A cancer survivor and founder of LA’s annual ‘Cancer Mass’ is finding hope in a new battle with multiple myeloma
Pulling out his smartphone, Deacon Mark Race showed a video of his wife, Vickie, dressed in a long print dress, a little self-consciously grinning and slow dancing inside the cottage. Watching it made her laugh like a schoolgirl. He was smiling, too.
For much of the past year, there hasn’t always been much for this deacon’s wife to smile about.
The couple were sitting in a small room in the rectory of Transfiguration Church in Leimert Park, where her husband, Mark, 67, is parish administrator.
As she recounted the episodes of her latest battle with cancer, paintings of Christ with his apostles in a boat on a stormy Sea of Galilee and a standing Sacred Heart of Jesus hung on the olive green walls. On the coffee table was a bronzed Pietá showing Mary holding the lifeless body of her son taken from the cross.
About 14 years ago, Vickie was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent chemotherapy and surgery, which was enough to beat the disease. Afterward, she and Mark teamed up with the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women to plan a “Pray for a Cure for Cancer and Anointing of the Sick” Mass.
On October 6, Bishop Edward Clark was the presider and homilist of this year’s liturgy, which has become an annual event celebrated at the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels.
Now, however, the deacon couple were trying to explain the unexplainable. Three days after last year’s Mass (also in October), she found herself in a doctor’s room with an unusually severe pain.
“I had not a clue what multiple myeloma was,” she explained. “Mine was in my knee, and I thought it was just arthritis when we first went to the doctor. But then it got progressively worse. Usually, if my knee bothered me, I would just take a Motrin. But this was persistent. It kept going.”
Last December, after months of misdiagnosis, an excruciating bone biopsy finally confirmed that the 62-year-old woman was in the late stages of the incurable cancer that forms in a type of white blood cell known as plasma cells.
This year, nearly 31,000 new cases will be diagnosed and about 13,000 deaths are expected to occur, according to the American Cancer Society. Still, multiple myeloma is not a common diagnosis. This year in the United States, the ACS estimates that 154,000 people will have died of lung cancer, 51,000 of colon or rectal cancer, and 44,000 of pancreatic cancer.
The risk of multiple myeloma increases with age, with most cases diagnosed in the mid-60s. Men are more likely to develop the disease, and African-Americans are about twice as likely to have it than white people.
Doctors at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in West Los Angeles and the City of Hope in Duarte told Vickie there was no connection between her breast cancer and multiple myeloma. The earlier malignancy did not metastasize to form the later. The two were simply independent occurrences.
“Well,” she told Angelus News with a sigh, “to be honest I couldn’t believe it. Honestly, I really couldn’t believe it. When they told me, I think I was numb. ’Cause, I don’t even know if I cried. And I didn’t really want to know the full depth of it.”
Looking over at Mark sitting in a wicker chair, she said, “I relied upon him to do the research and to understand it, so that he could help me just to get through it.”
“We just wanted to know where we were, what to do,” he went on. “And we found out that doctors say that multiple myeloma is not curable.”
Vickie said her pain was getting worse, and she was less able to walk. Then she lost control of her left leg and finally could not move it at all. So she went from walking slowly in October, to using a cane, to being in a wheelchair by December.
“I was in bad shape,” she acknowledged. “But he kept me together, so that I could handle it and hold on to my faith.”
“It was more of you’re going to do everything doctors say to do. But it’s going to be dependent on God,” explained Mark. “Doing our part and praying that everything that they do work. We’re not going to think ahead. Every day is another day from God.”
Vickie said, “I knew, like with breast cancer, I had to depend on God. We prayed and prayed.”
A couple months after her diagnosis, she did get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom on her own — something she had not been able to do without her husband’s help.
