The first symptom of my multiple myeloma appeared 6 months before I received the official diagnosis. I began having some discomfort, not pain exactly, in my right hip, and developed a pronounced limp. I had recently left my medical practice to launch Global Girls Global Women, a nonprofit humanitarian organization aimed at empowering adolescents and young adults through international travel, and was not paying enough attention to some unusual aches and pains that had started to crop up.
Jeri A. Dyson, MD
It wasn’t until I got up one morning to use the bathroom and fell to the floor, unable to move for 4 hours, that I knew something was terribly wrong. By that time, I had pain in my back that was so excruciating I had to slide step my way into the emergency room of a nearby hospital. I left the hospital with a diagnosis of muscle spasm. Two weeks later, a magnetic resonance imaging scan showed that I had an L4 vertebrae spinal cord compression as well as lesions in every vertebra and in both hips. Additional testing and a bone marrow biopsy revealed a diagnosis of multiple myeloma. I was 46 years old.
I’m a physician, and I was having difficulty processing the seemingly endless amount of information my oncologist was hurtling at me. I wondered how patients without a medical degree handled all of the information presented to them at diagnosis.— Jeri A. Dyson, MD
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Despite my medical background, the news that I had a treatable but incurable cancer sent me reeling. Although my specialty is adolescent medicine, I knew that multiple myeloma is typically a disease diagnosed in much older people, and I was having difficulty processing the seemingly endless amount of information my oncologist was hurtling at me. I’m a physician and it was still difficult for me to follow what she was saying about the cytogenetic abnormalities that are characteristic of this disease, my best treatment options, and my long-term prognosis. I wondered how patients without a medical degree handled all of the information presented to them at diagnosis. A sense of physical detachment came over me, and I could feel myself leaving my body. I decided to find an oncologist who could communicate clearly with me. Finding the right physician for me was a great beginning to my healing experience.
My hematologist told me that many patients with myeloma live a long time and that this wasn’t the end for me. That was reassuring to hear. Still, as I prepared to undergo an autologous stem cell transplant, I knew the cancer would soon overtake the other priorities and my life would never be the same again. Compounding my distress was the fact that my cousin had died of multiple myeloma just 3 weeks after my diagnosis.
I was determined to get rid of my cancer, and although undergoing the stem cell transplant was challenging, I handled the procedure well. A consolidation regimen of ixazomib, lenalidomide, bortezomib, and dexamethasone after transplant has put me into complete remission. I’m monitored every 3 months for signs of disease progression.
Finding Joy and a New Life Purpose
Even before my cancer diagnosis, I had become disillusioned with the medical profession and was spending more time on mynonprofit organization, which is aimed at providing teen girls with the tools they need to overcome obstacles to education and economic empowerment. This work has taken me to many places, both domestically and internationally, including Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Ghana, and Senegal. Traveling and teaching have given me a new life purpose, and cancer has reinforced my commitment to pursue only goals that bring me joy.
As much as I enjoyed caring for my patients, when I was practicing medicine, the grind of nonclinical burdens, such as endless insurance documentation, billing, and loss of a work/life balance, left me exhausted. And I wasn’t at my healthiest. Prior to my cancer diagnosis, I hadn’t given mortality much thought, but now I don’t take a day for granted. I choose to spend every minute living my life to the fullest.
You might say, in a peculiar way, cancer has given me the life I was meant to live. ■
Dr. Dyson is the founder of Global Girls Global Women and the author of An Apple a Day Keeps the Drama Away (Xulon Press, May 2013). She lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
Editor’s Note: Columns in the Patient’s Corner are based solely on information The ASCO Post received from the survivors interviewed and should be considered anecdotal.