The following is based on my 14 year battle with multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer) and my association with activities to raise funding for the different organizations that treat those with myeloma and help patients and caregivers cope with the challenges that come with a cancer diagnoses.
The information provided here is basic to my experience and is not meant to take the place of information from the medical community.
Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the bone marrow that causes plasma cells to go out of control. It can cause damage to bone structure as well as the kidneys.
About 1,000 people are diagnosed each month in the U.S. and, sadly, that number continues to grow.
This illness effect's a broad range of individuals with no clear indication as to why. Those who have come down with the illness include former pitching great Mel Stottlemyre of the New York Yankees and NBC newscaster Tom Brokaw.
During the summer of 2000 I began experiencing extreme fatigue and very foamy urine. I went to my doctor and a simple test found excessive amounts of protein in my urine.
The next step was to see a local kidney specialist who after a month of treatment and testing, concluding that the kidneys were not the source of the problem and that in addition to the protein issue, I also was anemic.
Next was a visit to the hematologist/oncologists at the Susquehanna Health Cancer Center for a bone marrow biopsy. At that point I figured a bone marrow biopsy could lead to no good news, as the doctor I went to for this procedure had previously treated both of my parents for different forms of cancer.
Once diagnosed, my local oncologist recommended that I see a myeloma specialist for an opinion on treatment. Within two week I was at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and met with a specialist to discuss options.
The recommendation was to begin a regiment of thalidomide - yes the drug that caused birth defects during the early 1960s) - along with a potent steroid called Dexamethasone (dex).
According to medical experts, there is a synergy when combining two or more drugs, and in this case I had a very good response. Because I was relatively young and basically devastated at having this illness, I was in all-out battle mode and wanted to attack my cancer more than it was attacking me, so I decided the next step would be to undergo high dose chemotherapy in combination with a autologous stem cell transplant using my own adult stem cells to rescue me from the procedure.
In a nutshell, this process was 7 months long. After undergoing the thalidomide and dex, I went through a 4-month regiment called VAD that combined two IV chemotherapies given through 96-hour IV drips into a catheter inserted into a major artery on the left side of my chest along with oral dex. I'd check into the Williamsport Hospital on Monday and start the process and 96 hours later, would be discharged. This treatment would be once a month, so after four months and four rounds of this therapy I was ready for the next step, which was to go to Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia to undergo the high dose chemo/stem cell transplant process.
This was a three week process which included having a catheter inserted into a major artery on the right side of my chest. From there they would hook me up to a machine which was similar to a dialysis machine which had the ability to pluck out my own stem cells that float around in your blood.
In a closed circuit that circulated my blood out of and back into my body, this machine would collect my stem cells. I went through two days of collection and was given a break to recover from this process.
Then the following week I was given a high dose of a chemotherapy drug called Melphalan. This is a nasty chemo when given in high dose and the objective was for it to destroy my bone marrow along with the cancer cells that were still lurking in it.
The sickest I have ever been throughout this entire 14-year battle was from this drug. Within a couple of days I could not even take a sip of ginger ale without getting sick. Every bit of hair on my body fell our except for my eye lashes and eyebrows. A few days after the chemo, I had my stem cells re-injected into my body with the purpose of rescuing me from what is really a lethal dose of chemo.
The stem cells regrew my destroyed bone marrow and within another week I had progressed to the point where I could come back home to Williamsport. There is a lot of discussion about the use of maintenance drugs after a stem cell transplant but I decided that I wanted to see what actual benefit I would get from the procedure. Six years of remission. That was a fantastic response as eventually this illness will reappear but six years without maintenance drugs was a great outcome. Since then several new drugs that weren't even in use back in 2000 have been approved for helping patients fight this illness.
Thalidomide has been replaced with a more potent form of the drug called Revlimid and there is even a more potent version of Revlimid called Pomalidomide. Another newer drug that is often used in combination with Revlimid is Velcade and there is a newer hyped-up version of this drug called Carfilzomib.
The point is that over the years, researchers have come up with new and more potent drugs to help patients with this illness.
This is one of the reasons why I am so passionate about raising funding for organizations that are on the cutting edge in the fight against this and other forms of cancer.
The availability of these drugs offer some patients alternatives to even doing high dose chemo/stem cell transplants.