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Cancer Treatments Creating Community

Published on Nov. 09, 2020

“Sometimes you just get it. That’s my attitude about it.”

Gayla Elsner never expected to need cancer treatment. Before her diagnosis of multiple myeloma, the 60-year-old Traverse City resident and former Munson Medical Center critical care nurse was perfectly healthy. Then a period of lingering back pain forced a visit to her primary care physician for a standard exam.

“I tried physical therapy to ease the back pain, but that didn’t help,” she explained. “So I finally did what my doctor told me. I went in and got x-rays. And that’s when they found it.”

What is Multiple Myeloma?

Multiple myeloma is a type of cancer that forms in the body’s white blood cells. When healthy, these cells help the body fight infections by creating antibodies. But multiple myeloma instead causes cancer cells to accumulate in the bone marrow and eliminate healthy plasma.

Multiple myeloma is difficult to diagnose at an early stage. Its symptoms aren’t often noticed until the disease becomes more advanced. Blood tests will often reveal low red and white blood cell counts, high levels of calcium, and kidney damage. 

The American Cancer Society estimates 32,000 new multiple myeloma cases will be diagnosed in 2020. About half will be women. Gayla was one of those newly-diagnosed women back in 2009.

“There was no family history," Gayla said. “I worked out and ate the kale.” But instead of producing antibodies, Gayla’s cancer cells are producing abnormal proteins that can lead to complications. Things like anemia (low red blood cells), calcium deficiencies, infections, and kidney damage.

The disease isn't always symptomatic, but very often requires treatment.

Treatments, Infusions, and Supportive Care

“When I was diagnosed, there were very few treatments,” Gayla said. “Today there are many modes of treatment for multiple myeloma and other blood cancers. Doctors are able to really dig in and figure out what treatments help and what comes next if a treatment isn’t working.”

Gayla’s treatments have ranged from IV chemotherapy and bisphosphonates for bone strengthening to stem cell treatments received at other facilities. Her current treatment is a regimen of daily and weekly oral chemo medications.

“Options for treating multiple myeloma have grown significantly in the last ten years,” said Munson Healthcare’s Andrew Riddle, DO, Gayla’s oncologist. “We’re able to help more people today than ever.”

While Gayla and Dr. Riddle work to keep her cancer under control, her extended care team is hard at work finding ways to mitigate her treatment’s side effects. Things like the aforementioned back pain and occasional GI distress. “Everyone,” she says, "works together,” from her primary care provider and oncology physician to her palliative care doctor.

Munson Healthcare nurses are also providing supportive care such as blood transfusions and hydration infusions to cancer patients like Gayla and those requiring treatment for chronic illnesses.   

The Cowell Family Cancer Center Community

Having received cancer treatment from multiple hospitals, Gayla is able to clearly see what sets Cowell Family Cancer Center apart – even from some well-established “big-city” care centers.

Each oncology doctor has a dedicated nurse and medical assistant that advocate for a patient’s physical and financial needs. For example, when cancer treatments change, insurance co-pays might change with it, often leading to extra financial stress. But in Gayla’s experience, the Cowell Family Cancer Center team will always go to bat for a patient to help navigate insurance companies and find relief wherever it might be available.

“I’m super impressed with this team because they’re all willing to actually help. It’s a community here,” she says. “I’ve noticed a few times that when new patients join our cancer support groups, they have just an incredible experience. Even if they’re getting treatment somewhere else, everyone seems to feel like they receive better personalized care here.”

Cowell Family Cancer Centers offers a variety of cancer support services, including the “Come Together” group led by Oncology Social Worker Deborah Strand, LMSW.

What’s Next: More Time in the Garden

As her fight against multiple myeloma continues, Gayla finds as much humor as she can in what she’s going through. She continues to spend as much time in her garden as the weather allows. She also enjoys connecting with her three children (and grandcats) over Zoom and looks forward to “social distance” gardening with friends – many of whom she knows from her treatments.

“Even if I had easy access to some of the bigger care centers, I would still go to Cowell Family Cancer Center,” she says. “I’m treated like the most important person in the room. I feel like I’m listened to, my care is individualized, and I have a great time hanging out with the nurses and aids. They say hi when I check in and they always know I'm coming.”

Cancer and Infusion Services in Northern Michigan

Munson Healthcare offers cancer treatments and a variety of non-chemotherapy infusion services in Cadillac, Charlevoix, Frankfort, Gaylord, Grayling, Kalkaska, Manistee, and Traverse City. Staff are providing close-to-home care and community to anyone suffering from a chronic illness or immune disorder.

If you’re concerned about multiple myeloma and other blood cancers, please speak with your primary care physician.