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How Martin Sheen Helped Me Survive Cancer

by Susan Groh

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Martin greets Susan with a hug after hearing her story.

Life has a funny way of giving you the things you need. When I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, I felt like a ship cut free of its moorings during a storm. I cast about trying to come to grips with my diagnosis and find safe harbor, until a conversation with actor Martin Sheen provided the anchor I needed.

I’d never really felt sick, just tired and a little dizzy. A blood test for anemia showed my white cell count was critically low, and my doctor sent me immediately to the emergency room at Miriam Hospital in Providence, RI. More tests were run, and an overnight stay in the hospital morphed into a month of intensive treatment, chemo­therapy, and, finally, a recommendation that I have a stem cell transplant.

It was a lot to take in. I was stunned by how little I knew about my own body and how unqualified I was to make decisions about my treatment. Killing off my own immune system in hopes that donor cells could save me seemed like a huge risk, but I was told my chances of surviving with chemotherapy alone were only 16 percent. My hus­band and children stayed close by my side offering reassurance and some sense of normalcy, but the fear crept in when I was alone. That’s when I spoke with Martin Sheen.

I put in my request to talk with Martin Sheen, anticipating it could take weeks to get a response. Instead, he called me right away, at home, when I was completely unprepared.

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Susan Groh

I’d just been released from the hos­pital and would have a few weeks to regain my strength at home before re­ceiving more chemotherapy. I decided to keep my life as normal as possible and plowed ahead with scheduled writ­ing projects. Each spring, I interview the celebrity who will be the guest speaker at New England Institute of Technology’s commencement. I put in my request to talk with Martin Sheen, anticipating it could take weeks to get a response. In­stead, he called me right away, at home, when I was completely unprepared. Not wanting to miss the chance to talk with him, I grabbed pen and paper and proceeded with the interview.

Martin was genuine, down to earth, and easy to talk to. We spoke about acting, as well as his commitment to social activism, and we talked about taking risks and being open to change. He had no idea I was struggling with trying to decide the best course of treatment for my leukemia when he said to me, “You have to take that next step and to have the courage to step when you don’t know you’re going to land on solid ground. It’s the risk that makes us strong.”

I dropped my professional demeanor as I told him how much his words touched me. And that I felt as if I was standing on a cliff and had to step forward, but I had no idea if I’d fall off the edge or find my footing. He responded with compassion and en­couragement, and talked about having faith in tomorrow and faith in yourself.

His words stayed with me as I underwent two more rounds of chemo­therapy and decided to go ahead with the stem cell transplant. I definitely felt like I was teetering on the edge of a very high cliff, but I was going to step forward, confident I would land on solid ground.

I finished my writing for New England Tech’s commencement from my hospital bed as chemotherapy dripped into my veins. My doctor gave me permission to attend. My oldest son was graduating, and I desperately wanted to be there as he accepted his diploma.

I was released from the hospital on a Saturday. The next morning, with a wig carefully placed over my bald head, I stepped through the door of the media room at the Rhode Island Convention Center and met Martin.

He greeted me with a hug and gave me a rosary that he’d had blessed and brought back from the Holy Land. He told me it didn’t matter whether I was Catholic, just to hold onto it. I did.

It was with me when I was admitted to Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and it was in my hands as my family gathered around my hospi­tal bed while a priest prayed over the stem cells that a donor had provided to save my life. I held it tight as the stem cells were infused into my body, and I kept it on my bedside table as I recovered from the transplant.

I keep it with me still. I’m more than three years out from treatment, and I feel well. I continue to step for­ward toward my future, knowing that you have to “have the courage to step when you don’t know you’re going to land on solid ground.” Truly, it’s the only way to live.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Susan Groh is an acute myeloid leukemia survivor living in Warwick, RI.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2015.