Nearly four decades before the first female Vice President, Kamala Harris, was sworn into office, Geraldine Ferraro made history by becoming the first woman to be nominated for vice president by a major political party. The former three-term New York congresswoman and Democratic running mate of Walter Mondale (who passed away in April) died in March 2011 from complications of multiple myeloma at age 75.
Ferraro learned she had multiple myeloma in 1998, at age 63, but she didn’t reveal her diagnosis publicly until 2001. At the time of her diagnosis, she was told she had just 3 years to live. She ultimately survived for more than 12 years, thanks to advances in treatment — some of which she helped researchers study.
Before her passing, Ferraro used her influence to increase funding for this rare blood cancer, and expand access to new and potentially lifesaving drugs.
Nearly 35,000 people are diagnosed with multiple myeloma each year. This cancer starts in a type of white blood cell known as a plasma cell. Made in bone marrow, plasma cells produce proteins called antibodies that help our bodies fight off bacteria, viruses, and other harmful invaders.
Hematologist and SurvivorNet advisor, Dr. Nina Shah, explains multiple myeloma
In multiple myeloma, plasma cells multiply too quickly and crowd out healthy blood cells. “Because of that, they can cause different symptoms,” Dr. Nina Shah, a multiple myeloma specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, told SurvivorNet in an earlier interview.
As the cancerous plasma cells proliferate inside the bones, they disrupt the processes that keep bones healthy, leading to symptoms such as bone pain and fractures.
Ferraro didn’t have symptoms at the time of her diagnosis. A higher-than-normal number of white blood cells on a blood test alerted her doctor to the problem. Further testing confirmed her diagnosis.
In 2001, Ferraro announced that she was taking thalidomide (brand name: Thalidomid) to treat her cancer, and she credited the drug with putting her into remission. Originally a treatment for pregnancy morning sickness in the 1950s and 1960s, thalidomide was pulled from the market in 1962 after causing severe birth defects in more than 10,000 babies.
The drug gained new life in the 1990s when doctors discovered it was effective against AIDS and certain types of cancer. It was still experimental when Ferraro took it, but was FDA-approved in 2006 as a treatment for multiple myeloma, in combination with the steroid dexamethasone. Thalidomid works by enhancing the ability of immune cells called T cells and natural killer cells to target multiple myeloma.
Thalidomid was the first new therapy in decades for multiple myeloma. Before its approval, the primary way to control this cancer was with chemotherapy. Thalidomid eventually gave rise to several new immune-modulating treatments, including lenalidomide (brand name: Revlimid) and pomalidomide (brand name: Pomalyst).
Today, a number of immune-based treatments are improving survival in multiple myeloma. For example, people whose cancer has returned after treatment or who haven’t responded to several treatments can try chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, a personalized approach that modifies your body’s immune cells to recognize and attack your cancer.
Ferraro was a pioneer in more ways than one. Just as she had broken barriers for women in politics, she broke barriers to cancer treatment, by helping expand access to lifesaving new drugs.
In 2001, she testified before a congressional hearing in favor of the Hematological Cancer Investment and Education Act, which designated $250 million in federal funds for research into multiple myeloma and other blood cancers. She used her own experience as an example of what effective cancer treatment can accomplish. “I look great, and I feel great, and it’s what early diagnosis and research can do,” she told The New York Times.
Former President George W. Bush signed the Act into law on May 14, 2002. Five million dollars of the designated funds went to create the Geraldine Ferraro Cancer Education Program, to improve public awareness of blood cancers.
To push the needle of progress in multiple myeloma research even further, Ferraro participated in clinical trials of new drugs; first Revlimid, and later the targeted therapy bortezomib (brand name: Velcade).
Velcade was the first in a class of medications called proteasome inhibitors, which block the enzymes cancer cells need to divide and function. “It did not exist when I was first diagnosed,” she told the Today show. “This is what makes it a chronic disease now rather than a death sentence.”
Ferraro also fought to overcome the financial barriers that prevented other cancer patients from getting the treatment they needed. In 2007, when she was taking Velcade, each injection cost $1,000.
“What bothers me is that what’s available to me is not available to every person who has cancer in this country and it should be,” she told Today.
“Geraldine was a pioneer and a hero to me, to caregivers and to patients nationally and internationally in many ways,” oncologist and myeloma expert Dr. Kenneth C. Anderson told Cancer Today magazine in 2015.
Thanks in part to her efforts, today more than 20 drugs are approved to treat multiple myeloma. “We’ve been blessed in the last twenty years with an extraordinary change in the natural history of the disease, by virtue of the introduction of novel agents,” Dr. Paul Richardson, director of clinical research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, told SurvivorNet in a previous interview.
Life expectancy has risen dramatically over the last few decades. Though multiple myeloma still isn’t curable, today it is manageable. “It’s a disease that you can live with, and not necessarily have to die of,” Dr. Shah says.
Explore popular multiple myeloma articles and topics
Multiple Myeloma: What Precedes the Full-Blown Cancer?
A Vaccine for Multiple Myeloma is in Clinical Trial
What is a Blood Cancer - How is it Different?