As a senior medical laboratory scientist at MD Anderson, I work behind the scenes to analyze the lab work of patients. My findings play a crucial role in helping our healthcare providers deliver the expert care that characterizes MD Anderson.
I recently experienced this care firsthand when I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
My diagnosis of multiple myeloma
My story began a year ago when I visited my family doctor for a routine checkup. I felt fine, so I was surprised when my lab work showed I was anemic. Further tests confirmed that I had multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells.
Before my doctor had a chance to tell me my diagnosis, I had reviewed my lab report in Mongraph. I analyze blood samples from cancer patients all day, so I know what multiple myeloma test results look like. Yet discovering that it was my the diagnosis was troubling. For the first time, I really understood how patients feel when they are told they have cancer.
I have always been proud to work at the No. 1 cancer center in the country. Knowing that I could entrust my care to MD Anderson gave me a sense of calm and comfort. I made an appointment and prepared to see my workplace in a new light as a patient.
Plan my multiple myeloma treatment
My first week as a patient included a whirlwind of appointments – blood work, PET scans, MRIs, and bone marrow biopsies. Tests confirmed my diagnosis and revealed that cancerous plasma cells, called myeloma cells, had invaded 70% of my bone marrow, where plasma and blood cells are made.
My oncologist, Melody Becnel, MD, developed my treatment plan. I would undergo four months of chemotherapy while taking an oral medication that helps the immune system attack myeloma cells. Then I would be admitted to the hospital for a week of very high dose chemotherapy to kill any remaining cancer cells. The powerful treatment would not only kill the cancer cells, but also the healthy hematopoietic stem cells in my bone marrow, leaving it empty.
To replenish the bone marrow, I would undergo an autologous stem cell transplant using immature stem cells taken from my own body. These would be collected and frozen before my high dose chemotherapy and then injected back into my body once the chemotherapy was over. The stem cells would migrate to the bone marrow where they would become healthy blood cells.
Dr. Becnel explained that multiple myeloma is incurable but completely treatable. Several therapies are available, but a stem cell transplant offered the best chance of long-term remission. I was optimistic and eager to start treatment.
First step: Chemotherapy and a drug to boost the immune system
For the next four months, I visited the Lymphoma & Myeloma Center at MD Anderson on Fridays and Saturdays. I received infusions of carfilzomib, a chemotherapy drug, and dexamethasone, a steroid drug, which lessens the side effects of chemotherapy and improves the effectiveness of myeloma drugs. Dr. Becnel also prescribed me lenalidomide oral capsule to help my immune system attack the cancer cells.
My Friday to Saturday infusion schedule allowed me to continue working in the lab all week. I only missed a few hours of work each Friday, then I was back to work on Monday. Apart from a little fatigue, I had no side effects. Looking at me, you would never have guessed that I had cancer.
That changed when I was admitted to the hospital to start high-dose chemotherapy – the first step in my stem cell transplant. My transplant doctor, Muzaffar Qazilbash, MDprescribed four days of busulfan, followed by a day without chemo, then two days of melphalan.
The nurses warned me that chemotherapy drugs are so powerful that they sometimes cause canker sores. They advised me to fill my mouth with ice cubes during my infusions. It worked – I didn’t develop a single ulcer.
I did, however, develop mucositis, an irritation of the lining of the digestive system. I could barely swallow. I didn’t take anything by mouth for three days when the pain was at its worst. Eventually I was able to handle the yogurt. The yogurt saved the day.
Next step: my stem cell transplant
I received my stem cell transplant last February, one day after completing high dose chemotherapy.
A stem cell transplant sounds like a big deal, but the transplant itself is anti-climactic. It is similar to a blood transfusion and takes less than an hour. As my stem cells were injected back into my body, I closed my eyes and imagined them floating through my bloodstream and migrating into my bone marrow.
The hardest part of my treatment started ten days after the transplant when I “landed in the basement”. It’s transplant lingo for “your blood count is at an all-time low.” Your bone marrow has been cleansed and the stem cells you received during your transplant have not yet turned into healthy blood cells – it takes another two weeks or more. You are anemic, your risk of infection is high, and you are still experiencing the side effects of chemo.
It’s a tough time, but hang in there. It is temporary.
A lifelong monitoring and treatment cycle
I was healthy enough to go home three weeks after entering the hospital. My sister and I live together, so I had an onboard caregiver. Another sister flew in from Georgia and we enjoyed our reunion of three sisters during my recovery. We watched movies, we reminisced and we had a good laugh. It’s important to laugh.
Two and a half months after my transplant, I went back to work.
Dr. Becnel orders frequent lab tests to check for signs of cancer recurrence. So far, so good. Every time my blood is drawn, I get pleasure from knowing that it is being sent to the lab where I work. I joke with my colleagues, “Look out, my sample is coming! »
The management of multiple myeloma requires a lifelong monitoring cycle and treatment as needed. It is common to have no signs of cancer for long periods of time and then relapse. When this happens, MD Anderson has your back. They are the best.
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