Multiple myeloma (MM) represents just one percent of all cancers in America. Even more unusual is the way Valerie Stevenson discovered she had the disease: She performed the lab tests that proved she had the aggressive blood-cell cancer.
|Valerie Stevenson was "TMI #10" - the tenth patient to receive Helical Tomo Therapy for multiple myeloma at City of Hope.|
You see, Valerie is a scientist. Though now retired, at the time she was a medical technologist and the chemical/urinalysis/toxicology supervisor at the Veterans Administration hospital in Loma Linda. When she came down with "the cold from hell" that wouldn't go away after more than a month, running a few tests on herself made perfect sense.
"It was a very bizarre moment," she remembers. "I actually knew a lot about multiple myeloma. I had diagnosed it in patients before. So far no cause has been identified. And there is still no cure.
"For years," she says, "I had been the one who called the doctors and told them 'We have another case of myeloma.' Now I was in my lab with the chief doctors checking my results, and we all agreed. I knew what it was as soon as I saw it.
"I had multiple myeloma.
"I think that was the best possible way for me to find out," Valerie says. "I was in a comfortable place, with friends all around me. In sort of a sick way, it was a fascinating technical subject. It was only when my lab tech, who I had worked with for years, started bawling that I thought, 'Wait. This is my life we're talking about here.’"
"City of Hope, Hands Down"
Valerie had her first consultation with an oncologist in January 2005 and began chemotherapy a month later. Almost from the start, she knew her best chance of survival was a stem cell transplant, and she began researching where she could have this procedure done.
"One of my best friends knows all the local hospitals very well," Valerie says, "and she told me, 'City of Hope, hands down.'" This message was repeated by family members, doctors, her coworkers at the VA hospital and her own research.
In April, Valerie began consulting with Amrita Krishnan, M.D. in our department of hematology and hematopoietic cell transplantation. Together, they began preparing for the two transplant procedures Valerie's cancer would require.
She received her first stem cell transplant on March 10, 2006, with a second scheduled six to 18 weeks later.
"The idea of doing a second transplant is to extend remission and to make patients less dependent on medication," Valerie explains. "There is no cure for MM. It will always come back. But myeloma cells are very sensitive to radiation. Chemo and two transplants improve our odds."
As Valerie weathered the physical trauma of the first transplant, a new opportunity arose -- one that really appealed to the self-described "science nerd."
"This sounds cool!"
Valerie was asked if she would be willing to participate in a clinical trial testing the application of Helical TomoTherapy on multiple myeloma.
|Jeffrey Wong, M.D., pioneering uses for Tomo Therapy.|
Although traditional radiation treatment is a very effective means of destroying cancer cells, the radiation can also damage surrounding tissue and organs. As described in previous issues of HopeCONNECTION, Helical TomoTherapy is a sophisticated new procedure that precisely targets cancerous tumors using CT scan technology, then attacks them with thousands of tiny, highly-directed beams of radiation. This minimizes side effects while maximizing radiation's cancer-killing power.
City of Hope is a world leader in Helical TomoTherapy, and was the first medical center in the United States to have two Helical TomoTherapy systems. At the time Valerie was asked to take part in the clinical study, however, Helical TomoTherapy had never been used to treat MM.
"Some people hear 'clinical trial' and think 'last resort,' but I was never like that," Valerie says. "I said, 'This sounds cool!'"
Directing the trial was Jeffrey Wong, M.D., chairman of City of Hope's division of radiation oncology and radiation research. "Dr. Wong is a patient, genteel, soft-spoken man, and very, very intelligent," Valerie says. "I asked him whose idea it was to test Helical TomoTherapy on multiple myeloma, and finally got him to admit it was his idea. He convinced the manufacturer the test should be done, and he did the work to make it happen at City of Hope.
"When he told me that, I teared up. Dr. Wong is my hero."
“I can’t express my gratitude.”
Valerie's Helical TomoTherapy process in May 2006 lasted five days and included seven sessions of total marrow irradiation.
"I am in complete remission now, but I live month-to-month waiting for my test results," Valerie says. "I know some patients want to be told 'You don't have to come back for six months,' but lab results are my lifeline. I don't want to cut that cord to City of Hope.
"I can't even begin to express my gratitude to the people who donate to City of Hope. I appreciate the research efforts of physicians like Dr. Wong, and know they couldn't conduct these important clinical trials like the TMI one I participated in without donations made on behalf of patients like me.
"I'm so grateful to them, and to everyone at City of Hope."
The generosity shown by you and your friends and neighbors has made City of Hope a world leader in bone-marrow transplant research and care for more than three decades. Thank you for doing so much to help end cancer.