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Multiple Myeloma Survivor
- Diagnosed with multiple myeloma at age 59
- Back tumor treated with radiation; then induction therapy on a clinical trial
- Autologous bone marrow transplant put his multiple myeloma into remission
In December 2006, David Gillespie was diagnosed with multiple myeloma at age 59. But the symptoms leading up to his diagnoses had begun in June of that year and were mistaken for pulled muscles.
“I had back pain,” David says. “I went to the doctor and he thought I had pulled muscles in my back from moving too much mulch. So I went for physical therapy. But it didn’t help.”
By November, without having any relief from his pain, David went to a sports medicine doctor, who also believed the diagnosis of pulled muscles was probably right, but decided to do a CT (computed tomography) scan. “He found a tumor on my spine,” David says.
The next month, David had a biopsy of his tumor and found out that he didn’t have pulled muscles, but instead had multiple myeloma, which is a cancer of the plasma cells. Plasma cells make antibodies that fight off infections.
Referred to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, David saw Dr. William Bensinger, a medical oncologist whose expertise is treating multiple myeloma.
“Dr. Bensinger asked me about my history. In 1995 and 1996 I’d had testicular cancer, had one testicle removed, and then had radiation treatment. Dr. Bensinger said the radiation treatment may have actually led to me developing multiple myeloma.”
David was treated with radiation therapy for his back tumor and did well, however another tumor was found shortly after he completed his treatment in January. So Dr. Bensinger moved on to treat David with induction therapy – chemotherapy and steroids – as part of a clinical trial. He received lenalidomide and dexamethasone on a SWOG (Southwest Oncology Group) trial that closed early and found that this combination was significantly better than dexamethsone alone.
“David had a good response to len/dex, but then plateaued in his response. An autologous (using his own cells) bone marrow transplant would improve his overall response,” says Bensinger.
David’s back pain was gone after the earlier treatments, but they “fogged his brain” and the steroids “pumped him up,” but then “I’d crash,” he says. “I didn’t have much mental acuity.” David retired from his program manager position while undergoing therapy.
From February to September 2007, David gradually decreased his treatment regimen to prepare for an autologous bone marrow transplant. But at the end of September, he came down with shingles, a very painful rash that may take up to four weeks to clear. “The pain was awful,” David says. “I thought I’d had pain before, but shingles, phew!”
David was well enough to go back to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance in December, where his doctor was able to harvest enough stem cells for his transplant and three additional transplants, if needed. David became an inpatient at UW Medical Center for his transplant in February.
First he underwent Conditioning Therapy to remove any cancer cells remaining in his body. Traditionally, this is either high-dose chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. David received a high dose of two chemotherapy drugs, amifostine and melphalan, at a higher than usual dose as part of a clinical trial to see if it would work better than the traditional (lower dose) of these two drugs normally used for autologous transplants. (Read more about this clinical trial.)
“The combination is well tolerated,” Bensinger says. David reported that the side effects weren’t too bad, and that he only got “kind of sick.”
David then received his transplant, the cells that had been harvested in abundance and cryopreserved (frozen) for transplantation. As his immune system recovered from the transplant, David spent nearly a month in the hospital, experiencing a few complications, but overall doing well.
“The people at UW Medical Center and SCCA are wonderful. They explained everything and gave me everything I needed,” he says.
At home, David and his partner Nathalie Gigoux raise guide dog puppies and have two cats. David couldn’t handle the cats or litter for a long time, but by April, the protein marker for his cancer was down to .2 and he was able to have dogs in the house again.
He saw Dr. Bensinger every week in March and then every other week until June. After that, his follow-ups were just once a month. “My energy level came back quickly. Exercise helps a lot,” he says. “It was in June that I really started feeling better and I have felt like myself ever since.”
In July they took a cruise to Alaska and in August, a 3,800-mile solo motorcycle trip for three weeks to see his children in Colorado.
“It’ll never go away,” David explains. “Multiple myeloma is a chronic disease to be treated for life.”
David didn’t dwell on his testicular cancer because once treated it was done and gone. He never thought about a recurrence. But having multiple myeloma is harder to cope with since it doesn’t go away.
“I don’t have much choice, so I try not to dwell on it. The hardest part is going back to SCCA for checkups and being reminded of the disease. It’s good to come home and read, exercise, and raise the guide dog puppies,” David says.
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