Patient Stories Archives

Patient Profile: Barry Marcus’ Multiple Myeloma Journey

Patient Profile Barry Marcus’ Multiple Myeloma Journey from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Empowered patient, Barry Marcus, shares his multiple myeloma journey from searching for a diagnosis to how he is managing his disease today.


Transcript:

In May of 2014, I was signed up to do a charity bicycle ride in Portland for MS with my cousin, her husband, and her son, who has an MS. And about a week before the ride, I started feeling exhausted for no apparent reason, terrible fatigue. All I could really do was lay on the couch and this was completely anomalous for me. I didn’t really have any other symptoms. I didn’t have a cough or a fever, chills, sweating, anything. 

After about three or four days I got an appointment with my primary care physician. I went in to see him and he did a few blood tests and the blood tests all came back normal. And he was baffled, he really didn’t understand what was going on. I think he did a test for zika virus, that was going around at the time. I asked him if I could have mononucleosis and he was basically pretty stumped, and really didn’t have any recommendations to go forward. 

So, I went home, I got back on the couch, and when I still felt the same way after a week, I called up another appointment and found that he was on vacation. So I went to see one of his colleagues and she did some more blood tests. And at that visit I said to her, “When someone starts feeling like this just out of the blue your mind goes to very dark places”. I said, “Could I have something like leukemia?” and she said, “Oh no”. And that was that.  Basically I felt cut adrift and the message was it’s too bad to be you. There’s another version of that that I won’t say.

And then after about two weeks, I started to feel better. The fatigue went away, I got back on my bike, and was able to go to work and be productive. So I just sort of shrugged my shoulders that this is just one of those strange things that doctors aren’t able to explain.

Then, probably about February or March of 2015, I started getting some pains in my neck. If I pulled over a sweatshirt and it caught on my head, I’d get a pretty serious pain in my neck. And as a couple of months pass, this pain got worse, especially when I rode my bike. And I thought well maybe it’s from all this bike riding and having my neck in a strange position. 

So I didn’t really follow up at that time. About maybe in June, I went back to my primary care physician and told him about my neck and he sent me for an x-ray at that time. No other imaging, just an x-ray. And he told me that I had minor disc degeneration in my neck and that physical therapy would probably take care of it. So he sent me the physical therapy, and I did physical therapy for a couple of weeks and this pain in my neck did not get any better at all. And then one night I was walking my dog, and I got a, how can I describe it, it was a numb feeling down my left arm. It wasn’t really painful, felt a little electrical maybe, and I knew that wasn’t a good thing. 

So I called up the advice nurse, she had an on-call physician call me back. He said you have to go in for an MRI and I’m going to set that up for you in the morning. In the morning, I went for the MRI and when I got out of the tube I went over to the technician who’d done the test and I said what do you see? And his face turned ashen, basically. And he said well I don’t interpret these you know, I just run the machine and you need to see your doctor. It turned out I had a solid tumor in my neck between C4 and C5, about the size of a walnut, and it was pressing on my spinal cord. And I got a call shortly thereafter from my primary care physician who said you need to go see a head and neck specialist and I’ve got that set up for you. And it went in to see him and he said yeah I’m sorry to tell you that you have what appears to me to be multiple myeloma. 

So at that stage, I’m sure that I had had this for about a year. And in addition to the tumor in the neck, I had I guess they call them lytic lesions, I had what are essentially smaller tumors in my ribs and on my sternum. They did a PET scan and it’s pretty widespread. And they said the first thing that you need to do is to get radiation therapy to get rid of this tumor in your neck. The head and neck specialist that I saw said that it was very likely that we could get rid of the tumor and he said oh and you’ll be back on your bike in no time. 

I felt like that was maybe true or maybe not true, that he was doing his best to encourage me that this wasn’t the end of the world, and of course, I was devastated. I went for radiation therapy for the tumor, I had ten treatments. To make a long story short, the radiation was very successful. I’m going to have to otherwise describe it as it melted the tumor away. It was gone and the next phase was going to be chemotherapy. 

I was assigned to an oncologist through my health plan, and I don’t want to be culturally insensitive in talking about this, but his English was not his second… first language. And I had a very hard time understanding him, especially on phone calls where I couldn’t understand him at all. I was feeling pretty down at that point because my primary care physician hadn’t followed up with me, and now I have an oncologist that I’m having problems communicating with, and they provided me with what seemed to me like a cookie cutter – this is the plan that we put everybody through type of chemotherapy.

I wanted to find out much more about it, so I’m very fortunate to have a sister who’s an MD and at the time, before her retirement, she worked at Montefiore Hospital in New York. I called her and she said well I’m good friends with an oncologist here and I want you to talk to him, which I did and his name is Shalom Kalnicki at Montefiore. And he became what we started to call my New York team and I bounce things off of him. The first thing he said was you really do need to get a second opinion and I’m going to set you up at another health provider that I have a lot of confidence in, that I’ve known people there for years. He said I wouldn’t take the chemotherapy that they’re suggesting until you talk to them. 

Well that was…I got an appointment for the second opinion, but it was about a month away. That was an agonizing month because I knew I had these lesions, that I had myeloma, and I wanted to  jump on it and get immediate treatment, but I didn’t. I waited. I went in and the physician I saw at the second Health Plan, I really liked a lot and she spent a lot of time with me. She looked at some of the other tests that had been done, and basically said yeah your health plan is on the right track, I would go ahead and start it. So I did, but again I frankly felt that if I stayed with my health plan and they were going to kill me.That I was sort of a cog in the wheel, that they basically treated everybody the same way, whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but that’s how I felt.

And as it happens, August of 2015 and I was turning 65 in September. And it turned out that turning 65 and becoming medicare-eligible, was what they call a qualifying event to change your health plans outside of Open Enrollment. I have to credit CalPERS for that because I went to see them about what my possibilities might be ‘cause I didn’t want to wait till January to get a new Health Plan through Open Enrollment. A woman there was extremely helpful and she told me this information, and so I did change in September I got onto a new health plan that I had been in many years ago that I really liked. What CalPERS had removed from their list of approved providers because of cost, but at that point, they were back. So, I got back in this plan that I’ve been in many years ago, got hooked up with a terrific hematologic oncologist September 1st, and started working with him.

I wound up getting an autologous stem-cell transplant in February of 2016, about 5 years ago, and it produced…I was in the hospital for two weeks. The other health plan that I had been in, if I had a stem-cell transplant through them, they were going to send me 90 miles away and it was an outpatient procedure. I would have had to stay in a rental apartment for 30 days. So, I felt really good about changing health plans. That’s a piece of advice I would give to people is to really do some research and find out in your area where the best providers are, who they are, and see if you can hook up with them. 

So after the stem-cell transplant, I had what they called a very good partial response. I was in remission for a year-and-a-half, at which time I didn’t need to be on any maintenance medications and felt great. I got back on the bike doing, you know, up to 50-mile rides and it was good.

But after a year-and-a-half, that was 2017, I relapsed and I had to go back on a chemotherapy regimen that was oral drugs. It was a 3-drug regimen and it kept my myeloma numbers down pretty significantly. Then I would say about a year ago, that regimen stopped working, which is very common, that I came to learn, in myeloma patients that you can go through many many many different treatment regimens during the course of your illness. 

So about a year ago, my oncologist switched me to a different regimen that required infusions. So now I’m on IV infusion 3 out of 4 weeks a month and they’re very, very effective on what I would call complete remission. These are Kyprolis, Darzalex, and Dexamethasone. The worst side effect is neuropathy, which is also I’ve learned very common in myeloma treatment. Most people get neuropathy. Mine’s not too bad and it’s mostly in my feet and doesn’t prevent me from riding or walking and doesn’t affect my balance, so I feel, again, pretty fortunate there.

We’re going to stay on that regimen until it too stops working which seems to be inevitable, but I’m very encouraged by lots of the research going on for new myeloma treatments. So I guess, most people know there’s no cure, but they call it manageable and that brings me to the present.


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Metastatic Breast Cancer Survivor: Taking Control of Your Quality of Life

Metastatic Breast Cancer Survivor: Taking Control of Your Quality of Life from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 Stage IV metastatic breast cancer survivor Lesley shares her story of taking control of her care. After her oncologist chose aggressive treatment that would include 8 rounds of chemo, bi-lateral mastectomy, and radiation, she experienced a severe emotional toll along with extreme nausea, fatigue, bone aches, low blood counts, neutropenia, gasping for breath, and then sepsis. After receiving an emotional response when asking for a second opinion, Lesley was able to get an appointment with another oncologist, took control of her own life, and decided to stop treatment until she achieved her goal of climbing Mt. Whitney. And after summiting the mountain, she chose a new treatment with her oncologist based on side effects and quality of life.

Lesley’s advice,

“We have this one life, let’s live it to the best of our ability. These actions are key to staying on your path to empowerment.”

See More From the Best Care No Matter Where You Live Program


Transcript:

My name is Lesley. I live in the Rogue Valley in Southern Oregon.  In 2013, I was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer.

During a monthly self-check, I noticed a lump in my right breast. I went to the primary care doctor who swiftly ordered a mammogram, ultrasound and a biopsy. Shortly after I met with an oncologist and to my surprise, I was immediately provided with a treatment plan of: 8  rounds of chemo, a bi-lateral mastectomy and radiation.

The side effects of initial treatment literally knocked me off my feet. I was plagued by extreme nausea, fatigue, bone aches, and low blood counts which resulted in daily shots for neutropenia. I would wake up in the middle of the night gasping for breath. 

A few weeks  into treatment, I was admitted into the hospital with sepsis. The port-a-cath site was infected and my family and I specifically asked for it to be removed. However, my care team was exclusively focused on saving the port-a-cath because of  future chemo treatments I would need.

