Multiple myeloma survivor finds hope, empowerment in clinical trials
Gary Rudman began experiencing severe lower back and leg pain in early 2013, just a few years after he retired from the U.S. Air Force. His doctors thought it was a bulging disc, so they treated him with steroid injections.
When the issue still wasn’t resolved a year later, Gary saw a pain management specialist. That doctor thought he had a torn piriformis muscle and ordered an MRI. But the scan revealed Gary actually had a softball-sized tumor in his pelvis. It was a form of cancer called isolated solitary plasmacytoma of the soft tissue, which often precedes multiple myeloma.
The search for effective multiple myeloma treatment
Gary initially sought treatment near his South Carolina home, but quickly rejected the first recommendation: surgery to remove the tumor. Odds were high that the operation would leave him paralyzed, incontinent or both — and Gary’s surgeon had performed the procedure only once before. “I didn’t want to do that,” Gary says. “It was out of the question.”
Gary’s second opinion took him to Atlanta, Georgia. He received two separate rounds of radiation therapy, but it failed to shrink his tumor. At that point, the Air Force veteran began looking for a third option. “The Georgia hematology oncologist said we should just wait and treat it aggressively when it blew up into multiple myeloma,” Gary says. “That answer was not satisfactory.”
Webinar expert leads Gary to MD Anderson
Then Gary remembered a hematology webinar he’d watched a few months earlier. One of the panelists was Robert Orlowski, M.D., ad interim chair of MD Anderson’s Lymphoma/Myeloma department. Orlowski had shared his email address with attendees and invited them to contact him with questions. So Gary did.
“After we’d exchanged about six emails, he said I probably needed to come in for a bone marrow biopsy,” Gary says. “We made an appointment for March 2015, and two weeks later, I was formally diagnosed with multiple myeloma.”
A trio of multiple myeloma clinical trials
At MD Anderson, Gary’s multiple myeloma treatment consisted of chemotherapy and an autologous stem cell transplant. He's also participated in three different clinical trials. The first, under Muzaffar Qazilbash, M.D., tested a new combination of chemotherapy drugs (Busulfan and Melphalan) to see if it would extend the amount of time before the cancer returned. The chemotherapy drugs were administered intravenously before Gary’s autologous stem cell transplant on Aug. 4, 2015.
In the second trial, under Orlowski, Gary took the antibiotic minocycline to see if it would reduce the neuropathy he experienced while receiving the chemotherapy drug lenalidomide.
“I’m pretty sure I got the drug instead of a placebo,” Gary says, “because when I was taking that pill, the neuropathy significantly decreased, and now it’s very present in my feet and hands.”
Gary’s participation in the third trial, now led by Sheeba Thomas, M.D., will continue through January 2018. It’s testing the immunotherapy drug elotuzumab (Empliciti) to see if it can prevent multiple myeloma from coming back after an autologous stem cell transplant.
“I’ve been in remission since Aug. 28, 2015, and I want to stay there,” Gary says. “Empliciti makes undetectable myeloma cells stand out to my body’s natural killer cells, so they can recognize and destroy them. And when a cancer is considered incurable, targeting it before it can even be seen sounds pretty damn good.”
Contributing to science through clinical trials
By joining clinical trials at virtually every stage of his journey, Gary feels like he’s contributing to what doctors know about cancer, and helping patients along the way.
“There was nothing I could do about getting multiple myeloma,” he says. “But I was never mad. I knew I was going to get sick and I knew it was going to suck, but I had the utmost faith in my doctors. Being on a clinical trial was something I could do, now that I had it.”