Tag Archive for: myeloma patient

PODCAST: How Can You Engage in Your Myeloma Treatment Decisions?

Myeloma expert Dr. Benjamin Derman shares advice for partnering with your team when choosing a myeloma therapy, discusses important factors that should be considered, and provides key questions to ask your healthcare team to help you engage in your care. Dr. Derman also reviews research updates from the December 2022 American Society of Hematology (ASH) meeting.

Abou the Guest:
Dr. Benjamin Derman is a hematologist and oncologist specializing in multiple myeloma at the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center. 

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Hello and welcome. I’m Katherine Banwell, your host for today’s program. Today we’re going to talk about myeloma treatments, what the options are both current and emerging, and how you can play a role in your care and treatment decisions.  

Before we get into the discussion, please remember that this program is not a substitute for seeking medical advice. Please refer to your healthcare team about what might be best for you.  

Well, let’s meet our guest today. Joining me is Dr. Benjamin Derman. Dr. Derman, welcome. Would you please introduce yourself?  

Dr. Derman:

Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. As you said, my name is Ben Derman. I’m an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. And I specialize in actually, plasma cell disorders, which is mainly multiple myeloma, amyloidosis, Waldenstrom’s. If a plasma cell is the problem, then I address it. So, that’s what I do. And that’s my clinical and research focus as well.  


Excellent. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us today. Before we get into our discussion about available myeloma treatments, let’s talk about emerging therapies. And I know there are many. 

The American Society of Hematology or ASH annual meeting took place in December. What are some of the highlights from that meeting?  

Dr. Derman:

Yeah, ASH is always a very exciting time because it’s when we get to see all the latest and greatest of what’s on the way or what’s already here to stay.  

I think the biggest focus in the myeloma field, if I could really pin it down, was more in the later stages of the disease and focusing on treatments in that setting. We already have two FDA-approved chimeric antigen receptors, or CAR T-cell therapies, in Ide-cel (Abecma), and Cilta-cel (Carvykti). Those are the brand names. And then more recently, we just had a bispecific antibody, which is another type of immune therapy that was approved. But there are actually many under investigation.  

And so, at this ASH we heard a lot. Not only about the target that’s been most popular in this setting, which is something called BCMA or B-cell maturation antigen.  

That’s what the CAR T-cell therapies that I mentioned are going after and the teclistamab (Tecvayli) bispecific antibody that I mentioned.  

But there are a lot of other candidate drugs that are also targeting that same molecule. So, we heard a little bit about – more about those. We’ve been hearing about them pretty much at every conference these days.  

So, there’s a lot of competition in that space. Which is good for patients because ultimately, what we’re trying to figure out is, is one of these better than the others? Or at least, if we have multiple options, there may be different side effect profiles that we have to think about.  

But now as BCMA therapies are getting used more and more, one of the questions is, well, is there any other target that we could go after? And really, the one that was hot at ASH this year was something called GPRC5D, or G-protein coupled receptor 5D. This is expressed pretty strongly in myeloma cells, and not in many other tissues. Maybe the skin, nails, tongue. So, basically, that’s what you want, is you want a target that’s not going to be expressed elsewhere.  

So, there were a couple of different types of therapies that were discussed. One was a CAR T-cell therapy going after GPRC5D, and the others were – there were two bispecific antibodies actually targeting the same GPRC5D. And that’s actually already in addition to another GPRC5D directed bispecific that’s in development.  

So, basically, the idea is that if patients may experience progression on one of these BCMA targeting agents, we’re going to have another target to be going after. And I think that part is really, really exciting.  

And as far as other highlights, I think the other thing is, how do we reduce the toxicity from these drugs? And exploring avenues in order to be able to decrease sort of the inflammatory effects of these drugs, which are important.  


That’s great. It sounds so promising. And all of that information is going to be very helpful as we move through today’s discussion.  

Let’s start with a general overview of treatment options. What types of treatment are offered for myeloma patients?  

Dr. Derman:

Right. So, if you think about at the point where a patient is diagnosed with myeloma, unfortunately, always a tough – always tough news to receive and to share with patients as well, we start to think about dividing treatment into phases. And in part, some of it’s going to depend on, what is the fitness level of a patient in front of me? And not so much age per se, but really fitness level. And what I mean by that is independence in their activities of daily living, their ability to walk, go up flights of stairs, carry out just their daily life.  

So, assuming that all options are on the table, we consider those patients to sort of be what we call stem cell transplant-eligible. 

And that picks a sort of variety of pathways that we can go down. And then the other variety of pathways we can go down are patients where either because of a comorbid conditions, there are other medical problems, or because of their fitness level, a stem cell transplant is not really going to be something that we consider.  

But either way, in either case, we start with something called induction therapy, where we’re aiming to induce a remission. Or induce a response as we typically say more commonly in myeloma.  

And usually that involves a combination of three or now possibly four drugs. And it’s really, really different the way that we treat myeloma than we treat other cancers. And what I mean by that is the traditional thought of using very harsh chemotherapy drugs that make people feel very sick, very ill, lose their hair, those kinds of things. Things that are maybe more outwardly associated with chemotherapy, we don’t see that with myeloma.  

In fact, I often tell patients if they’re fortunate to not have the disease affect them so much at diagnosis, a lot of people may not even know that they’re on treatment. And that can be good and bad, because they don’t know that what you’re going through, which can be challenging in its own right.  

So, really what we use are a combination of therapies. They can be oral drugs, they can be subcutaneous injections under the skin, or infusions. And one of the newer advances is using immunotherapy in myeloma. And this is a little different than it is in solid organ cancers like lung cancer or melanoma where immunotherapy is very popular as well.  

One of the main targets that we go after is something called CD38 on the surface of myeloma cells. And CD38 can be targeted with a type of monoclonal antibody.  

And there are two that are out right now, daratumumab (Darzalex) and isatuximab (Sarclisa). Daratumumab is actually approved to be used in the frontline setting, meaning at diagnosis. And that has really allowed us to augment the already – the backbone that we’ve been already using for quite some time in myeloma.  

Dexamethasone (Decadron), which is a steroid, is typically employed in all of these cases. And then we use drugs that are in the class of what’s called immunomodulatory iMiDs, chiefly lenalidomide (Revlimid) is the main one that we use in oral drug, and that’s been approved since 2006 or so.  

And then bortezomib (Velcade), which is something called the proteasome inhibitor, or its cousin carfilzomib (Kyprolis), can be used as well in the frontline. So, we’re usually combining these three or four drugs together in order to create this sort of symphony that really targets the myeloma from many different aspects.  


Yeah. How do patients know if they have any of these targets, such as CD38?  

Dr. Derman:

So, actually it’s interesting. CD38 is pretty much ubiquitously exposed on the surface and expressed on the surface of myeloma cells. So, it’s in a pathology report. It’s actually one of the ways in which we can identify what makes a plasma cell a plasma cell. But CD38 is one that is essentially ubiquitously expressed.  

And I say that with the idea that that expression may go down if you use these drugs to target that specific – that target. So, as time goes on, it’s not a drug that you may be able to reuse over and over. Or at least there might need to be a nice long break.  


So, obviously there are very – there are a lot of available therapies for myeloma. And I’m wondering what factors might impact treatment decisions. You did mention comorbidities. But what other factors are there?  

Dr. Derman:

Sure. And I think in part, it depends on if we’re talking about induction therapy or in the relapsed refractory setting. Let’s focus on induction therapy, right?  

So, there are some drugs that we’re typically going to employ pretty much universally. For those who are inclined to use that CD38 monoclonal antibody that I mentioned, it pretty much plays well with patients of all walks of life. So, that’s one where I feel really comfortable regardless.  

Lenalidomide is a drug that we don’t necessarily know from the get-go if there’s going to be a patient that’s not going to tolerate it well.  

We might reduce doses up front. But for the most part, that’s another drug that we’re typically going to use. I would say the one exception is for patients who have a simultaneous diagnosis of amyloidosis. And we know that in amyloidosis, lenalidomide may not be as well-tolerated.  

But actually, one of the key decisions that I’m often making in clinic myself is around that drug class that I mentioned earlier called proteasome inhibitors. And I mentioned two different drugs. There’s bortezomib and carfilzomib. And they actually come with very different side effects that I think are important to mention.  

Bortezomib is one that is typically associated with a high rate of numbness and tingling, what we call neuropathy in the fingers and toes. And about 75 percent of patients have been reported in the trials to get this. And most of it is what we call lower grade. But I’m not in the patient’s body, and I don’t know what that – what even a grade 1, which would be the lowest grade, really feels like. And if I have a mechanic, somebody who types for a living, a surgeon, somebody who uses their hands or their or rely on their feet for their day-to-day, that’s a scary prospect, right?  

The flip side is this drug, carfilzomib, is one that does not really cause nearly as much neuropathy, but has been associated with cardiac effects. Heart issues. And so, that can scare people, right? Heart’s important I hear. So, we have to be really careful in how we pick these therapies and talk about it with patients.  


Yeah. When we talk about making treatment decisions, it’s important to choose a therapy with your healthcare team.  

Let’s share some tips for having that conversation. I’d like to start with induction therapy, which is the first line of treatment for patients. What questions should patients ask when choosing therapy early in their diagnosis?   

Dr. Derman:

Yeah, that’s a great question. And it’s of course – it’s really the patient priorities I would say. So, one of the things that I like to discuss with patients is, number one, what are the things that they value? And that’s a hard question to ask without any qualifiers.  

So, one of the things that I often ask patients to think about is the – first of all, the number of visits to the medical center. Certain therapies are weekly, certain therapies may actually decrease in frequency overtime. So, if that is something, it’s hard to travel, it’s hard to get someone to take you or to come yourself, or you just don’t want to be in the clinic as much – right? If that’s your number one priority, there are going to be certain therapies that are – or regimens that may be better suited for that patient. If somebody says, “I don’t care how many times I have to come, my goal is the deepest response possible,” you can think about things from that standpoint.  

