Medical laboratory scientist faces her own multiple myeloma diagnosis
As a senior medical laboratory scientist at MD Anderson, I work behind the scenes to analyze patients’ lab work. My findings play a crucial role in helping our health care providers deliver the expert care that is the hallmark of MD Anderson.
I recently experienced that care firsthand when I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
My multiple myeloma diagnosis
My story began a year ago when I visited my family doctor for a routine physical. I felt fine, so I was surprised when my lab work showed I was anemic. More tests confirmed I had multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells.
Before my doctor had a chance to tell me my diagnosis, I’d reviewed my lab report in MyChart. I analyze cancer patients’ blood samples all day, so I know what multiple myeloma test results look like. Still, discovering that was my diagnosis was unsettling. For the first time, I truly understood how patients feel when they’re told they have cancer.
I’ve always been proud to work at the No. 1 cancer center in the country. Knowing 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 through new eyes as a patient.
Planning my multiple myeloma treatment
My first week as a patient included a whirlwind of appointments – bloodwork, PET scans, MRIs and a bone marrow biopsy. The 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, M.D., developed my treatment plan. I’d undergo four months of chemotherapy while taking an oral medication that helps the immune system attack myeloma cells. Then, I’d be admitted to the hospital for a week of very high-dose chemotherapy to wipe out any cancer cells left behind. The powerful treatment would kill not only the cancer cells but also the healthy blood-forming 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, then infused back into my body when the chemotherapy was completed. The stem cells would migrate to the bone marrow where they would mature into healthy blood cells.
Dr. Becnel explained that multiple myeloma is incurable but very treatable. Several therapies are available, but a stem cell transplant offered the best chance for long-term remission. I was optimistic and eager to begin treatment.
First step: Chemotherapy and a drug to stimulate the immune system
For the next four months, I visited MD Anderson’s Lymphoma & Myeloma Center on Fridays and Saturdays. I received infusions of the chemotherapy drug carfilzomib and the steroid drug dexamethasone, which lessens chemotherapy’s side effects and helps anti-myeloma drugs work better. Dr. Becnel also prescribed the oral capsule lenalidomide to help my immune system attack the cancer cells.
My Friday-Saturday infusion schedule allowed me to continue working in the lab all week. I missed only a few hours of work each Friday, then I was back at work on Monday. Other than a little fatigue, I had no side effects. Looking at me, you would’ve never guessed I had cancer.
That changed when I was admitted to the hospital to begin high-dose chemotherapy – the first step in my stem cell transplant. My transplant doctor, Muzaffar Qazilbash, M.D., prescribed four days of busulfan, followed by a chemo-free day, then two days of melphalan.
The nurses warned me that the chemotherapy drugs are so potent, that they sometimes cause mouth ulcers. They advised me to fill my mouth with ice chips during my infusions. It worked – I didn’t develop a single ulcer.
I did, however, develop mucositis, an irritation in the digestive system lining. 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 yogurt. Yogurt saved the day.
Next step: my stem cell transplant
I received my stem cell transplant this past February, a day after completing high-dose chemotherapy.
A stem cell transplant sounds like a big deal, but the transplant itself is anti-climactic. It’s similar to a blood transfusion and takes less than an hour to complete. While my stem cells were being infused back into my body, I closed my eyes and envisioned them floating through my bloodstream and migrating into my bone marrow.
Landing in the basement
The most challenging part of my treatment began ten days after the transplant when I “landed in the basement.” That’s transplant lingo for “your blood counts are at their lowest.” Your bone marrow has been cleaned out, and the stem cells you received during your transplant haven’t yet matured into healthy blood cells – that takes another two weeks, or more. You’re anemic, your infection risk is high, and you’re still feeling the chemo’s side effects.
It’s a challenging time, but hang in there. It’s temporary.
A lifetime cycle of monitoring and treatment
I was healthy enough to go home three weeks after entering the hospital. My sister and I live together, so I had a built-in caregiver. Another sister flew in from Georgia, and we enjoyed our three-sister reunion during my recovery. We watched movies, reminisced, and had some good laughs. It’s important to laugh.
Two and a half months after my transplant, I went back to work.
Dr. Becnel orders frequent lab work to check for signs of cancer recurrence. So far, so good. Every time my blood is drawn, I get a kick out of knowing it’s sent to the lab where I work. I joke with my co-workers, “Heads-up, my sample’s coming through!”
Managing multiple myeloma requires a lifetime cycle of monitoring, and treatment as needed. It's common to have no signs of cancer for long periods, then to relapse. When that happens, MD Anderson has your back. They're the best.