Becky Voelkel has diabetes. She lives in Concrete, Washington and drives into Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon for her medical care. It was during a routine visit and routine blood work in May of 2008 that her doctor noticed an increase in the protein levels in her blood.
“I went back in August to check it again. And still the protein level was high. It was just shooting up,” Becky says.
Becky says she remembers looking gray that summer because she was anemic. “They were surprised I was still walking around,” Becky says.
On September 5 her doctor ordered more lab work. “He never said cancer, just hematology,” Becky says. “I think he didn’t want to say it. But when I saw the hematologist, that’s when I learned I had multiple myeloma, incurable.”
A bone scan and bone marrow biopsy was followed by two pints of blood and Becky was to start chemotherapy the following Monday. Her disease had taken over 80 to 90 percent of her bone marrow, putting her cancer at Stage 3.
“The hematologist suggested a new medication just approved for multiple myeloma called velcade,” Becky says.
Becky received her first two weeks of chemotherapy with Velcade and felt fine. “I'm still amazed with how Velcade worked even two years later. My doctor did not expect my counts to drop more than 50 percent but they went from 5.3 to 1.6 almost a 75 percent drop in one cycle of treatment.”
The next step in Becky’s treatment was an autologous bone marrow transplant, where doctors remove a patient’s stem cells and then put these cells back into the patient after conditioning therapy which is either high-dose chemotherapy, irradiation, or both. She would not need a donor as she was using her own stem cells.
Her doctor referred her to Dr. Leona Holmberg, a medical oncologist at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
Becky has an aggressive form of myeloma. She was told that in most cases it will recur in a year after transplant. So Dr. Holmberg wanted to reduce her cell counts even lower than the 0.5 it was currently at before she was transplanted. Becky received revlimid, another multiple myeloma treatment medication.
“I felt better during treatment than I had before I was diagnosed,” Becky says, “because my blood was getting healthier.”
Becky had her bone marrow harvested in August 2009. “I even postponed it a day because I won free Mariners tickets!” she says. She received her transplant on September 30.
“I didn’t want to give up working, but my boss was generous and gave me a paid leave of absence for three months. And then my kids helped me do fundraisers to help me pay for my stay in Seattle for my transplant,” Becky says. “With help from my boss, we earned $17,000 in four months!” These funds got her through her transplant and through the next six months before she could return to work.
“I did really well after my transplant,” Becky says. “I had the usual side effects from the high-dose chemotherapy before the transplant, but that only lasted 10 days. I never felt sick otherwise, except when I was really weak when I was first diagnosed.”
Clinical Research Study
Having multiple myeloma is almost like having diabetes. Becky will most likely have to take medications to keep it under control for the rest of her life. She is now participating in a research study for maintenance therapy after autologous transplant with vorinostat and velcade.
“It’s Dr. Holmberg’s trial, but I’m able to receive my treatments at Skagit Valley Hospital, which is really nice.”
Skagit Valley Hospital is a member of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Network, which give Skagit Valley special privileges to participate in clinical research studies begin conducted by SCCA doctors, among other things. Becky’s doctors in Mt. Vernon are in close contact with Dr. Holmberg at SCCA.
Becky doesn’t believe her cancer will return in the next year. “I am feeling amazingly well. I don’t feel like I’ve really had a cancer!”