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Surviving Cancer: One Woman's Journey Back to Solid Ground

Judy Plummer

It was the first time Judy Plummer had ever heard the words "multiple myeloma." But, when her doctor told her she had it, she knew it meant bad news.

In fact, she was so upset that she only remembers a few more words from the conversation: "cancer," "three- to five-year life expectancy" and "stem cell transplant." "It seemed like he wasn't really talking to me," says Plummer, who was 57 at the time.

Plummer learned that multiple myeloma can't be cured – but a stem cell transplant could offer her a much longer life. There was no way, however, that Plummer and her family could fully understand – or prepare for – the difficult journey that was to come.

'My world changed'

Plummer's first hint that something was wrong came one day in May 2006, as she walked to her car from her workplace in Charlotte, N.C. Her legs were so weak she could barely step up onto the curb.

Plummer had also been tired and having pain in her back and right side, so she went to her doctor. An X-ray revealed cracked ribs – a surprising find since she hadn't sustained a fall or other injury.

Plummer took leave from work to heal. But, her condition only worsened. "After about two weeks I could hardly get out of bed," she says.

Eventually, the pain became so intense that the effort to stand took her breath away. So, Plummer's husband called the doctor, who told them to go to the emergency room.

There, Plummer had a series of tests, which seemed to indicate that she might have cancer. Still, her doctors hoped for a less serious diagnosis, so they ran a whole battery of tests.

Finally, however, a bone biopsy of her hip confirmed it. "The doctor called my family into the room," says Plummer. "He told me I had multiple myeloma" – a cancer of the bone marrow – "and at that moment my world changed."

Multiple myeloma is a cancer involving the plasma cells, which are a component of blood. Normally, plasma cells are found in bone marrow and play an important role in the immune system. When plasma cells become malignant, however, they can weaken the bone and cause fractures. People with multiple myeloma may also become tired and weak because of anemia. This explained Plummer's fractures and other symptoms.

Multiple myeloma is relatively rare, but there were more than 20,000 new cases in the United States last year. The 5-year survival rate is around 35 percent. And, that number has been increasing in recent years because of new forms of treatment.

Getting worse in order to get better

While Plummer struggled to come to terms with her diagnosis, the disease was causing more symptoms. In addition to the discomfort from her cracked ribs, she also had back pain caused by compression fractures in her spine.

A procedure called kyphoplasty helped ease her back pain by stabilizing fractures in her vertebrae. But, she was still so weak that she needed help to move. "In less than a month, I went from being OK to using a walker, a hospital bed and a power lift chair just to get around my house," she says.

But, despite these complications, Plummer was soon on track with her treatment plan. First, she had chemotherapy to put her into a partial remission. Then, six months later in November 2006, Plummer received a very high dose of chemotherapy to kill as many myeloma cells as possible. A few days later she received a transfusion containing her own healthy stem cells at Duke University Adult Bone Marrow Clinic. Over time, they would grow into normal blood cells.

The high dose of chemotherapy can kill nearly all the myeloma cells. But, the treatment also damages healthy cells, which can cause serious side effects. For Plummer, that meant several bouts with pneumonia, impaired kidney function and hair loss. Her esophagus was also inflamed, which made swallowing food very painful. In fact, her condition was so serious that, in December, Plummer was admitted to the hospital.

From that low point, however, Plummer began to improve. She was able to go home temporarily for Christmas, and a week later her doctors released her from the hospital. She had lost 70 pounds and still used a walker, but she was home. "It was the most wonderful thing," she says.

Looking back now, Plummer realizes she was even sicker than she thought at the time. In fact, it took most of 2007 for her to recover from the chemotherapy and the stem cell transplant. "They nearly had to kill me to save me," Plummer says. "Unless you've been there, you can't understand what cancer patients go through."

Help in tough times

Plummer's life is forever changed. She has to be vigilant about germs, since her immune system is compromised. She lost height from her spinal compression fractures. And, she'll always have to take medications to maintain her health.

But, her new life also has bright sides. Because everyone had to pull together, her family is even closer than before. Faith and prayer were a vital source of strength during her illness. And, friends she didn't know she had also helped her get through the worst – with food, favors and good will.

Plummer counts UnitedHealthcare as a one of those friends. "They were awesome," she says. "We never had to worry about coverage. And, the people at NurseLineSM were so compassionate – they celebrated my victories along with us."

Plummer recently accomplished another victory – she walked a mile in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's "Light the Night" cancer walk.

"I live a very full life," she says. "Cancer really makes you appreciate each day as a gift."

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