The side effects snowballed which really scared my family. I recall my husband yelling and asking why someone wasn’t doing anything to help me. My situation was dire and we felt no one was listening to the emotional toll of the treatment. Rashes as well as swelling, engulfed my body,  and I felt at this point, it was not the cancer that was killing me, it was the treatment plan that the doctors set forth, and my body was rejecting anything and everything put into it, and yet again, the oncologist wanted me to start another round of chemo. 

I knew that things had to change. I soon took matters into my own hands. I told my oncologist that I would not go back onto chemo, however, I pushed for additional treatment options. When I told her I was going to get a second opinion, she was upset with me and asked me to meet with her colleague.  I told her I would not meet with another oncologist from the same practice.  

I was referred to an orthopedic surgeon who was doing my bone biopsy and within one hour of meeting me and hearing my story, he suggested a second opinion doctor. He picked up his cellphone, called her right from the examining room and within a matter of time had already set up an appointment for me.  I later had a successful breast sparing lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy.  My new care team was extremely thorough,  but also respectful of me and the quality of life I desired. 

With a grip on my treatment path, I decided to start taking my life back and I began hiking. My goal for the year was to train for 8 months and summit Mt. Whitney. I met with my oncologist and told her I wanted to stop treatment until after my big climb. We did stop treatment and shortly after, I summited Mt. Whitney. 

Several weeks later, I met with my oncologist and  started another regimen, of which I chose as well with guidance from my oncologist. I progressed in 2018, again I also decided which treatment option I wanted to do, based on my quality of life, and the side effects I was willing to live with. 

 My advice to other metastatic breast cancer patients:

  • Find your voice, you have one
  • Take full control of your care at the outset
  • Feel empowered to question your care team at any point on your journey
  • Decide on the quality of life YOU want to have
  • Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion

Since my diagnosis, I’ve made it my mission to  advocate for my metastatic breast cancer community.  Patient advocacy is my full time job. I share my story to inspire and empower others to take control of one’s care.  

My best advice is to find and build a care team that sees you not as a number in a queue of patients,  but as the person whose life is represented in that medical file.  We have this one life, let’s live it to the best of our ability.

These actions are key to staying on your path to empowerment.

Patient Profile: Vanessa Steil

“PEN builds community and empowers you to be your own advocate.” – Vanessa Steil, thyroid cancer survivor and patient advocate.

When Vanessa Steil recounts how she was first diagnosed with thyroid cancer, you can tell it is a story she has told many times. The dates, the terminology, and which doctor told her what and when are all precisely chronicled in her memory. Yet it took her reflecting on her story as a survivor to process just how crucial all of the details were. Now, she’s passionate and committed to helping others, and she has dedicated much of her time—and career— over the past eight years to doing just that.

It all started in March 2013 during a routine visit to the gynecologist. The doctor, who performed a neck check as part of the exam, felt a lump on the right side of Vanessa’s thyroid. “I was taken off guard by the whole thing,” she says. She tried to convince herself that the lump was nothing serious, but she followed the doctor’s advice for further testing, and a month later was diagnosed with papillary thyroid carcinoma: thyroid cancer. She was 26 years old. “My whole world changed with just three words. In an instant, I went from feeling like a normal person to having to absorb all this new medical jargon,” she says.

It was a difficult time for Vanessa. She was young, she didn’t know anyone else her age who had cancer, and she didn’t know anyone with thyroid cancer. While she had support from friends and family, at the end of the day she felt very much alone. As the weeks passed by and her mind raced on, she began to second-guess her diagnosis, question whether she should have surgery, and considered having another biopsy. “I had to work through the emotional aspects of my diagnosis, including coming to grips with the fact that I had thyroid cancer and the fear I felt about the outcome,” she explains. “You have to be in a positive place when you are going to have surgery.” Fortunately, her cancer was not overly aggressive, and she was able to delay the surgery until she felt more prepared.

By June 2013, she was ready for surgery and had a total thyroidectomy that included the removal of six lymph nodes, one of which was positive for cancer. The surgery was successful, and so far, she hasn’t required any radiation therapy, a common follow-up treatment post thyroid cancer. While in 2017 her antithyroglobulin levels, a marker that can be used to monitor a possible cancer recurrence in those with an autoimmune condition, went up and remained that way, she continues to be monitored. Her bloodwork and scans are done twice a year, and once a year she has a neck ultrasound; each time she experiences what survivors call “scanxiety” until she gets an all clear from the results.

When Vanessa was diagnosed, her endocrinologist gave her a key piece of advice that she didn’t completely understand at the time, but it stuck with her, and the meaning soon became clear. He told her, “Don’t turn this diagnosis into a research project.” As someone who is naturally curious and was eager to learn all she could about her disease, as soon as she was diagnosed, Vanessa took to “Dr. Google” looking for information and answers, but she wasn’t always finding helpful information. “While online, I was landing on horror stories,” she says, adding that while it is important to be knowledgeable about your disease, it is imperative to get accurate information and to be careful about choosing which sites or social media outlets to use as resources. “The Internet can be a scary rabbit hole, and it can cause unnecessary worry,” she says. “Finding a reputable site, like Patient Empowerment Network (PEN), that’s done a lot of the legwork for you and has comprehensive resources available is invaluable,” she says. Vanessa especially appreciates that PEN helps prepare patients for doctor visits by providing a list of questions to ask and offers relevant insight to caregivers, and survivors. “I was impressed with the PEN content, because it helps the patient from diagnosis to recovery,” she says. She also recommends sites that offer a sense of community where you can interact with other patients who have had similar experiences. “PEN builds community and empowers you to be your own advocate,” she says. “You have to know your body and speak up for yourself. That’s where the community aspect comes in. As a survivor, I try to provide that sense of community for others.”

After her surgery, Vanessa found a creative outlet that allows her to provide support for others and helped her through her own recovery. She created a lifestyle and wellness blog, Living in Steil (pronounced style), where she shares her personal journey and favorite resources as well as beauty, food, fitness, and health and wellness information. She says she was inspired to start the blog in February 2014, while recovering from surgery and trying to put the pieces of her life back together. “You don’t often process the emotional aspects of cancer until later,” she says. “It’s been cathartic to blog about my experience and have the site resonate with so many other patients and survivors.”

Her work as a blogger has led to many more opportunities to share her story including being asked to participate in a book, Tough: Women who Survived Cancer by Marquina Iliev-Piselli and collaborations with other advocacy groups in the healthcare space. In addition to her blog, Vanessa is a health coach and Board Certified Patient Advocate who also works for a pancreatic cancer foundation where she manages public relations and social media. She credits her diagnosis with helping her find her career niche and a meaningful role that allows her to make a difference in the lives of patients every day.

As far as her cancer is concerned, technically she is in remission, but says she is vigilant about staying on top of her health. “I have never taken my survivor status for granted,” she says. She continues to be her own advocate and has found that sometimes means she needs to find new doctors. If they are not listening to her or are not open to communication, she knows it’s time to move on. “It’s important to find a doctor who takes your concerns to heart,” she says.

Through Vanessa’s own experience with cancer, she’s learned a lot about advocating for herself and others. Vanessa has experienced firsthand what works and what doesn’t, and she is grateful to be able to share her knowledge. “If I can bridge the gap for people with a cancer diagnosis and make it easier for them to get the resources they need, then that is rewarding for me,” she says. “I had a difficult diagnosis, but I learned from my challenges and now I can share that knowledge with others. I can’t think of a better way to pay it forward than that.”

Read more about Vanessa and follow along with her journey at www.livinginsteil.com or on social media at @livinginsteil.


Read more patient stories here.

Patient Profile: Lisa Hatfield Part V

This completes a five-part series from empowered multiple myeloma patient Lisa Hatfield. (Read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV) In Lisa’s candid and compelling telling of her cancer journey, she shares her story from diagnosis in 2018 to how she lives well with cancer in 2021. Lisa provides thoughtful feedback about becoming an empowered patient and the value of Patient Empowerment Network as a resource, and she offers her advice to anyone newly diagnosed with cancer: Learn, Breathe, Feel, Share, Live, Connect, and Hope. In Part One Lisa tells her story. In Part Five Lisa concludes her advice to newly diagnosed cancer patients through example by sharing her own experiences, connecting to readers, and offering hope for herself and others.


Share

Not in a million years did I think I’d post an open, raw account of my cancer experience. Not one to share personal trials, other than the occasional “it’s been a long week,” I still find it surprising that I yearn for an hour to post on a website dedicated to people sharing stories about health challenges.

My decision to share came quickly, as my kids were in middle and high school at the time of my diagnosis. My diagnosis, paired with the word “incurable,” frightened me and my family. Rather than questions directed at them, I chose to notify their schools and my close friends and family about my diagnosis, requesting that questions come to me. In exchange for our daughters maintaining a normal school routine, we decided to share details by posting to a secure website, to keep those close to us informed.

Choosing to unveil your journey is deeply personal. Besides a gratitude journal, I’ve never been one to document my activities, thoughts, feelings. While in Houston, Lance set up a CaringBridge site. Prior to the first journal entry, I methodically moved in and out of appointments, listening, and absorbing the words. I was shocked, scared, numb, and out of my body. It only took a few keystrokes before emotions were unleashed. Journaling and sharing allow time to reflect. Not all entries are shared publicly. It can be highly cathartic just to write. Share with your journal alone or share with others. Occasional sharing with others is both unifying and comforting, as friends and family find a common thread to tie your diagnosis with their experiences. Sharing provides connection, and leaves you feeling less alone.

The degree to which you share your trials, tribulations, and triumphs, and when, is up to you.

