On Coming to Terms with CLL: Marialice’s Story

On Coming to Terms with CLL: Marialice’s Story Marialice Goddard

by Ashley Hubbard

Marialice Goddard has been living with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) for the last 10 years. What began as an annual checkup with her doctor turned into something unexpected. 

“I felt OK,” Marialice shares with Coping® magazine. “But my doctor called me and said he was sending me to an oncologist, that he thought I had CLL.”

On being diagnosed with CLL 

Unsurprisingly, Marialice had never heard of CLL. She visited the oncologist, not knowing what to expect. He told her that if she had to pick a cancer, she had picked a good one – a sentiment that CLL survivors hear all too often, which underplays the severity of this disease. 

“I wasn’t excited about that because I wouldn’t have picked cancer to begin with,” Marialice divulges as she reflects on her doctor’s words. “The first year was the hardest because I was obsessing about the cancer being in my blood.” 

CLL is a slow-growing, sometimes “wait-and-see,” type of cancer. Marialice admits to not handling it very well the first year, calling her doctor with every little ache and pain. 

Though she found her diagnosis a bit difficult to wrap her head around, it wasn’t because she was a stranger to cancer. At the time of her diagnosis, Marialice was acting as caregiver for her husband while he was undergoing chemotherapy for colon cancer. However, the watchful waiting aspect of CLL treatment was very new to her. 

“I didn’t know what CLL was at all. You hear a lot about breast cancer and chemo, then my husband was going through chemo,” Marialice explains, “and I didn’t necessarily want chemo because I was seeing what it was doing to him. But I just thought they could just give me a pill or something. I didn’t understand it enough to know it wouldn’t go away. 

“I just wanted it out,” she emphasizes. “I asked my doctor at one point, ‘Well, can’t you just change my blood out? You know, whatever it takes to get rid of it!’” 

On understanding CLL 

It took Marialice some time, but she was eventually able to accept her diagnosis and cautious treatment plan. Once she understood what she was dealing with, she began to trust her medical team completely. Marialice lived the next five years without taking any medications as part of her cancer treatment, only having regular doctor’s visits and blood work. And she spent that time educating herself about her disease. 

“I have it,” Marialice says determinedly. “I just have to be super aware of things and get it checked out. But I’m doing OK.” 

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The fatigue was the worst part, especially since Marialice and her husband shared dual roles – cancer survivor and caregiver. Reflecting on that time, she reveals, “That was a really difficult few years that we had, before he passed away, of trying to take care of each other.” 

I don’t try to be superwoman anymore. I’m a strong person, but I know my limits. I’m not too proud. I ask for help when I need it.

Eventually, Marialice’s fatigue became so debilitating that she couldn’t even get off the couch. It was then that her doctor suggested she join a clinical trial. The trial she took part in led to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of CALQUENCE® (acalabrutinib) for the treatment of adults with chronic lymphocytic leukemia or small lymphocytic lymphoma. 

“I took the drug,” Marialice says, “and it really threw me into the ‘normal’ range. It was so good to go in and hear, ‘Oh, your tests are normal.’ I didn’t think I’d ever hear that again. It really brought my life back. The fatigue went away within a matter of weeks.” 

What cancer taught her about herself and others 

Marialice is a strong woman, and she knows it. But that doesn’t mean she never seeks out support. From her daughter who has been her lifeline through it all to the leukemia support group she meets with once a month [on Zoom for now], Marialice has a dedicated support team behind her. 

“I used to be pretty independent,” she explains. “But after I had to take care of my husband so long, I got better about asking for help. I don’t try to be superwoman anymore. I’m a strong person, but I know my limits. I’m not too proud. I ask for help when I need it.” 

However, support and understanding don’t always come from everyone. There’s one thing Marialice wants others to understand about CLL and other “invisible” diseases. 

“I think the hardest thing with leukemia is that people say, ‘Well you look normal’ or ‘You look good.’ But they don’t understand that you don’t always feel good, or you’re exhausted.” Marialice explains. “I fell in October and had my arm in a cast. People see that and they feel sympathy, or they understand why you can’t do something. But with blood cancer, people don’t see that.”

Hope for the future 

It’s clear from speaking with Marialice that she has become incredibly good at taking things in stride and remaining positive. Her parting words couldn’t be more hopeful: “I just feel good about life in general,” she says.

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This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2021.