Back in 2012, Marell Tomeh joined UTM intending to pursue an English major. As the end of the second term grew closer, Tomeh had one priority on her mind: to survive her finals.
But there was a lump in her neck.
“I honestly wouldn’t have checked it out,” says Tomeh. “I was supposed to [go to] Cuba with a bunch of my friends following the final. So I decided to check it out before I [flew].”
At that point, Tomeh was working long hours as a supervisor at her workplace. She had shifts that lasted from 4 p.m. to midnight, three days a week. Her long shifts along with school and the approaching finals left her feeling very tired.
“I was really tired at that time and a lot of people—like my work friends—would say that I was pale and lightheaded. I was working very heavy hours […] so I expected to be tired. I was oblivious to all the signs,” she says.
Upon visiting her family doctor, Tomeh was asked to do a blood test and found that she had few to no white blood cells and very few neutrophils. Neutrophils are a type of white blood cell—they are generally the first line of defence against invading microbes during an infection.
Tomeh’s family doctor was startled.
“He told my mom that if I want to get diagnosed faster, [I should] go to the emergency room because [he could] book [me] an appointment with an oncologist, but [the wait would] be very long,” says Tomeh.
So Tomeh took her doctor’s advice and headed to the emergency room. “Doctor after doctor would say, ‘You might just be fighting a really bad infection.’ That’s what happens when you’re [fighting an infection]—your [white] blood cells go down. I’d come back, they’d do their tests and scans, and say it might be something worse,” says Tomeh.
After visiting three doctors at the emergency room, Tomeh was finally referred to a female oncologist at the Credit Valley Hospital.
“To be honest, [this doctor] didn’t really take it too seriously. She asked me how I was and I said I was fine [but] tired,” says Tomeh.
The oncologist did a physical exam, but could not decide upon a diagnosis. She arranged for a follow-up visit. Tomeh recalls a particular moment from that meeting: her mom begging the oncologist for an earlier appointment, asking, “Can you do anything? Can you just do something about this?”
The doctor replied, “Honestly, there are people with more priority.”
By now, Tomeh was studying hard for her finals—in fact, she had written two exams. In the fortunate scenario that she was okay, Tomeh didn’t want a deferred exam to prevent her from going to Cuba. Despite her family doctor’s insistence on deferring exams, Tomeh continued to attend school with appropriate precautions, such as wearing a face mask.
When Tomeh returned to the oncologist, her condition had gotten worse. “By the time I went there, I was completely defenceless—I had no neutrophils or white blood cells,” she says.
Her oncologist believed that she could have one of two potential cancers: either Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which would involve a six-month treatment at Credit Valley Hospital, or acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which would involve being transferred to the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and being treated for two years.
Tomeh’s bone marrow biopsy confirmed that it was ALL.
With this final diagnosis, Tomeh was told to leave UTM and her job. At the Princess Margaret Centre, a second biopsy revealed that her leukemic cell count had increased from 84 to about 90 cells. She was immediately transferred to treatment.
ALL treatment involves three phases. The first is “remission induction”, where all leukaemia cells present in the blood or bones are destroyed through chemotherapy. This phase lasts for a month. The “consolidation” phase is next, which involves more chemotherapy to prevent the return of leukemia. Finally, “maintenance therapy”, which is carried out to keep leukemia in remission, involves low-dose chemotherapy and steroids for up to two years.
“I didn’t tell a lot of people—I wasn’t very public about it,” says Tomeh. “I also developed really bad anxiety. I never had that before—I was always very social growing up. So for the entire two years, I’ve been under the radar. I deactivated all social media. I didn’t want any part of it—I needed to create my own world.”
When Tomeh was first diagnosed, she had been counting down the days to her return to UTM.
“How many courses [could] I take to graduate a little bit earlier? I was so ready to get my life back,” she recalls. “[But] it doesn’t end with the last dose of chemo—you still have physical recovery and mental recovery. I didn’t anticipate all the struggles I would have [afterwards].”
During her treatment, Tomeh’s friends constantly invited her to spend time with them, but Tomeh declined their invitations.
“If you knew me before, you’d definitely know that I laugh at everything [and that there were] no problems going on […] That was part of the reason that I hid. Instead of telling my friends that I had anxiety and I didn’t want to do this, I just cut them off,” she says.
Tomeh’s treatment came to an end last July. Looking back, Tomeh reflects on the importance of mental health, commenting that she believed it was more difficult for her to cope with mental health than the cancer itself.
“I just want people to understand that even the happiest person has problems [and that] even the strongest person needs help. I say that all the time because before this I was always seen as a rock […] and this time I was completely defenceless. I lost everything that defined me: my work, my school […] It’s one thing to be sick or […] lose your physical health, but once you lose your mental health, you can’t face the world without your mind—without your sense of self,” says Tomeh.
Tomeh considered taking courses when she was in a lighter part of her treatment and registered as a part-time student to do so. But she decided not to follow through on her studies due to her anxiety. She chose instead to sign up for French classes and to do an online course during the winter 2014 term, as it helped get her back into the school mindset and have something to do at her own comfort level.
Last September, Tomeh returned to UTM. She is once again pursuing an English major, with thoughts of perhaps joining the PWC program too. Tomeh will also be taking part in the Canadian Cancer Society’s Relay for Life event at the St. George campus on March 11, as part of a team called “ALL for ALL”, and giving a speech about her story.
“It’s significant for me and my supporters […] just [to go] there and see me take a step forward because I know how much I was struggling with everything,” says Tomeh.
However, studying for a career is no longer her top priority.
“Before cancer, I was studying to be a teacher. I was a little disappointed in myself—I thought I could be something more,” says Tomeh. “Now I just don’t care [about] what I do or how much money I make. I literally just want a life where I can come back home, enjoy time with my family and my kids, and invest in life—and not in work.”