‘Dwindling’ ribs, failing kidneys: How one woman climbed back from myeloma

March 21, 2017 | by Stephanie Smith

“‘We got your bone marrow back and there were so many cancer cells, they quit counting.’”

Donna McNutt remembers very little about the Easter day two years ago when she first found out she had cancer — except some stinging words from the oncologist.
Myeloma Series Part 2 McNutt Seated Donna McNutt today
“I think back now and it’s almost like I’m watching a movie,” said McNutt, who was 54 when she was diagnosed. “I do remember this — I said, ‘Could you tell me how long I have to live?’ And the oncologist said, ‘Well, I think I could buy you five years.’”

The doctor continued. McNutt’s normal blood cell production had been choked off and overwhelmed by cancer — at least 85 percent of her marrow was myeloma. She also had calcium dumping into her blood stream, failing kidneys and four broken ribs.

Pain had begun creeping into her midsection several weeks earlier. It sank deeper and deeper until her entire ribcage throbbed. At one point McNutt, on her mother's advice, wrapped herself in medicated arthritis patches to soothe the pain. “It was almost comical how many I had on me,” she said.

“For six weeks I walked around with dwindling ribs,” said McNutt, who is now 56. “I probably broke two at a time and even now I think, ‘How did I walk around like that?’ Broken ribs are so painful.”

That sobering inventory — hypercalcemia (high blood calcium), renal problems, anemia and bone problems, also known by the acronym, C.R.A.B. — reflects the typical symptoms of multiple myeloma. It is a relatively rare blood cancer, expected to affect close to 30,000 people in 2017 according to the American Cancer Society.

McNutt was diagnosed with Stage 4 disease.

She languished in the hospital for several days following her diagnosis, “I looked like a bloated, broken 90-year-old woman,” she said. “I couldn't even move — I could not move, I was in so much pain.”

McNutt’s family — her husband, Jack, and two of her three children, Hunter and Tatum — huddled close by. Her husband remembers how he felt when the oncologist put his wife's survival at five years.

“I remember thinking, ‘I can't believe my wife has an expiration date all of a sudden,’” he said. “I mean, we never know when we're going to die, but to have an expiration date to say you are going to die.

“It was just sad, sad … thinking about that.”
Myeloma Series Part 2 McNutt Tatum McNutt and her daughter Tatum
McNutt’s daughter, Tatum, who was then 15, felt sadness well up after her first hospital visit. Up to that point, no one had sat her down to fully explain things. All she knew was the worst-case scenario being painted on the World Wide Web. According to websites she read, the chances of her mom dying within six months were, “10 out of 10.”

After leaving the hospital, Tatum remembers feeling overwhelmed and anxious, like her world was crumbling. “My first thought was I’m never having kids,’” said Tatum. “I told my boyfriend ‘I’m too afraid to have kids without my mom.’”

It took several days — of crying, of rationalizing, of grounding, of purging negative emotions — before the family could shrug off feeling terrified. Armed with a healthier level of fear, the McNutt family decided they would fight for more than the six-month prognosis suggested on the Internet — more than the five years from the Orange County oncologist.

Around the same time, a piece of advice surfaced from the barrage coming from friends and family. A friend who was a cancer survivor spoke highly about a hematologist-oncologist and myeloma specialist at City of Hope who had treated her: Amrita Krishnan, M.D.
 
Jack McNutt made a mental note.
Myeloma Series Part 2 McNutt Krishnan Amrita Krishnan, M.D.
A day later, McNutt's oncologist in Orange County mentioned she was collaborating with Krishnan. It felt like an omen.

“It felt like we were in the right hands,” said Jack McNutt. “After that, I made my decision for Donna and I. We’re taking this path — done.”

McNutt arrived at City of Hope several weeks later. Soon afterward, she got a stem cell transplant, effectively killing off any visible trace of myeloma in her body.

Sitting in the family’s cozy cottage in Laguna Beach, California, on a rare stormy day in January — two years removed from her transplant — McNutt is philosophical about what she and other cancer patients refer to as, “The Cancer Journey.”

The storm whipping the outside of her home is, in some ways, a metaphor for the cancer that raged in her body and the impact it continues to have on the family. They will weather these storms — at least until a cure is found for myeloma.

Today, McNutt’s concern is about a bone marrow aspiration she will have in a few days; a painful extraction of her bone marrow to test for cancer. Tomorrow it will be something else.

Awaiting the results of tests like these, going through emotional ups-and-downs, reminds McNutt how tenuous her situation is. But it also somehow buoys her.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned, more than my body failing me, is that my mind has played such an important role on this journey,” said McNutt. “Keeping one step ahead in my mind every time I have a setback in my body. I will keep fighting. I will not let cancer take the drive and the goals I have. I can still dream.

“I can still dream.”

Dreaming, fighting — holding on to hope — and the fast pace of myeloma research at City of Hope and other institutions, is what the McNutt family hopes will keep Donna McNutt here for many years to come.
 

Stories of Hope is a monthly series that explores important issues in health care. During Multiple Myeloma Awareness Month, we offer an intimate look at one patient’s experience. Tomorrow: Research progress for myeloma.

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