Before her diagnosis in late 2001, Bonnie Downing’s symptoms were fairly unremarkable. The Owings Mills resident was tired all the time and she had been having some back pain. She also knew she was anemic, but she didn’t suspect anything serious when she went to see her primary care doctor in the fall of 2001. “He referred me to a blood specialist,” says Bonnie. “That didn’t alarm me; I just assumed he was a hematologist who would be able to diagnose the reason for my fatigue,” she says. “It wasn’t until I went for the appointment and saw the word ‘oncologist’ that I started to really worry.”
The specialist performed a bone marrow biopsy – which involved inserting a needle into Bonnie’s lower back. The test results were due back on Christmas Eve. When she didn’t hear from the doctor’s office on that day, she assumed that her results were good and that there had been no urgency to contact her.
Then, the day after Christmas, the doctor’s office called and asked her to come in to receive her test results. She was told that she had multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells located in the bone marrow, the tissue in bones that makes blood. “I was in total shock,” says Bonnie. “I was by myself, and so I had no one there to help me process what I was hearing -- that I had a malignant disease.”
The good news was that a nationally-renowned expert in multiple myeloma, Dr. Ashraf Badros, happened to be located at University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center (UMGCC) in Baltimore. Her doctor recommended Bonnie see him immediately. Dr. Badros is associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a member of the highly-regarded Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program team at UMGCC.
“Fortunately, I was able to get an appointment to see Dr. Badros within two days of receiving my diagnosis. That was a huge relief. He put me right at ease,” she recalls.
Initial tests showed that Bonnie’s hematocrit was extremely low. Dr. Badros admitted her to the hospital for the weekend, where she started immediate therapy, including blood transfusions and steroids. By New Year’s Eve, she felt better than she had in years.
Over the next few months, she underwent more steroid injections and several rounds of chemotherapy on an outpatient basis. By March, 2002, Bonnie was strong enough to proceed with her treatment.
High-dose chemotherapy would be used to kill the myeloma cells in her blood, but since it would also destroy her body’s bone marrow function, Bonnie’s stem cells were collected, stored and frozen. They would be given back to her later to rebuild her bone marrow function and restore a normal blood cell count. The process, known as a stem cell transplant, would require a long hospital stay.
She was admitted to the Blood and Marrow Transplant unit at UMGCC, where she received high-dose chemotherapy designed to kill the cancer cells. The treatment also weakened her immune system and made her very weak and vulnerable to infection. “I was lucky to be in the care of the staff on the BMT unit,” recalls Bonnie. “I became good friends with many of the nurses, and we still keep in touch. They saw me at my sickest. They are an amazing group of people.”
Following the high-dose chemotherapy, Bonnie received her own stem cells back intravenously. Her newly-transplanted stem cells successfully migrated back to her bone marrow, where they began producing healthy new blood cells.
Once she was discharged, she came back to the BMT clinic for weekly checkups to monitor her blood counts and receive medications to boost her body’s recovery. “This was a difficult time for me. I really couldn’t do anything for myself. I made it through this time with the love and support of my family -- especially my brother who left work to drive me to and from appointments -- and my friends. Because I’m so independent, it was hard on me to learn to let people help, but I had no choice. When you cannot get to the bathroom by yourself, you really need to learn to let people help you!”
By June, Bonnie was able to return to her job as regional marketing manager for ESPN Zone on a part-time basis. By July, she was back at work in her fast-paced job full time.
“Dr. Badros is the best,” she says. I’m blessed to have him taking care of me. I feel so lucky that he’s located right here in Baltimore.”
Today, Bonnie is in near complete remission and doing well. She continues to be followed in the BMT clinic on a monthly basis, and is currently participating in a clinical trial testing the drug thalidomide for use in treating multiple myeloma.
She’s gained a wealth of knowledge about multiple myeloma, and makes a point of reaching out to share her experiences with other patients. “While it’s so important to have the love of friends and family to get through this, there’s nothing like being able to talk to another multiple myeloma patient who’s fighting the same battles that you are. They know the pain of bone marrow biopsies and how steroids make you fat!” she says.
Bonnie now has been given an opportunity to share her patient experience with a wider audience. She has recently been invited to serve on the board of directors of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, where she plans to use her personal experience, knowledge and new found energy to advocate on behalf of multiple myeloma patients.