Multiple Myeloma Survivor

Hope, supportive family and friends sustain survivor through treatment

Michelle Dornath is a busy mother of four children, who lives in Gilmore City, Iowa. She and her husband, Jeff, have a farm where they raise corn, soybeans and hogs. In 2009, at the age of 37, Michelle was diagnosed with plasmacytoma and later with multiple myeloma. Michelle’s two oldest girls and their 4-H club participate in the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life, where they walk in honor of their mom. In 2011, Michelle was the Honorary Survivor Chair of the Pocahontas County Relay and led the Survivor Victory Lap.

 

By nature, I can be a worrier. On the two-hour drive home from being diagnosed with plasmacytoma (blood plasma cancer), however, I determined that I did not want to live in fear but in hope. I didn’t think it was the end, and it wasn’t even the worst thing that had ever happened to us.

We also have four children who had to be told. We wanted to be truthful, but not give too much information and worry them. Fortunately, they knew people who had survived cancer, so they were fine.

I had been having back pain that was getting progressively worse through the winter of 2008/2009. Finally, when the treatments were no longer helping and I could hardly walk, my doctor referred me to an orthopedic surgeon in Des Moines.

We hadn’t suspected anything, so it was a shock when after an MRI and other tests, the orthopedic surgeon told me that I had a giant cell tumor. He referred me to an oncologist and a thousand things ran through my head right away — mostly related to the kids.

Over the next weeks, we made additional trips for more blood tests, a needle biopsy of the tumor and a bone marrow biopsy. My oncologist confirmed the diagnosis of plasmacytoma, and sent me to radiation oncology to shrink the tumor. I had 28 radiation treatments over the next two months.

We have wonderful friends, a very supportive church and family that live close by, so we worked out a schedule for those who volunteered to watch the kids and drive me to radiation. Prayer and their encouragement kept me from being fearful.

At the end of my radiation treatment, I had great news that the tumor was dying. From the beginning, however, we knew that if the cancer was in multiple locations, the diagnosis would change. More testing and a second bone marrow biopsy indicated that I did have multiple myeloma.

Now it seemed like we had to start the whole process over. We let our close friends and family know that there would be additional treatment. Once again, I had to trust in God and my doctors.

I was so fortunate because my oncologist began consulting with a specialist at a Comprehensive Cancer Center in our region who was doing research on multiple myeloma. They worked together on an aggressive treatment regimen that would include chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. It was designed to put me into a more durable remission.

In early winter 2009/2010, I began this next stage of treatment with four rounds of chemotherapy — bortezomib and dexamethasone. With my husband’s farming, we requested the transplant be in February because we were going to be gone six to eight weeks. We bought a laptop and web camera, which helped us stay in touch with the children while we were gone.

We arrived at the cancer center Feb. 1 for an autologous stem cell transplant. They first collected and froze my stem cells. Next was high dose chemotherapy (melphalan) for two days. On Feb. 16, I had the transplant which thankfully went well. I was hopeful to get to go home quickly, but during my recovery, I had several bouts of high fevers. The delay was very disappointing, but it was due to a bad reaction to penicillin.

By the time I left on March 19, I was in very good partial remission. At my day 100 appointment, the doctor confirmed that the stem cell transplant had worked and I was still in very good partial remission. They started me on the maintenance drug lenalidomide, which I took until my one-year appointment. At that time, they told me I was in complete remission!

Multiple myeloma is not curable, but it’s treatable. I’m thankful that my doctors watch me closely to make sure they catch it if it comes back. While I won’t say what we went through was easy, I felt very protected. I attribute that to wonderful doctors, prayer, support from family and friends, not living in fear and worry, and giving it all over to God.

 

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