Connect

One of my favorite books is The Blue Zones, by Dan Buettner. Buettner first released an article in National Geographic, then published his book on the “blue zones.” I’m summarizing this in my own words, but the blue zones refer to geographic regions around the globe that have the highest percentage of centenarians, who also have a good quality of life in their later years. These locations include Loma Linda, Sardinia (good reason for a trip to Italy), Ikaria (reason to visit Greece, too), and several other locations. In his research, Buettner discovered that the culture in these areas integrate physical and social health as parts of everyday life. Things like unintentional exercise (like walking to the market or cleaning), eating native/local foods, and at the top of the list, strong social connections. It reminded me of my grandma who used to have “coffee hour,” more like 3 hours, with her neighbors each week. They loved their weekly gatherings, often bonding over their health ailments, as they aged. I believe that each of them had a better quality of life because of those regular visits.

Upon diagnosis, a friend sent an email that ended with, “Lean hard and lean often.” He wanted us to rely on our network to get through the challenge ahead. Depending on others is incredibly difficult for many people, including me. When a neighbor set up a meal calendar, I was overwhelmed with the response and felt guilty about the possibility of burdening others and their time. She explained it like this: do it for others; let us cook meals; to allow others to provide something to you alleviates their feelings of helplessness. I am so grateful I accepted. As the fatigue swept in, my ability to cook, let alone stand for more than 2 minutes, vanished. My family loved the meals, and we’ve since collected recipes and voted on our favorites (all meals were excellent) that we fix monthly. Though a note on the sign-up sheet advised the chefs to place meals by our front door, as not to disturb us, I anxiously waited by the door every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Swinging the door open and greeting our friends was the highlight of my day. My energy lasted about 5 minutes, on a good day, but it felt so powerful and good to collapse on the couch after experiencing that connection.

Connection with others is important; however, connecting to anything can uplift: your animals (dogs, cats, birds, horses etc.,); your environment (sitting outside or gardening); your routine (sipping a warm cup of coffee in the morning or an evening walk); your faith/beliefs/thoughts. We are wired to connect. To belong, love, and be loved is on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory in psychology made up of a five-tier model of human needs. Connection is key to improved well-being, both physical and emotional. Who knows? You might conquer cancer and join the circle of Buettner’s centenarians. It’s worth the effort to connect.

Hope

While reading this same book, I was introduced to the concept of “ikigai.” (Icky-guy). Ikigai is a Japanese term that roughly means a person’s “reason for being.” As Buettner discusses in his books, TED talks, and articles, Ikigai is bigger than just something you want to do as a service; a person never feels obligated or forced into the purpose. It is something that gives value to a person’s life, as it gives life meaning. It is the reason you get up in the morning. When I began each of my cancer treatments, I wondered why I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and why I had to endure biopsies, radiation, surgery, chemo, and stem cell transplant (collection). Each new treatment comes with a renewed sense of fear and uncertainty.

Hope is often elusive, during a cancer battle. As a myeloma patient, the word “incurable” was the vacuum that sucked the hope from my spirit. Infusions were a part-time job, as I spent half a week in the chemo suite for six months. I appreciated the openness of the chemo suite, chairs side-by-side and few closed curtains. I loved going to chemo. It felt safe. It was in the chemo chair where I heard stories of both hopelessness (from failed chemo, metastasis, fear of pain, suffering, and death) and of hopefulness (seeing family, a chemo break, a provider sharing a new study showing dramatically improved outcomes, a new drug approval, good test results, a random stranger saying, “I believe,” and connecting with friends). Hope is found in comments from your care team, friends, family, and strangers. Hope is in your experiences (“manufactured hope” from steroids counts, too). Hope is in your faith, however that manifests in your life, and in the belief that something bigger than you can help you fight cancer. Relish moments of hope…of yours and of others. Write them down when you can and, on occasion, reread them.

Now that I’m further along in my cancer journey and in pseudo-remission, I contemplate: Why…what is the purpose of this? What am I supposed to do with everything I’m learning from this? How can I use this to do something productive or meaningful? I don’t know the purpose yet, but when Lance and I talk, we know there is something more to it. This search for purpose is what gives me hope, now. I know there is a purpose in this experience that we will figure out. My ikigai. Our ikigai. I hope we can do something good.


Read more patient stories here.

Patient Profile: Lisa Hatfield Part IV

This is Part Four in a five-part (Read Part I, Part II, and Part III) series from empowered multiple myeloma patient Lisa Hatfield. In Lisa’s candid and compelling telling of her cancer journey, she shares her story from diagnosis in 2018 to how she lives well with cancer in 2021. Lisa provides thoughtful feedback about becoming an empowered patient and the value of Patient Empowerment Network as a resource, and she offers her advice to anyone newly diagnosed with cancer: Learn, Breathe, Feel, Share, Live, Connect, and Hope. In Part One Lisa tells her story. In Part Four Lisa continues to share poignant and powerful advice based on her experiences one breath at a time.


Breathe

“You have cancer.” It takes your breath away, this phrase. Personally, the “limbo window,” from diagnosis to commencement of treatment was the most challenging. Uncertainty debilitates, terrifies, suffocates. One day at a time is too much to fathom. Take one breath at a time. Work up from there.

Feel

As I stood up from the exam room stool to leave, Dr. Mike handed me two papers. A prescription for anti-depressants and a prescription for anti-anxiety medications. “You’ll need these,” he said. I didn’t feel depressed or anxious, just numb and hollow. My only thought was whether or not I’d be around to see our daughters graduate. Given the prognosis and life expectancy for myeloma, that prospect seemed unlikely. No anger, no sadness. Just numb and breathless…again.

Shock was the first emotion. Each visit with a new provider, first the neurosurgeon, then the radiation oncologist, medical oncologist, stem cell oncologist, amped up the shock. The final cherry on top was the financial coordinator. The stem cell transplant price tag is $350,000 to $600,000.

A cancer diagnosis and accompanying uncertainty surrounding treatment, prognosis, and outcome, result in overwhelming waves of shock and fear. As the shock begins to wane, denial and questioning swiftly ride in, followed by anger, frustration, and sadness, in no particular order.

The grief cycle, usually reserved to describe feelings associated with losing a loved one, can also be applied to a cancer diagnosis. With a cancer diagnosis you lose your life routine as you knew it, and often lose hopes, dreams, and expectations. Cancer is terribly disruptive. Cancer patients feel shock, denial, anger, despair, depression, and acceptance, often sliding quickly from one feeling to another. There is no timeline for grief. Don’t feel obligated to create one. Just let yourself feel. No judgement, no time limits, no guilt, no apology. It’s okay to feel.

Live

I bought a self-serve ice cream machine in July. It’s a full-size, commercial grade machine on wheels and is parked in our garage. Not sure if it was the chemo or Covid isolation or the less-than-good news appointment I had that day that led me to pull the trigger on purchasing a used machine. Maybe it was the resulting desire to live every moment that cancer patients feel as we struggle with medication side effects, endless appointments, and the loss of life’s routine. Or the desire to deeply inhale every breath of life.

Anyway, the money spent on the machine was only a fraction of what we would have spent on a cancelled vacation. Once a week, we sanitized, set up, and filled the machine with vanilla and pineapple soft-serve mix (yes, it has a “twist” option, too). On our driveway, we could socially distance while enjoying ice cream with friends and neighbors. Ironically, chemo side effects seemed to lessen each time we started the process of setting up. I can’t wait for the weather to warm again.

When you’re feeling well, think of things that energize you. Past or present. Mine was memories of Dole Whip at Disneyland. It can be anything. Watching movies, sitting on a beach towel with a picnic, watching kids run around the neighborhood, going for a walk, writing, the ocean…the list is endless. Identify at least one activity that you can do and make it happen even if it requires soliciting the help of others and making some adaptations.

Live. As often and as big as you can.


Read Part V of Lisa’s story here.

 

Patient Profile: Lisa Hatfield Part III

This is Part Three of a five-part series (Read Part 1 and Part 2) from empowered multiple myeloma patient Lisa Hatfield. In Lisa’s candid and compelling telling of her cancer journey, she shares her story from diagnosis in 2018 to how she lives well with cancer in 2021. Lisa provides thoughtful feedback about becoming an empowered patient and the value of Patient Empowerment Network as a resource, and she offers her advice to anyone newly diagnosed with cancer: Learn, Breathe, Feel, Share, Live, Connect, and Hope. In Part Three Lisa uses her experiences to provide valuable advice about becoming an empowered patient through a willingness to learn and be open.


It’s true, knowledge is power. And it is empowering. There are so many ways to learn about your cancer, which allows you to feel that you have some control over your diagnosis. Learning from others is a great way to start, as we did with “R”, a stranger we met on an elevator at our local cancer center.

We met R a couple days after diagnosis. She was maybe five feet tall, give or take a couple inches…probably take. The elevator carried us one floor, from the main floor to the basement (I understand that radiation areas are better shielded in the basement, but it’s an awful locale for an oncologist’s office…dark, depressing, and deathly). This 20-second ride changed our lives, and quite possibly the length of mine.

My husband and I were obviously exhausted. Trying to determine the order of treatments (radiation, surgery, chemo, stem cell transplant) had us feeling like ping pong balls, bouncing back and forth, all the while worrying that my spine and spinal cord could fail at any moment. We wanted someone to tell us what to do. Information overload and miscommunications among providers left us too tired to think. We’d been mulling the idea of going to MD Anderson, but that task seemed much too daunting; not to mention that leaving our kids for a week (which morphed into a month) worried me. They were afraid, too; I needed to comfort them.

