I published on this subject more than a year ago, and it has been very helpful to many in the myeloma patient community. I have provided some updates including a new section on Early Diagnosis and Treatment and hope that it helps to assist you in your myeloma journey. The SEER (Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results) data for multiple myeloma has been published in April of 2015 by the National Cancer Institute, and the average life expectancy remains at four years for the fifth year in a row. However, some people beat the odds and live 10 to 20 years or more. When I was first diagnosed, the data for a person with dialysis-dependent kidney failure was just three months, and the overall average was three years. Now I am a nine year and five month survivor, and I have beaten the average life expectancy prognosis at the time, and this was with what was called a negative prognostic indicator (kidney failure). So I believe you can break into three parts a patient’s ability to beat the odds.
If you are lucky enough to have a general practitioner who picks up high protein in the blood and finds the disease early while it is in the smoldering or in stage one, you have won the Myeloma Lottery. Life expectancy of stage one disease is three times greater than if you have been found in stage three. New treatment guidelines have been published in November of 2014 with the express purpose of finding and treating the disease before it has progressed and causes end organ failure. A National Institute of Health article states the intent of this clearly;
“The concept of initiating therapy after end organ damage is analogous to initiating treatment after the development of metastatic cancer in solid tumors. Indeed, screening, early detection and intervention have played a large part in the major curative advances that have been achieved in solid tumors whereas metastatic cancer remains incurable in these same malignancies. It is, therefore, not surprising that MM remains incurable, in spite of all the advances in therapeutic interventions. Could it be because we are waiting too long – until metastatic myeloma occurs – to treat our patients? In such a condition, watchful waiting may actually be more harmful to the patient than early intervention.” To read the whole article CLICK HERE.
If you are one of the lucky ones who are found in the early stages of active myeloma or smoldering myeloma, you will have the luxury of time to understand the treatment options, find a myeloma specialist (a must), and plan to confront your disease before permanent end organ damage. Dr. Rajkumar of Mayo Clinic did a wonderful job of explaining the new criteria for myeloma diagnosis and you can read it if you CLICK HERE.
Unfortunately, Myeloma UK has reported that one in five myeloma patients die within the first two months of diagnosis and that it takes nearly a year from the first symptoms to diagnosis for 25% of newly diagnosed patients. So until a method of screening and general practitioner training is initiated, this will continue to be mostly just luck.
Some people are just plain lucky and are given a form of myeloma that is not that aggressive. In other words they have myeloma, but it happens to be smoldering myeloma. This form of the disease can be present in the patient but not show any outward symptoms. It can remain in this mode for five, ten, or even 20 years. The age of the patient is very important, in that your life expectancy is two times longer if you were diagnosed at 49 years of age or less. The average age of the typical myeloma patient is 70. You can read more on this subject if you . Some people may have an active disease but do not have any of the negative prognostic indicators. These include, but are not limited to, deletion of chromosome 17p and translocation of 4;14 or 14;16 or 14;20. Your myeloma specialist will run the FISH test or other genetic tests to determine if you have any of these negative prognostic indicators. If you are considered high risk, the life expectancy is just half of the current average, or just two years. You can read more about high risk multiple myeloma.
The sensitivity of the disease to treatment is also important. My myeloma seemed to be very sensitive to the combination of Cytoxan, Thalamid and Dexamethasone and put me into remission very quickly. Some people might have the same experience with Revlimid, Velcade, or Dex, or any combination of these drugs. If the disease comes back, as it often does, the re-application of the same regimen may continue to work for years. I know one patient who has taken Thalomid for years as his only treatment and remains in remission. This is working well for him.
And of course if the average is four years, half of the people will invariably beat the average.
I am sure there are other disease factors, however, what I will discuss now is the part of disease control that you may or may not have more control over.
Part 3 – Quality of Care
There are some elements that you may or may not have much control over, the first of which is the availability of insurance. If you do not have insurance or have no access to care, the average life expectancy is less than one year. However, Medicare has a Compassionate Allowance Program where you can be approved in less than two weeks if you go to your local office and can show that you will not live without care. To see the program CLICK HERE. The Affordable Care Act may provide an option for the 15% who are not insured, and Medicare, Medicaid, and drug company assistance programs are also available. In addition, there are other programs which can provide assistance listed on the bottom of the home page, to view. Unfortunately without care, like people who need dialysis (which is always covered by Medicare), you will have below average life expectancy.
