multiple myeloma (MM)
I knew multiple myeloma (MM) was a blood cancer. After all, my mom was diagnosed with myeloma at 62 years old in 2005. It’s extremely rare that I should also be diagnosed in 2021, but it happened. There’s no strong data that shows that it’s hereditary at this point. But more doctors are seeing family members being diagnosed. It's also becoming one of the most diagnosed cancers among African Americans.
I have been in good shape for most of my life, so when I had the injury, I was like, "I just have a crick in my neck, it's not a big deal. Lifted too many boxes this one day; it'll go away." Initially, it did. Then it stopped going away, and then I couldn't get out of bed. I said, "Wait a minute, this is not normal." Who knew that I had a neck fracture that would lead to a cancer diagnosis? I knew the injury that I had was going to require neck surgery, and it was a required emergency surgery. But the neurosurgeon said, "Yes, you have to have the neck surgery, and it's urgent, but you also have cancer." I repeated "What?" three more times, and then I broke down. After I got off the floor, I got back up, and we discussed it. The doctor said, "The cancer is attacking your bones in your neck and your lower back. I need you to go right now to the hospital and check-in." I left his office, and I went to the hospital. I got a bed that evening, and I was in the hospital having surgery that Friday. I had two surgeries. They had to put a metal plate in the front of my neck to stabilize it because if I hadn't had the surgery, I'd be paralyzed from the neck down. Then four days later, the plate fused. It was called a thoracic fusion. They fused the back with titanium screws and rods to the front and that's what saved me from being paralyzed. But what was even crazier, the next day I got there and the oncologist at that point thought I had possibly two more cancers. It was just that quick. There was no sign at all. I go to the doctor every year for a regular physical, and there was never a sign in my blood or anything that they saw that could've picked this up. I don't know how you look for that in bloodwork and test results, but they never saw anything.
After these surgeries, I had to go into radiation treatment right away. I did two weeks of that every day. And after that was completed, the next thing was to start my chemotherapy treatments going forward. My neurosurgeon, Dr. John-Berry Candelario, and oncologist, Dr. Patricia Kropf, took great care of me. We thought the neck surgery was successful, but after a few months, I went back for a follow-up, and we saw two of the top screws had come loose. They gave me a more restrictive brace called a SOMI (Sternal Occipital Mandibular Immobilizer) brace. And it was very mechanical looking, so I was called the Six Million Dollar Bionic Man by my friends.
Once I left the hospital, I needed a caregiver to be available 24 hours. My brother Tony moved in with me without hesitation. My entire family (my father Sidney, my mom Loretta, and my sister Stefanie) rallied around me to assist with all the resources I would need during my recovery. But the most important resource we had was our faith in God. We're all faithful servants and truly believe that He continues to bring us through any adversity.
I received financial assistance from The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS). My social worker, Susan Berry, informed me of different things and programs that were available that I could use that would help me financially because, again, so many folks go under financially because of not knowing what their resources are and not having an advocate. Between getting the travel expense card and gas cards, she was able to get me so many different things through LLS that helped me not worry about a financial burden. That's the last thing you need to worry about when you're going through a life-threatening illness is how you're going to pay a bill. And that's a bigger conversation as far as healthcare in general. But she was there and got me the right resources that I needed at the right time. And so, that was the power of it, speaking up and asking and knowing what to ask, and then having a good advocate you could communicate with who is going to do their job. I just thank God that I had someone and several people in my corner who cared about me.
When you get over 50, your body talks to you a lot more. And you need to start listening to it because it'll tell you when you're tired or when you ate the wrong thing. And after this, I listen all the time for little things, and I track when I have something, "What did I eat, what did I have that day?" to see if this thing may have caused this reaction. You have to really listen, know your body and be proactive. If you can't find an over-the-counter solution, seek your doctor's advice and expertise to help you figure out what it is. It comes back to getting regular checkups. Maybe at a certain age, you go more often to track for prostate cancer or other cancers for example. That doesn't show up until you almost succumb to it in some cases. It is important to communicate with your doctor, knowing what questions to ask, and if you don't know what to ask, have an advocate with you because so many folks get overwhelmed.
I had multiple treatments including chemotherapy and stem cell transplantation. I thank God that I had technicians, nurses, surgeons, and nurse practitioners who cared. It was genuine, and it made everything that I went through at every step of the way that much easier. I mean it comes down to the decision to live and to not be consumed by it. I think a lot of folks hear the “C word” and think it's over. That's what I thought. But after reevaluating, looking at my mother was my direct line of reference. And for me, it was to not just survive but to thrive. So, I would say after that comes the ability to thrive, but you must embrace that. If you're not willing to embrace that, then it's not going to come to you. I'm still walking through that journey. As I say these things, it's reaffirming to me what my purpose is, how I'm going to do this myself, and how my story can help somebody in a similar situation.