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Living With Two Cancers

My story with cancer started in 2008 when I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma. I was fortunate to have a primary care physician who noted abnormalities in routine blood work and sent me to a hematologist oncologist. At the time of diagnosis I was at the MGUS stage, precursor to active Myeloma, and was monitored every 6 weeks. During that time I switched to a Myeloma specialist in the health system where I was employed as a PT. I also hit the internet to learn more about this cancer that I had never heard of. BIG MISTAKE! The published survival rates at the time were 2 years. I wasn’t ready to hear that so I stopped reading.

Over the next year I pretty much refused to own the fact that I had a cancer diagnosis. I wasn’t being treated, might never be treated and felt ok except for fatigue. That all came to a screeching halt one day when I had extreme pain in my left arm and suddenly couldn’t lift my arm. I went to the ER and was diagnosed with a pathological fracture of my left humerus, upper arm. I saw my specialist the next day and began treatment immediately since I now officially had active Myeloma.

I responded well to treatment and went on to have an autologous stem cell transplant (ASCT) 9 months later. This led to a complete response and almost 3 years with no treatment until I relapsed. I began treatment again with the same drugs that had worked so well before and again had a good response. I continued with this for almost 4 more years until one day in October 2016 all hell broke loose. I was in my oncologist’s office for a regular appointment waiting for him to come into the examining room when I crashed. I was rushed across the street to the ER where I was admitted. A few days later, after many tests, I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, ALL.

I spent the next month in the hospital receiving induction chemotherapy for the ALL and the next 6 months for consolidation therapy. During those months of treatment for the ALL I relapsed again for the Myeloma. After I completed my ALL treatment, that’s now in remission, and recovered from that chemo, I began treatment with one of the monoclonal antibodies for the Myeloma. Now, 8 months later, I feel about the best I have in years and my blood levels are all in the normal range.

Although I’ve gone through a lot, especially since being diagnosed with the ALL, I continue to enjoy and live my life. I worked 6 more years after my diagnosis with Myeloma. I specialized in treating people with cancer as a PT. My cancer diagnosis brought me closer to my patients since they knew that I understood what they were going through. I continued to travel to Europe to teach, attend conferences and for pleasure. After my retirement I  have also been volunteering for the American Cancer Society and been very active as a board member and program chair of my local Myeloma support group.

Encouraging others who have been diagnosed with cancer has been a mission of mine for many years. Now, as a person with two blood cancers, I find that that helps others, but also me. With the treatments that are now available to us, we often can live fairly normal and long lives. Who would have thought that I would still be here when I was diagnosed 10 years ago? I attribute that to the wonderful medical care I have received from my oncologist and his team, the research that has led to more effective treatments and to the support of my friends and family. But, most of all, is my own self education about my cancers and my relationship with my oncologist. I believe that being an active partner in my care has been extremely important. I look forward to continuing to enjoy those things in life that are important to me.

Nancy Stewart
Multiple Myeloma 2008
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia 2016

Notable News

Remember last month when we told you about the successful immunotherapy test trial known as CAR T therapy using the patient’s own immune cells to fight leukemia? There was a big push for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve the therapy and they did! According to NPR.org the approval of the first cell-based gene therapy in the United States is being called a historic action. The drug called Kymriah was developed by Novartis. It has been approved to treat a form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children and young adults up to age 25 who have not responded to other treatments or who have experienced relapse. In the test trials, 83 percent of 63 patients were in remission within three months of undergoing the therapy. While very successful, the treatment does come with serious risks including a potentially life-threatening immune system response. Therefore, the FDA is requiring strong warnings and, for now, the treatment is only available at 32 specially trained hospitals and clinics. The treatment is also very expensive — $475,000 for the one-time treatment. Patients who do not respond within one month will not be charged. You can read more details here and if you missed the information we shared about CAR T therapy last month you can find that here.

This month fda.org announced another first in cancer treatment. A biosimilar drug, which is an almost identical copy of an original drug made by another company, was approved for the treatment of several types of cancer. Mvasi, a biosimilar to Avastin, is the first biosimilar approved for cancer treatment in the United States. This is significant because biosimilar drugs encourage competition among companies and help keep healthcare costs down for patients. Mvasi is approved to treat certain colorectal, lung, brain, kidney and cervical cancers in adult patients, but it could still be a couple years before it is available. More specifics about Mvasi, the cancers it is used to treat, and the side effects can be found here. Also, an interesting article on reuters.com about the impact biosimilars will have on healthcare costs as they become more widely available can be found here.

It’s hard to believe, but a virus known to cause brain defects could eventually be used to heal the brain. That’s what sciencedaily.com is reporting based on a study by researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the University of California, San Diego. The study involves the Zika virus and glioblastoma, the most common form of brain cancer. The Zika virus targets immature and growing brain cells. That’s what makes it so dangerous to pregnant women and fetuses. However, in laboratory testing the researchers found that in an adult patient with glioblastoma, the Zika virus may bypass the normal brain cells to target the cancerous cells. It’s still too early to tell if the virus is a viable option for cancer treatment and there are other health concerns to consider, but this encouraging study opens the door for more promising research. Learn more about the Zika virus study here.

Finally this month, a patient story that is going viral. A woman in Minneapolis with stage 4 breast cancer mentioned to her mail carrier how overwhelmed she felt by her diagnosis and treatment. The mail carrier, also battling cancer, organized a very heart-felt expression of hope in the form of 101 heart-shaped balloons planted in the woman’s front yard. See video and learn more about these two empowered patients here and make sure you stay in touch with what’s going on at PEN here and look for more Notable News coming next month.