I mentioned side effects. What are the things that are scary to you personally, as a patient? Some people may look at that neuropathy, as I mentioned, and say “No way. That sounds horrible. I can’t do my job.” Other people would say, “I already have some cardiac issues. I don’t want to take that risk.” Right? So, there are different side effects that we have to take into account.  

Especially when it comes to talking about transplant, there is not just the acute issues that we have to deal with in terms of side effects, but also long-term immunosuppression. Meaning the immune system is suppressed, and there’s a risk of infections, and it’s going to be higher than if you had not gotten a transplant. So, those are at least some of the things that I encourage patients to be thinking about.  

I would also say, on top of that, patients may be approached about clinical trials. And I work at a university where we really value enrolling patients in clinical trials. But that they do come with some inconveniences as well, even though I think they really help to advance the field forward, and sometimes offer patients options they wouldn’t normally be able to get. But there are typically more visits associated with that, more evaluations, more blood draws, more bone marrow biopsies, so those are things that you really have to take into account.  


That’s great advice, Dr. Derman. Unfortunately, relapse is common among myeloma patients. Or it may be that a treatment stops working, and so the person’s myeloma becomes refractory.   

When considering a treatment for relapsed or refractory myeloma, are there different questions that patients should be asking their healthcare team?  

Dr. Derman:

Yeah. I mean, that’s a great question. I think part of it is every patient’s journey with myeloma ends up being quite unique, in part because we don’t have a lot of consensus in terms of how to treat myeloma. So, I may choose one regimen, but the other doc down the street is going to recommend a slightly different one. And now, they all have efficacy. No one’s going to be recommending something that’s not good, right? But what it means is that the journey, the number of therapies, the types of therapies that a patient has received are all going to be quite different than the next.  

So in part, sometimes the past therapies are going to dictate what options are available.  

So, I mentioned some different classes of therapies. The proteasome inhibitors, there’s a certain number of those. The immunomodulatory iMiDs, there’s a certain number of those. The CD38 monoclonal antibodies, there are those. And then there are a few other drug classes as well.   

And if we’re using three or sometimes four drugs at a time for each what we call line of therapy, meaning each time a patient changes treatment – right? Eventually, we’re going to have gone through a number of treatments that now the patient would be – their disease would be resistant to. And so, you don’t really – it’s not really going to be prudent or wise to go back to therapies that didn’t work previously.  

And so, we start mixing and matching, and we come up with regimens that we think are going to hopefully throw a curveball to the myeloma to really try to get rid of it again. That’s what I mean by it’s dictated by past therapy.  


Is research being done to determine the likelihood of relapse and when that might occur?   

Dr. Derman:

Yeah. I mean, we can look at clinical trial data for regimens that have been tested in the relapsed or refractory setting and say, “Okay, we know that this three drug regimen typically gives patients a year before the disease comes back.” Or “This one gives two-and-a-half years or three years.” So, that’s one piece.  

But when you think about who – if you wanted to know ahead of time, “Okay, a patient with high-risk disease, they’re likely not to have as good of a response.” But nobody knows ahead of time the exact amount that they’re going to relapse.  

But one of the things that we focus on, part of the reason that patients get a good amount of blood work when they have myeloma and they’re on therapy is that we have a measure in the blood, or we have several measures in the blood, where we can monitor for relapse. So, we can look at the abnormal proteins, what we call paraproteins in the blood. Either as the M-spike, is what it’s called, or light chains. We look at both of those to see if there are increases in those numbers over time.  

When a patient’s responding, those numbers come down. When a patient is losing response and their disease is progressing, that’s when we start to see those numbers go up. And that’s often an indication that we need to switch treatment, even before a patient develops symptoms related to their myeloma.  


When a patient goes into remission, they’re often placed on a maintenance therapy. What’s the role of maintenance therapy in myeloma care?   

Dr. Derman:

Yeah. So, maintenance, just to specify, is typically something that we call a long duration of usually, less intensive therapy after a more intensive schedule of therapy. So, the most common area that we talk about maintenance is after, let’s say, an autologous stem cell transplant, which came after induction therapy that I mentioned.  

But for patients even who don’t go to a stem cell transplant, they can also go on maintenance therapy. So, when we think about the frontline setting, which in this case would be induction transplant maintenance, the most commonly used drug is a single agent lenalidomide. And that’s been shown to have survival benefits not just in keeping the disease away, but also helping patients live longer. So, maintenance therapy does seem to carry some real importance. One of the things though that we don’t know, is really how long patients need to be on maintenance therapy.  

So, we can all accept I think in the myeloma field, if there’s one thing we can agree on, is that maintenance is important. But the question is, what makes up that maintenance therapy? And then how long? Those are questions we don’t really have the best answers to. And actually, one of the areas that I do quite a bit of research in is about this, how long do patients need to be on therapy?  

So, we recently published some – we presented at ASH this year in 2022, some recent data, at least a preliminary data on patients who had really deep responses, and who we stopped their maintenance therapy after at least one year – but the average was about three-and-a-half years on maintenance therapy – to see if the disease would actually be at risk of coming back.  

And so, what we’re finding is that even in the first year, about 85 percent of patients did not have their disease come back after stopping therapy. So, maintenance therapy is certainly important, but I think we still have to figure out how long patients need to be on that therapy.  


Right. And I can imagine that each person, each patient is different, and some – the maintenance therapy would work really well for them for a long period of time. For others, not necessarily.   

Dr. Derman:

Yeah. I mean, a lot of it comes down to the risk there of the patient’s myeloma. And what I mean by that is – so, somebody has explained to me previously, and I really like the analogy that myelomas are kind of like people. They have different personalities, and they give first impressions. And sometimes your first impression of a myeloma may end up being wrong. You thought it was going to be really hard to treat and you found out that it actually responded pretty nicely to therapy. And other times, it’s the other way around.  

But for the ones that give us a bad first impression, we’re going to be treating those patients typically more aggressively. At least that’s my personal approach. And I take that all the way through from induction, to transplant, even into maintenance therapy where I mentioned already, most people will prescribe a single drug as maintenance therapy. But for those patients, I’m typically going to be prescribing more than that. Or I will continue more aggressive therapy for longer. So, that’s where you have to sort of adapt your therapy in some cases to the patient and their disease characteristics.  


Related to maintenance therapy, we received this question before the program. How do doctors feel about maintenance breaks if you are MRD-negative? Or in a very good response?   

Dr. Derman:

So, I want to be very careful about how I respond to this. Because what I’m going to say is, there’s currently no data to tell us that patients should stop. I mean, in part that’s, you should stop therapy. In part that’s what I’m hoping that we can answer with our study. There’s another large cooperative group study trying to answer this as well, about the duration piece and whether people can stop.  

So, a very good partial response signifies at least a 90 percent reduction in the tumor, in the myeloma, but not 100 percent.  

And there’s also a complete response, which means there’s no detectable disease by conventional methods in the bone marrow or in the blood, but that there can still be microscopic or low levels of cancer cells which we call minimal residual or measurable residual disease. Also called MRD.  

So, MRD negativity is a not so nascent field now, where we are trying to quantify small amounts of cancer cells that may still be present. And the theory is that the presence of residual disease at a small measurable level is what’s ultimately responsible for myeloma relapsing.  

We used to think like, “Oh, a patient is in a complete response. That’s amazing. Let’s clink our champagne glasses. Let’s celebrate.” And there’s still cause for celebration for that. That is a great achievement. But we know that that doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. If there is MRD-positive disease, then the disease, it can likely come back. And that’s where suppression of the disease with something like maintenance therapy with lenalidomide is probably helping a lot.  



Dr. Derman:

But let’s say we have people who don’t have detectable disease, the question is, can they stop? And like I mentioned, we’re trying to answer that question. I would say right now, there’s no recommendation for that. I can’t say in good faith that you should be doing that, unless it’s as part of a clinical trial, which is what we’re hoping to answer. 


Let’s get to a few audience questions, Dr. Derman.   

Craig sent in this question prior to the program. “My primary side effect is fatigue.” And you just mentioned that. “What advice do you have for planning activities through the day?”  

Dr. Derman:

So, this is a very common side effect that we see. In part, it can be from the disease itself. And if that’s the case, it’s going to get better as treatment works. In other cases, it’s due to the treatment itself. And sometimes there are controllable aspects. If it’s a pill, let’s say, where you can control the timing of when you take it. I often tell patients, “Take the drug at night. Because if it makes you tired, at least you’re going to be going to sleep at that point.”  

I do think making sure that you have a good night’s sleep is important. I think making sure that you keep your day-night cycles. So, even if you feel fatigued and you’re at home, it’s not good to be having the windows closed and not being exposed to the outdoors at all. You need light during the day. That’s a normal human need. We do the same thing when patients are in the hospital, and it’s very easy to get your day and night cycles messed up.  

And the other thing too is planning periods of the day when you know that your activity level is going to be, or your energy level is going to be higher, and planning your activities around those times. I think those are at least some important things that we can do.  


Yeah. Lauren wants to know, what is the best way to measure current immunity status? And should we mix COVID vaccine and flu vaccine?  

Dr. Derman:

Mm-hmm. This has become sort of a hot button issue all of the sudden over the last few years. Well, so, as far as immunity status, I wish there was a one good test that we could know.  

I mean, there are some features. Patients who have low white blood cell counts, especially low neutrophil counts, are certainly going to be at higher risk for infection. And that can happen due to myeloma, or more commonly, due to therapies. We can look at immunoglobulin levels, especially the IgG level. Patients who have IgG levels typically less than 400 milligram per deciliter seem to be historically at higher risks of infections. So, something called IVIG, which is an infusion of donated antibodies from plasma from healthy donors, can be used for that.  

There’s been a lot of discussion about, how do we know immune status related to COVID? And there are antibody levels that can be checked, but the truth is nowadays most people have high antibody levels, even if they’re on therapies because of the number of vaccines they received or natural infection. And it may not be a really good surrogate for understanding immunity to COVID. COVID’s outsmarted us time and time again, and probably will continue to do so.  