This random stranger, R, thanked us for holding the door. As the elevator door sealed shut, R gave us a stern look, “Which of you is getting zapped today?” Maybe this petite but fiery woman had some words of wisdom. Clearly, she had been going through something herself, as a large, patchy scar was evident on her neck. I explained that neither of us was going for radiation, just a radiation consult for me. Our quick elevator conversation extended for several minutes after we deboarded the elevator. She did have something to share: her story, and her words of wisdom. “Go,” she said…no, she demanded…we go to Houston for an expert consult. It was absolutely, the best decision we made during this entire journey. We were open to listening and learning as a result of desperation.

I am a researcher, and once I was under the influence of powerful steroids, I researched myeloma all night long (thank you, dexamethasone). Support groups for cancer patient and caregivers provide not only support, but educational opportunities. We’ve made lifelong friendships with our local myeloma support group and have found that it’s more a social hour than a support hour.

Learn from the entire care team. Oncologists are the cancer care “quarterbacks,” but the chemo nurses see much more of the side effects, standard and atypical, to know when to be concerned. Pharmacists are more likely to understand your bowels and digestive issues. Upon starting infusions, the oncology pharmacist introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Greg the pharmacist. I talk to people about drugs and poop. We talk openly and freely about poop. Let’s make that normal right now. How is pooping currently?”


Read Part IV of Lisa’s story here.

 

Patient Profile: Lisa Hatfield Part II

This is Part Two in a five-part series from empowered multiple myeloma patient Lisa Hatfield (read Part I of Lisa’s story here). In Lisa’s candid and compelling telling of her cancer journey, she shares her story from diagnosis in 2018 to how she lives well with cancer in 2021. Lisa provides thoughtful feedback about becoming an empowered patient and the value of Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) as a resource, and she uses her experience to offer her advice to anyone newly diagnosed with cancer: Learn, Breathe, Feel, Share, Live, Connect, and Hope. In Part Two Lisa emphasizes the importance of being an informed patient and discusses how she values the power of PEN.


Education is critical to anyone diagnosed with cancer. A cancer diagnosis is overwhelming; it’s okay to ask for help. Having an advocate, whether it’s the patient or another person, can change everything from treatments to outcome. As an example, we quickly learned that our local oncology community does not include a myeloma specialist. Seek an expert opinion. For myeloma, hematologists are well-qualified, but a myeloma specialist is top-notch. We researched, asked around, and discovered several centers with myeloma departments. Fortunately, we scheduled quickly and summoned the resources to travel. Like us, many patients do not live near a specialty center for their type of cancer. Financial resources, and logistical resources, such as finding care for children, pets, house, etc., can be daunting to consider. Friends and family want to help. Accept the help. Educating yourself, or having another conduct research on your behalf, can change your prognosis and outcome…and your outlook. It changed mine. My overall survival (a.k.a. lifespan) potentially increased from two to four years to eight to ten years, based on access to newer treatments and information from my myeloma specialist. Education empowers and boosts hope.

Cancer is hard. Treatment can be harder. Understanding your treatments and their accompanying side effects is critical. Living with pesky, sometimes debilitating, side effects is a significant burden to carry.

In addition to asking questions of your provider, consider participating in a support/education group that includes members with your same or a similar diagnosis. We belong to a local myeloma group and meet monthly with others battling myeloma and their family members. Relief from severe, drug-induced muscle spasms is the result of after-meeting conversations with a fellow “myeloman.” I’ve learned as much from them as I have from my care team. And we’ve made lifelong friends.

Lastly, take advantage of steroid-induced insomnia and spend sleepless nights perusing the internet, but be thoughtful with your sources. Forums, blogs, articles, clinical trials, medical journals, and testimonials are at your fingertips. I enjoyed searching clinical trials and peer-reviewed medical journal articles while on high-dose steroids, in the wee hours of the morning. Now, I prefer bedtime reading of blogs and patient forums, particularly those with inspirational accounts in the midst of adversity. The supply seems endless, from general cancer topics to specific.

Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) and other cancer-related websites have helped me achieve a better outcome by publishing information specific to my diagnosis. The articles provide basic information for the newly diagnosed and identify a methodical approach to dealing with myeloma, including how to access treatment and important information regarding treatment decisions. The staging of myeloma includes “risk categories” for different genetic mutations. Prior to treatment at MD Anderson, my risk category had not been addressed, and I only knew to ask about it from a cancer website. Identifying the risk category is important when determining the appropriate chemo regimen. My regimen changed once my risk category was assigned, and I believe that my good outcome (remission) is a result of having this knowledge and addressing it with my specialist.

PEN also publishes patient testimonials. I find these stories inspiring and comforting. I’ve also identified, with my doctor in Houston, new drugs to try at relapse (myeloma patients anticipate relapse and often work with the specialist to determine the next round of chemo) from patient stories. Knowing we are not alone and having a common bond, eases stress and fear. Alleviating some of the negative emotion surrounding diagnosis helps with overall well-being, and hopefully improves outcome.


Read Part III of Lisa’s story here.

Patient Profile: Lisa Hatfield Part I

This begins a five-part series from empowered multiple myeloma patient Lisa Hatfield. In Lisa’s candid and compelling telling of her cancer journey, she shares her story from diagnosis in 2018 to how she lives well with cancer in 2021. Lisa provides thoughtful feedback about becoming an empowered patient and the value of Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) as a resource, and she offers her advice to anyone newly diagnosed with cancer: Learn, Breathe, Feel, Share, Live, Connect, and Hope. In Part One Lisa tells her story.


April 30, 2018

Two hours after the MRI, my doctor, having received a call from the radiologist: “Lisa, it’s Mike. I just received the results from your MRI.” This didn’t sound good. “You have a tumor on your spine. These types of tumors are almost always malignant,” he said. “In fact, I’m just going to say, it’s a malignancy. Can you and Lance come and see me first thing in the morning?” My world stopped.

Backing up a couple of years, I’d been battling a variety of aches and pains. Usually brushing them off and attributing them to aging, improper body mechanics, being out of shape, and garden-variety stress from the busy-ness of life, I got along okay. Until I couldn’t. The year prior to diagnosis, I had suffered from a frozen shoulder on my left side, then right. I maxed out my physical therapy sessions in an attempt to alleviate a weird hip pain that occasionally felt better after PT, but progressively worsened over time. Walking and attempting daily tasks (like crawling into bed) resulted in significant pain. I was not thriving.

Back to d(iagnosis)-day, 2018, we met with Dr. Mike and continued the week with a dizzying schedule of appointments, phone consults, procedures, tests, and communications with various other medical personnel.

I had a plasmacytoma (tumor) that had “eaten away” at my spine at the T-12 level. My diagnosis: multiple myeloma. Multiple myeloma, myeloma for short, is a blood cancer, originating in the bone marrow. The first radiation oncologist we saw described myeloma as a “liquid” cancer. I thought it was an odd explanation. I later learned that “liquid” is in contrast to a “solid” cancer, such as breast cancer or colon cancer, which typically involve masses or tumors. This didn’t matter much, other than the notion that I had both a liquid and solid aspect of myeloma. My treatment required managing the plasmacytoma (solid) and the actual cancer in the bone marrow (liquid). Myeloma develops in the plasma cells of the bone marrow, the soft, spongy center of the bone. Plasma cells are a type of white blood cell and are important for producing antibodies to maintain the immune system. In myeloma, for reasons yet determined, the healthy plasma cells turn into malignant cells (myeloma cells). These myeloma cells replicate and “crowd out” the good cells. This transformation results in fewer “good” antibodies, which is why many myeloma patients complain of frequent infections prior to their myeloma diagnosis.

Myeloma is incurable.

I live in Boise, Idaho. A nice, small city with good, reliable health care but no myeloma specialists. The best decision we made regarding my diagnosis was to seek a second, expert opinion. Two weeks after that dreadful call, we were at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

My myeloma diagnosis was confirmed with a bone marrow biopsy. For anyone with myeloma, you might be curious to know that I was diagnosed with monosomy 13 and translocation (11;14). These are genetic mutations found on the myeloma cells. I have Kappa Lightchain Myeloma.

The most pressing issue was the plasmacytoma, as the location and growth had compromised my spine. My doctors indicated the cancer was secondary to the spinal cord compression. It didn’t feel secondary to me, as they described “scattered lesions”, or holes, throughout my skeleton, including my skull. I wanted to know about the cancer more than the spine damage. The team at MD Anderson worked closely, one specialist often conferring with another, as I sat in the room listening to their conversations. It was quickly decided that I would begin radiation immediately. Radiation served to shrink the tumor and destroy malignant cells. Radiation was a bit difficult, as the tumor and surrounding area became inflamed and swelled, creating significant pain, but that was short-lived, lasting eight days. On the last day of radiation, I was wheeled into surgery for spine stabilization. The partial vertebra was not removed, as this was deemed too risky. The procedure did stabilize my spine and prevented further collapse and spinal cord injury. After five days in the hospital and a couple nights at a nearby hotel, we flew home.

My medical oncologist in Houston devised a “chemo cocktail,” which included a drug only accessible to specialists. For six months, I went to our local hospital every Wednesday and Thursday to have this cocktail administered intravenously. I have great memories of those six months. Truthfully. Meeting people each day, seeing the weekly “regulars,” and spending several hours with my girlfriends is one of the most memorable periods of my life. Funny how the mind works. Those moments are deeply embedded and overpower memories of the lousy side effects.

Standard of care for myeloma patients is chemo, followed by an autologous stem cell transplant (ASCT). Transplant is not a cure for myeloma, but research has shown that it can lead to a longer remission if it “takes.” Due to multiple factors, I chose to have my stem cells harvested and stored, rather than harvested and transplanted. Once the six months of chemo was complete, we traveled to Seattle for three weeks for re-staging and stem cell harvest. My stem cells are securely frozen and ready for future use.

