RANSON – It started with occasional nosebleeds. Then the nosebleeds got progressively worse. Fatigue and periodic hot flashes followed.
“I just wrote it off as my age,” said Ranson’s 60-year-old police chief, Robbie Roberts. “I just figured it was something that I had to live with.”
Five years ago, Roberts had a heart attack, and doctors gave him blood thinners for a time, after clearing and propping up a clogged artery with a stent.
“I thought maybe that had something to do with it,” he said.
Still, Roberts was downing pink shots of Pepto-Bismol and popping chalky Alka-Seltzer tablets to get through the days.
By last November, however, Roberts’ health had deteriorated so much he couldn’t ignore what was happening. He was growing sicker by the day.
Before driving himself at 4:30 a.m to the Berkeley Medical Center’s emergency room in Martinsburg from his Kearneysville home, Roberts had crashed in bed, slept 12 hours straight.
“I was bad off,” he said.
After some purposeful poking and prodding by doctors and nurses, Roberts received a preliminary diagnosis — leukemia.
Doctors soon tucked him into an ambulance and sent him on the three-hour trip to WVU Medicine’s hospital in Morgantown, J.W. Ruby Memorial.
After six more hours of different tests, scans and procedures by medical specialists, it was confirmed that Roberts had a particular form of the blood cancer, acute promyelocytic leukemia.
He had 10 out of 14 possible symptoms of the condition, including nosebleeds and exhaustion. Even weight gain.
“You never put two and two together to come up with leukemia though,” he reflected.
Leukemia refers to a family of different blood cancers. About one in 250,000 people in the United States are diagnosed every year with the kind Roberts has, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“What I got is the most curable kind,” he said.
Nevertheless, Roberts would spend five and a half months in the Morgantown hospital for intensive treatments. He received on and off doses of intravenous arsenic and powerful pink chemotherapy pills (taken five at a time, twice a day), delicately calibrated as a race to poison the cancer cells before the treatment poisons the patient.
He also received periodic rounds of blood and platelet transfusions.
“When you got leukemia your body’s not producing any white blood cells or too many blood cells,” Roberts explained. “Mine were extremely low, which makes you vulnerable for everything else.”
He returned home from Morgantown two days before Christmas.
Now after seven more months of outpatient arsenic and chemotherapy treatments ended on July 31, Roberts can say those cautiously uplifting words all cancer patients want to say: “I am now in remission.”
Still, doctors tell him the cancer is only dormant in his body. “I still have cancer. It’s just not active.”
Back to work, Roberts hasn’t had a nosebleed since his first cancer treatments started in the hospital.
His recovery back to normal is steady, he said. His energy is slowly returning.
“Some days I still get sick, but every day’s better,” he said. “You never know what tomorrow is going to bring. … The doctors told me it would probably be sometime next year before my energy level got back close to where it was.”
Doctors asked him to avoid as much stress as possible for a while, not always easy for a cop in charge of protecting more than 5,200 city residents around the clock.
Roberts praised the professional care he received from his doctors at both hospitals. “That’s one reason that I’m here talking to you today, I feel,” he offered.
It was reassuring, he said, how his fellow officers continued to operate Ranson’s police department smoothly while he was in the hospital. But he also admits he appreciates how the officers still kept him in the loop and asked his advice now and then.
As they say, a cancer diagnosis does change your outlook, Roberts said. “You kind of don’t get excited about the small stuff anymore. You look at the bigger picture and you appreciate the fact that you’re still here,” he said. “I just take it one day at a time and appreciate it.”
Roberts said he initially hesitated about talking publicly about his private fight with leukemia. After thinking about it though, he thought maybe relaying his experience might help someone seek medical help sooner than he did.
“If I can actually help one person from going through what I went through, I’m all about it,” he said.