As far as the vac – I mean vaccines are super important. We do this for all our patients after transplant as well, revaccination them for all of their childhood vaccines. As far as the COVID and flu, I personally – I’m happy and feel fine administering both at the same time. We’ve seen no real safety signals there in my anecdotal experience. But I’m perfectly fine if patients want to split them up. It’s not something that is a 10 out of 10 for me. It’s more that it is as long as they’re getting both, I think that’s really important.  


Yeah. One final question for you. Jennifer asks, “Many new medications for treatment were mentioned. And I’m sure these could be expensive. What are the options to make these available financially for patients who need them?”  

Dr. Derman:

That’s a really good question, and one that we don’t yet have great answers to. As a physician, I don’t receive compensation based on the drugs that I prescribe. And so, I do know – I often have a good sense of what these drugs cost. A lot of the costs that are passed along to patients typically revolve around oral therapies. Even patients who are on Medicare, or sometimes especially patients who are on Medicare. And looking at some of the policy changes that seem to be coming down the pike that include capping Medicare out of pocket costs for medications will be a huge benefit to our myeloma patients.  

It’s important to familiarize yourself with different organizations and the financial support that may be available. Just to name a few, and you’re not limited to these, but The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society does a really great job in providing financial support to patients. But there are definitely other programs that can be contacted for this.  

And also, a lot of the pharmaceutical companies will actually have patient assistance programs as well. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking your provider, and typically they will have their team look into this for you. But we’re fortunate to have a team of pharmacists and my nurses as well who are used to doing this kind of thing. So, it’s important to look into those as well.  


Right. And so, there are lots of resources out there, it’s just asking your healthcare team what they are. Right.  

So, these were all really great questions, and we ask our audience to continue sending in questions to question@powerfulpatients.org. And we’ll work to get them answered on future programs.  

Dr. Derman, what advice do you have for patients? What would you like to leave the audience with?  

Dr Derman:

You know, myeloma is a funny – it’s a funny disease in the sense that patients who were diagnosed 10 years ago, who I still see, they remind me of the action movie where the building is maybe blowing up in the background, blurred out, and they’re running out of the building just in time. And that is because the pace of progress is fast enough in myeloma that we have all these new therapies coming down.  

So, really, I think maintaining hope and thinking about – don’t worry so much about what’s going to happen next. Figure out what you’re going to do now, and make sure that you’re living your best life now, and making sure that you’re doing what you can to treat your disease, I think, and help you feel good during that period too.  



Dr. Derman:

So, I think it’s a message of hope mainly, that I feel really good about the future of myeloma. There’s a lot of innovation in this space that you can feel good about.  


Yeah. Dr. Derman, thank you so much for joining us today. It was a pleasure talking to you.  

Dr. Derman:

Likewise. Thanks so much.  


And thank you to all of our partners.  

To learn more about myeloma and to access tools to help you become a proactive patient, visit powerfulpatients.org. I’m Katherine Banwell. Thanks for joining us.  

PODCAST: Myeloma Patient Expert Q&A: Start Here

In this myeloma patient expert Q&A, Mayo Clinic expert Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi provides highlights around the myeloma novel alphabet soup and actionable steps on how patients and care partners can start the treatment conversation.

About the Guest:
 Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi is a Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology/Oncology at Mayo Clinic Florida.

See More from the Empowered! Podcast


Lisa Hatfield:

Hello and welcome, my name is Lisa Hatfield, your host for this Patient Empowerment Network program. In this important dialogue, we bridge the expert and patient voice to enable you and me as a myeloma patient to feel comfortable asking questions of our healthcare teams with more precision, more precision, the world is complicated, but understanding your disease doesn’t have to be. The goal is to create actual pathways for getting the most out of multiple myeloma treatment and survivorship. Joining me today is Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi, a respected multiple myeloma expert from Mayo Clinic. Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Ailawadhi, we really appreciate your time.

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

Thanks a lot, Lisa, for having me, and I look forward to this program.

Lisa Hatfield:

Okay, so before we get started, please remember to download the program resource guide via the QR code, and we are going to jump right into a discussion about some of the novel therapies that there is much buzz about right now, and it’s kind of an alphabet soup these novel therapies. I actually was trying to digest all of this information and divide it into the general categories. And correct me if I’m wrong, but we have monoclonal antibodies, we have bispecific antibodies like the CAR-T therapies, and they target different things. We have BCMA, we have GPRC5D, FcRH5, we have things called antibody drug conjugates and cell mods.

So, Dr. Ailawadhi, if you can just give us kind of a broad overview of these therapies and how they may be used to harness our immune system, and how they come into play when you’re treating your patients, how and when they come into play when treating your patients.
Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi: 

Surely, so I think thanks a lot for bringing up that discussion, this is extremely important, and I think it’s most important because if a myeloma patient goes online and wants to search for information or research, these things start coming up this term starts coming up. So it’s extremely important for a knowledgeable and empowered patient to learn about these, understand them, so that they are able to digest that information.

And I should mention that a lot of what we’ll talk about about these particular treatments may not be applicable to newly diagnosed patients or a recently diagnosed patient, but this is important enough and exciting enough that I would want every single patient to pick up this information. Learn it hopefully, and maybe park it for now somewhere, so that hopefully down the road it becomes important and handy. So you asked about monoclonals, bispecific, CAR-Ts, cell mols, etcetera. Let’s take a step back, let’s think about these as strategies to target myeloma.

Myeloma treatment is going through a change where immunotherapy and harnessing the body’s own immune system is becoming extremely important. And when we do that, the immunotherapy is typically very targeted, so what these drugs these agents, these terms, this alphabet soup is doing is it is targeting specific markers on the myeloma cell on the plasma cell.

For example, one of the markers is CD38. There is a monoclonal antibody. There are actually two monoclonal antibodies. Daratumumab (Darzalex), rituximab (Rituxan) that are FDA-approved, but there are other ways of targeting CD38, for example, CD38 targeting CAR-T cells, CD38 targeting antibody drug conjugates, etcetera. So CD38 is one important part. A very, very, very important thing in the past one year or a year-and-a-half has been what’s called B-C-M-A, B cell maturation antigen. BCMA is another target on plasma cells. Very effective, very specific.

So there are many, many drugs that are available and becoming available to target BCMA. Right now, there are three drugs that are FDA-approved that can target BCMA. Two of them are CAR-T cells, a particular way of going after BCMA in which the body’s own T cells are collected. These are not stem cells, these are T cells, T lymphocytes, these T cells are collected, they are actually genetically modified to go and fight against the BCMA, and then those modified T cells are multiplied in the lab and given to the person as a drug, they go and seek the plasma cells because of BCMA kill them harnessing the body’s immune system.

So there are two CAR-T cells against BCMA, one called ide-cel (Abecma) and one called cilta-cel (Avekti). There has recently been available a bispecific antibody against BCMA, we call it bispecific because it connects to BCMA from one end and from a second it connects to the body’s T cells again, bring the T cells close to the plasma cells to kill them. Then bispecific antibodies called teclistamab (Tecvayli). And until recently there was another drug available against BCMA which was what’s called an antibody drug conjugate. This drug is called belantamab (Blenrep) for the timing, belantamab has been removed or withdrawn from the market in the US, but there are ongoing clinical trials and down the road, it may come back again.

Now, antibody drug conjugate is another way of targeting something in which there is a seeker for the BCMA in this case, and it has a payload of some kind of a toxin, so that when the drug connects to the plasma cell through the BCMA in this case, that toxin is released, it can kill the cell, so either we harness the body’s immune cells, the T cells by CAR-T or bispecific, or we kill the cell by releasing a toxic payload from a drug, antibody drug conjugate, these are all different methods of targeting the myeloma cell.

So I talked to you about monoclonal bispecific CAR-T and ADC as different strategies, CD38 and BCMA, some of these strategies are available, but there are other targets which are very exciting and new drugs are being developed against them, two of the very interesting targets there one is called GPRC5D, and the other is FcRH5. 

These GPR5CD or FcRH5 are two different targets on myeloma cells. No drugs are currently FDA-approved, but they are being developed very rapidly, and we have a couple of extremely promising agents which will be coming down the pipe. And you also mentioned something called cell mods. Cell mods are some newer drugs in the family of what’s called IMiDs or immunomodulators, in which our patients may be aware of thalidomide (Thalomid), lenalidomide (Revlimid), and pomalidomide (Pomalyst). The cell mods are kind of the same family, and there are a couple of them that are also being developed.

So why is this important for everybody, whether they are newly diagnosed or relapsed or long-term survivor with myeloma, because this tells you that not only are we getting newer drugs in the same classes, we are also getting brand new classes of drugs. And you can imagine that means that those brand new strategies are ways to target the plasma cell, we know cancer cells are smart, and they develop invasive mechanisms to become resistant to drugs. But every time something gets resistant if we have a brand new mechanism to go against the disease, but that’s exciting because that’s why we are seeing deeper responses, even in very heavily pre-treated patients, because we are using newer specific, relatively safe, convenient strategies to going after the plasma cell.

I know that was a lot of information, but I hope this helps our listeners learn a little bit about what you rightly said is an alphabet soup, but I would like us to think about it as an exciting time for being a myeloma doctor, and certainly a very hopeful situation for all our patients.

Lisa Hatfield:

Thank you so much for that great description. And one question comes to mind that I have heard from other myeloma patients, and you mentioned that we are seeing deep responses, or they’re seeing deep responses in clinical trials for some of these in refractory relapse patients.

Do you think that bringing these…do you think it’s possible to bring some of these therapies to the forefront of myeloma care, maybe an induction therapy or after first relapse, and if so, do you think that that could lead to even deeper responses in those patients because their immune system isn’t quite so tired and potentially cure?

