Veteran Returns From War and Faces New Battle at Home
- Edward Denmark, 59, who served in the Falkland Wars is now battling terminal cancer after doctors ignored his symptoms for three years and instead said he was suffering PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).
- Denmark was finally diagnosed after experiencing broken bones in his spine. He then started chemotherapy and had a stem cell transplant, which he called “the worst thing in the world.”
- Denmark says his cancer is terminal, and while multiple myeloma is still incurable, there are a number of people who are able to lead full lives thanks to a number of treatments that have greatly prolonged life expectancy.
Edward Denmark, 59, who served in the Falkland Wars is now battling terminal cancer after doctors finally diagnosed him with multiple myeloma.Read More
Things did not get much better after his diagnosis.
“They put me on a thing called ‘watch and wait’ which is essentially like saying ‘you have cancer, but it’s not doing anything so we won’t treat it,'” explains Denmark. “Eight weeks later, I bent over to pick something up, and it broke my spine in six places; I thought I had a heart attack. The pain was that bad.”
He immediately went into the hospital but was shocked that after taking an x-ray and keeping him just one night, he was sent home and told: “You’re fine, it was a twinge.”
However, it was not long until he was right back at the hospital, and this time doctors had no choice but to listen to the man.
Denmark says he was taking a shower and suddenly felt “agony,” which x-rays later revealed to be additional breaks in the spine that doctors had missed.
He was on chemotherapy within two weeks and then underwent a stem cell transplant, a procedure that even Denmark found difficult to withstand.
“I’ve got to say the stem cell transplant is the worst thing in the world; you want to die when you’re going through that,” says the burly veteran. “It was horrendous.”
Despite all this, Denmark is making the most of his situation and dedicating himself to a passion project that he hopes will be an everlasting gift to other veterans.
After the war, he went back to the Falklands and befriended some of the very men he fought against, and he is now hoping to put that story on film by producing and directing a documentary.
“I’ve got such a passion for what I’m doing that I want to make a difference; I don’t want this illness to define me,” says Denmark. “I am going to lose the battle in the end; I don’t know when but there’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t worry about it; I don’t worry.”
What Is Multiple Myeloma?
Multiple myeloma is rare cancer that forms in a type of white blood cell called a plasma cell. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 30,770 new disease cases will be diagnosed this year, and about 12,770 people will die from it.
Multiple myeloma causes plasma cells to grow out of proportion to other cells, leading to a handful of symptoms. “That’s how we diagnose it,” Dr. Nina Shah, a hematologist specializing in multiple myeloma at UCSF Medical Center, previously told SurvivorNet. “Some people come because they’re just tired, and a blood count shows that things are abnormal. The plasma cells tend to take up space in the bone marrow, so sometimes patients will come to us with a new fracture or a new break in the bone. The myeloma cells can also produce proteins and cause you to have kidney failure.”
Multiple myeloma is still considered an incurable disease, but Dr. Shah stressed that it is a disease that people can live with.
Why Is Multiple Myeloma Incurable?
Stem Cell Transplant for Multiple Myeloma – Side Effects
If you’re eligible for a stem cell transplant, the data is clear: patients who get one live longer than those who don’t. However, not everyone is eligible for a stem cell transplant because of the toll it takes on your body.
The goal of the transplant is to kill off as many cancerous cells as possible through a round of high dosage chemotherapy. The stem-cell transplant is actually used as a rescue therapy to replenish healthy cells following harsh chemotherapy.
The chemotherapy used before the stem-cell transplant is known as Alkeran (melphalan) and kills cancer cells through a process that interferes with the cell’s ability to create new genetic material. This ability is essential for tumor cells to not only survive but also to replicate and divide. Thus, melphalan is highly effective in killing off cancer cells and preventing multiple myeloma tumors from growing back. However, melphalan can also kill healthy cells, so the drug comes with serious side effects.
Most patients tolerate this phase of treatment quite well, but they are at risk of experiencing both short and long-term side effects.
In the short term, about two to three weeks following treatment, patients can experience:
- Mouth sores
- Infection and anemia, resulting from a low blood count
The long-term side effects, which can last for months and even years after treatment, can include:
- Neuropathy, which is damage to the nerve endings that can cause weakness, numbness, and pain
- Acute myeloid leukemia, another cancer of the blood
- Myelodysplasia, a condition where blood forming cells in the bone marrow become abnormal
Patients can develop myelodysplasia syndrome because of the chemotherapy they get prior to transplant. The chemotherapy can cause healthy stem cells–those responsible for blood cell production–in the bone marrow to become defective. These defective cells then have issues producing healthy blood cells for the body, leading to long-term anemia.
Acute myeloid leukemia, is another cancer that originates in the bone marrow. It may seem ironic that treatment for one cancer can cause another. Unfortunately, that’s what happens. The chemotherapy can cause specific stem cells in the bone marrow to become cancerous even though the drug also kills cancer cells.
Although the risk of developing myelodysplasia and acute myeloid leukemia following chemotherapy is low, they hold serious consequences, so oncologists like Dr. Paul Richardson of the Multiple Myeloma Center at Dana Farber Cancer Institute are hoping to find ways of understanding which people may be at a high risk of these long-term side effects.
“We’re desperately trying to figure out…who may be particularly prone to [side effects], and at the same time trying to recognize those who may not be prone to them so they could potentially benefit from the actual approach.”
Side Effects of Stem Cell Transplant In Multiple Myeloma Patients