January 8, 2016 | by Karen Stevens
In late January, Bob Dickey hopes to be standing at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. He plans to conquer the African peak the same way he has lived life since learning he has multiple myeloma, an aggressive blood cancer, five years ago.
“When things get difficult you can’t let yourself stop,” said the Temecula-area freight broker, a patient at City of Hope’s Judy and Bernard Briskin Center for Multiple Myeloma Research. “You have to keep moving forward.”
In multiple myeloma, abnormal plasma cells build up in the bone marrow and interfere with the production of normal blood cells. About 26,000 cases of the disease – which is considered to be incurable but treatable – are expected to be diagnosed in the United States this year.
“Wonderful progress is being made,” said Bob, 49, during a break between appointments one recent morning. “However, the five-year survival rate is still relatively low. Most of us who are able to achieve remission are eventually going to relapse. We will struggle for the rest of our lives – or until a cure is found.”
He remains optimistic, thanks largely to his faith in his oncologist, Amrita Krishnan, M.D., director of the center. “She is the smartest doctor I’ve ever had,” he said. “She understands this disease so well. When there’s any change, any trouble, I ask, ‘What do we do now?’ She always knows all the options so that makes it easy for me.”
For Bob, the first sign of trouble came in September 2010, when the divorced father of three was living in Visalia, California: “I went to the gym, picked up a weight and snapped several vertebrae.” (Bone problems are a common symptom.)
He was told he had advanced multiple myeloma. “I was stunned because I had spent the last 15 years taking the best care of myself I could. Also, I was in my early 40s and the average age for this disease is much older.”
After a month of unsuccessful chemotherapy, Bob was referred to City of Hope, a leader in myeloma treatment and research. He made his initial visit to the Duarte campus in January 2011. “A patient advocate gave us the big walk-through and explained the check-in process and showed us the lab. We felt real comfortable with the whole facility. They take the fear out of coming here.”
Next, he met with Krishnan. “She outlined what she saw and that we had to become more aggressive. After the appointment, I knew I didn’t want anyone else treating me. I had found the right place and the right doctor.”
Under Krishnan’s care, Bob tried several chemotherapy regimens and then underwent a stem cell transplant on July 4, 2011. Before the procedure, he received high-dose chemotherapy. The effects were excruciating. “It’s so bad you focus on shorter periods of time, not even hours but 15 minutes,” he recalled. “Sitting up in bed. Walking to the bathroom. Everything was a struggle.”
“In a way, the actual transplant almost seemed anti-climactic,” he added. “They walk into a room with your stem cells partially frozen in an IV bag, hook it up to your port and work this slushy through the tubes. I remember saying to the nurse, ‘Are you telling me that all my hopes of survival are wrapped up in what looks like such a simple procedure?’”
That “simple” procedure helped Bob achieve full remission. After a three-week hospital stay, he went home and continued his recovery, returned to work and began regular blood tests to monitor his condition.
To mark the first anniversary of his transplant, Bob took on California’s Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet, it's the highest point in the continental United States. “I’m not really a climber,” he said, “but I saw it as a way to raise money for multiple myeloma and to show people that although there is no cure, this is a disease we can manage.”
This past New Year’s Day, Bob was one of five cancer patients who rode City of Hope’s float in the 127th Rose Parade.
Later this month, he will join an expedition to Kilimanjaro that includes patients, relatives and others hoping to raise funds for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.
Bob has been training hard for his trek up the Tanzanian mountain, which rises more than 19,000 feet above sea level. “It’s now a lot tougher for me to build muscle and endurance,” he explained, noting that he has gone from 6 feet and 190 pounds to 5 feet 9 and 155. (“I lost a few inches because of my back.”)
Also, he is no longer in full remission. “My numbers started to change in January 2015. I’ve entered a clinical trial conducted by Dr. Krishnan. So far, I’ve achieved partial remission.”
Bob intends to carry City of Hope banners to Kilimanjaro’s summit and back. “I also will be thinking of Dr. Krishnan. When I get to the top, it will be because of her.”
Most important, he said, he will be climbing for his kids. “I want them to understand that multiple myeloma is a real game-changer but so are a lot of situations in life that we have to overcome. Obstacles can become opportunities. Multiple myeloma has become an opportunity for me to show my sons that we don’t roll over.”
Learn more about Bob's remarkable journey with cancer:
Find out more about City of Hope's multiple myeloma cancer program and research. If you are looking for a second opinion or consultation about your treatment, request an appointment online or contact us at 800-826-HOPE. Please visit Making Your First Appointment for more information.