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

Again, Lisa, that is such an important and such a spot-on question that you’ve asked because absolutely, you can imagine, if we are thinking of harnessing the body’s immune system, the T cells, but we’re talking about patients who have had five, six, seven, then, prior lines of therapy. But that immune system is also a little exhausted, a little tired, but if you were to use the immune system of a newly diagnosed patient, patient who’s not been created that much…well, those T cells are going to be way more robust. Whether we use a CAR-T kind of strategy where we remove the T cells, train them and put them back, or we use a bispecific kind of strategy where we put in a drug that pulls the T cells closer to the myeloma cells and kills them using these smart thoughtful strategies which are not just dumb drugs that go in and kill everything, these are smart targeted drugs, using them early on in the treatment paradigm will certainly be more beneficial. In fact, there is some data showing up where some of these strategies like CAR-T cell are being used sooner in the treatment paradigm.

But again, as drug development goes, We first want to make sure it is safe, it is effective, and typically the starting point is patients who have exhausted other options, but very soon we will be seeing all of these strategies, and in fact, some of these strategies combined with each other coming in, early lines of therapy and hopefully providing excellent, deep responses, and you mentioned that term that has been very invasive for us cure, I don’t know if we are…

So we are not there yet. I don’t know how long it’ll take us to get there, but there is certainly much more hope today for getting to that cure than it was before.

Lisa Hatfield:

Thank you, and I think as a myeloma patient and on behalf of other myeloma patients, hearing about all of this research and how our immune system is being used to help us, does give all of us hope to keep continuing, and then you want a moving forward. And I think that was probably a good time to step into some questions here that we’ve received from other patients who have written in prior to this program. I will start with those, but I do want to take a step back, first of all, we’re going to kind of talk about a newly diagnosed patient and all of your explanation of all of these different therapies, these are things that typically are talked about later in therapy as of right now.

It also reminds me to tell everybody that there is great importance in seeking out the expertise of a myeloma specialist, I think everybody heard what Dr. Ailawadhi had to say about these therapies, really, even if it’s just when you’re newly diagnosed, going for a consult once and then maybe upon relapse going again, if you don’t live near it, a specialist, seeking out the expertise of a specialist is really critical.

I think I’ve had to do that and I’m so thankful I’ve been able to…we do have resources that we can guide you forward at Patient Empowerment Network, but I think it’s really critical to seek out that expertise of a myeloma specialist. So now we’re going to jump into our questions. So, thank you again, Dr. Ailawadhi.

So we have a patient asking for newly diagnosed patients, say a patient comes into you, maybe they were sent by their community oncologist or a family practitioner, something…I have myeloma, doesn’t know anything about it. Have even heard of it before. How do you start that conversation? How did you explain myeloma and the treatment and very importantly to the patient, how do you explain the prognosis when you know it’s not curable yet?

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

An extremely important question. And I agree that we should be starting at the beginning, so I think I had the privilege of working at an institution where we tend to spend a lot of face time with the patient, so typically in the outpatient, I have at least about an hour of time blocked is how we’re set up.

So at that visit, first of all, I’m hoping that a patient comes in with a caregiver, but if they don’t have a caregiver with them, I start off by asking them, Is there someone they would like us to call during the visit? Because it is always better to have a caregiver or an extra set of ears listening in, and once that has started, then I typically will explain to them literally from what is a plasma cell, what is the role of a normal plasma cell, because that tells us the type of proteins plasma cells produce.

And that leads us to how a plasma cell can become cancerous and lead to multiple myeloma, what are the signs and symptoms of multiple myeloma? What are the markers, these protein markers that come in the blood and are picked up as markers of disease for patients, because again, patients need to know what they’re looking for in the labs that are drawn, so very frequently.

We talked about the role of a bone marrow biopsy, a lot of times it has been done, sometimes it has to be done after that visit, we talk about the genetic mutations in plasma cells that can be seen because that is what helps determine the risk category of standard risk or high risk.

I do offer to patients about discussing the prognosis, again, it’s a good time where we know that the average survival of patients is close to about 8 to 10 years when they look at a general national data, U.S. data, but all the large centers, all of us who focus on myeloma, we have several patients who are living quite a bit in excess of 10 years, so more hopeful time, but it is important to put that prognosis in perspective with high risk or standard risk disease that can be determined based on mutation testing from the plasma cells from the bone marrow, something called the FISH test, part of it is to explain to the patient the prognosis, but other reason is also because sometimes that can determine the type of treatment, and this also importantly tells the patients about their disease much better, so they can be more educated, they can interact with other patients, they can ask the right kind of questions, and they can understand their disease process and follow-up better.

Now, after we have discussed all of this, we start talking about treatment, I can tell you when I talk to a newly diagnosed patient, I will tell them that in my way of thinking their treatment initially is broadly divided into three different discussions during three different visits. The initial visit is talking about any symptom or sign from the myeloma, increased calcium, kidney dysfunction and tumors, how are we going to tackle that? So we will come up with the right “induction regimen.”

I really don’t think one-size-fits-all, so based on the patient’s age, comorbidities, other diagnosis or the treatment drugs, family support system, financial situation, there are so many factors that go into it. We come up with an induction regimen, I’ll tell them that the second component is about controlling all the symptoms and manifestations of the disease, whether that means radiation therapy, bone-strengthening agents, multivitamins, minerals, whatever we need to do as supplements, then we’ll talk about…starting that treatment. What does it involve? Side effects, we will set that path, you will notice I have not even talked about transplant, and I’ll tell the patients that only thing I mentioned to patients in that first planning, visitors and down the road, we will be talking about transplant…

Today is not the time, because, in my experience at the moment, we start talking about bone matter, transplant, stem cell transplant everything goes out the window. That’s what patients think about…and I don’t want them to do that. The second part of my discussion comes around a month or so into the treatment, because by then we want to start seeing some responses, some symptoms turning around, but that month two to three is very importantly the time to rebuild things.

Does the patient need to go to physical therapy, pain control? Supportive or palliative care services? Lipoblasty or tuboplasty to strengthen their spine. I mentioned physical therapy, I’ll say it again, because I really think that’s very, very, very important for controlling the pain and supporting the movement and quality of life, managing any side effects, making sure that the dose is correct, do we need to tweak the doses, etcetera. And at that visit is tell them that, “Okay, very soon we will be talking about…we’ll be going into the details of a transplant, we will be passing along more information to you. But at your next visit, which would be probably at that two- to three-month mark, two- to three-cycle mark,” is when I will really sit and talk to them about our transplant…

So for me, the main transplant discussion comes at that cycle to recycle the two to three, two to three cycles have already gone and patients feeling better, they are much more receptive for the next phase of treatment, which is when we talk about transplant, that’s how I do it, typically. And then we’ll explain a lot about what this transplant need…what does it involve? Caregiver needs a supportive care, vital organ testing, bone marrow biopsy, response depth, MRD, all of that.

So for me, this is kind of the journey that a patient, newly diagnosed patient goes through for the first few months, then their transplant, then their maintenance and hopefully good long disease control state.

Lisa Hatfield:

Great, how often do you expect a patient will have to have appointments during that…talk about the induction phase, the first month to three months, how often do you think they will have appointments, whether it’s for treatment or to come see you? What should they expect that way?

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

Sure, so the regimens that we typically use in myeloma, some of them, the drugs are given twice a week, a majority of the way we give the drugs, it’s once a week, so one to two times a week would be visits, we do the labs for the first month, we will do sometimes every week, but by the time the patient has gone to the second or third cycle, once every two to four weeks, labs are reasonable because by then things have stabilized, but the treatment still would, I think the once or twice every week depending upon the regimen that they have, we don’t typically see the patient for a clinic appointment every time, but a lot of centers do, so every time the patient comes, as I said, one to two times a week, typically that translates to about four visits in every three to four weeks they coming on the cycle, some regimens are three week regimens, some regimens are four week regimens, etcetera.

So patients come, I can say that the first one to two months are most intensive for follow-up for labs, we want  to make sure everything’s been fine, been start reading the treatment, they are not having side effects it and etcetera, and then things can be spaced out a little bit for the next couple of months before we go into the transplant thing, if the patient is going for transplant.

Lisa Hatfield:

Okay, well, great. Thanks for that information. It helps patients plan a little bit better to their life around myeloma and myeloma treatment, so we have a pretty specific question here about amyloidosis, so how often does amyloidosis occur in myeloma patients, and does it change the treatment if they do have amyloidosis?

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

Excellent question again. So I would like to clarify that amyloid is a specific kind of different kind of abnormal protein that can be produced by plasma cells. All of us have these proteins that are…these proteins that are developed as very…or produced in the body is very small molecules and then they fold upon themselves to make different building blocks for the body. If that folding process is misfolded or abnormal, these amyloid fibers can develop and they can deposit anywhere in the body, and whatever the deposit they cause their symptoms. Now, amyloid can be present in two different ways, either amyloid is the primary problem and is being produced by the plasma cells, or sometimes patients who have multiple myeloma and are on treatment for multiple myeloma can either start developing some amyloid protein or…or they can have amyloid deposited in certain organ, heart, kidneys, like the gut, etcetera, the occurrence of amyloid in a myeloma patient, it’s not a common phenomenon, I would say anywhere in 10 to 15 percent of cases that we know of, maybe this present, others that we don’t pick, but once even we find out that amyloid is present in a case of multiple myeloma.

If, for example, amyloid is present in the heart, if we are using any drugs that may have some heart-related side effects, we may need to adjust doses, if amyloid is present in the kidneys, if you’re using some drugs that have kidney-related implications, we may need to adjust the dose, etcetera, broadly, the treatment stays the same, but there is a higher risk to kidneys, higher risk to heart, etcetera in amyloid patients or patients who develop amyloid, so we have to take that into account, sometimes choice of treatment changes, sometimes dose of treatment changes sometimes impact on certain organs change broadly. For a myeloma patient who develops amyloid, the treatment can stay very similar to what would have happened even if amyloid was not present, except some small tweaks.

Lisa Hatfield:

All right, thank you. Another question from a patient since my diagnosis and bone marrow transplant, my teeth have been deteriorating, is there a connection between dental health and myeloma?

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

Very important question because although this is not a very common finding, it is something that really affects quality of life, so myeloma itself does not always or frequently cause teeth problems or dentition problems, which you can imagine teeth are bones. Myeloma affects bones, Myeloma affects calcium deposition in bone so teeth can get damaged in two or three different ways in myeloma patients, first, if myeloma involves the job or you can imagine that the teeth in that particular area could become loose or they could become a little off because the structure is getting affected.

