In October 2006, Guadalupe Moreno was taken to the emergency room for severe bone and kidney pain and a fever.
During the second day of her one-week stay at Scripps Hospital in Chula Vista, doctors told Moreno something that would change the rest of her life.
Moreno, now 64, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer where abnormal cells collect in the bone marrow and form tumors.
It’s the second most common blood cancer after lymphoma, affecting an estimated 750,000 people worldwide.
In July 2007, Moreno went to the University of California, San Diego, where she received a stem cell transplant.
“The transplant worked for 20 months — my cancer was in remission then it began slowly coming back and I started chemo again,” she said.
Moreno, like many people who are diagnosed with multiple myeloma, have never heard of the disease and think of it as melanoma, the leading cause of death from skin disease.
Years ago, multiple myeloma mostly affected men in their 60s and older, but today, diagnosis includes women and those younger than 30.
There are approximately 19,900 new cases of myeloma in the United States each year, according to the International Myeloma Foundation, which works to improve treatment options to improve the quality of life for patients.
Although multiple myeloma is treatable with medication, radiation and chemotherapy, the condition can cause bone pain, frequent infections, dizziness and fatigue.
Moreno takes steroids and two chemotherapy treatments in cycles, which helps minimize her pain, but causes side effects such as nausea.
While symptoms of multiple myeloma can be strong, they are not easy to detect at an early stage.
For some people like Elliot Recht, who was diagnosed during an annual physical 14 years ago, there are no symptoms at all.
Recht is one of two leaders for the San Diego Multiple Myeloma Support Group, but started off as a member when he was first diagnosed, taking over after group founder Fred Gloor passed away.
“I am very fortunate,” Recht said. “I’ve been pretty asymptomatic the whole time.”
Still, patients must manage their symptoms.
Because multiple myeloma affects plasma cells responsible for producing antibodies, it often affects the immune system, making patients more susceptible to infections, colds and viruses. It can also cause build-up of the M protein, which thickens the blood.
Moreno explained the importance of washing her hands and dishes well and often to rid them of bacteria and how she can’t eat fruit or vegetables that grow underground because of pesticides.
When Recht was diagnosed, the life expectancy of patients was only three years, so he decided to stop working full time as a photographer.
“Why work so hard when you have such a short time to live?” he said.
Dr. Brian Durie, chairman of the foundation’s board, said that in the last decade, six new agents have been created to fight myeloma.
“Novel therapies are much better tolerated and work for a whole lot longer than chemotherapy does,” Durie said. “On average, life expectancy has doubled in the last decade from three to six years … allowing patients to return to a longer, fuller life.”
Chula Vista resident Lanorris Sewell was diagnosed at Scripps Hospital in Chula Vista in April after his back went out. Blood tests, a bone marrow biopsy and MRI confirmed he had multiple myeloma.
Sewell, 49, retired from the Navy in 2003 after 20 years working with chemicals to strip rust off airplanes. Prior to being diagnosed Sewell hadn’t heard of multiple myeloma.
“One thing I have learned about the cancer thing is that you have to stay positive if you want to beat it, otherwise you’re defeated,” he said.
Although the reason why people develop multiple myeloma is unknown, there are man-made risk contributors that include environmental pollution, stress and pesticides.
In Recht’s case, he grew up in Pittsburgh where he said he believes that air pollution, caused by the burning of coal and production of steel and iron, might have contributed to his condition, in addition to medal casting, oil paints, turpentine and clay.
“It’s a fine line between awareness and susceptibility,” Durie said. “Only a small percentage of those exposed have a genetic predisposition to it. People who do get myeloma aren’t able to break down these chemicals because they are slow metabolizers.”
Sewell and Moreno live on disability, unable to work, but attend support group meetings, which offer information on finances, give emotional support, and provide a better understanding of myeloma.
“It helps them realize that they are not alone in this battle and struggle,” Recht said.
“This is a type of cancer where education is the best possible thing.”
Moreno also attends meetings at Sharp Medical Center’s Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in Chula Vista.
“It’s good to learn and talk with other people that are like you and exchange your experiences,” she said. “I think when you have cancer, you have to fight to get well—you have to think positive.”
For information on support groups visit www.multiplemyelomasandiego.org.