What would you do if you had months to live?

Talking about writing with my old MFA program


At age 37, writer Leland Cheuk ’08 watched as this hypothetical became his new reality.

Following an unexpected diagnosis with MDS (myelodysplastic syndrome), often referred to as “pre-leukemia,” Cheuk was told that he had a few years, if not a few months, to live. His only hope: a risky, no-guarantees stem cell transplant surgery. Suddenly the author, who had been penning fictional stories stories since third grade, was faced with two very real and seemingly imminent themes: 1.) Death and 2.) Dying without getting published.

In his gripping Salon.com essay “I wanted to publish a book before I died” Cheuk confesses: “All my life, all I’ve wanted – above love, adventure, even helping others – was to publish a novel—one silly novel. So it was fitting that I would be told that I was dying, alone, while staring at yet another unpublished manuscript.”

What would it mean to never be published? Cheuk navigated this pressing possibility in tandem with his illness. He grappled with this question through high-dose chemo treatments, platelet transfusions, and nights in an isolated hospital room. Then, nine months following his initial diagnosis, Cheuk underwent the stem cell transplant needed to save his life. What happened post-surgery is a truth stranger than any of his fictions.

An hour after learning that his transplant was considered a success, that his stem cell donor’s cells had engrafted, and that he was on the road to recovery, Cheuk checked his email.

“I read a message from one of the indie presses to which I had submitted my enthusiastically titled novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong,” recalls Cheuk. “They were writing to tell me it had been accepted for publication.”

Today, nearly two years after the life-saving transplant, Cheuk is a cancer survivor and published author. Below, he tells us how MDS has influenced his urgency to write, and how earning his MFA in Creative Writing has changed the way he approaches his work.

Read the rest here.