Sometimes if my novels present on the job, for example, and radiation is given, but that bone becomes weaker, so teeth can become weaker, another way myeloma and dental health can be connected is because we use certain bone-strengthening agents for myeloma. These drugs are called either bisphosphonates, for example, or zoledronic acid (Zometa) or pamidronate acid (Aredia), patients may know as Zometa or Aredia, or there’s a second category called RANK ligand inhibitors, one of the drugs there is denosumab or Xgeva, these are all drugs that are given for bone-strengthening for myeloma. Patients are recommended to take calcium and vitamin D, but a rare but definitive side effect that is known to happen or can happen with these drugs is what’s called osteonecrosis of the jaw, where basically the jaw bone is becoming necrosed or less viable.

And you can imagine if the jaw is less viable, the teeth that go into the jaw in that spot, they’ll become loose and hurt, painful…it’s not a good condition to have it very…it affects quality of life significantly. So while it is rare, this osteonecrosis of the jaw can occur maybe less than 10 percent of the cases, but it is a significant morbidity-causing issue.

What I recommend to patients is that one, if that is happening, first of all, we’re not…we typically don’t continue that drug that is causing it, like a bisphosphonate or RANK ligand inhibitor. Secondly, the patient needs to see a good oral maxillofacial surgeon or a good dentist, preferably someone who has knowledge and experience in handling osteonecrosis of the jaw. So different ways in which myeloma treatment can affect the jaw, there is not a direct correlation, but in about 10 to 15 percent of cases, there may be jaw or teeth-related implications in myeloma patients either from the disease or its treatment like radiation or bone-strengthening drugs.

Lisa Hatfield:

Okay, thank you, and that’s a great segue into the next question we have from a patient, so if a patient cannot take bisphosphates doesn’t explain the reason why, are there other bone-building therapies that are recommended to protect them?

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

Sure, so I would say that while we talk about these drugs like bisphosphonates, RANK ligand inhibitors, there are some other drugs that can be used to strengthen the bones, because you can imagine these bone-strengthening agents are used in a lot of different cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, etcetera.

So this family of drugs can be used, there are some that are used less frequently, but can be used instead of bisphosphonates and denosumab, but I would bring the patients back to even more basic stuff, calcium, vitamin D, exercise, bone-strengthening exercise. These are the first steps. Then come the other bone-modifying drugs, so even if a patient has been told that they cannot get any of those drugs because of the side effects, they could certainly say calcium vitamin D after discussing with their doctors, and they can regularly do some bone-strengthening building exercises sometimes it’s as simple as swimming, as simple as spinning, but those are like on the stationary bike, but those are extremely important activities to help build bone mass.

Lisa Hatfield:

All right, thank you. Have you ever had a patient that has reached complete response that you said, Well, maybe you don’t need to continue on bisphosphonates, that ever an option for patients to not continue after a certain period of time?

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

Again, excellent question. And, in fact, historically, all the bisphosphonate-related clinical trials had up to a two-year follow-up, so a lot of times we used to say, “Well, at two years we need to stop them because there’s no safety data beyond that.” But more recently, there are studies that have shown that even every three months of bisphosphonates is as good as every month. So if somebody has active bone-affecting myeloma, then their treatment can be given every month or every three months.

But if a person has gone into remission, and remember, the myeloma was the inciting event that was causing the bone loss, if there is no disease, if there are no active bone lesions and the person is in good health, they  are active…no bone-related issues. You’ve done imaging. Everything is good. I think it certainly it can be done that the bisphosphonate can be stopped. And, of course, this needs to be actively discussed with the patient, but frankly, other than having the side effect concern, if I can have a patient not come in for a treatment and they can spend that much extra time with their family doing what they want to…I think that’s a win-win.

Lisa Hatfield:

All right, thank you. So another patient asking, I was told I’m in remission, but my light chain numbers are going up and the lambda is low. Are small fluctuations common?

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

Very good question. And very important to keep in mind, yes, small fluctuations in light chains can happen as the patient mentioned, they said their light chain are going up, but lambda is low, so I’m assuming they’re talking about their kappa light chains higher and the lambda low. For light chains, the most important thing is that we don’t want just an individual isolated value, we want to see a trend if there is an upward trend in one of the values, the abnormal light chain, that is certainly a concern if the involved or the higher light chain is stable.

But the uninvolved or the lower light chain continues to go down. Well, that is still of concern, but may not mean that the disease is coming back, it may mean that the immune system is getting affected a little. All said and done, light chains are very volatile, they are very…they can fluctuate, they can get affected by our kidney function, they can get affected by our hydration status. So if there is a concern with light chains, they should be re-checked and there is a persistent movement of light chains in a certain direction that is an important time to figure out, is the disease coming back or is there another reason that the light chains are changing.

Lisa Hatfield:

Okay, how often do you check those labs in your patients, their light chain?

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

For somebody who’s on active treatment, we check the light chains, we do the whole panel of myeloma lab reassessment with? Electrophoresis, immunoglobulins, light chains, we do that on a monthly basis for somebody who’s on active treatment, that they are… Some patients who are on maintenance and who are doing perfectly fine, and they typically come every three months to clinic visits on maintenance over there, although I prefer to check them every month, but I certainly know logistic challenges and frequency, so sometimes in selected cases, we’ll check it every three months, but in a patient who has been diagnosed with myeloma on treatment or has been on treatment before, personally, I don’t go beyond three months in any case.

Lisa Hatfield:

Okay, those are good guidelines for patients looking forward, especially newly diagnosed patients. All right, what are we learning about monosomy 13 in myeloma, is it a high-risk marker for myeloma?

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

So, Lisa I think that’s an extremely important question because there has been historically a lot of discussion about a deletion 13, monosomy 13 deletion 13, meaning a portion of the 13th chromosome missing. Monosomy 13 meaning one…so half of the chromosome missing, because everybody has two of each chromosome, one set from the father, one from the mother, so one set is missing, that is monosomy, or one arm is missing its monosomy if a portion of the chromosome is missing deletion. Historically, quite some years ago, deletion 13 or monosomy 13 was in itself a high-risk marker, then the drugs or called the pareso inhibitor family, in which one of them is bortezomib came about and it showed that whether the patient had deletion 13 or not outcomes were similar when they got bortezomib so, it was no longer a high-risk marker.

In current day and age, there are certain mutations that are considered high risk, monosomy 13 or deletion 13 by itself is not considered a high-risk marker, but the co-presence of deletion 13 or monosomy 13 with some other mutations is considered higher risk just because it is telling us about more widespread genetic damage in the myeloma genetic material.

So for example, if somebody has a mutation called 1-Q, as some patients may read in their FISH report, if that 1-Q co-exists with deletion 13 or month, the risk of that one can is even higher. So by itself modulators, but it’s co-existence, but some other mutations bring up the risk category higher.

Lisa Hatfield:

Okay, thank you. And just to clarify for maybe somebody who’s just learning about their myeloma diagnosis and the cytogenetics of that, when you’re talking about these mutations, are you specifically talking about these mutations are only in the myeloma cells, they aren’t all in their body, and they’re overall in any other cells, just the myeloma cell.

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

Absolutely, you’re spot on. So these mutations that are tested in the abnormal plasma cells from the bone marrow, which the term used for that is somatic mutation, disease-related mutations in the disease cells, these are not mutations that we were born with or we inherited, so if somebody was to take a sample from a healthy blood cell or in my lumping shop from the mouth or a spit sample that is not expected to carry these mutations, it is only the cancerous abnormal plasma cells from the bone marrow or a myeloma cell that have these mutations.

Lisa Hatfield:

All right, thanks for clarifying that. Great, what are some of the clinical predictors for relapse in myeloma and when should patients speak up?

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

Okay, so when we say clinical predictors of relapse, well, let me look at this from the standpoint of a patient’s been diagnosed, they’ve been treated, which patients are more likely to relapse is one way of looking at, and if we are looking for our following up, Iain, what are we monitoring to look for relapse. So I’ll address mutates very quickly. So when we say what are the predictors of earlier relapse, the most important things that we know of are on any of the high-risk mutations we’ve been talking about, the fact that it’s standard of care to look for any genetic mutations in the center diseased plasma.

So the myeloma cells, presence of any high-risk mutations, for example, there’s one called deletion 17p to certain chromosome mutations like 14;16 translocation, etcetera. Patients should be aware of what mutations their plasma cells have, having high-risk mutations, risk of early relapse or short duration of response. Similarly, if a patient does not get a deep response to their prior treatment, they are more likely to come out of that response state sooner. One of the tests that has recently been used over the past few years, there’s something called the MRD test, minimal residual disease test, looking for one myeloma cell out of 100,000 or even one million bone marrow cells. 

If somebody’s MRD-negative, they are more likely to have a longer duration of response. If they’re MRD-positive, meaning detectable disease on MRD test, comparatively shorter duration of response, etcetera. So these are predictors of earlier relapse, there are some other predictors like kidney dysfunction, and typically that happens if somebody has persistent kidney dysfunction because they don’t typically get access to all the drugs, typically relapse occurs sooner.

Now, when somebody is getting monitored for their disease, as I mentioned, we do labs every so frequently every month, every two months, every three months. That is what involves all the myeloma markers, serum electrophoresis is to look for M spike, free light chains, look for light chain changes. We know globules look for increases in immunoglobulins, and that’s what helps pick up the recurrence of the disease.

Lisa Hatfield:

Why do some myeloma patients experience chronic kidney disease?

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

So Lisa, I think that’s a very important question. Kidney dysfunction can be seen in as much as 20 percent of patients at the time of diagnosis, and there are a significant number of patients who would have kidney dysfunction even as they go on with their myeloma journey. And something that I work on quite a bit, and I’m interested in this healthcare disparities. I just want to point out that patients who are African Americans do tend to have a much higher incidence of kidney dysfunction and need for kidney dialysis with myeloma at the time of diagnosis or even with treatment. Now, I mentioned that these…or we discussed previously that these plasma cells, that normally live in the bone marrow, they produce these proteins and these proteins, heavy chains, light chains are part of our body’s immune system. But when these plasma cells become cancerous, they produce a higher amount of those abnormal proteins, these proteins circulate in the blood, and they frequently get depositing the kidneys.

