My battle with multiple myeloma

Posted on 1 June 2022

Janet Widelko was shocked when the strange foaming she’d noticed in her urine turned out to be a symptom of a rare form of cancer. But with the help of a specialist team at Mediclinic Constantiaberg, she was able to beat it.

Janet Widelko is upbeat. She cleaned her house this week. And she’s been helping out with her colicky baby grandson. Some people might think of these as everyday chores, but for this 61-year-old, they’re an exciting sign that life is finally returning to normal after a gruelling battle with a rare type of blood cancer called multiple myeloma.

No initial explanation

Janet’s diagnosis was the culmination of a series of doctors’ visits that began when she noticed something odd with her urine. “It was foaming like crazy, and I used to tell my doctors about it but…frothy urine? You almost make fun of it.” For two years there seemed to be no explanation. Then, at the beginning of 2021, other symptoms began. “I started feeling very weak and I got tired very quickly. I had pains all over my body,” Janet recalls. “I felt out of breath and like my heart was skipping beats. Eventually I couldn’t walk down the passage without huffing and puffing and I felt really sick.”

Janet was sent for a battery of tests. An ECG picked up irregular heartbeat. X-rays picked up lesions on her bones – “they were like little holes,” recalls Janet – and blood tests revealed she was losing protein through her kidneys. After yet more tests, Janet finally had a diagnosis – cancer. “My doctor called me in and said, ‘I’m sorry to tell you – you have multiple myeloma. I’m referring you to the team at Mediclinic Constantiaberg.’ And within two days, I was in hospital.”

What Is multiple myeloma?

“Multiple myeloma is a type of blood cancer caused by the uncontrolled growth of a type of blood cell called a plasma cell,” explains Dr Perry Loebenberg, the haematologist at Mediclinic Constantiaberg who is treating Janet. “These plasma cells damage the body, resulting in kidney failure, high calcium levels, bone fractures and anaemia. It’s a very serious medical condition.”

As serious as it is, though, multiple myeloma isn’t common – which is why doctors initially didn’t pick up on Janet’s frothy urine, even though it’s a classic sign. “It’s an uncommon cancer when compared to diseases like breast and prostate cancer,” explains Dr Loebenberg. “It is not advisable to test asymptomatic individuals for myeloma as it’s only treated when it causes symptoms.” He says these include unexplained anaemia, bone fractures, raised calcium levels or renal failure – any of which should be checked out by a specialist.

Treatment begins 

Janet was fortunate to have access to cutting-edge treatment at Constantiaberg Haematology. “She has been treated by a multidisciplinary team comprised of haematologists, dieticians, physiotherapists, specialist oncology nurses and counsellors,” says Dr Loebenberg. Her treatment has been in phases. “Janet received three different chemotherapy medications over a six-month period. She then underwent a bone marrow transplant, after which she was in a complete remission.”

At first, the treatment was bearable, and Janet was largely able to carry on with the active lifestyle that she enjoyed. But all that changed when the time came for the bone marrow transplant. Due to COVID-19 regulations in place at the time, no visitors were allowed in the ward (these have since been lifted). “You’re isolated for four weeks in a ward on your own – no visitors, no husband, no one,” she recalls. Because of bacteria picked up in her blood, she wasn’t even allowed solo walks in the corridor, like other patients. “The isolation was absolutely horrible. I actually became a bit depressed.”

Janet suffered physically, too. The side-effects of the high-dose cancer medication upset her stomach to the point that she had to wear a nappy. She was vomiting so often and had such painful sores in her mouth that she had to be fed through a feeding tube – until the vomiting made even that impossible. She lost her hair and her skin became dry, with dark marks. At one stage, she developed excruciating gout in her knees. But it was all worth it – the cancer treatment was a success.

Path to recovery

Janet came out of hospital just before Christmas in 2021. She had to remain isolated and follow a strict low-microbial diet, but she was home, and her healing process could begin. “Myeloma is not a curable disease, but the cancer can be controlled with medications. The majority of patients with myeloma can expect to live longer than 10 years with their cancer if they have access to all modern treatments available,” says Dr Loebenberg. “Janet is currently in the maintenance phase of treatment, using a low dose of chemotherapy medication to keep her myeloma at bay.” This will last for the rest of her life. She also gets bone-strengthening treatments every four weeks because of her high risk for fractures.

Support system

The journey has been tough – not least because Janet’s mother, who had already been declared terminal when Janet began her diagnosis, passed away during her treatment. But like her mother, who stubbornly lived to 93, Janet is a fighter. “Janet maintained a healthy diet and remained as physically active as her illness would allow,” says Dr Loebenberg. “She has also successfully maintained a positive outlook, which contributes greatly to the success of her treatment.”

For her part, Janet credits her faith and her support system for getting her through the toughest times. “I did a lot of praying, knowing that God has a plan for you; my husband prayed for me every single day and I had really, really good support from my family. They used to come and stand by my window and talk to me through the glass when I was in isolation.” She’s also grateful for the care she received from Dr Loebenberg and the team at Mediclinic Constantiaberg. “I’m so privileged that I have good medical aid and gap cover and I could have access to the best medical care. Dr Loebenberg was amazing. So patient. He explained everything to me, listened to me and answered my calls.”

Stronger by the day

Six months into remission, Janet is looking good. She’s gained back some of the weight she lost during the transplant and her short hair, now thicker, looks more Charlize Theron chic than chemo side-effect. And she finally has the energy to be busy again. “I’m feeling so much stronger. It’s like day and night compared to how I felt before – and I’m still healing,” she says. Her message to other cancer patients is simple: “It’s a tough road, but you’ll get there. And trust in the Lord.”

Published in Cancer

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