Bilateral bone marrow biopsies (one in each hip bone) confirmed that I had an excellent response to chemo, and I’ve graduated to maintenance chemo. Thankfully, my current cancer drugs are oral, so I only report to the cancer center once a month for labs and an oncologist visit. Because there is no cure for myeloma, I’ll be on these drugs forever. They’re not fun, but they’re tolerable. They keep my myeloma numbers down so my body doesn’t have to fight so hard. My spine is healing and there is a possibility that some of the bone could grow back. My neurosurgeon recommended limiting activities to walking and swimming forever, but I’ve snuck in a few easy hikes with my family.

I’m hoping for a cure, but in the meantime, I’m enjoying life as it is. It’s really good.

Present Day

Until there is a cure, I’ll always have cancer. It’s a part of me and a part of my story. My biggest takeaway is that it’s a new life. It’s not a new normal. With daily reminders, such as pill-taking, side effects, and scars, nothing feels “normal.” It’s a new life. In addition to the daily reminders, I have deeper friendships and connections, I understand the importance of slowing down and not letting the “white noise” of life overwhelm me, and I feel so grateful for each new day. The greatest takeaway is that over time, the triumphs grow bigger than the scars; and this new life, though not without stress and suffering, would not be possible without cancer. It’s the best life I’ve ever had.


Read part II of Lisa’s story here.

Patient Profile: Ben’s Diagnosis of Oral Cancer

Ben has an amazing story. It’s a story of resilience, determination, hope, and perseverance. A story about gaining knowledge and actively participating in the treatment and care of his cancer. In short, this is the story of an Empowered Patient and how he fought for his own life.   

Ben is a 35-year-old single male from New Zealand. A highly intelligent, successful professional whose storybook perfect life came to a sudden jolt in October 2018 when he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. He underwent the surgery to remove most of his tongue, along with a dissection of the left side of the neck. A pathology result revealed a squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue. It also showed that 2 lymph nodes in the left side of his neck were positive for cancer. Per standard treatment protocol, Ben was given radiation therapy after the surgery without a concurrent chemotherapy. There is a growing evidence in the literature that, in such cases where the cancer had spread to the regional lymph nodes, post-surgery chemotherapy given concurrently with radiation therapy reduces the chance of the local recurrence of the disease.  The obvious drawback being that, while this dual attack may be tougher on the cancer, it is also tougher on the patient.  It is my hope that, someday, this standard protocol may change. However, as of right now, it still is the standard of treatment to give just radiation following surgery as it happened in Ben’s case. Unfortunately, it did not work so well.  

Hardly six months after completing this treatment, he had a recurrence of cancer in the left side of his neck in the area of those positive lymph nodes six months ago So, his cancer had come back.  A second surgery was done to remove the cancerous lymph nodes followed by another radiation treatment.  His first radiation treatment was given to both sides of his neck as it should’ve been. This time it was limited to the left side of the neck. This time, he did receive a chemo drug but for 2 doses only 

While he was recovering, Ben came across the story of Dianaas posted on PEN website. Ben happened to know Diana and thought that since Diana responded so well to Keytruda (Pembrolizumab), he would take Keytruda himself. He decided to pay for it out of his own pocket since it was not covered by the health plan. Keytruda is a wonderful medicine, but it’s not a magic pill or a cure-all and does not always work and did not in Ben’s case.  About 4 months after finishing the radiation treatment, poor Ben had another recurrence of the cancer, this time on the right side of the neck. Naturally, he was devastated because he thought that Keytruda had failed him.   

 By this time, Ben and I had been talking about what he should do if the cancer were to came back again. Based upon the information derived from the literature, we felt that he had to have a full dose of chemotherapy concurrent with radiation, either without the surgery or following a surgery. Ben decided that he would like to have that lymph node removed and so the third surgery was performed.   

Following the surgery, Ben underwent a concurrent administration of radiation and chemotherapy. He received Cisplatin, which is a very effective chemotherapy drug in the form of 6 weekly doses while also receiving radiation 5 days a week for 6 weeks. Treatments were completed around March of 2020. 

 It has been about 10 months since, as of February 2021 and, as far as we know, Ben is still cancer-free. For him, this is the longest remission so far. He feels healthy, strong & energetic and is working full-time and enjoying his life. The only problem is that he is so scared of finding another setback that he refuses to go for a follow-up scan, that was due long time ago. I continue to work with Ben to convince him to have the scan done because if the cancer comes back, the sooner we find it, the better we can attack it. I emphasize that another recurrence, while quite unsettling, will not be the end of the road for him and that newer & better treatment options are being discovered all the time.   

Ben had to deal with a whole lot of other medical problems during the past couple of years. Problems that resulted from his cancer and/or his cancer treatments. He developed a great deal of difficulty with swallowing and speech after his tongue surgery, as expected. 

Following his second surgery, Ben developed a paralysis of his left vocal cord. He could hardly speak beyond whispersOur ability to produce voice is dependent upon the movement of the two vocal cords as they rhythmically move to midline to touch each other and then move apart.  When one vocal cord is paralyzed and cannot move to midline, a firm contact between the 2 cords cannot be established, thus an ineffective voice. 

Ben went to see an ear, nose, and throat doctor who injected a filler substance called Radiesseinto his paralyzed vocal cord. This is meant to thicken it so that the opposite & healthy vocal cord can make contact with the paralyzed one and produce sounds.   

That procedure was less than satisfactory for Ben. His doctor recommended a bigger procedure, a surgery, called Medialization of the Vocal Cord. This involves pushing the paralyzed vocal cord towards the midline by stuffing something behind it. The doctor explained to Ben that he was not sure if this surgical procedure would work any better than the temporary injection of a fillerLuckily, I was able to help Ben. I agreed with his doctor that this surgery may not give a satisfactory result.  I suggested that he should consider getting an additional surgical procedure, called Arytenoid Adduction.  I had been through something similar. The problem with Ben’s vocal cords was not just the paralysis of the left vocal cord, but that both vocal cords were situated at an angle. So, when the doctor fattened the paralyzed vocal cord, it still could not make a firm enough contact with the healthy cord. Arytenoid Adduction surgery straightens the angle of the vocal cords and, combined with the medialization procedure, restores the near normal voice. However, it seemed that Ben’s ENT doctor was not very familiar with this procedure 

So, while he was dealing with his other medical issues, Ben and I were working to find if there was a surgeon in New Zealand who would do the Arytenoid Adduction surgery. Finally, after Ben’s third surgery, when he seemed to be in remission, he decided to tackle the problem of his voice. He found the right surgeon and went for the surgery. It did not go well. 

A most unfortunate complication occurred while undergoing anesthesia and Ben stopped breathing. He had to be resuscitated and an opening was created in his trachea to enable him to breathe.  Obviously, the surgery was abandoned with the recommendation that it be attempted again after a few weeks or months. 

 Ben, being very smart personwondered if now would be the better time for the surgery while he still had the opening in his trachea to prevent a similar complication.  I wholeheartedly agreed with his reasoning and suggested that he present it to his doctors. So, he had the second surgery done within 10 days. There were no complications with his breathing this time because he already had an opening in his trachea. The surgery was successfully performed. The trachea opening was closed and Ben has a nice and clear voice now which he is very happy about.   

His bad luck did not stop though because somewhere along the way, he also developed a severe stomach issue called Gastric Dumping Syndrome due to a possible nerve damage during the neck surgery.   This condition causes nausea, bloated feeling, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Luckily, as it often happens in these cases, after some time, his stomach regained its function.   

As is often the case in cancer patients, Ben has suffered from periods of depression. He has handled it very well by seeking the professional help and taking antidepressant medicines. He has valiantly fought through all of his challenges with his intelligence, determination, knowledge, and persistence.  

I think that we all need to admire Ben’s tenacity and his never-ending hope. Recently, he has had genomic studies done on his cancer. Based on the result of those tests, we know that there are certain mutations of the cancer that can be targeted if and when it rears its’ ugly head again. We have options if needed. 

 So, this is the story of a truly empowered patient and how he has changed his prognosis and the course of his illness often as a result of his own initiative Not only by cooperating with his doctors, but becoming more knowledgeable about his illness and actively participating in his treatment decisions.  This activism as a patient has often led to a better treatment outcome.   

This is what Patient Empowerment Network is all about. Hope, determination and knowledgeRemember, the knowledge is your superpower.   


Disclaimer: Sajjad Iqbal, MD is a retired physician and rare cancer survivor who routinely supports, mentors and guides other patients through their perilous cancer journeys. Any opinions, suggestions, or advice provided is solely from Dr. Iqbal’s perspective as a well-informed and knowledgeable cancer patient, not as a physician. The patients must discuss their health with their own doctors and follow their advice.  

A New Phase: Bruce Jackson

Bruce Jackson is a multiple myeloma patient who recently found Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) as a resource for his cancer journey. This is the first of two-part series in which he shares his story from diagnosis to living his life with cancer.


“You can do nothing, or you can do something…maybe it is simply advocating for yourself or advocating on behalf of someone else.”

I guess I haven’t thought of my cancer experience as a story, and yet, that is exactly what it is: a story about a new phase in my life. I have multiple myeloma. More specifically, it is a t(4-14) translocation wherein the 4th and 14th chromosome pairs, instead of minding their own respective business, decided to share their genetic information, and that sharing process is at the basis of the disease. I don’t know if researchers yet know the cause of these translocations; some say that they result from a virus, but I know very little more than that. My 4-14 translocation is deemed a moderately aggressive cancer, but there are other much more aggressive translocations which are functionally a one-year death sentence.