So when these proteins are very high in number, an amount, these proteins can circulate in the blood and clog up the kidney tubules, and that’s where some chemical reactions also happen and kidney damage can occur. When somebody gets diagnosed with myeloma and they have kidney dysfunction, we have the option of the opportunity to reverse that kidney dysfunction if we treat the disease appropriately and with the right kind of drugs fast enough.

In fact, there is some older data study data, which shows that within the first two months, we are able to reverse the kidney function, then it is no longer a prognostic significant marker. And it’s extremely important if somebody’s kidney function is getting affected by their myeloma, that they need to be treated very aggressively to try and salvage and save that kidney function because the longer the kidney dysfunction stays, it is quite possible that it may become irreversible.

Lisa Hatfield:

Okay, thank you. So this next question has to do with the sequencing of treatments, which again, speaks to the fact that it’s super important to see a myeloma specialist, but the question is what treatments are available for myeloma patients who relapse after care?

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

Very, very important question, and unfortunately a tough situation that we are dealing with because CAR T initially has been used for later lines of therapy as it is currently FDA approved with time, hopefully it will start making it may sooner in the treatment also, but when a person…when a patient has had treatment with CAR T, generally, they have already had treatment with most of the standard available drugs prior to CAR T, because the way CAR T is currently FDA approved is the patient has to have at least four prior lines of therapy, and generally, at least in the U.S. system, with the first three to four regimens or lines of therapy, we’ve already seen and exhausted most of the available drugs.

So you can imagine most CAR T, there is less drug availability that the patient has not had before or may not be resistant to, but if the CAR-T response lasted long enough, sometimes we are recycling some of the drugs after previously used, and the patient may respond to them again.

Another thing to think about in that place is from my standpoint, clinical trials are extremely important and patients must seek clinical trial options, as you mentioned, again, important to see a specialized myeloma center, but one of the drugs that was approved in 2022 bispecific antibody, teclistamab (Tecvayli), and there are some other related by specific antibodies which have actually shown some benefit despite the fact that they also target BCMA, which art targets, but patients who had prior BCMA therapy still had a very good response rate to, for example, teclistamab or some other…bispecific antibodies in clinical trials, so I don’t say that everybody who’s been treated with a BCMA CAR T should go immediately to a BCMA and bi-specific may not be the best option in all cases, but sometimes recycling older drugs in certain different combinations, clinical trials or options promising options like bispecific antibodies. We do have more jobs today than even what we had a year ago for patients who are progressing after CAR T-cell therapy.

Lisa Hatfield:

And that is really promising, I think as more and more people get CAR T-cell therapy and perhaps start to relapse. It is great to know that there are other options out there. They’re even, like you said, recycling some of those prior regimes that were used, and even talking about CAR-T therapy or clinical trials, this next question has to do a little bit with the disparity and access for myeloma treatment.

So the question is, myeloma treatment is expensive, with quadruplet therapy options, what measures are being taken that can help patients to have equal access, and I think that we can also add clinical trials to that too. Is there anything being done, or how can you encourage patients to have equal access, whether it’s the drugs themselves or clinical trials?

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

So absolutely, I think, Lisa, that’s an extremely important question as I mentioned, this area of healthcare disparity in health care, inequity, for example, is something I’ve spent a lot of time doing my research my career and publishing in this area. Unfortunately, in today’s day and age, we still have a lot of these disparities that exist, patients may not get access to the right drug or the  right time because of their geographical region, because of their insurance, their education status, socioeconomic status, and sometimes even in other…situations being similar, just their race and ethnicity. Age is an important factor.

Also, I would say there…I think the important part is that it is much more knowledge, awareness, and intent to do something about it now, there’s, for example, in the forthcoming clinical trial that should be opening for really diagnosed patients across the country, soon through NCI and CTAC where the trial has been specifically designed to do it in as close to real world setting as possible, and when we were writing that trial, there’s a specific racial, ethnic minority accrual plan that we are writing around it, and that’s not…I would say just that trial, there are trials that are now specifically going in trying to enroll patients as much as possible from the real world and all walks of life.

And that’s said. I think the bigger question comes, like you started the question by asking the trials are there…we are trying to make a difference for trying to make some changes, changing the inclusion criteria so that patients would even now our accounts can go in, etcetera, etcetera. What about the drugs that are already available, quadruplet therapy, which is a pretty, I would say, demanding approach, because the patient needs to get multiple drugs multiple times, frequent visits back and forth to the clinic, co-payments office visits, labs, etcetera. It’s not easy.

Unfortunately, there are certain groups within our society that would have difficulty getting those access, but there are lots of resources that patients and caregivers can access, and hopefully those…help share some of the burden. These are either from the pharma companies or they could be from foundations or societies like the The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and several other such concerns whose goal is to try and provide an equitable and just access to the drugs and how to get the most evidence-based treatment to every single patient.

So there are quite a few of these efforts in our practice, what we strongly recommend is that the patients, of course, get this knowledge and information through support groups, through their physicians, but also searching for this information online or in a lot of the larger institutions, meeting with the social worker frequently helps gain access to our information about a lot of these resources. So I think a lot of work has been done there, but to bring it down to an individual patient’s level, how can I as a patient get access to something…

I think the patients will have to ask those questions either from their physician, their care team, a social worker, online resources, support groups, that information is out there, we are trying our best to get it to patients that hopefully patients can seek out some of that as well.

Lisa Hatfield:

Thank you for that. I think that’s a really important thing to bring up is the access to healthcare, we do have people in our local area, because we are a smaller community, were unable to seek out the care of a specialist and it has had a detrimental effect on their outcomes. And so I think having that discussion and being open to your patients so you can’t have a discussion or even refer them to the social worker is so important, so all patients get equal access, it’s one less thing that patients have to worry about when they’re already…stressed and overwhelmed with their diagnosis, so thank you for explaining that. Thanks for talking about that. We sure appreciate it. 

So for myeloma patients, even though our insurance companies, sometimes we have to argue with them a little bit as if we’re beating down doors to get a bone marrow biopsy, nobody loves those, I’m not sure why insurance companies think we would actually want that. But what do you see in the future, I know there’s talk about mass spectrometry. Every myeloma patient would love to hear the words, you’ll never have to have another bone marrow biopsy.

Do you see a future in that and some of these newer tests that are coming out?

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

Sure, I think that’s absolutely important to know because…yes, that’s the bane of our existence, unfortunately, disease primarily lives inside the bone marrow, so to get the true information…that’s where you go. So there are some tests that are being developed or researched, patients may have heard about what’s being termed, the liquid biopsy or taking a blood sample to identify plasma cells or disease, there’s a lot of research going on around it. But, unfortunately, it has not panned out yet, because by nature, plasma cells do not circulate in the blood, or if they circulate, it’s a very, very small amount, so it’s hard to pick it up from the blood and do the tests on it. But there’s a lot of research going on for it to get the plasma cells, get the FISH testing, and all the genetic testing from the blood. So stay tuned, hopefully we’ll get in that direction.

What you also mentioned, a test that’s been developed and done at Mayo Clinic is what’s called m-aspect or looking at these proteins, these M spikes, these light chains, the IgGs, etcetera. Looking at them at a molecular level and separating them based on their weight, because IgG kappa, for example, from one patient may be different from the IgG kappa that came from a different patient, but they can be separated out based on the weight, based on the molecular weight…on the size, and that can sometimes be used that how the test has been developed to use that property to identify and almost catalog and tabulate and follow that patient’s protein, so that we can hopefully collect or detect a recurrence sooner, note a deeper response to the treatment.

And in the future, hopefully, use that depth of response and that earlier recurrence as…or earlier detection of the protein as a surveyable matter of recurrence. I still think that it’s two different things, one is to look at the protein and note it at a deeper level to know whether the patients responded or relapsing, but so far, if you want to do those rotation testing, the FISH testing, and look at some of the characteristics of the myeloma, unfortunately, we do have to go to the bone marrow, but down the road, I’m hoping that those liquid biopsies and the blood tests will hopefully make it happen.

Lisa Hatfield:

Well, that would be music to my ears, even fewer biopsies would be great, so that would be awesome. Well, this was a great conversation, Dr. Ailawadhi, thank you so much on behalf of myself, and I’m sure a lot of myeloma patients and family members watching this, they’re so thankful and grateful for the time that you spend with us answering these questions, so thank you very much for your time, thanks for your expertise and I hope you enjoy the rest of your afternoon.

Dr. Sikander Ailawadhi:

Thanks a lot, Lisa. Thanks for having me, and I hope this was beneficial and interesting for the patients and their caregivers.

Myeloma Patient Profile: Sharing My Cancer Journey with My Daughter

Part 1

Myeloma Patient Profile: Sharing My Cancer Journey with My Daughter Part I from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

In this part one of three, Lori Sackett shares the journey of her multiple myeloma. She explains some of the symptoms she was facing before diagnosis to having to advocate to receive next-generation sequencing testing.

Part 2

Myeloma Patient Profile: Sharing My Cancer Journey with My Daughter Part II from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 In this segment of Lori’s story, Lori and her daughter discuss the importance of seeing a myeloma specialist, having a good support network, and the role her daughter played in Lori’s care.

Part 3

Myeloma Patient Profile: Sharing My Cancer Journey with My Daughter Part III from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Lori and her daughter share their biggest takeaways and pieces of advice for other newly diagnosed myeloma patients and their care parters/advocates.

