Like many others, I was shocked when I heard that Geraldine Ferraro died today. She was a key figure in the political world, but more than that, she was a beloved mother, involved teacher, lawyer, politician, and journalist. I hadn’t known she had been suffering from multiple myeloma for the past twelve years. Also, like many others, I Googled the disease to see exactly what it is.
Multiple myeloma is an incurable blood cancer. Specifically, it is cancer of the plasma cells in bone marrow.
In multiple myeloma, plasma cells grow out of control in the bone marrow and form tumors in the areas of solid bone. The growth of these bone tumors makes it harder for the bone marrow to make red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. This causes anemia, which makes a person more likely to get infections and have abnormal bleeding. As the cancer cells grow in the bone marrow, they can cause pain and destruction of the bones. If the bones in the spine are affected, it can put pressure on the nerves, resulting in numbness or paralysis.
While multiple myeloma mainly affects older adults, a history of radiation therapy raises the risk for this type of cancer.
Symptoms of the disease include bleeding problems, bone or back pain, most often in the ribs or back, fevers without any other cause, increased susceptibility to infection, symptoms of anemia (such as tiredness, shortness of breath, and fatigue), unexplained fractures, and weakness of the arms or legs.
People who have mild disease are typically carefully watched without treatment. Some people have a slow-developing form of multiple myeloma that takes years to cause symptoms.
The Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF) put out a statement after news of Ferraro’s death:
“Geraldine Ferraro was a true trailblazer, an inspiration to many, an incredible advocate for cancer research, and a very dear friend. She will be sadly missed, never far from our hearts, and fondly remembered for her incredible legacy and the extraordinary woman who she was. We pray that her family finds comfort and peace during this sorrowful time,” said Kathy Giusti, Founder and CEO of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, and a patient with multiple myeloma.
In addition to serving on the MMRF’s Honorary Board of Directors, Ferraro was actively involved in the Foundation’s work to bring new treatments to patients. In 2002, she passionately testified before Congress for the critical need for increased research funding, and a year later, a bill was signed authorizing $250 million for blood cancer research. Congress then appropriated $5 million to the Geraldine Ferraro Blood Cancer Education Program in 2003 and renewed funding in 2006, enabling the MMRF to provide high-quality educational programs to underserved populations.
The five-year relative survival rate for multiple myeloma is currently about 38 percent, which is one of the lowest of all cancers. Last year, more than 20,000 adults in the United States were diagnosed with multiple myeloma and nearly 11,000 people are predicted to die from the disease.