Multiple myeloma is a rare blood cancer, so many hematologist/oncologists may not see one patient in a year. As a result not all oncologists or hematologists are the same. However, some are very skilled and experienced with multiple myeloma and have treated many myeloma patients. The data shows these myeloma specialists provide an average life expectancy of 10 years or more, while the average remains stagnant at four years. For a listing of these exceptional specialists or for a more extensive list without survival history just. And obviously, if your myeloma specialist has an average patient life expectancy of 10 years, their patients will beat the average by more than twice the average. This is what I did when I chose to get my SCT (stem cell transplant) at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, UAMS, which has a myeloma program called MIRT, Myeloma Institute of Research and Therapy. At the time they had over 10,000 transplants under their belt, and as a result they were expert at the process, and knew what could go wrong and had a plan in place to get you through any potential complications. I have found from my work on this site that centers like Mayo, Dr. Hari (Medical College of Wisconsin), UAMS or Dr. Berenson’s (IMBCR) have very different approaches to treatment, but because they are expert in what they do, they have similar results. A brain surgeon is who you would choose over any other surgeon if you had a brain tumor, why would you not do the same for myeloma? Find out how to find a myeloma specialist.
Myeloma specialists have access to drugs that other oncologists do not. Because they are the thought leaders, they are involved in clinical trials, and can obtain some drugs through other programs that lesser known oncologists do not have access to. Worse yet, oncologists who are not myeloma specialists may not even know that some of these drugs even exist. For example, some of the well connected specialists have access to unapproved drugs like Daratumumab or Ixazomib through special programs. Or some specialists can use drugs that are only approved for relapse or secondary therapy options (Krypolis and Pomalyst), and obtain approval to use them for newly diagnosed patients. They also have access to the best clinical trials like VRD for first line therapy which provides a response in 100 percent of patients. When you run out of options with the currently approved drugs, they can provide access to those that have done great in clinical trial, but are not currently available to the general public. Because you need a significant infrastructure to conduct clinical trials at your facility and they cost the facility $15,000 per patient, few local oncologists have access to clinical trials. Sometimes it is who you know!
Myeloma patients seldom die from myeloma, they die from the complications from myeloma. The number one complication is pneumonia, and others include infections, kidney failure, anemia, etc. This, therefore, brings me to the realization that supportive care for the treatment of the many complications of this disease may just be as important as the cancer treatment itself. Or a great Defense (supportive care) is as important as the Offense (cancer therapy). MD Anderson and Mayo Clinic emphasize supportive care in their programs, UAMS actually has a Director of Supportive Care in their myeloma program, and Dr. Elias Anaissie, the Director of the Myeloma Program at the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center, has an extensive background in supportive care. Dr. Anaissie has published a well written example of an exceptional supportive care model. You can read this publication if you CLICK HERE. To read my blog post on supportive care . I also think the quality of care that you receive can also be affected by the knowledge of the patient, and this can be obtained by doing your research on finding the best approaches to care by looking at the work of the best myeloma specialists on-line, and by going to great sites as listed in the Resource Section of www.myelomasurvival.com . To find out how to get educated about multiple myeloma . In addition, joining a support group of the International Myeloma Foundation or the LLS (Leukemia, Lymphoma, and Myeloma Society) will provide more great information to improve your life expectancy. I have found that the average life expectancy of most of these support groups far out-performs the average. Knowledge is power! Additional information on the benefits of support group membership can be found.
There are 80,000 multiple myeloma patients in the USA, and if we can move the average from four years to ten years of life expectancy with the myeloma specialists, we could save 80,000 times six, or 480,000 years of LIFE. Many times more if we include the entire world. You all can help by getting this message out to the myeloma patient community though Facebook and Twitter. Everyone knows someone who has myeloma or may have a friend or family member that can be helped by this information. With your help we can “SAVE LIVES”!
Good luck and God Bless your Myeloma Journey/ editor
about the author
Gary is a myeloma survivor and patient advocate. His work centers around helping patients live longer by helping them to find facilities who are beating the average survival statistics. You can find Gary's site at www.myelomasurvival.com and follow him on Twitter at @grpetersen1