Myeloma patient, Lori’s advice:

  1. Insist on seeing a myeloma specialist
  2. Take care of yourself physically and emotionally
  3. Look for people/support and allow them to help you
  4. Live for now

Myeloma care partner and advocate, Carleigh’s advice:

  1. During every appointment have at least one note taker
  2. Ask for a hard copy or print out of everything
  3. Create a way to stay organized
  4. Keep a list of questions
  5. Have a mindset of persistence and perseverance, and to maintain hope

Myeloma Patient Profile: Jeff Boero

When Jeff Boero shares his multiple myeloma patient journey, it’s clear that self-education has been a vital part of his experience. He was first diagnosed through his primary care physician who referred him to a general oncology group in the San Francisco area. They confirmed it was multiple myeloma. It soon became clear to Jeff and his wife that he perhaps needed a second opinion, and he was connected with the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) to their multiple myeloma specialist. 

The second opinion changed the approach to Jeff’s care rather dramatically. He was quickly scheduled for a stem cell transplant and subsequent maintenance after that. As Jeff recalls, “Through UCSF, I became eligible for a CAR T-cell immunotherapy trial in 2017. That was very successful and kept me disease-free and medication-free for about 2-1/2 years. And then I relapsed and went on another maintenance program. I became eligible for another clinical trial for a bi-specific T-cell engager (BiTE) that I’m on now and am having good results.”

Jeff was almost in complete denial about his diagnosis for the first 6 months. The diagnosis threw him into a world of terminology and treatment that was completely foreign to him. That sense of his diagnosis feeling foreign also started to lead into a certain level of depression — just not knowing what it is, how is it going to be treated, what it meant to his long-term survival. Jeff remembers, “So, with the encouragement of my wife as caregiver, I became more educated as I engaged in various conversations with specialists and participated in some of the PEN webinars. It  became clearer to me about what some of the options are and what they can be. Being engaged with UCSF really opened up the treatment options. With me becoming more educated and able to speak the language of myeloma, I was starting to understand the diagnosis as it was presented by UCSF. And it led to a much richer engagement in conversation with the oncologist and with the nurse practitioners.” 

As a cancer patient, Jeff views self-education as the key to empowering patients toward better care. It was through self-education that he learned about other options. Before becoming more educated, Jeff was mostly just listening and trying to absorb as much as he could and seemed to remember mostly bad news. According to Jeff, “There’s so much good news around myeloma treatment and available therapies. It was through self-educating and those conversations that my outlook brightened too.”

By patients educating themselves, they can start to ask questions about the clinical trial like: “What is it, and why is it going to show better results than my maintenance therapy?” And in conversation, patients can start to better understand the purpose of the clinical trial. “I think it’s important for patients to understand what they’re trying to accomplish through the clinical trial that wasn’t through their maintenance therapy. What is it about this trial that’s different that we haven’t addressed previously?” But patients can’t ask those questions unless they have at least a basic understanding of their cancer and how the various therapies approach the cancer cell. “But if you listen to webinars and things like that, you’re better able to have those conversations. As a matter of education as these opportunities arise, you’re able to have a much richer conversation with your oncologist and your care team about the benefits that could potentially be derived from the clinical trial.” 

Clinical trials have benefitted Jeff, and he recommends seeking an opinion that is dedicated to research of your specific cancer. Learning institutions have more access to emerging research and treatments that likely won’t be FDA-approved until 2 or 3 years later. “So if you as a patient can be at the forefront of some of these trials, that can be tremendous. I’m on therapies now that didn’t even exist when I was diagnosed. Research is moving quickly.”

Jeff senses some hesitancy among patients about clinical trials. “There’s this misconception that if you join a clinical trial, one group is getting the real stuff, and one group is getting the placebo. And the trials that I’ve been in, everybody gets the real thing, and everybody’s progress is tracked on their response to the real thing.” He knows trials can seem intimidating. Jeff went through his initial clinical trial, because he was almost out of options for conventional maintenance therapy. His cancer burden continued to increase, and he’d been through a number of different treatments. “The CAR T-cell program came up and seemed to be a perfect fit for me. So I did the clinical trial partially out of necessity, but I also had extreme confidence in my oncologist that he was promoting something that he thought would be most beneficial for me. I think it’s a matter of putting trust in your oncologist. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I’ve had good results and good response to both clinical trials.” He also feels that the sponsoring institution will give an honest appraisal of where the program stands and what the progress and success has been up to that point. 

Reflecting on the value of Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) and other resources, Jeff says, “I’ve gotten so much out of the PEN webinars that are provided and some other organizations. I’m a slow learner in this area but am absorbing as much as I can. I need to hear the same thing a few times before I start to absorb it and fully understand it. So I rewatch the PEN webinars, and it works for me.” He also suggests learning as much as one can but was advised early on to stay away from Google. “There’s so much out-of-date information. Whereas websites like Patient Empowerment Network’s and others have updated information that’s far more relevant. And I also find the navigation on the PEN website very easy to use.”

After meeting patients who don’t have the same level of health insurance benefits, Jeff feels a sense of gratitude. “I had tremendous support from my employer who in essence said take the time you need to get yourself well again. So I have a lot of gratitude for that support, my wife as caregiver, family, social support, my faith community, and for my proximity to UCSF that makes treatment very practical and very possible.” It’s opened his eyes in that regard. There are so many benefits that he has that others don’t have. “I’ve joined various support groups initially to gain support. Now things have come full circle, and I find that I’m at the other end of the conversation to give people comfort in what they could possibly be doing to improve their situation.”

Support Resources

Financial Assistance Programs

Financial Resources for Patients and Families

Health & Disability Insurance

Federal & State Benefit Plans

Is It Too Late for a Myeloma Second Opinion?

Sujata Dutta: Sharing the Journey

Check out Part I of Sujata’s story: Normalizing the Word Cancer


Sujata Dutta, Part 2 Sharing the Journey from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Empowered multiple myeloma patient, Sujata Dutta, shares an overview of her treatment from a stem-cell transplant to a clinical trial, and how she chooses to see the positives in her journey.


So once I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and I was actually informed about the standard of care. So standard of care with multiple myeloma today is typically a couple of cycles of chemo. So I had about five or six cycles of chemo to bring the M-spike to as low as you can, and then that’s followed with like a stem-cell transplant (an SCT) or bone marrow transplant – both are the same. In my case, it was an autologous stem-cell transplant which meant that I use my own stem cells which were extracted and stored and then given back to me.

 So then post-transplant, if the counts look good then you go into a maintenance routine. So I didn’t have succession of chemo before the stem-cell transplant. I had my stem-cell transplant at Mayo in Rochester, Minnesota and unfortunately, in my case, we did not achieve the results that we were expecting so my disease actually did actually not come down as much as we would have hoped. 

So, I had to go back on a chemo routine and I’m on that one right now. However, I actually am part of a clinical trial. I signed up to be part of a clinical trial that’s looking for newer ways of treatment which are shortening the time of treatment and also with the goal of improving the standard of you know care or like better lifestyle for the patients and like obviously longer life.

So, I’m part of a clinical trial that’s combining Revlimid and Daratumumab, which is like usually you would have an 8-hour hospital visit for the chemo, but in this I am just getting a subcutaneous injection in my belly. It’s a 5-minute injection so that’s not pleasant, but 8 hours compared to 5 minutes, it’s great.

So yes, I am back on chemo just so that we can bring the disease under control. But typically with standard of care with multiple myeloma is like couple cycles of chemo followed by a transplant. If you are eligible for one, and if you are ready for one, and then followed by maintenance. So that’s typically what happens with multiple myeloma.

But there are loads of other treatments that are coming up and researches that are happening, clinical trials that are happening, I would highly encourage it if you come across a clinical trial that interests you, speak to your doctors and see what they say. And if you’re eligible, it would be a great thing to do. I personally wanted to get involved in some kind of volunteering activity. I know that folks before me have done so much and I’m benefiting from that, I wanted to give back as well so I actually signed up for the trial. But other than that, that’s pretty much what the standard of care is today for multiple myeloma or what I know of.

I think one of the biggest takeaways from my cancer journey, I would say is learning to be appreciative of what I have. Learning the value of what I have, not that I did not know that, but I think this life changing kind of event that has happened has taught me even more of the value. For myself, what’s my worth? What’s the worth of somebody else in my life? What’s the worth of things around me in my life? And it has, so my journey has actually helped me understand these things and be appreciative of what I have. 

My husband he’s been my primary caregiver throughout this journey and we have actually like been on the journey together, so it has been an amazing journey I would say. 

We have discovered like a new relationship between us, like going for chemo, going to Mayo for 6 weeks, and we stay together and you know how much I appreciate what he has had to go through because of me. Like looking at me not being able to walk or not even being able to talk or even drink water because of the amounts of … that I had and supporting me through all of that. I really appreciated it. I appreciated my boys, like I have a 7th and a 6th grader, and for them to understand what I was going through and for them to be able to accept in the form that I was, has been great.

I have friends, I have family who have supported me throughout this so I really appreciate them being with me, being around me, supporting me, rooting for me, praying. There’s one thing that I tell everybody like you know there have been so many people known and unknown that have like you know helped me or prayed for me or rooted for me that I have no choice but to get better.

So you know I really appreciate what I have and I think I also appreciate the value of what I have, and like not think about what I don’t have. I am a believer that divine intervention happens, you don’t know why but everything has a reason and I think whatever happens, happens for the best. For even cancer, I think happens for the best.

For me to understand like what all I had and like how grateful I was for everything that I had. For me to go back to a hobby that I had almost forgotten. I paint, I used to paint and I’d almost given up on that through my journey. I was like I need to go back and do something else and I went back to painting. So like so many good things have come out of this, so you know I’m really grateful for whatever has happened and I’m quite positive for the future so I am looking forward to what’s in store for the future and I’m going to be positive keeping my fingers crossed. That’s my story for you.

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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


“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.


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.


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.

How Can Myeloma Patients Reduce Infection Risks During Medical Appointments?

How Can Myeloma Patients Reduce Infection Risks During medical appointments from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

How much of a risk are medical appointments for multiple myeloma patients? Myeloma expert Dr. Sarah Holstein explains infection risks of infusion appointments versus clinic visits – and shares how she’s helped to ensure safe visits for her patients.

See More From the Myeloma TelemEDucation Empowerment Resource Center

Related Resources:


What Are the Benefits of Telemedicine for Myeloma Patients?