“That was a God moment,” she said, her voice rising, eyes welling up. “Because when I got in the bathroom, I broke out in tears because it wasn’t me that did that. It was just plain and clear. After every time I had to move, I would cry. But this time I said to Mark, ‘No, I got this.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘OK.’ And I just got up. I had a walker, but I walked to the bathroom.
“It was a miracle. Because it was like no effort, I truly always will believe it was God just lifting me up. Because I didn’t have that moment again. I was getting myself up, but this was like I was a feather. Honestly, I was like a feather where I just stood up and I just walked. It was totally different. So that was a miracle moment.”
Mark was nodding again. “And it was a turning point.”
From then on, Vickie knew that her own pain would pass. So she stopped focusing on herself, offering her suffering for others who would never get out of their pain until they died.
If there’s a modern medical miracle that could do the impossible for patients like Vickie, it’s a stem cell transplant — something that would soon become as familiar to the Races as flu shots.
These remarkable cells have the potential to develop into many kinds of cells in the human body. In tissues, serving basically as an internal repair system, they can also essentially divide without limit to replenish defective cancer cells.
Vickie and Mark learned that “autologous” stem cell transplant has become a standard treatment for patients with multiple myeloma. And so, having responded well to chemotherapy pills and medical tests, she became eligible for the procedure at the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte.
Over five days, four hours a day, nearly 10,000 stem cells were “harvested” from her own blood.
Two weeks later, on the same day a massive chemo dose killed off the cancer cells, a portion of the stem cells was put back into her bloodstream. And for the next three weeks, she and Mark stayed in a cottage on the medical center’s grounds.
Because her immune system was basically defenseless, she was monitored for infections and other abnormalities.
“The transplant was so simple,” Vickie recalled with a chuckle. “It was like a blood transfusion that took maybe 15 minutes.”
She was pleasantly surprised to find she had no fever or nausea. Still, she had to wear a mask to move to and from the cottage.
Now at the tail end of the initial and very critical 100-day period following the start of treatment for multiple myeloma, Vickie was still wearing the light blue mask to protect from infection.
During a checkup last May, nurses and others sang a rousing “Happy Birthday” to mark her “new life” after a successful stem cell transplant. At the end of June, her primary doctor at the City of Hope remarked, “Mrs. Race, you are doing wonderfully. I cannot believe you.”
Vickie went back to work as parish secretary of nearby St. Bernadette Church last month, less than a year since the pain put her in a wheelchair. She said she was doing well, except for the knee still bothering her, but not as much. And she still had to watch her energy level, making sure she did not overdo it.
So how did developing a whole second form of cancer affect her faith?
“It actually strengthened it,” she pointed out. “As crazy as it may sound, going through that whole thing actually strengthened my faith in God. And made me more aware of his presence and his love for me, for us. That personal moment when it was just me and him — like when I was able to get up and go to the bathroom — just made me realize the love that he has for us.
“I would think about him being on the cross, and the pain he was in and the suffering he was in. And ‘If you went through all of that, and I know my pain was nowhere near what you endured …’ ” and her voice drifted off. “That’s just straight out true love. Just so unconditional love.”
Mark learned forward in his wicker chair. “That’s what I kept telling her — that he did it on purpose. And this took more faith than even with the breast cancer.”
The Races talked about what an awful year it was, waiting for the results of tests; going through the bone biopsy three times, the specialist digging deeper and deeper with a longer needle until he found what he was looking for; and finally finding out for sure it was a new cancer.
But she also remembered the bedrock peace she felt when her husband would drive them to the top of the parking structure at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, put her in the wheelchair and they would have a McDonald’s lunch, talking and talking about how good it was just being alive.
“Oh, my God, that helped!” exclaimed the double cancer survivor. “The parking lot was new, and there were no cars on this section. And he would just push me around. I could feel the wind and it was like feeling God. So it would take my mind off my leg and the whole ordeal. We were just looking at God’s beauty and being thankful for even feeling the pain.”
After a moment, she said, “I wanted it to go away, but was even being thankful for the pain.”
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