As many of you know, I was diagnosed this past October with a cancer called multiple myeloma. This is a cancer of the plasma cells which are found in the blood and produce antibodies for our immune system. These malignant cells multiply rapidly and can cause damage throughout the body, especially affecting bones and kidneys and ultimately lead to death within two years if left untreated.
Myeloma’s effect on bone causes extreme osteoporosis (thinning of bones), which brought about my first symptom of back pain. This was due to several of the vertebral bones of my spine collapsing, which is referred to as compression fractures. Blood tests were done to find out why an otherwise healthy guy like myself would have these fractures. The specific test for myeloma was positive. This was shocking news to me as I immediately saw my life passing in front of my eyes. I was reassured, however, by being told by my oncologist that there is great new treatment for myeloma that can bring about long remissions.
The next step was a bone marrow biopsy to determine the severity of the disease. This procedure involved numbing the skin over the back of my pelvic bone and inserting a needle into the bone marrow to obtain a specimen for more detailed evaluation.
I then began a two month course of chemotherapy at our oncology infusion center here in Santa Cruz. I received three drugs. One was given as a shot (not by IV) and the other two were in pill form. One of the pills costs $700 per pill! Not an uncommon price for the new generation cancer drugs. My particular course of chemotherapy did not cause me to lose my hair, make me sick to my stomach, or any other of the common chemotherapy side effects. I was feeling pretty smug about how I was sailing through the therapy when finally a side effect caught up with me. I developed numbness of my feet and my hands, a condition called peripheral neuropathy. It is causing me some difficulty walking and maintaining my balance. I am told this condition should improve with time, but there is no guarantee that it will go away completely.
Regarding the ongoing back pain from my compression fractures, the day after Christmas, I had a procedure called kyphoplasty, done by a spine surgeon at University of California, San Francisco. This procedure involved my receiving a general anesthesia followed by the surgeon inserting a large needle into each of 4 compressed vertebral bones. Through the needle a small balloon is blown up to help open up the collapsed bone. The balloon is then removed and a rapid drying cement like substance is injected into the boney space. This helps to restore some integrity to the compressed bone and keeps it from collapsing further. It also usually improves the associated back pain, which fortunately proved to be true for me.
So I am now with much less back pain, but with numb feet, weak legs and some unsteadiness. I am tentatively scheduled for a stem cell transplant which will take place at UCSF in mid-February. At that time I will be hospitalized for an estimated three weeks, then allowed to return home, and will be on house confinement for another four weeks. After that it should take a few months to return to normal activities.
So, it is at this time that I will take a short leave of absence from writing my column, to allow me to focus in on the upcoming stem cell transplant and recovery. I will resume my writing after all is said and done and describe this experience.
Thanks for the prayers, cards, emails and general well wishes I have received from so many of you. It makes this all somewhat easier for me, as well as for my wonderfully supportive wife Beth and my dear daughter Emma.
I’ll be back!