In 1998, Geraldine Ferraro made a bid for a seat in the United States Senate, but lost. That December, when she went for her annual physical, her doctor noticed something irregular in her white blood cell count. Testing showed she was in the early stages of plasma cell cancer. "When he said 'multiple myeloma,' I said, 'What's that?'," Ms. Ferraro recalled in an interview with The New York Times. What she learned was that the cancerous plasma cells in the blood can form a tumor in the bone marrow, called myeloma; tumors in several sites is termed multiple myeloma.
Like most of the 14,000 people in the United States diagnosed with multiple myeloma each year, Ms. Ferraro had no history of the disease in her family, and no apparent risk factors. No specific cause for the disease has been found, although some possible associations with chemical and radiation exposure have been suggested. Generally, multiple myeloma seems to start in people between the ages of 65 and 70. It is the second most prevalent blood cancer and represents 1% of all cancers, and 2% of all cancer deaths. African-Americans and Native Pacific Islanders have the highest rates of the disease, and Asians the lowest.
There is no cure for multiple myeloma. About half of the people diagnosed with the disease die within 5 years. Multiple myeloma suppresses the immune system, leads to anemia, nerve failure, infections, and bone fractures.
The standard treatment for the disease has always been chemotherapy, followed by bone marrow transplant, radiation, and more chemotherapy. All of this difficult treatment only adds two or three years to the person's life.
In 1998, cancer researchers started looking at antiangiogenesis--preventing the growth of tumors by cutting off the growth of the blood vessels that feed the tumor. One drug, thalidomide, seemed to be promising for this. Thalidomide has had a notorious past. The drug, when used for morning sickness in pregnant women in the 1950s and 1960s, caused thousands of babies to be born with severe birth defects. However, when used against cancer, it seems to be very effective. (See The Return of Thalidomide for more information.)
Dr. Ken Anderson, Ms. Ferraro's physician, stated in a news conference on June 19 that thalidomide "has the ability not only to kill the tumor cell directly, but also to act in the neighborhood or in the bone marrow to make it impossible for the myeloma cell to grow and survive there."
For people with multiple myeloma, thalidomide seems to work when other therapies fail. In about 80% of cases, the drug drastically reduces the presence of cancer cells in the blood. Ms. Ferraro credits thalidomide, which she has been taking for two years, with helping her stay in remission and avoid chemotherapy. "I look great, and I feel great, and it's what early diagnosis and research can do," she stated in that same New York Times interview.
Ms. Ferraro testified about her illness and its treatment at a Senate hearing on June 21, 2001, to help promote funding for research. "For people like Geraldine and myself, we are buying time," said Kathy Giusti, president of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation and a myeloma patient, in a CNN interview. "I think that is why she has gone public. We need Congress' help. She knows that this will make a difference in getting this funding."
Information for this article was taken from:
- Dwyer, Jim. "Ferraro is battling blood cancer with a potent ally: Thalidomide." The New York Times, 6/19/01. - "Ferraro using thalidomide against blood cancer," CNN.com 6/19/01. Available online.
- Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation