Look forward to an active, happy future
For Gary Altman, Esq., it all started with a bit of back pain.
“I had horrible pain in my back for about three to fourth months,” Gary, then 58, remembers. “I had struggled with back pain for years, but this was different. I had a vacation coming up and I just wanted to feel better, so I finally visited a chiropractor. He was actually the one who thought it might be something serious, and sent me to an internist to get an MRI. I got my official diagnosis on February 27, 2013. My doctor called me right after my scans were done and said the words, ‘You have multiple myeloma (MM).’ ”
The diagnosis spurred the Potomac, MD, resident on a long journey to better understand MM, and find the best treatment he could—in fact, Gary got multiple opinions at Johns Hopkins Cancer Center, the National Institutes of Health and Dana- Farber Cancer Institute before deciding on his current course.
And from the start, he made it his mission to keep living his life to the fullest.
Between running his own law practice, traveling frequently with his wife, Elizabeth, playing racquetball, gardening and enjoying the occasional fine red wine, he “simply didn’t have time to slow down and be sick.”
“The reassuring part of this is, I know that with treatment I can still expect to live a long, healthy life. In fact, other than being a little tired and having some bone pain, I feel great!”
Like Gary, your diagnosis likely came as a shock. In fact, there’s a good chance you never heard of MM, also called Kahler’s disease, before. There are just 24,000 new cases in the U.S. every year, according to the National Cancer Institute—which is why few people are aware of the condition.
While it may seem like a blood disorder, MM is actually a cancer of the plasma cells, a white blood cell found in bone marrow that helps your body fight off infections. In some people, the body overproduces deformed plasma cells, which can form tumors. MM occurs if more than one tumor forms.
In MM, the over-growth of deformed plasma cells can crowd out other blood cells. Low red blood cell counts can cause anemia, which leaves you feeling fatigued; low platelets can cause bruising or bleeding issues; and low healthy white blood cells can cause neutropenia, which raises your risk for infections. Myeloma cells can also weaken bones, damage kidneys and increase your risk for amyloidosis (a buildup of protein that can harm organs).
Risk factors for MM include age (most people diagnosed are age 65 or older), gender (men are more likely to get it than women), race (it is more common in black men and women than white), previous exposure to radiation, family history (someone who has a sibling or parent with myeloma is four times more likely to get it), being overweight and having a previous plasma cell disorder.
Symptoms include bone pain, extreme fatigue, excessive thirst and frequent infections. Some also report nausea, constipation and loss of appetite, although those alone are not a sign of a serious condition. It’s also important to note that early on, many people may not experience any symptoms.
Your care provider will look at several areas to diagnose multiple myeloma. The easiest way to remember is with the acronym CRAB: C is for elevated levels of calcium; R is for renal (a.k.a. your kidneys, which can be damaged by MM); A is for anemia, or low red blood cell counts; and B is for bone lesions.
The good news is that while MM has no cure, it is more treatable than ever. Today, living with MM for many years is possible—Gary and the other patients we spoke with are proof (read about them here)!
Treatment varies from person to person, and most patients will need to try more than one at some point, sometimes in combination (click here to read more). That’s why working with your healthcare team and being willing to explore your options is so important.
“I tried quite a few different treatments,” Gary says. “But I’ve been on the current one since early 2014 and it’s been working great. The important thing to remember: Your life isn’t over—it’s just beginning! Other than a few small things, I haven’t had to change how I live my life. There are far worse diagnoses. You can handle MM!”