Blessing in Disguise

Local lesbian activist battles leukemia after coping with apartment fire

by Yusef Najafi
Photography by Todd Franson
Published on July 12, 2007, 12:00am | Comments

Just a few short weeks ago, Cheryl Spector was devastated when her apartment caught fire and destroyed some of the hundreds of videotapes, photographs and other memorabilia documenting Washington's GLBT community, which she has created and collected over the past two decades. Now the 49-year-old lesbian activist says that while the loss was ''horrible,'' the fire was a blessing in disguise.

''The scary possibility is that had life just gone on with no fire, and me just feeling a little run down here and there, [leukemia] would have killed me probably within a few weeks,'' because she probably wouldn't have gone to a doctor, Spector says.


Cheryl Spector

Spector was taken to George Washington University Hospital last week, where she was given blood after it was discovered that she was anemic. Spector, an executive secretary for the federal government, says she had felt faint and ''run-down'' and her blood pressure was found to be low.

''I thought I was going home [after that],'' Spector says. ''But they did another test on my white blood cells, and they were bad.''

After a bone biopsy, Spector was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). Leukemia, an overproduction of white blood cells, has two side effects on the body. First, white blood cells might not mature properly and lack the ability to kill foreign bodies in the bloodstream, which damages the immune system's ability to fight infection. Second, an overabundance of white cells leaves no room for red blood cells and platelets to develop, depriving the body's cells of oxygen and causing anemia.

According to the National Marrow Donor Program, AML is the most common form of leukemia. More than 11,900 new cases occur in the United States each year. This form of leukemia is known to worsen rapidly, and treatment, which usually includes chemotherapy, is initiated quickly. Spector is currently undergoing chemotherapy.

''I never would have expected this in a million years, and it's by the grace of God that I ended up in the hospital,'' Spector says, noting that in January her blood tests had been normal.

Spector says she expects to be hospitalized for about three more weeks. Since the fire, she's been living in a temporary apartment in Pentagon City provided by her insurance company. Repairs to her home are expected to be finished in six to seven months.

''I feel like I'm a strong person and I'm going to beat this thing,'' she says. ''I have fought struggles and I think that this is just another one. I swear to God that I'm going to get into remission. I'm going to take really good care of myself, and hopefully be around for a long time in remission.''

Spector has played an active role in Washington's gay and lesbian community over the past two decades. She co-founded Oppression Under Target (OUT/DC!), and has been involved with the Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the Human Rights Campaign, Whitman-Walker Clinic's Max Robinson Center, the Rainbow History Project and a number of other organizations.

While she may slow down from attending and videotaping every GLBT event in Washington, as she had done before the fire and her diagnosis, Spector says she is not ''done yet.'' And like most of the struggles she's endured throughout her life, including the loss of her brother to AIDS in 1985, Spector says there's a message that needs to be spread.

''We have to be more proactive with our health. When we feel run down we drink Starbucks, we drink Red Bull ... and ignore a lot of symptoms. We've got to take care of ourselves. If you get a black and blue mark that doesn't go away, go to the doctor.''