I was diagnosed in May 2009. I was 53 at the time and am now 64. In my case, I was seeing my primary care physician (PCP) every six months for treatment of high cholesterol. She was treating me with a statin drug, and she insisted on doing blood work every six months. The blood work revealed an elevated total protein level, and my PCP suspected cancer, so she sent me to an oncologist who confirmed the diagnosis of smoldering myeloma.

I think there are a couple of points to be made here. One, because of the blood panels every six months, my cancer was caught early. Two, while a smoldering myeloma diagnosis may seem relatively benign, it is not. The question is, when does it morph into something else, into what does it morph, and what do you do in the meantime?

For me, this meant tracking the disease through occasional (every six months) to more frequent (every three months) blood tests to track my M protein value, which is a pretty highly correlated indicator of what is happening in the bone marrow. On a lesser frequency, I would have a bone marrow biopsy, just to see whether what was happening in my blood stream still continued to correlate with what was happening in my bone marrow. When my M protein value was around 0.8, I started to see an oncologist regarding what was initially diagnosed as monoclonal gammopathy of otherwise unspecified origin (MGUS). Then in October 2014, my oncologist was citing M protein values of 3.6, but with no other symptomatic phenomena to address, except that an MRI had shown some very small unidentifiable spots on a few of my ribs and on my sternum. The MRI report suggested that I have a re-do in six months, and that is what happened, except I was now in the hands of a myeloma specialist, and she suggested that we re-test using a CT Scan. The scan revealed growth in the spots, enough so that we were now using the term “lesions”, which was the tipping point to starting treatment.

I started my treatment program as a part of a Dana Farber Cancer Institute study, which required a prescribed regimen of Velkade (a subcutaneous injection), coupled with Revlimid (Thalidomide derivative and sister drug to Pomalyst), and Dexamethasone (a common oral steroid, which generates a synergistic effect that aids in combatting the cancer). In my first cycle, the treatment knocked my M protein value down to less than 1.0. However, in the second round, the treatment induced some unplanned side effects, all at the same time. I experienced blood clots in my lower legs, an obstruction in my digestive tract, pulmonary emboli in my lungs, a half-collapsed lung, a respiratory infection, and a massive headache. This earned me a 10-day stint in the hospital, a paranoid reaction to one of the drugs that I was given, and removal from the Dana Farber study.

Unfortunately, the respiratory infection would not go away, and only six weeks later, it was determined that I needed to have a procedure done, wherein the surgeon puts three holes through my rib cage and inside my pleural cavity with the goal of removing scar tissue from the surface of my right lung so that the medication could reach and eliminate the infection. The procedure earned me 12 more days in the hospital.

The good news is I made it through both events, and I am here to share about it!

It was determined that the Dana Farber dosage was too much for my system, so the solution was to cut the dosage back to about two thirds, and then administer more rounds. My rounds of chemo ultimately led to a stem cell transplant in September 2015. The stem cell transplant was a 21-day hospital stint (which is a typical duration), but as can happen, things didn’t automatically jump-start as expected. After my transplant, everything was jump-starting except my platelets. Fortunately, it seems there is always an alternate plan of attack, and the hematologists were able to prescribe a three-day dose of medication that on day three bumped my platelet count from two to four, and I was on my way. Plan B worked, and I’m glad we did not have to go to Plan C, because I don’t know if there was a Plan C. There were other hiccups along the way. I started having blood clots in my lower legs again, and developed pre-ventricular contractions (PVCs), which feel like a skipped beat, but are actually extra beats, and amount to an arrhythmia of the heart.

After my stem cell transplant, I was given a prognosis of four to eight years, and I was only in partial remission. Once sufficiently recuperated, I had to take Velkade as chemo maintenance. However, because of the subsequent neuropathy, and associated deep venous thrombosis (DVT) in my lower legs, the decision after about two years was to switch to Revlimid. However, the truth of the matter is, your M protein does not stop increasing with the chemo maintenance. It simply increases at a slower rate, and if the drug stops working, problems arise. In my case, the Revlimid worked for another two years, but then things started to happen in 2020.

When the medication stops working, the problems that arise are one of two things: either the rate at which the M protein increases starts to accelerate, or your immune system loses the ability to adequately recover during the seven-day rest period. Your neutrophil (white blood cells) count drops due to the chemo, but if the counts do not climb back up, that means you have to take more days to recover, lower the chemo dosage, or get a booster shot to bump your neutrophils. Any of these options would, of course, allow the cancer to progress at a faster rate. In my case, the neutrophils were dropping and my M protein was climbing, which in essence means the chemo drug was no longer effectively slowing the progression of the disease. It was time to switch to another treatment.

I was given the option to investigate my choices, but because of the myriad options available, that turned into a whole bunch of, “I don’t know”. I finally settled on Daratumumab, Pomalyst and Dexamethasone, with Dara being subcutaneously injected (like Velkade was). Pomalyst is an oral Thalidomide-based sister drug of Revlimid, and Dex is well, Dex. Given that I am only just starting a third post-transplant treatment, I think I am doing well, especially if you consider that I am mid-way through my 12th year post-diagnosis and I am more than five years post-transplant that had an original prognosis of four to eight years.

When you consider where I have been, five years is good so far. I have not had any bones break, my cancer was caught early thanks to a competent PCP, I have only a moderately aggressive translocation, which is much better than more highly aggressive versions, which could have buried me in short order. But what bothers me most, regardless of all the other things that have happened during this experience, is the uncertainty of it all. I feel like I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Learn the rest of Bruce’s story in part two of the two-part series in which he shares his story from diagnosis to living his life with cancer.


Read more patient stories here.

Patient Profile: Sandy Peterson

When she was diagnosed, Sandy Peterson had never heard of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a type of blood and bone marrow cancer, so she got to work learning about it. “I really appreciate the organizations who do research, provide support, and make it easy to access,” says Sandy an avid user of the Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) website, powerfulpatients.org. She says she likes to be able to access the resources whenever she wants or needs to revisit something she learned or read. Sandy follows several other organizations specific to her disease, and says each organization offers something a little different that she can benefit from. “PEN stands out with the activity guides,” she says noting that she especially likes how the PEN-Powered Activity Guides are formatted: like a book, where she can flip the pages and not have to scroll through them. “It’s fun,” she says.

Sandy says she learns a lot from the pages about understanding cancer, but she says she also likes the inclusion of articles that focus on lifestyle. “What I have enjoyed most are the recipes,” she says. She appreciates that they aren’t wild and fancy and that they include ingredients that she usually has on hand or can easily pick up at her local grocery store. Sandy also likes the fitness and the coloring pages and says they provide a pleasant distraction. “I look forward to that activity guide,” she says.

Sandy also values the webinars PEN provides. “The webinars are just wonderful. You can look at them again and do it at your leisure. It’s wonderful, and I’ve learned so much,” says Sandy who says she has gotten familiar with a lot of the presenters in the webinars and she looks forward to them because she appreciates their method of explaining things. Sandy has found that the key to putting her mind at ease and escaping fear about her disease is to understand it, which she says isn’t always easy, especially in the beginning. “Everyone knows what they’re talking about, and you don’t have a clue,” she says. “It’s the alphabet soup of a cancer diagnosis. It’s intellectual overload.”

On top of the intellectual overload that comes with being diagnosed with cancer, Sandy was also recovering from major surgery. It was in February 2011 and Sandy was just shy of turning 70 when she had to have emergency brain surgery. It still makes her emotional to talk about it, and Sandy says she doesn’t remember anything about that weekend, but she does know when she came out of surgery and they told her she was going to be fine, they also told her she had cancer. “I was worried about recovering from the brain surgery and was told it could be years before CLL became a problem for me,” she says. She was assigned to an oncologist, got an overview of her disease, and didn’t think much more about it. She had no symptoms, so she says the word cancer didn’t seem scary. However, she does say she was frustrated that her oncologist kept changing. She started with a hematology oncologist, but after a couple staffing changes, she ended up with a breast cancer specialist. “I didn’t complain because you kind of take who they give you,” says Sandy, but she said it just didn’t feel quite right.

By this time, Sandy had fully recovered from her brain surgery, and she started to do some research about her CLL. She started by looking online for reputable websites. Her tip is to avoid .com websites. The .com stands for commercial, and Sandy says she didn’t want to get her information from anyone who was selling something. “You have to do a little bit of searching to find the resources, but there’s a lot out there to support people who have cancer,” she says.

It was through her involvement with online support communities that Sandy learned she needed to make some changes in her cancer care. She says she kept seeing CLL experts and other patients refer to having treatment teams. “I realized I needed a team,” she says. She had her primary care doctor, and the breast cancer specialist, but she wanted a CLL specialist on her team. She had to go out of state to find one, but she did. After ten years with CLL, Sandy continues to have no symptoms and remains in the watchful waiting phase. Her most recent blood test was in mid-October 2020, and her numbers were essentially the same as they were a year ago. “It’s not going away, but it’s not progressing,” she says. “I am very, very fortunate.”

While Sandy is asymptomatic now, she’s concerned about the eventual progression of CLL. She says she’s not to the point of worry yet, but she wants to be prepared. “If it begins to progress and give me trouble at any time, I want to plan for a less healthy me.” She thinks about the logistics and expense of managing house and lawn care and wants to simplify her life so that if the disease progresses, she has a plan in place for managing those things. “It doesn’t have to be depressing, and you can do it while you’re still in control of the situation,” she says. “We not only want to simplify things for our own benefit, but for those who are going to help us.”

