Broken back to Camelback: Survival from a different point of view
If my doctors at MD Anderson had told me that I would be standing on top of Camelback Mountain in Arizona just 10 months after my stem cell transplant, I would have called them crazy.
But on March 29, 2015, exactly 321 days after my transplant, I did exactly that, reaching the summit of Camelback with my husband and a childhood friend.
The full meaning of this didn't hit me until I saw the tears in my husband's eyes. During my multiple myeloma journey, I couldn't have even imagined something of this magnitude.
My multiple myeloma diagnosis
My battle with multiple myeloma began before I even realized it.
My back started to hurt in March 2013, but I didn't know why. I saw several doctors, each of whom prescribed muscle relaxers and painkillers. When that didn't stop the pain, my doctor fitted me for a molded back brace and told me to wear it for the next three months. My pain got worse and worse. The doctors said the back was one of the quickest healing parts of the body, so I couldn't understand why mine wouldn't heal.
After I thought I'd hit rock bottom during a Thanksgiving trip to see my husband's family, I saw a sports medicine spine specialist in Chicago, where I live. The doctor said my back should have healed by now and that there must be something else going on. We scheduled a follow-up visit for a biopsy two days later.
But the next morning, I collapsed on the bathroom floor from the worst pain I had ever felt. I was rushed to a nearby hospital, where the doctors determined that three of my vertebrae had compression fractures. My back doctor suggested that I undergo a vertebroplasty to stabilize the bone and have a biopsy done simultaneously. I agreed. There didn't seem to be any other option.
The procedure was a success, but on Dec. 12, 2013, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
A broken back seemed like nothing compared to this news. At 37 years old, how could I be enduring a broken back and now cancer without any warning or reason? At the time, I was in so much pain that I couldn't even fathom what my husband and family were going through.
My multiple myeloma treatment and stem cell transplant
My parents encouraged me to get a second opinion at MD Anderson. From the moment we arrived, I knew we had come to the right place. Everyone was so kind and caring, and I immediately trusted my oncologist, Robert Orlowski, M.D., Ph.D., and my stem cell transplant oncologist, Muzaffar Qazilbash, M.D. (Dr. Q).
I spent the next four months getting chemotherapy in Illinois, so I could be close to my family. Then, I headed to Houston for my stem cell transplant.
At that point, my physical pain had lessened a bit, but my emotional pain had intensified. I wondered, "Why me?" and "Why now?" on a daily basis. Everything with our young family had been perfect.
When May 12, 2014 arrived, I was at my lowest point of physical and emotional strength. That was the day of my "birthday," as the day of the stem cell transplant is called. It was hard to feel any joy. I wondered then if anything would ever return to the normal that I had known.
My even better new normal
Here I sit over a year after my stem cell transplant, and I know that my new normal is even better. Yesterday, I played football with my kids and husband without a thought of the past.
Surviving, I've learned, comes in many different forms.
Whether you are going through treatment or providing priceless support to a loved one, know this: your summit will sneak up on you. You won't see it coming because the daily focus it takes to beat cancer completely engrosses you. But, in the very near future, you too will be standing atop your own mountain.