Brian Zhang, Contributing Photographer

In 2016, Laura Steel, then diagnosed with leukemia, did not know if she would see her daughter make it to kindergarten. Today, her daughter is 8, and Steel is well on the road to a post-leukemia life — a journey that she credits to passionate healthcare officers and cancer research sponsor groups such as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. 

This year, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is hosting a contest in over 80 regional markets across the United States for the coveted Visionary title, awarded to the individual whose campaign raises the most funds in support of leukemia-related research. Steel, along with Jessie Phillips — an aspiring Visionary and a current campaigner in the Greater New Haven market — sat down with several Yale students and Trumbull Head of College Assistant Reese McLeod to afford an intimate glimpse into cancer survivorship and the collective familial, local and international fight against cancer.

There are two major types of leukemia, which is the broad term for blood cancers that originate in the bone marrow and oversee dangerous growth of blood cells: acute myeloid leukemia and acute lymphocytic leukemia. AML typically impacts the production of myeloblasts, red blood cells and platelets, while ALL primarily targets lymphocytes, a kind of white blood cells. While morphologically different, both result in a weakened immune system that impairs the body’s ability to fight off infection and invading pathogens. Steel had AML. 

“I was 27 years old, I had recently gotten married to my husband, I had my daughter and I was just starting to feel comfortable in my nursing career, when my life all came to a halt,” she said. “[Nonetheless], throughout the challenging couple of years of treatment, there are still moments that give me happiness, and I want to highlight these moments that brought me hope.” 

Steel had been feeling feverish and experiencing “flu-like” symptoms for several weeks prior to her diagnosis, which she initially thought would be lyme disease, a common risk in Connecticut. Unable to keep up with her daily workouts and energetic toddler, she ultimately decided to run some tests at a nearby provider. 

However, instead of a health care professional directly calling her and notifying her of the unexpected diagnosis, Steel got her results late into the evening of the next day through MyChart, where she was left unsure of next steps. After calling a provider, she was told to get some rest — a response that naturally no person just diagnosed with cancer wanted to hear at the moment, she said. 

The rest of her treatment and recovery, which took place at Smilow Cancer Hospital, was made possible by doctors and family members who were fortunately more sensitive, she said. Following six rounds of chemotherapy, she was in remission, but she relapsed in July 2017 and realized that she had to start treatment all over again — this time necessitating a bone marrow transplant. She did not have a bone marrow transplant in the bone marrow registry, but her cousin Patrick was a 50 percent match, and he “gave her the gift of life by donating his stem cells.” Steel received her transplant in November 2017, and has been cancer-free since. 

All steps in her treatment process needed to happen in quick succession of one another, she said. Though all cancers are life-threatening, she emphasized that with leukemia, there really are no defined stages, and that once someone has it, it is seen as an acute situation that has to be taken care of right away. The bloodstream enables easy transmission of abnormal cancer cells to different parts of the body, affording more opportunities for metastasis and invasion of other body parts. 

As an organization, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is particularly sensitive to the aspects of leukemia that makes it a notoriously challenging cancer to attack: the difficulties of finding a bone marrow donor and its silent, swift spread. Beyond holding the title as the largest nonprofit funder of cutting edge cancer research, according to Josh Berman, a campaign manager in the Greater New Haven market for the Visionary contest, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is keen on making the complexities and nuances behind cancer and treatment more transparent to the non-scientific community. 

The society has a focus in three main areas of cancer support: funding research to advance life-saving treatments; driving advocacy for policies that protect patient access to life saving treatments and consider diversity, equity and inclusion in health care and providing patients and families with hope, guidance, education and support. 

Most notably, in 2022, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society stayed at the forefront of the push that led to the passage of the landmark Childhood Cancer STAR Reauthorization Act, which saw over $160 million secured in federal funding for pediatric cancer research. 

Leukemia statistics in children and teenagers are daunting: approximately one of every three pediatric cancers are leukemia-related, and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia noted that nearly 4,000 children are affected annually. 

According to Berman, one of the historical barriers in pediatric cancer treatment is the perception of children as “small adults” when they aren’t. He noted that this perception is causing the health care landscape to use the same treatments on adults for children, which can unfortunately result in the development of chronic illnesses and side effects down the road. 

At the heart of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society agenda is a consciousness for just how crucial human support is for cancer patients. An attendee at the talk and a medication assistance program coordinator at the specialty pharmacy at Yale, Wanda Taylor cannot put more emphasis on the value of kindness and empathy as a resource.

She says that it is “critical” to one’s healing journey no matter the struggle or disease they are confronting. 

“One of the moments I remember [was] when I started to lose my hair after my first round of treatment … and at that point, I know everyone said it was easier to just cut it off,” Steel said , acknowledging that she was fortunate enough to be surrounded by loved ones who stopped their own lives to save hers. “And so my sister and my husband … we all buzzed our heads together. And it just brought a lot of joy and happiness in the darkness. One of the things that was really important to me was to continue to have good family time, despite going through this treatment.” 

Fundraising contestants such as Phillips are working to not only raise money to further the empirical side of cancer research, but to also remind the public that cancer treatment responsibilities fall upon all global citizens. 

As he heads into the remaining weeks of competition, Phillips said that he looks forward to reaching a milestone of at least $20,000 raised over ten weeks and making his campaign an educational one above all else. 

“I once had a visionary contestant participate because he realized that he didn’t have the time,” Berman said. “That was when he saw that if he wasn’t going to do it, then who was? The only thing people do not have time for is dying of cancer.” 

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2023, 59,610 new cases of leukemia of all types and 23,710 leukemia-associated deaths will occur in the United States. 

Brian Zhang is Arts editor of the Yale Daily News and the third-year class president at Yale. Previously, he covered student life for the University desk. His writing can also be found in Insider Magazine, The Sacramento Bee, BrainPOP, New York Family and uInterview. Follow @briansnotebook on Instagram for more!