Sandy says she also thinks about what will happen if she ever needs treatment. “I’ve heard horror stories about the costs of treatment, and I don’t know how people pay for it,” she says. She stays on top of the latest CLL treatments and pays attention to the laws being passed about covering medications, and she says she’s open to doing a clinical trial if she has the opportunity. “The treatment picture for CLL is constantly changing,” she says, adding that new treatments are emerging, and more clinical trials are opening up all the time. “It’s really exciting.”

In the meantime, Sandy continues to find enjoyment by accessing yoga or tai chi classes online, staying up to date about her disease, and finding support from her trusted online communities like PEN. “It’s a lot to learn, and it’s changing all the time. The understanding is growing, the treatments are improving, there’s always something new,” she says.


Read more patient stories here.

Patient Profile: Bob Lawson

“I had a clinical trial in my hip pocket already because I had taken the extra steps. I think it saved my life and got me in the right place,” says empowered patient Bob Lawson who is currently participating in a clinical trial for his non-small cell lung cancer, which recurred a little over three years after his initial cancer diagnosis and treatment. While Bob is in the right place now, his cancer journey has not been an easy one, and he has had to be actively involved in his treatment to ensure the best possible outcome. “It’s so difficult to know what to do, it’s overwhelming. You have to do research on your own,” says Bob, who recommends the Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) website for patients looking for a place to start. “For patients seeking out advocacy, PEN has something that’s very important,” he says referring to the free, online resources provided by PEN. Bob especially likes the PEN-Powered Activity Guides, found here, and says they are powerful tools for patients to find hope and ways to benefit from the new technology and treatments available. His best advice, though, is to do what he’s done all along. “I would say ask questions. A lot of them. You want to ask the right questions and the right questions change,” he says. “If you don’t ask the questions, you’ll never know.”

When he was first diagnosed with lung cancer, Bob says he had no idea what to expect. “At that time, I didn’t know anything about anything,” he says, but he adds that he did know enough to ask questions, and by asking questions, he improved his treatment outcomes. He was diagnosed as the result of some testing that was done for a medical episode that ultimately turned out to be a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which is often referred to as a mini stroke. During the testing, an x-ray revealed a shadow on his left lung, and a fine needle biopsy confirmed that it was cancer.

Bob says when he talked to the surgeon at the hospital, he wasn’t comfortable with the treatment plan, which included a surgery where his ribs would be cracked. He asked the doctor if the invasive surgery was really the only option, and that question got him referred for a second opinion. “Most doctors encourage a second opinion,” he says. “You have to become educated very quickly about what you’re dealing with.”

Bob says the second doctor won his confidence almost immediately. He recommended a minimally invasive lobectomy of the upper left lung and, although his cancer was stage 1B and did not require chemotherapy, the doctor strongly recommended it. The surgery was successful as was his round of chemotherapy. “I did the entire regimen, rang the bell on my way out the door, and they said I was cancer free,” says Bob. That was seven years ago.

Bob Lawson

A few years after being declared cancer free, Bob decided it was time to address the TIA he’d experienced. The cause of the TIA had never been discovered so Bob had a scan of his carotid artery. His artery was clear, but the technologist noticed something on his thyroid. That something turned out to be cancer. It was a nodule classified as malignant neoplasm, and it was unrelated to his lung cancer. Fortunately, the nodule was completely encapsulated in the tissue and was removed. However, the treatment protocol at the time was to completely remove the thyroid. “I didn’t like the sound of that,” says Bob who once again asked a question. “What would you do,” he asked his doctor. Later that night, Bob says his doctor called him. Because of Bob’s question the surgeon dug a little deeper and spoke with the pathologist who said he wouldn’t remove the thyroid. Bob kept his thyroid and, with the assistance of minimal medication, he’s had no problems with his thyroid since. He says five months after he turned down surgery to remove his thyroid, the nodule he had was declassified as cancer.

However, just ten months after the issue with his thyroid, Bob lost his voice and noticed he was coughing a lot. At the same time, he was experiencing significant pain in his right hip. He attributed the hip pain to not getting any younger and the natural consequences from old injuries, but it bothered him enough that he went in for some tests. The tests revealed a little bit of discoloration on the bone that the doctor said he normally wouldn’t worry about, but since Bob had a history of cancer, he wanted to do a scan of the area. “The scan lit up like a Christmas tree,” says Bob. His lung cancer was back, and it had spread to his right femur and hip. Bob had successful radiation treatment on his hip, but he couldn’t have radiation on the tumor in his lung because of its location near the vagus nerve and vital organs. The tumor location also meant surgery was not an option, so his doctor recommended a targeted monoclonal antibody immunotherapy.

Once again, Bob sought a second opinion. “What I had done when they discovered the hip tumor was called the insurance company and got permission to get a second opinion,” he explains. He actually got the opinion of two other oncologists who both agreed with his doctor’s recommended treatment course, but the second doctor, with Johns Hopkins Medicine, went a step further and said, if the treatment stopped working, he had a clinical trial that Bob might want to consider. So, Bob took home the paperwork for the trial and began immunotherapy treatment with his doctor.

It was a relatively new therapy at the time, and, for a while, it worked to reduce the size of the tumor in his lung. Then, he had two months in a row where his scans showed disease progression, and he was taken off the therapy and given a prognosis of 10 to 18 months to live. He asked his doctor what they were going to do, and his doctor said he could do chemotherapy again. “That was the last thing on earth I wanted to do,” says Bob, who asked his doctor about a clinical trial. The doctor agreed that a trial was probably the best course of action for Bob, but he didn’t have any to recommend.

That’s when Bob pulled the Johns Hopkins clinical trial out of his hip pocket. He’s been having infusions every month for the past 17 months, and he’s really happy with the results. “The tumor is steady or reducing all the time, which is great, obviously,” he says.

Bob remains vigilant about his healthcare and continues to pay attention to what other treatments might be available to him should this trial stop working. He continues to research other trials, sometimes reviewing as many as 20 in a week. “Most people just trust the doctor, and that’s the wrong approach,” he says. “Get a second, third, and fourth opinion, and have something ready to go in case what you’re doing doesn’t work.” Bob has learned that approach through experience, but he hopes his story will help make it easier for others. “How can I best support someone who’s like me,” he often asks himself. “I think that’s something I’d like to do,” he says.


Patients who want to ask questions like Bob did, but aren’t sure what the right questions are, can start here with the PEN downloadable office visit planners available for free at powerfulpatients.org.

Patient Profile: Alexis Chase, PhD

Patient Profile

Alexis Chase, PhD

“To be empowered you have to be open, to want to do it, and to accept where you are.” – Dr. Alexis Chase, An MPN Empowered Patient

Dr. Alexis Chase has had a pretty interesting life, but she doesn’t think that makes her unique. She says she thinks all women have interesting lives. Born congenitally blind in her right eye she was given the name Alexis Elizabeth Lucia Chase. “I’m very proud of my name,” she says explaining the origin. Alexis was the name of a doll her mother had as a girl, and it means protector of mankind. Elizabeth is a family name, and Lucia represents Saint Lucia, the patron saint of the blind. Her mother was a nurse and her father, who was the first to recognize she had a vision issue, had a degree in biology. She was very close with her parents who instilled in her a strong foundation in her Roman Catholic faith. While she was born in Connecticut, she spent most of her adult life in Georgia as a divorced mother who built a successful 27-year career in the prison corrections system. She worked her way up to warden and earned two PhDs, one in religious counseling and one in criminal justice and corrections. After her retirement she became an international advocate and consultant of gender and women’s rights issues that include vocational training, post-incarceration reintegration, and female prisoners with children. She has travelled as far as Afghanistan in her advocacy work, and she is also the proud nana to a cat named Nathan Edgar Chase. She’s done a lot, and much of what she’s accomplished, she’s done while living with cancer.

The first time she was diagnosed with cancer was in 1976. She was in the first trimester of a high-risk pregnancy when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her doctors thought it would be best to terminate the pregnancy, but she refused. She was determined to have the baby, her daughter, and as soon as she was born, Dr. Chase began treatment for her cancer, opting for an experimental drug that she says saved her life.

At the time, her parents, her desire to live for her daughter, and her strong faith gave her the support she needed. “They were right there with me,” she says of her parents who she is grateful to for her faith. “It’s my great equalizer. My rope of hope,” she says and adds that she can pull on her faith anytime and in any place. “You’ve got to believe in something greater than yourself because definitely we’re not it,” she says.

She’s had no recurrence of the ovarian cancer, but in 1996, during a regular wellness checkup, she was diagnosed with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs), a group of blood cancers that affect the function of bone marrow and can cause a number of complications. In Dr. Chase’s case her MPNs includes iron deficiency, anemia, diseases of the blood and blood forming organs, and hypothyroidism. MPNs are chronic conditions that can transform into another blood cancer and can affect people at any age but are more common in older adults. MPNs are also progressive. Dr. Chase had no symptoms for the first four years after her diagnosis, and wondered if she’d been misdiagnosed, but in 2000 she says she just started to feel like something wasn’t right and that’s when her blood counts started to change. She began taking medication, but in 2020 it stopped working and her cancer team worked to find other medications and therapies to treat her.

MPNs are rare and she doesn’t know anyone else with the same diagnosis, but she says she has an incredible support network through her daughter, her friends that are like family, her church, and her cancer team. “They take great care of me,” she says, but she also takes great care of herself. In fact, she’s very meticulous about taking care of herself. She carefully takes her medications, and she makes herself a priority. She focuses a lot on her mental health and she stresses the importance of mental health for all cancer patients. She says she finds three ways to laugh at herself every day and she chooses six words every day that represent how she’s doing and to help her feel empowered. A recent example, “I feel surrounded by grace today”. Also, part of her self-care is taking the time to listen to calming and soothing sounds and inspirational messages and quotes.

