After years of working for the State of Washington, Rick, 70, was busy fly fishing, woodworking and taking care of his family, house and yard, when he learned he had multiple myeloma. It was important for him to find a care team that could thoroughly answer all of his questions. After chemo and stem cell replacement treatments, Rick is optimistic that there’s a lot more to life for him.
It was a fluke that I was diagnosed. I had no idea that anything was going on. I had a swollen toe that I thought was athlete’s foot. Then I hurt one of my ribs while bending over. My GP said it was a soft tissue thing but not to worry about it.
When diagnosing the swollen toe, the PA took some blood and I got an unexpected call that I needed to visit the oncology department the next morning. I was driving at the time, so I pulled over; I was shocked. The news hit me hard at first, but I’m pretty optimistic, so I wanted to find out more. I was told that I had multiple myeloma and should have other tests done to figure out what was going on but should begin chemo right away.
The hardest part was really the initial shock—learning that I had cancer and finding the right person to help me make sense of this mess. How would I get the right info and make the right decision? I shared the news with my wife and then told our kids about it a couple days later. They were all very emotional and tearful conversations, but by that time, I was ready to get to work. It was not time to give up the ship.
Comfort from Information
My health plan assigned me to an oncologist, but English was not her first language and I got one-word/one-sentence answers, and only a few at that. I usually have a lot of questions about everything, so that was unsatisfactory. I was able to get reassigned to an oncologist who was the complete opposite. She opened the door for all sorts of questions I had: types of treatment available, what was best for me, and the very good news that I could still expect many years of productive life. She outlined the typical treatment options, progression of the disease, average life expectancy, new treatments in development and the possibility of stem cell transplant in the future. Because she was very informative and positive, it helped turn things around for me. I started to feel a lot more hopeful and less worried about the unknown.
Apart from the shock of finding out I had cancer, I felt a little angry that my PCP hadn’t identified the cancer based on my rib problem. Several months later I found out that I had actually broken that rib. But it helped alert me to the fact that I needed to be on top of things myself. I did a lot of research online and visited chat rooms to see how patients were doing with treatment and read about other people’s experiences.
Confidence in Care
Even though some of the chemo treatments made me slightly sick, I was confident that I was in the right hands. Chemo definitely got in the way of thinking clearly at times—little word games that I was formerly good at doing, I could no longer do easily. It took a while for logic and the ability to think to come back, but chemo didn’t really affect my ability to do things in the long run. Mostly I was pretty active. During the first few months, prior to the stem cell transplant, I had a little nausea now and then, but the biggest issues were neuropathy and periodic chills. I tried to do all the things around the house I used to do, but sometimes I would just sit with a blanket wrapped around me. I definitely became a little more sedentary. There were short periods when I felt things weren’t going well, but I didn’t let it get to me.
After a few months of chemo, I had a stem cell transplant, which required me to live near the clinic (60 miles from home) for about six weeks during the process. I was immediately adopted into this large family of medical professionals who really cared about my health—both mental and physical. They answered all of my questions and everyone knew virtually everything about my condition at all times. I had never seen any medical care like that and felt confident in their ability.
One Day at a Time
My immune system was compromised by the massive dose of chemo that comes with stem cell transplants. For the first year, I also had to be very careful of infection, which could be life threatening. I don’t notice any side effects now, but I’m conscious of how I feel every day. I appear to be on a good course; it’s not remission, but it’s also not creating problems. I have been re-vaccinated for all of the childhood diseases (since the chemo trashed the originals), and I’m on a maintenance dose of oral chemo for two years. Then we will see what happens next.
Of course, I wish I didn’t have cancer, but I’m taking things one day at a time. Initially, I was very concerned about my mortality: how will my family get by without me? What do I need to tell them about how things work around the house or how to pay the bills? My wife is learning things she didn’t know before about running the household, which has made her more aware that someday she may be on her own, as our children are all grown.
Life Goes On
Almost two years after initial diagnosis, I really don’t think about cancer that much. I’m a little more cautious about what I do now because my bones are not quite as solid as they once were. I think I’ve got a pretty good attitude about what life holds; I’m not feeling like this is the end of the world and am pretty much doing what I’ve done before. Although, now I’m eating a lot more plant-based food and exercising more than I had in the past.
My diagnosis wasn’t a death sentence, but it gave me some info about how I might die. It made me ask the hard questions about what type of legacy I want to leave. Now I’m answering those questions more urgently to myself and others; it’s always on my mind that things need to be stable or complete. Instead of thinking “I’ll get to that someday,” I do it now: investments, making sure my wife and children know how things work, the things that would make them say, “sure wish someone had told me about this.” Life goes on, and I’m content.