Don, 64, was able to complete virtually all his treatment as an outpatient and almost two years later is managing his cancer much like a chronic condition such as diabetes.
“I’m back to long-term maintenance mode at this point,” Don says.
Choosing treatment at the MD Anderson Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy Center allowed Don to aggressively treat his cancer while running his financial business from home and maintaining involvement in the multiple wildlife conservation nonprofits that are his life’s passion.
“There are a number of good institutions here in Houston,” Don says. “From the research I did, I believed I would have a higher probability of successful multiple myeloma treatment at MD Anderson.”
A multiple myeloma diagnosis
Don, an avid cyclist with several long-distance races under his belt, began experiencing back pain in August 2012.
An MRI showed a compression fracture. After Don saw a slew of specialists, including spinal surgeons, a physician recommended a bone marrow aspiration and biopsy. He said multiple myeloma, a type of cancer formed by cancerous plasma cells, weakens the bones and could explain the fracture in an otherwise active, healthy man.
Test results confirmed that suspicion. Don was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
“Then the focus was, ‘What do we do about it?’” Don says.
Ever the pragmatist when approaching decisions, Don thought of the simplest solution and asked what would happen if he did nothing.
The panic in his oncologist’s face was enough to convince Don to pursue multiple myeloma treatment.
“We went through the various options and obviously felt that MD Anderson was the best place to go,” Don says.
Facing two stem cell transplants
Don planned his multiple myeloma treatment with his personal oncologist and his MD Anderson care team.
Don says it’s important for anyone fighting multiple myeloma to conduct thorough personal research before deciding how to treat the disease. He spoke with multiple physicians at MD Anderson, researched online, spoke with other cancer centers and talked to other oncologists specializing in multiple myeloma.
“Although there are risks, I concluded that a stem cell transplant had the best probability of prolonging ‘remission,’ and possibly extending life,” Don says.
After deciding a stem cell transplant was the best option, Don enrolled in a clinical trial that randomly selected Don for a second stem cell transplant.
The second stem cell transplant was a smoother process, Don says, because he learned the do’s and don’ts during the first one. For example, he knew the initial chemotherapy treatments would make him sick, but he didn’t realize it might take more than a week to feel the effects.
“The biggest difference is I knew what to expect,” Don says.
Don’s health and relative youth allowed him to complete almost all his multiple myeloma treatment as an outpatient. Throughout his treatment, he had only one overnight stay in the hospital while battling pneumonia and a lung infection after the second stem cell transplant.
Managing multiple myeloma
Today, Don shows no evidence of disease. But he adheres to a chemotherapy regimen consisting of Revlimid, taken for 21 days straight, followed by seven days off. His continuing care also includes semi-annual bone marrow aspiration biopsies and monthly blood tests. This allows his care team, now led by Muzaffar Qazilbash, M.D., to ensure the cancer is in check and his immune system is strong enough to withstand the next series of chemo.
Don credits a strong support system – at home and at MD Anderson – and optimism with helping him throughout his process.
“I think it’s extremely critical to keep a very positive outlook on things,” Don says. “There’s always other distractions, in terms of family, work, nonprofit stuff, etc. — you’ve gotta work at it.”