She says it’s a blessing to have the cancer she has because she is able to handle it and it makes her take time to smell the roses. She’s handled it so well that during her career as a prison warden she never let on that she was sick. She managed to schedule her appointments around her work so no one would know. She didn’t want her illness to affect her career.

Always an empowered patient, she’s been known to walk out of a doctor’s office when a situation doesn’t feel right. “It’s important for people to feel like they are being heard and more importantly that they are being listened to.” She says “It’s also important to know what’s going on with your care. You know your body better than anybody.” Dr. Chase likes the Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) because of the resources it provides to help others feel empowered in their own care. “I found PEN and love that I can access it anytime,” she says. She feels it’s important for patients to take charge of their own care plans. “To be empowered you have to be open, to want to do it, and to accept where you are,” she says. Her recommendation to other patients is to read, and comprehend, everything they can about their illness. “If you don’t understand it, you need to have someone explain it to you,” she says and also recommends keeping a journal. “We have to have something tangible. We can’t remember everything.”

While she continues to accomplish a great deal while living with cancer, it’s not always easy. “The chronic cancer fatigue, it will get me. I fight it because I feel like once I give in it would overtake me,” she says. She does experience shortness of breath and plans her days around her energy level. “It slows me down, but I don’t let it stop me. I push myself because I know the next day or the next day I won’t be able to.” Along with continuing her consulting and advocacy work, Dr. Chase loves to travel and hopes to go to Turkey to see the Virgin Mary’s house. “You never know what God has laid out for you,” she says. “I’m still here. I’ve been symptomatic for 20 years and I’m still here.”


Read more patient stories here.

Patient Profile: Liz Sarris

Patient Profile

Liz Sarris

Liz Sarris knows the world of healthcare pretty well. Not only has she had a 40-year career as a nurse, but she’s also had a host of chronic illnesses, which means lots and lots of doctor appointments. As if that weren’t enough, Liz has also been diagnosed with cancer three times – with three different and unrelated cancers! “I’m being watched closely from many angles,” she says. “But the great news is I live to tell the story.”

Her cancer story began in 1988. Her primary care doctor found some unexplained blood in her urine and, unable to dismiss it, referred Liz to a urologist. A scope of her bladder revealed a tumor that was about the size of a pea. Fortunately, it was non-invasive, had not invaded the bladder lining, and was removed. No treatment was required, but she did have to be monitored regularly. For the first two years she was checked every three months, then every six months for the next several years. After that she graduated to annual checkups that continue to this day.

Fast forward to 2014 when she was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). This time, Liz was seeing an endocrinologist for a thyroid issue when the doctor noticed some abnormalities in her blood work. Further testing led to her CLL diagnosis, which, so far, hasn’t required any medications or treatments other than quarterly check ins. “It is a watchful waiting situation,” she explains.

Then in 2017 things took a turn. Liz’s gastroenterologist, who she sees regularly for two chronic gastrointestinal issues, said that there was a spot on her scans that needed to be checked out. It was a spot they had been watching, but now it was starting to change. The spot turned out to be a neuroendocrine tumor of her pancreas. It was a slow growing tumor and not aggressive, but it was malignant and had to be removed, and there was a chance that it was a lot worse than the doctor thought it was. It meant major surgery that was not at all routine, and because her tumor was in the middle of her pancreas, it was possible that she might lose part of her pancreas and her spleen. Liz wanted the best possible outcome from the surgery, which meant keeping as much of her pancreas as possible, so she started to search for a surgeon. “I wanted to see the right people who were specific to this type of cancer and who do neuroendocrine tumors every day,” she says. “If he’s going to poke around my pancreas, I want to know he’s doing 10, 12, 15 of these surgeries a month.”

First, Liz narrowed her search geographically. She lives in an area that is relatively close to several high-quality medical facilities, and she knew that she didn’t want to be too far away from her family and support system after such a big surgery. Then she started asking questions and doing research. “Because I had engaged myself with good local physicians, I reached out to them for referrals,” she says. She asked her doctors who they would send their wives to and who they themselves would go to. Then she started calling surgeons and made appointments to interview three of them. When she had it narrowed to the surgeon she felt best about, she visited him a second time. “I don’t know if it’s the nurse in me or just who I am,” says Liz about her research process. She says that the doctor she chose made her feel confident, and his approach was more hopeful because he was willing to perform the surgery using a rare technique that meant he would remove the tumor from the center and then reconnect the two sides of her pancreas. Her doctor was upfront with her about all the possible risks and made sure she knew that his plan could change if the surgery revealed a different situation than they were expecting. “Do whatever you have to do to give me the best chance at a healthy life,” she told him and added that she hired him to do the job he would do for his mother, his sister, or his daughter and that she didn’t want to see him again in five years.

Her eight-hour surgery was a success. The tumor was removed, and her pancreas was put back together in what Liz describes as a “creative way.” After her surgery she didn’t require any treatment other than regular monitoring, and so far, all her scans have been good. She credits her successful outcomes in part to having a supportive family, good insurance, and good doctors, but she didn’t have good doctors by accident. She’s very proactive in her own healthcare. “I had the recipe for a good situation, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have to do the research,” she says.

Her background as a nurse helped her know what questions to ask, but she wants others to know they can ask the same questions and can be just as informed. “You can navigate your care more than you think you can,” she says. “You really have to utilize your resources.” Liz says resources like the Patient Empowerment Network, where patients have access to free online tools such as a checklist of questions to ask the doctor, are great for cancer patients. “There needs to be more empowering,” she says. “Much of what I’ve done my entire career is try to empower patients.” She says that being empowered means being educated, identifying your expectations, and asking questions. “We are willing to ask questions of our auto mechanics about our car’s maintenance and repair, but not of our doctors about our own bodies,” she says.

These days Liz is adjusting her expectations for her own life. In March, Covid-19 interrupted the career she’s been so passionate about when her oncologist told her it wasn’t safe for her to continue to work during the pandemic. “This is not how I anticipated retiring,” she says. With her unique perspective as experienced patient and medical professional, she has a lot of knowledge to share, so now Liz is exploring how she can continue to help other patients learn more about how to navigate the healthcare system and take charge of their own care plans. She’s empowered to empower others.


Read more patient stories here.

Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML) Patient Profile

You would never know that the subject of this Patient Profile is living with cancer, and that’s exactly the way he likes it. Very few people know this patient’s story, even though he’s been living with chronic myeloid or myelogenous leukemia (CML), an uncommon cancer of the bone marrow, for almost 8 years. He is the very definition of an empowered patient. He’s informed, involved, and utilizes the resources available to him. If cancer were a bull, he definitely would have taken it by the horns. He prefers to remain anonymous, but he believes so strongly in being an empowered patient, that he agreed to share his story to encourage others to take control of their own cancer care.

It was March 2013, when he went in for an MRI on an unsatisfactory hip replacement, that his cancer journey began. When the report came back it said that there was a bone marrow infiltration with a high probability of malignancy. “The word malignancy stuck out to me,” he says. He had no symptoms at the time, but he couldn’t ignore the report and knew he needed to take immediate action.

His first step was to confirm that he did indeed have cancer. Coincidentally, he was pretty well connected with a prominent oncologist who diagnosed him with CML, told him it was easily treatable, and referred him to another doctor for treatment.

Not being the kind of guy to accept his fate without thoroughly gathering information, he decided to get a second opinion, and was able to do so through another connection he had. The second doctor confirmed the diagnosis and the doctor referral.

Satisfied that he was in the best possible hands for his specific cancer, he began treatment taking one of the four tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI) medications commonly used to treat CML. Unfortunately, he started having intolerable side effects so, in August 2014, his doctor switched him to another TKI. While taking the new medication, he says his liver enzymes went through the roof and he was becoming concerned that he was running out of treatment options. However, once again, he was able to use his connections to get dosage instructions directly from the drug manufacturer, and with a simple shift in dosing, his problem was fixed. His liver enzymes returned to normal and he’s been living well ever since. “If I had to get a bad disease,” he says, “I got the right kind.”

His proactive nature toward his health was essential to the positive outcome he’s living with today. In addition, his connections to high-quality doctors gave him an advantage. He is grateful for that, but he’s also acutely aware that not everyone has the same advantages, and that’s why he appreciates the value of Patient Empowerment Network (PEN). He came across the free programs and resources available on the PEN website while doing his own research about CML. He believes that anyone who is sick should use whatever resources are available to get all the information they can. “The Patient Empowerment Network is a source of information and potential support,” he says. “I’ve told my friends and doctors about PEN because I want to help other people. To fail to do so would be a shame.”

He feels a sincere and urgent duty to pay forward his good fortune and credits that sensibility to his parents and his Jewish heritage. Describing himself as only moderately observant from a religious standpoint, he says he was raised to subscribe to the philosophy that there are only two kinds of Jews. “You either need charity or you give it,” he explains. In his life, he’s been fortunate financially, and so he feels compelled to give. “It’s just who I am, I thank my parents,” he says.

His charitable giving is also motivated by personal loss. His first wife died from an aggressive form of breast cancer, and he later lost a very close friend to myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML), which he refers to as a death sentence. The pain of that loss continues to be palpable and has driven him to set up a foundation, named after his friend, at a leading cancer center that does cutting edge research on MDS, a group of rare and underdiagnosed bone marrow disorders.

Now at 76, with his CML in remission, he’s vibrant and busy and has no intention of slowing down. He continues to stay up to date on CML research because he believes it’s important to be informed about his disease. He serves in a one-on-one mentor program for cancer patients, and he also takes evening courses learning about topics such as the United States Constitution and the Federalist Papers. “I’m lucky,” he says. “With CML I will die with it, not from it.”