September 15, 2020
Multiple myeloma survivor in partial remission after choosing MD Anderson
BY Ronda Wendler
Since childhood, Birdia Churchwell has been fascinated by science.
“I was interested in the why, so I spent my time reading, asking questions and analyzing things,” she says. “I wanted to understand things, not just memorize them.”
That natural curiosity led Birdia, now 86, to a lifelong career as a science teacher and school district administrator.
But four years ago, Birdia’s interest in science turned deeply personal when she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that affects the bone marrow. Her cancer had already advanced to stage IV before it was detected.
“I knew it was in my best interest to learn as much about multiple myeloma as possible,” Birdia says. “I read all the literature I could find, and I asked lots of questions.”
Seeking a second opinion from MD Anderson’s multiple myeloma experts
Birdia’s doctor spelled out her treatment: She would undergo three, 21-day cycles of the chemotherapy drug bortezomib, followed by another chemotherapy drug, lenalidomide.
But the drugs didn’t work and the cancer spread. The doctor met with Birdia and her daughter.
“That was one gloomy meeting,” Birdia says. “We were offered very little hope.”
As they were leaving, Birdia’s daughter called MD Anderson to request a second opinion.
“Before we exited the parking lot, MD Anderson had given us an appointment for the next day,” Birdia recalls.
Targeted therapy for multiple myeloma
At MD Anderson, oncologist Krina Patel, M.D., placed Birdia on a different chemotherapy drug called pomalidomide, which is taken by mouth each day. But she added something new – a monoclonal antibody drug named daratumumab that’s infused into the bloodstream.
Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-produced “substitute” antibodies that help the immune system attack cancer. They do this by latching on to and interfering with specific proteins on the surface of cancer cells that help cancer grow.
Daratumumab attaches to a protein called CD38, which is present in large numbers on the surface of multiple myeloma cells. The drug then directly kills the cancer cells, or empowers the immune system to identify and destroy them, or both.
Multiple myeloma remission and relapse
After one year of being on the dual chemotherapy and monoclonal antibody regimen, Birdia is in partial remission. This means some, but not all, signs of cancer have disappeared. She continues to improve each month, but the cancer is still in her body.
“Multiple myeloma is currently an incurable disease,” Patel explains. “Treatment can significantly reduce the number of myeloma cells, but they’re not entirely gone.”
Over time, these cells can stop responding to medication, and start multiplying out of control again. This is called a relapse, and starts the cycle of multiple myeloma once more. It’s common for a person with multiple myeloma to go through periods of responding to treatment and periods of relapse, Patel says.
Birdia, whose religious faith runs deep, doesn’t let that bother her.
“My motto is ‘Let the doctors do their work, and let God do his,’” she says. “My mother lived to age 103 and my grandmother to 101. The women in our family are strong and resilient.”
Preparing future health care professionals
At MD Anderson, Birdia occasionally encounters her ex-students who are now doctors, nurses and allied health technicians.
“After 18 years as a teacher and 20 years as an administrator with the Houston Independent School District, I have lots of former students,” she says. “I strived to be an excellent teacher, because I wanted my students to succeed.”
After retiring in 1996, Birdia opened her own educational consulting business and worked another 15 years, training teachers and school administrators. Finally, at age 77, she allowed herself to fully retire.
Today, she stays busy at home, “jumping from one project to the next,” she says. “I cook, sew, clean, read about interesting topics on the computer, and talk or text with my friends and family every day. There’s just so much to do.”
As for cancer, she offers this advice: “Eat right, get plenty of rest, stay busy, have faith in God, and trust the health care providers at MD Anderson. They’re the best.”
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
I knew it was in my best interest to learn as much about multiple myeloma as possible.