Marlene Shealey was always a healthy woman. She was in the navy for four years and in the marines for more than 11 years. At 46, she was running miles daily and even doing push ups.
But her life changed in 2010. After exiting the Marine Corps and taking a physical to enter into the army for a program, she was told she had enlarged lymphnoids and needed further testing. While waiting for further results she got sick and it was confirmed in December 2010 that Shealey had the blood cancer Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. And in January of 2011 she began her first treatment of chemotherapy.
|LIFE SAVING PLEA—Hill District Consensus Group listens to Marlene Shealey’s plea about the need to find a bone marrow donor to save her life in July. Shealey is undergoing treatment for Lymphoma. (Photo by J.L. Martello)
Now 49, the married mother of two is on her fourth type of chemotherapy, which she takes every 28 days, and is waiting to find a match for a bone marrow transplant. The woman who could once run three miles with ease, now finds it hard to even go shopping with her daughters.
Shealey’s story is all too familiar. According to Facts 2012, a brochure produced by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, an estimated 1,012,533 people in the United States are living with, or are in remission from, blood cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma. And approximately every four minutes one person in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer.
According to the American Society of Hematology, blood cancer is a condition that affects the production and function of one’s blood cells. Most of them start in the bone marrow. Stem cells in the bone marrow mature and develop into three types: red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. In most situations the normal blood cell development process is interrupted by uncontrolled growth of the type of blood cell. The abnormal cells, which are cancerous, prevent the blood from performing its functions, such as fighting off infections or preventing serious bleeding.
There are three main types of blood cancers, which are myeloma (also known as multiple myeloma), lymphoma and leukemia.
Myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells, which are found in the marrow. The myeloma cells amass in the marrow, causing a disruption of normal blood production and destruction in normal bone tissue. Since the healthy cells usually produce antibodies that protect one from infections, individuals with myeloma are more susceptible to infections. Lymphoma is the cancer of the lymphocytes, which is a type of cell that forms part of the immune system and usually appears in the form of a tumor of lymphoid cells and leukemia is the abnormal increase of white blood cells. There are four major types of leukemia: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, Acute Myeloid Leukemia and Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. While it most likely to occur in older adults, it is the least diagnosed blood cancer amongst African-Americans.
Out of all the types of blood cancers, African-Americans have the greatest incidences of myeloma than any other ethnic group. According to Facts 2012, the incidence of myeloma in Black males and females was 146 percent greater than myeloma incidences in White males and females in 2008 and is now seen twice as often in Blacks than Whites.
Dr. James Rossetti, of West Penn Allegheny Health Systems, said, “While some improvement is being seen, incidence and survival rates for African-Americans are indeed worse than those of any other group for most cancers in the United States. For most cancers, African-Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival. “
He said many of the contributing factors to the disparities are wealth, income, education and general standard of living. “These differences for a multitude of very unfortunate reasons can result in higher tobacco use, less physical activity and poorer dietary habits in African-Americans. Outcomes include higher overweight and obesity rates, which can increase the risk of multiple myeloma and some lymphomas.”
According to the American Cancer Society’s 2011-2012 Cancer Facts and Figures for African Americans, blood cancers were estimated to be the seventh leading cause of cancer deaths among African-Americans.
Rossetti, along with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Western Pennsylvania (LLS) has been working to reach the African-American community through partnerships with several community based organizations in order to promote awareness of these diseases.
“In our chapter we have two populations we consider under represented, African-Americans and rural counties. We have been trying to partner with community based organization because we are very interested in trying to promote awareness,” said Francine Morrison, Patient Services Manager of the LLS of Western Pennsylvania. Morrison said in May the organization held a program at West Penn on the importance of awareness, the disparities of the disease and the services offered by the organization, which are funding for research, information and support services, financial assistance with medical bills and much more.
Morrison said the organization plans to hold more seminars and is always willing to partner with community organizations for health fairs.
Marian Dawson, 72, is a volunteer of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Western Pennsylvania who speaks about her journey and was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in January 2007 and since then has been in remission for four years.
“I speak because I know how much it helped me to talk to people who were going through it, especially with multiple myeloma. Also I have always volunteered in some capacity.”
Symptoms for blood cancers can vary depending on the type. Sometimes there can be little symptoms and some can be as visible as slow healing cuts and frequent bruising. Regular physicals and visits to the doctor are always emphasized.
Treatments for blood cancers include chemotherapy, radiation, several prescription drug therapies and marrow/stem cell transplantations. But for African-Americans, marrow and stem cell transplants are the hardest treatments to receive because of the lack of donors.
Rossetti said, not only are there barriers to less preventative care and screening, but also appropriate treatment services. “As it relates to blood cancers, far fewer African-Americans are able to find marrow/stem cell donors in large parts due to fewer African-Americans being signed up as donors. Even when a donor is identified, African-Americans have poorer survival after such transplants for various leukemias.”
Shealey said her life has changed drastically. She said her taste buds are ruined, so she does not eat right, her weight is higher than it ever was before and she cannot do the same activities she did before.
“They (her family) used to try and keep up with me, but now I try to keep up with them. I love the outdoors, now I cannot be in the sun. I get exhausted easily and I do not do what I used to. My whole life has changed. I am depressed when I think about it, but I know it could be worse. Everything I am now, I did not want to be.”
Although Shealey is currently on an intense chemotherapy treatment, she is also looking for a bone marrow donor, but is finding it difficult. A donor has to be African-American, in good health and between the ages of 18-60, but most importantly, they need to take the time to take the test, which includes just a swab. According to Shealey there are only 7 percent of African-American donors in the registry.
For those who always thought about getting tested and never have because they do not have the time or are afraid, Shealey said, “You’re saving a life if you do. It is a swab. People are not aware how easy it is to be a donor. I know I need a donor, but you could be saving someone else. You just need to get involved. Money cannot buy a life.”
Shealey said her family has started the Marlene A. Shealey Foundation and plans to hold a bone marrow testing event in the near future.
(For more information on blood cancers or support services, visit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society at www.LLS.org/wpa or call 412-395-2882.)