Multiple Myeloma Survivor

Three-year survivor celebrates life every day

Starting with a simple cough and a corresponding, audible “pop,” Yogi Mallela developed severe back pain that hurt so badly he couldn’t move. It turns out he’d actually fractured his spine. Unaware of the fracture, he took pain killers for relief and traveled to India for two weeks as he had planned. He had no idea that the fracture resulted from bone lesions caused by advanced multiple myeloma.

When I returned from India I was still in considerable pain. My doctor prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids, then sent me to a physical therapist. After a week of therapy with no improvement, I was sent back for more tests.

My doctor performed an X-ray and was worried by the results; he said the scans didn’t look good at all. He sent me to an orthopedic surgeon, who agreed with my primary care physician and sent me to an oncologist to rule out cancer, specifically multiple myeloma.

The oncologist performed an MRI, a CT scan and bone density tests, and was fairly confident that it actually was multiple myeloma. A bone marrow biopsy confirmed the diagnosis and showed that 60 percent of my bone marrow cells contained the M protein.

I was already Stage III with an incurable disease. But the best advice I received came at that very point when my doctor told me, “You can make it a chronic condition rather than let it be a terminal one.”

When I was diagnosed, I knew nothing about myeloma, but “I don’t know what to do” was not an option for me. I felt that education was and still is very important to my multiple myeloma diagnosis. My wife and I did extensive research and became an integral part of my own treatment decision-making. We also felt confident in my doctors and trusted their expertise and the medication.

My treatment originally included six cycles of chemotherapy, followed by an autologous stem cell transplant. I responded so well to the chemo, though, that only four rounds were necessary. My doctor had been testing my M protein levels throughout treatment, and they had dropped significantly. He told me my blood levels were perfect for the transplant, so we skipped the last two cycles.

After the transplant, my doctor offered a couple of options. I could either start maintenance therapy right away or join a clinical trial studying the effect of back-to-back autologous transplants. Research had shown a higher survival rate with the two transplants than with maintenance therapy alone, so I decided to participate. Ninety days after my first transplant, I had my second. Because the risk of infection is so high, I took off work after each procedure. And it was a good thing too, because the most impactful side effect was fatigue, and it took time for me to adjust to that new normal.

I began taking a five-year regimen of a maintenance therapy everyday. It lowers my immunity, so I have to be careful to avoid things that may cause infection. I’ve also had 28 cycles a bone strengthening drug. Although these drugs have side effects, I get through them by staying physically fit with regular exercise and yoga.

It’s been three years and five months, and there’s no trace of the multiple myeloma. I know it can come back, but I’m not worried; I’m confident that if or when it does, I can get through it again. My wife and I regularly attend seminars held by multiple myeloma and blood cancer organizations and advocacy groups, and all of the advancements in the field are inspiring. I’m also in the care of a myeloma specialist actively involved in advanced myeloma research. Knowing what I know, I feel that there will be treatment options for me and that I’ll be able to continue celebrating survivorship.

Things happen in life, and you have to take action and stay positive. I’ve been through 10 bone marrow biopsies, two transplants, a lot of drugs and a lot of tests but I keep moving forward because I know I can. Take your medication, stay physically fit and live your life positively. Positive confidence and the support of my family and my loving wife are what got me through this. Every day, I’m better than I was the day before.