Jerry Hammon retired in December 1997. Within two weeks, he was diagnosed with cancer. Multiple myeloma, an incurable, progressive blood disease, was slowing eating away the bone in his spine. The pain was excruciating, the prognosis grim. Yet, today Jerry and his wife Sondra are finalizing plans for a family trip to Hawaii.
"Seven years is an amazing milestone," notes Marshfield Clinic oncologist Dr. Richard Mercier, Jerry's oncologist throughout this ordeal. "On average, patients diagnosed with multiple myeloma survive three years."
While friends and family think Jerry's long-term remission has a lot to do with his positive outlook on life, the Hammons are quick to credit the caliber of medical care in central Wisconsin. "I was a healthy 61-year old when this back pain hit," recounts Jerry. "I went to the clinic here [Ministry Medical Group-Plover] looking for a chiropractic referral. But it had been years since my last physical, so Dr. Mark Fenlon ordered blood work and X-rays. My protein count was off the charts. Suspecting the worst, he referred me to Dr. Mercier at the Marshfield Clinic."
Dr. Mark Fenlon
Ministry Medical Group
More tests, X-rays and CAT scans confirmed those suspicions. In fact, one vertebrae was so compressed that waiting much longer would have left Jerry paralyzed. "Dr. Mercier said we needed to do aggressive treatment, and do it fast," recalls Sondra.
Jerry started on his first of four cycles of chemotherapy in January. Medications were infused through a Hickman catheter implanted in his chest. He then participated in a clinical trial that included a stem cell transplant and interferon injections. He was hospitalized at Ministry Saint Joseph's Hospital for 21 days leading up to the July transplant, during which time he was bombarded with major doses of chemo and total body radiation treatments. Though physically spent, Jerry began to rebound almost immediately after the infusion of healthy stem cells.
Once discharged, he began giving himself interferon injections at home three times a week for the next three years. That was a difficult part of the regimen. The interferon had terrible side effects – memory loss, fatigue, decreased appetite. "I just couldn't do a fourth year," notes Jerry. "I was sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Slowly, Jerry's appetite returned, as did his energy, his hair, and the 35 pounds he'd lost. There were a few setbacks along the way (bouts of shingles, cataract surgery, even an unrelated case of kidney cancer in 2004), but Jerry never complained.
He still gets checked at 3-month intervals as part of his follow-up care. Thanks to an oncology outreach program he doesn't have to drive to Marshfield. Instead, Dr. Mercier, an associate, and nurse travel to Stevens Point to see patients each week. They are pleased with his recovery but note that Jerry is in remission. Dr. Mercier says the cancer could still come back. "I know my time is limited," says Jerry, "but I'd like five more good years."
His family's countenance was tested again in October 2004, when Jerry was diagnosed and treated for transitional cell carcinoma (totally unrelated to his multiple myeloma). Jerry went to the clinic after passing blood in his urine; Dr. Fenlon was again on call. Results of lab work and a CAT scan led to a referral to Marshfield Clinic urologist Dr. Vincent Thomalla. He suspected the tumor in Jerry's right kidney was malignant. Because a needle biopsy could expose healthy tissue to cancer cells, he advised surgery to remove the affected kidney and ureter. The cancer had not spread. Jerry's prognosis is good.
"Sometimes, retirees feel like they have no purpose," says Jerry. "I felt like that for awhile. Cancer changed our perspective on life. Now we have a purpose, something to look forward to every day." In fact, Jerry and Sondra live a pretty normal life. They go out to breakfast, baby-sit grandchildren, host holiday gatherings, get together with friends, and travel. "Retirement got postponed a bit, but we're enjoying ourselves now," says Jerry. "We just plan our trips around doctor appointments!"
The Hammons bought a small motor home three years ago and have been across the country and back since. "We're gypsies!" quips Jerry. They've been south, across Texas to San Diego. Last year they hit Gulf Shores and explored Florida, staying in 26 different campgrounds over two months. They even fit in a trip to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
"I've said all along that I'm not going anywhere yet," adds Jerry, "except to Hawaii!"
Note: In addition to information received from Dr. Mercier and the medical staff at Ministry Saint Joseph's Hospital, Sondra Hammon found the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation website most helpful during her husband's illness, http://www.multiplemyeloma.org/.