From time to time, HCI invites guest commentary from our community. The views reflected in these commentaries are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of HCI.
Thalidomide is a terrible drug. First developed by a German pharmaceutical company in 1956, it was prescribed as a remedy for morning sickness in pregnant women. By 1961, it became clear that thalidomide caused horrible birth defects, stillbirths, and miscarriages, and it was withdrawn from the market. And that might have been the end of the story.
Thalidomide is a wonderful drug. It attacks malignant cells in the bone marrow, the system that goes wrong in the blood cancer called multiple myeloma. Celgene, the American company that took over research and new applications for thalidomide, faced intense criticism for recommending its off-label use as a cancer treatment. By 2006, its benefits were clear, and it was approved as a treatment for multiple myeloma.
I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in January 2003, and I can thank thalidomide as well as its next-generation derivatives, Revlimid and Pomalyst, for the fact that I’m still here 18 years later. They prepared me for the two stem cell transplants that put my cancer into remission through many of those years. Though they have some uncomfortable side effects, these drugs have made all the difference in my cancer experience. Multiple myeloma has become, for me, a chronic health issue rather than an immediate crisis.
A cancer diagnosis is a turning point in anyone’s life. Confronting mortality changes ambitions, relationships, aspirations, and even our sense of humor. Career plans have to be adapted to constant medical needs. After a while, you develop some expertise in navigating the health care system.
I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma at the age of 46. I’ll be 65 soon. Barring a sudden turn for the worse, I expect I’ll reach 70, something I wouldn’t have thought possible early in my cancer experience. I’m grateful for the terrible, wonderful drugs and the medical professionals at Huntsman Cancer Institute with the skill to use them, as well as constant support from family and so many good friends.
I hardly expected, nor was I prepared for, the death of my wife in 2010 from the effects of chronic high blood pressure. I have since remarried; Mary’s been as kind and supportive as I could ever hope for, but Rhonda’s passing will always affect how I see these questions of life and death.
There’s a story in Buddhist scripture about the king of the Kosalas, who was among the Buddha’s early followers. A messenger brought the news that his wife had died, and the king was inconsolable. But the Buddha asked a sensible question: Shall we assume we who are subject to illness and death will never get sick and die? Strange to say, I find consolation in his experience and the Buddha’s teaching. We may not make that assumption, and we must therefore be prepared for what life gives us—or takes from us. No one is guaranteed tomorrow. But here I am still, 18 years from my diagnosis and counting, with the responsibility to use this day and this time as well as I know how.