Kristin Berberich


Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia


The task ahead of you is never as great as the power within you.

When I was 26 I was working as a high school teacher, cross country coach, and tutor. I was doing an after school boot camp and a running club with other teachers and had tons of energy. I noticed on a Wednesday in December 2013 that I had some bruising on my legs and arms and that I was a little fatigued – my run that day hadn’t felt great. That Thursday I had more bruising and skipped boot camp because I felt so tired. On Friday, the bruising was covering large portions of my legs and I had purpura (sort of like blood blisters) in my mouth. I left school early and went to my family doctor for a blood test. The next day my doctor’s office called and told me to go to the emergency room. I was seen by Dr. Ninan and Dr. Aksentijevich of Virginia Cancer Specialists and they diagnosed me with Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia (APL), a type of AML. There is no history of blood cancer in my family so this was quite a shock. Dr. Aksentijevich assured me that it was not genetic so my siblings and future children would not have to worry about it – what a relief!

The next day I started chemotherapy and was transferred to the ICU. I needed blood transfusions around the clock for the next week while getting three types of chemo. I stayed in the hospital for a month. Luckily my family is local and was able to visit every day, even taking shifts on Christmas and New Year’s Day to stay with me.

In January I was released from the hospital and given some time to recover, have a bone marrow biopsy to check if the chemo had worked, get two wisdom teeth out (!), and prepare for my next round of chemo. I saw Virginia Cancer Specialists in the Alexandria office every few days during this time and always felt welcome. The staff, nurses, and doctors were so kind, friendly, and patient. I really felt special and like they were happy to see me each visit (maybe they were just happy to see that I had enough energy to walk on my own!)

I completed two more rounds of chemo and I saw Virginia Cancer Specialists daily during these months for blood draws, infusions, shots, check-ups, and bone marrow biopsies and could not have asked for a better experience. I used to overhear my doctor saying to other patients on their way out, “See you in six months” and be jealous that they didn’t have to come every day. Now that I’m in remission and only need to go every six months, I miss everyone in the office! Even now, three years after I hit remission, the front desk staff, nurses, and lab techs remember me by name and greet me with a smile.

Very early in my treatment, Dr. Aksentijevich told me that I would have to take this experience one day at a time. He was absolutely right. Sometimes my goal was just to make it through the next hour. But those hours can add up to days and those days can add up to become huge accomplishments – like beating cancer.

My favorite quote, and the one that was posted in each of my hospital rooms, is by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The task ahead of you is never as great as the power within you.” That is especially true when a large, daunting task is broken into smaller tasks like “get through today” or “get through the next hour.”

I also found it helpful to focus on being positive. For me that meant making a conscious effort to find silver linings, like the fact that I didn’t have any more bad hair days and I got to watch all of the 2014 Winter Olympics from my couch! It also meant taking the time and effort to say thank you to every doctor, nurse, tech, and volunteer who came into my hospital room every time they came in. I continue to be grateful every day for the care I received at VCS.