After stem cell transplant, multiple myeloma survivor scales Mt.
Gary Rudman has a motto: “Never quit. Never stop. Not today. Not ever.” And he’s lived by it throughout his multiple myeloma journey.
It showed when he rejected unacceptable treatment options at diagnosis. It continued with his commitment to exercise during recovery. And it spurred him on as he hiked to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in February 2017, along with five other cancer survivors.
“The last day of the ascent was the hardest thing I have ever done, including chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant,” Gary says. “It was cold and dark, and we were all frozen. But we kept climbing and got there.”
The journey to MD Anderson
Gary’s hiking days might well have been over if he’d accepted the first treatment option he was offered. When he was diagnosed with a pelvic tumor called an isolated solitary plasmacytoma of the soft tissue in 2014, Gary’s first doctor recommended a risky surgery that he’d performed only once before.
“The chances of becoming paralyzed were huge,” Gary says. “I also could have lost bowel and bladder functions. So that was out of the question.”
Gary kept searching until he found a more acceptable treatment plan at MD Anderson — and a team of doctors who created it just for him.
“When I met Dr. Robert Orlowski, he asked me how aggressive I wanted to be,” Gary says. “And I said, ‘As aggressive as I need to be.’”
Keeping a promise to himself
At MD Anderson, Gary underwent chemotherapy and an autologous stem cell transplant. To keep up his strength during treatments, Gary walked laps around his unit and set up a bicycle trainer in his hospital room. Gary logged more than 2,500 miles on his bike before the year was over, including cycling after his stem cell transplant.
“I think physical fitness can help you beat cancer, so I refused to stay in bed,” he says. “The one promise that I made to myself was that I was not going to get into bed unless I was really sick.”
Gary kept that promise. He only took to his bed once — on the second or third day after his stem cell transplant. “The effects of the chemo kicked in and just slammed me,” he recalls.
Fighting cancer with exercise
Today, exercise helps Gary deal with lingering side effects, such as chronic back pain. He regularly logs 30-60 miles on his bike over the weekend. He still goes hiking, too.
“The tumor has no metabolic activity now, but I still have a softball-sized lump of scar tissue in my sacrum, so the longer I sit, the more it hurts,” he says. “I go to the gym at lunch because that helps. If I don’t, I’m in significant pain when I get home.”
‘Cancer is just a pothole’
One reason Gary climbed to the highest point in Africa 18 months after his stem cell transplant was to prove to other cancer patients that it could be done.
“We needed to show other patients that cancer is not a stoppage,” Gary says. “Cancer is just a pothole, and you can soon pave it over.”
Once he reached the top, Gary unfurled a banner he’d made bearing the names and photos of 78 other cancer patients. “Taking them to the top of the world with me was something I was determined to do,” Gary says. “It was hard as heck. But I never stopped.”