Will Telemedicine Mitigate Financial Toxicity for Myeloma Patients?

How Will the Pandemic Impact Multiple Myeloma Trials? 



Dr. Sarah Holstein

So, I think the risk associated with going in to get your blood drawn is probably quite low. All health care providers are going to be masked. The time that is spent getting the blood actually drawn is quite low and generally are in and out. So, for what I’ve tried to do for patients is of course to minimize unnecessary lab draws and if possible, try to coordinate them with other tests that are being done that day or other visits that are being done that day, and the infusion appointments, of course are necessary. But again, I think the risk of going to an infusion appointment is quite low, where I think the risk gets a little bit higher is when you’re sitting in waiting rooms of clinics and some people are slipping their masks off to drink coffee or to do other things, like that. And so, on my end, what I’ve tried to do to reduce risk is to utilize telehealth appointments as much as possible so that patients aren’t spending time in waiting rooms, but again, some of the necessary evils are just that you have to get some labs drawn to make sure that it’s safe to administer chemotherapy to make sure that the treatment is working, and you also have to go to infusion appointments.

I will say I’m pretty strict about masking, so if I have a patient perhaps come in for an in-person visit and it’s the type of mask where it’s slipping off of their face as they’re talking, and we’ve all experienced those types of masks that fit fine until you actually start talking. I’ll get a replacement mask for them to really make sure that everybody, the healthcare providers, the team as well as the patient, and if there’s a family member with them or a safest can be, and that includes wearing a properly-fitting mask.

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.

Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop: 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 second of two-part series in which he shares his story from diagnosis to living his life with cancer. Read the first part to his story here.

 “Don’t hide the disease, pull it out into the open so that others can get the chance to at least try to comprehend what you may be going through. The catharsis of being able to share has a value beyond measure.”

In my third weekly visit involving my new post-transplant treatment, I made another realization about this treatment journey: things can always get a little trickier. In this instance, I showed up, ready for week three, and soon after my blood draws, the nurse came in and said that we have a problem. My already low neutrophil count, of which the accepted minimum is a 1.0 value, was now down around 0.6, and my platelets, which have largely vacillated around 90 to 110, were now down to 53. My understanding is that 50 is kind of like no man’s land for platelets. When you are taking a drug cocktail involving new drugs, you don’t know what is responsible for the changes to your blood counts, so the decision was made to hold off on the Pomalyst. Now, doing that is all well and good, but for me, the obvious question is, what is my M protein level. It takes about three weeks to get those blood results back, and so, I haven’t seen any of those values since the start of my new regimen.

At this point, you can either worry, or you can test your trust in your healthcare provider. I prefer the latter, but I am also a bit of a control freak and relatively impatient, so I don’t care much for waiting on M protein results. Then, when I have the updated results, what is the next move? There is a lot of “waiting for the other shoe to drop” going on with cancer treatment. I wish I had a more clever way to describe this phenomenon, but the shoe-dropping concept grasps the matter pretty well.

Cancer was in my family with my mom. My mom went from breast cancer, to mastectomy, to five-year remission, to metastasis to lymph nodes, then bones, to demise over a total 12-year period that included chemo and radiation therapy. Her cancer happened back in the 1970s and 80s, and an incompetent doctor simply dismissed a small pea-sized lump as nothing to worry about. As you can imagine that little lump soon led to the need for a mastectomy, and I am convinced that the surgery, while keeping my mom allegedly cancer-free, in fact was allowing the cancer to stew and wait for a chance to reappear. Ironically, the doctor took the same approach with her own breast cancer, except she did nothing in terms of treatment, and she passed soon after getting an advanced diagnosis.

I share this information about my mom because no one should have to go through that kind of process. Self-education is important, but that doesn’t eliminate the need for an expert. I look at it this way: I sell construction chemicals and their proper use involves some very thorough understanding of application conditions as well as the performance properties of a specific material. I would perhaps be regarded as an expert in the construction chemicals realm. I do not expect my oncologist to know anything about construction chemicals, nor would she pretend that she did, but if she had a need for her house, she might take the time to learn, but she still isn’t going to be an expert.

Conversely, I take the time to try to learn about my disease and the treatment involved, but I will not become an expert on treatment any more than my oncologist will become with construction chemicals. All this said, I am not the expert, but I know enough to be able to problem solve, and I am in a position where my oncologist is less familiar with my regimen and what decisions were made that led to going from Velkade to Revlimid. In my case, a big part of it was due to neuropathic side effects which have now been largely addressed by a non-neuropathic drug called Olazapine, which was prescribed to help mitigate the hyper side effects from the DEX steroid. I make this point because there might remain some utility in Velkade as a chemo maintenance drug, especially in the face of the current situation with my new treatment. I know that you can go back to prior treatments, and the fact is that most of these treatments only have a two-year efficacy period anyway. Why not get two more years from Velkade if I can? I have shared the idea with my oncologist with the notion that we don’t just ignore this as an option. Maybe my idea has zero merit, but I still want it first considered and then eliminated accordingly if that is the case. It is important to be actively involved in this process.

During my first hospital visit, I was lying on a gurney, and they were telling me of possible side effects beyond the respiratory and digestive effects. Even in my lousy state I asked about the kind of side effects. When they said that I could have cardiovascular issues, including blood clots or DVTs, I asked how we would know whether I had any DVTs. They said I might feel cramps in my lower legs, and I responded with, “You mean like I feel right now?” The point is, just as I have to ask my customers what they have observed with a construction chemical product as I try to diagnose the issue, so, too, must a doctor diagnose your symptoms, and being non-participatory definitely does nothing to aid your cause.

Put on your thinking cap and ask questions. If you have a caregiver, have them ask questions as well. I use the expression to advocate for yourself. I said that a few weeks ago to my oncologist, and she said, “Well, you’re doing a very good job of that.” I did not say anything in response, but I was thinking, “Heck yeah! This is my life we are talking about!

I will share a story about coaching high school co-ed soccer in the Fall of 2019. It is typical for a parent or parents to coach these teams. My kids are grown, but I still coach, which probably had these kids confused a little. I explained that I had been an assistant coach with the club for several years, and I knew that because of my cancer, I might not be able to continue much longer, so I asked, as the fulfillment of a Bucket List item, to have my own team, and that wish was granted. I didn’t want any assistance, just me.

I told the kids that I had cancer and BOOM, I instantly had their attention. Call it momentary obligatory deference to something serious. I explained to them I had two choices. I could stay at home and feel sorry for myself, or I could come here and have them feel sorry for me. Fortunately, the kids had figured out that I was a bit of a wise guy, so when I said that they laughed, which was my objective. But more important, I wanted to penetrate their 15- and 16-year-old cerebral cortices far enough that they realized I was standing here in front of them making fun of my own incurable cancer. The rest of the story is that this team had lost every single match the year before under a different coach (who by the way, had much more knowledge about soccer than I did), and under me they won every single match that following year, including the Soccer 5 tournament.

Now, that claim is rife with caveats and disclaimers, but here is what I want you to take away from this story: you can do nothing, or you can do something. It doesn’t have to be coaching soccer; maybe it is simply advocating for yourself or advocating on behalf of someone else. I think that perhaps if you stop and ask yourself, “How can I make a contribution to the world around me,” after fair consideration, you will be amazed at what you might come up with as a list of options.

Even though multiple myeloma may be incurable, I can still make a contribution that can leave a lasting impression on the world around me. I have a number of people who tell me they are amazed that I am so strong in the face of my disease. I honestly doubt that is true, but what is true is that, regardless of how hard it may be, I can be transparent in my process, and in so doing have an impression on people who may not have experience with cancer. With my simple openness, I can try to shed the mystery and mystique about the disease. I think that is the most important takeaway. Don’t hide the disease, pull it out into the open so that others can get the chance to at least try to comprehend what you may be going through. The catharsis of being able to share has a value beyond measure.

Read more patient stories here.

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.

A Compromised Immune System…Myeloma & Me

My year is off to a rocky start – Myeloma is wreaking havoc on my body and doing a number on my ever-weakening immune system. New Year’s Eve I went to the emergency room…. they ran tests and sent me home.  A few weeks ago, I went to the ER again as I have been puking nonstop, unable to hold down anything even those that go straight into my intestines via my GI tube. I was so dizzy I couldn’t handle it anymore. I figured they would do the normal treat and release but they didn’t. I spent 48 hours in the ER till they found me a room, my primary care physician came in and said, “I’m getting you out of here cause it’s most likely just an ear infection.”  Well that two days ended up being seven days and many doctors were called in, including a few of my previous specialists. He then called my oncologist who said yes, we will resume care just get her here. I then was at that hospital another seven days. They changed my formula after withholding some of my meds that entire time. Two weeks without Lasix and they wondered why my potassium bottomed out. Nothing makes sense about the time there but with my new feeds I’m doing well on.

So, I’ve been home a week now. My labs they drew Monday were normal. Potassium was 2.7 at the hospital and are 8.2 now. I had restarted my Lasix on Saturday before the labs were drawn. Of course, now I’m dealing with severe swelling. When I was weighed at the hospital I dropped from 204 to 130! No one is happy about the weight loss and I’m questioning if I need the Lasix, is it causing me to swell? So, I have an emergency cardiology appointment this week. I will also see my oncologist this week.

I’m also wondering if I have a blood clot as when I was in the hospital I started having numbness from the ankles to my feeding tube area!  So much going on ….and yes, I’m scared. My grandfather died from a clot going into his lung unnoticed by hospital personnel back in the 80s, I’ve told my care team about this and about the numbness and no one is taking me seriously. They called the doctor on record who did nothing either. Now my father found out he has clot issues in his legs (not his dad who had that clot but my moms, my father had to have surgical intervention to ease his).

TD March 2017All of this on top of dealing with cancer – too much for one person to deal with.  But no matter how poorly I feel and how worried I am for the future, I am reminded to advocate for myself and then others if I’m able to. I sometimes have a hard time remembering that myself…It’s going to be a long week

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