to promote toxic positivity, because that doesn’t work. Denying reality is never a good way to cope with difficult situations. What I’m trying to convey is that after the fire and smoke and dust settles from being diagnosed with cancer, it’s up to you, the patient, to make sense of it.”
Facing cancer with Jonathan has helped Kallie understand what her patients may be experiencing, and it helps her connect with and reassure them. At Winship, compassion is a part of the comprehensive care every patient receives, and Kallie brings empathy and sensitivity to her patients.
“As a nurse, I’m glad I can use my own experience to guide my practice and help my patients feel like someone understands what they are going through,” she says.
Care that Puts You First
Facing a cancer diagnosis isn’t something you should do alone. At Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, your personalized care is led by compassionate and experienced cancer specialists. We’ll walk with you every step of the way — from the first phone call to our clinic to your last treatment and long after.
About Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University
Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, Georgia’s National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, gives you access to the latest evidence-based care and clinical trials. Our experienced team sees more than 17,000 patients each year and delivers comprehensive care to every individual. At Winship, we provide more than state-of-the-art therapy; we also offer cancer prevention, treatment, survivorship and support programs to all who have been affected by cancer.