Myeloma. Have you heard of it?
Liam McManus hadn”t, until February 14, 2006. For months leading up to that date he had been experiencing crippling pain in his back and neck.
‘I”d get into bed at night and I couldn”t move with it. It was like someone had stuck a spear in me,’ said the Coosan resident. ‘But I”m a builder and I thought that, because of the work I do, this was par for the course. You”re often sore, that”s just the nature of the job.’
Various tests had failed to detect the cause of the pain, so he was given an MRI scan. When the results came back on that February date three years ago, Liam was told that he had myeloma.
‘The doctor who was telling me thought I already knew what myeloma was, but I didn”t,’ he said.
Because the disease is not widely known, this week has been designated as Ireland”s first ever Myeloma Awareness Week.
Myeloma is a complex and debilitating cancer of the blood. Every year just under 200 Irish people are diagnosed with the disease. It has no known cause and, despite many advances in its treatment, it has no known cure.
A co-ordinator of the Myeloma Awareness Week, Advanced Nurse Practitioner Mary Kelly, conducted a research study in 2006 which found that one of the greatest challenges facing myeloma patients was living with an “unknown cancer.”
As one of the small number of myeloma patients in the midlands, Liam, a self-employed builder and native of Hillquarter, Coosan, agreed to tell his story this week in order to increase the public”s knowledge of the disease.
The 53-year-old said one of the reasons why his condition wasn”t diagnosed earlier was an assumption among some medical practitioners that myeloma was “an old man”s cancer.”
‘It was thought that nobody under 60 could get it,’ he said. ‘When I was going to hospital it was all older men, and very few women, who had it. But over the last year or two you”d see more women and younger people who have it. I know one fella with it who”s 33.’
When his myeloma was diagnosed, Liam was informed that, while it was treatable, it would never be cured. No cause of myeloma has yet been identified, but there are thought to be a number of predisposing factors including exposure to petroleum-based products and pesticides.
Liam contracted pneumonia just weeks after his diagnosis, and this was a worry because his immune system was so weak. However he got through it and then underwent intensive chemotherapy.
The next step in his treatment was a stem cell transplant which involved taking bone marrow from his own body, having it treated and then transplanted back into his body.
He spent three weeks recovering from this transplant procedure in the Denis Burkitt Ward, an isolation unit in St James”s Hospital, Dublin.
‘At that stage you”re terribly sick. Normally sickness wouldn”t worry me, but this knocked me for six,’ he said.
‘You would have very little energy, but the nurses would insist that you got up in the morning and got on with life. Their attitude was: “You”ve had your treatment and there will be another patient here in your place in a month”s time so you”d better keep moving.” At the end of the day, that was the right attitude to have.’
Liam currently attends hospital in Tullamore once a month for blood tests and treatment with Zoledronic acid, which strengthens his bones.
He is able to lead an active life, and he continues to work on building projects. An Athlone Town fan, he is still a regular at matches in Lissywollen.
But the disease has altered his life. ‘Any heavy manual work, such as lifting, is out,’ he said.
‘My taste for food has changed. I wouldn”t have the same tastes or the same appetite. It”s the same with drink. I wouldn”t have ever been a big drinker but when I”d go out I”d have a few pints. Now I wouldn”t have any interest in going out. Two pints would do me now. Even that would be too much.’
His immune system will always be weak and he tries to avoid catching colds because if they develop into pneumonia it can be dangerous.
A myeloma support group holds monthly meetings in Tullamore. It arranges for guest speakers to give talks informing patients about various aspects of the disease, and Liam finds these beneficial.
He is currently in remission, and eventually will have to undergo another bone marrow transplant. ‘I”m doing very well. The cancer is so far in remission that there seems to be no sign of it at the moment,’ he stated.