When Marie Chaplinksy went in for a checkup with her cardiologist in March 2017, she was surprised when she was called back to have her bloodwork done for a second time. Her test results showed that she was very anemic, and her doctor noticed other concerning markers.
After the second round of tests, her cardiologist suspected that she had cancer and referred her to MD Anderson.
Marie, now 71, set up an appointment at MD Anderson West Houston, which was much closer to her home in Katy than the Texas Medical Center location. After additional testing, she learned that she had stage I multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that affects bone marrow. She was also considered high-risk due to the results of her bone marrow aspiration, which was done during her diagnostic testing. Approximately 15% of patients with multiple myeloma are considered to have high-risk disease, which is associated with a shorter remission and an earlier risk of relapse.
The diagnosis came as a shock to Marie, who didn’t show any symptoms. Multiple myeloma patients may experience bone lesions or kidney issues as the disease progresses.
“I was encouraged by my team’s knowledge and expertise. They shared with me that while there was no cure for multiple myeloma, they had instances of patients still living after 17 years,” says Marie. “I wanted to be one of those people.”
Multiple myeloma treatment closer to home
In May 2017, Marie’s doctors prescribed chemotherapy, which would be followed by a stem cell transplant. The chemotherapy treatments lasted for four months and included a combination of kyprolis, revlimid and dexamethasone. While Marie did not lose any hair during this phase of her multiple myeloma treatment, she did experience a loss of taste and fatigue.
Marie appreciated that she was able to receive chemotherapy so close to home.
“Thank goodness it was only eight minutes from my house,” says Marie of MD Anderson’s West Houston location. She continued to work as a meeting and event planner during treatment. Not losing time to a commute was essential for keeping her business running.
Recovering from an autologous stem cell transplant
In October, she underwent an autologous stem cell transplant, which uses the patient’s own cells for treatment. Blood cells are extracted and a high-dose chemotherapy is used to treat the cancer. Then, the stem cells are placed back into the patient. The patient has low blood counts until the replaced cells replenish the body with healthy cells.
Marie stayed in the hospital on MD Anderson’s Texas Medical Center Campus for three weeks. The chemotherapy drug she was given, melphalan, caused her to lose her hair and her appetite. But around the third week, she started feeling better.
“It was during the holidays, so I watched Christmas movies in my room. When my appetite came back, I really wanted canned chicken noodle soup like my mother used to make,” recalls Marie.
Muzaffar Qazilbash, M.D., and research nurse specialist Vivian Al Jahdhami, oversaw Marie’s stem cell transplant. She is still in communication with them and speaks highly of them to other patients.
“‘Dr. Q’, as I call him, and Vivian have been incredible. They answer all of my questions in a timely manner, and I feel so lucky to have them on my team,” says Marie.
Staying positive through a multiple myeloma diagnosis and beyond
Following her treatment, Marie took part in a clinical trial that lasted for two years and received revlimid to keep her cancer from returning. She completed the clinical trial, but still takes the medication, since it is the current standard of care. She reached remission in November 2019. While multiple myeloma can be aggressive if it returns, Marie is enjoying her life and leaning on her faith.
“I have always been active and I still am, even though I am a little slower these days,” she says. “I never let myself become negative, and prayer has always been important to me. I had hope and determination, and it worked.”
Marie was given the option of reducing her revlimid dosage when the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic started. That’s because the drug lowers the immune system’s ability to fight infections, such as COVID-19.
But Marie decided to keep taking her maintenance medication. “I decided that I would rather fight COVID-19 than stop taking my medication that fights myeloma,” says Marie. To protect against COVID-19, she and her husband are practicing social distancing and taking other preventive measures, such as frequent hand-washing and disinfecting things that come into their home.
Encouraging others through MyCancerConnection
After her multiple myeloma treatment, Marie wanted to be a source of positivity and hope for other patients. So, she signed up to volunteer with myCancerConnection, MD Anderson’s one-on-one cancer support community. Marie loves being able to answer other’s questions thoughtfully and honestly via phone, email or text.
“My goal is always build their confidence back up if they’re feeling down,” says Marie, who continues to support patients by phone during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She is often asked by other patients if she’s fearful of the future.
“I don’t even think about if my cancer comes back. I have battled this and I came through,” says Marie. “If it comes back, I’ll do the same thing. I’ll fight it and be in prayer. I’m not going to let it take control of me.”
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