Walk with me


If we’re gonna make it
Cross this river alive
You need to think like a boat
And go with the tide
And I know where you’ve been
Has really left you in doubt
Of ever finding a harbour
Of figuring this out

And you’re gonna need, all the help you can get
So lift up your arms now, and reach for it
And reach for it

And take your time babe
It’s not as bad as it seemed
You’ll be fine babe
It’s just some rivers and streams
In between, you and where you want to be

Watch the signs now
You’ll know what they mean
You’ll be fine now
Just stay close to me
And may good hope, walk with you through everything

~”Song of Good Hope”, Glen Hansard

Glen Hansard wrote the “Song of Good Hope” for a dear friend battling cancer. The song references the rough waters sailors endured to reach the Cape of Good Hope and their feelings of relief when they made it. The message of needing help, and reaching out for friends to walk with through troubled times is comforting.

When I was first diagnosed with multiple myeloma the thought of joining a “support group” was not appealing. I hadn’t come to grips with my own diagnosis and the thought of being with people describing the extent of their illness, and the loss of members from the group, was frightening. In time, I came to understand the value of sharing stories with other patients, and talking to people ahead of me on the journey was some of the best medicine I could get. While I’ve not joined a traditional in-person support group, I’ve found other ways to reach out and lend a hand.

I started documenting my time with myeloma just before my stem cell transplant in 2015. While I write these columns first for myself, a form a journaling, I always hope someone is inspired after reading my story. For those that know me, but don’t know about myeloma, I hope they learn something about this disease. For those that don’t know me, but are themselves touched by myeloma, I want my writing to answer questions, alleviate fear, and offer hope. I’ve heard from many people, friends and strangers, and I believe I’m achieving these goals.

Today the internet offers cancer patients endless alternatives too in-person support groups to seek information about myeloma and it’s treatment. Patients must exercise extreme caution when reading on-line information because much of it is outdated, inaccurate and frightening. There are, however, many great resources. Some of the reliable organizations on line include the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, All4Cure,The International Myeloma Foundation, International Myeloma Society. Each organization has its own identity, but they all have education of patients and advancing research for a cure as common goals.

The Health Tree Foundation is another great resource. I’ve joined the Myeloma Coach program sponsored by Healthtree. The foundation experts and doctors train the coaches and provide them tools to help patients. Patients can connect with coaches with a similar disease profile, undergoing specific treatments, living in certain geographic areas or offering advice on particular subjects. I’ve met with several patients and the experience is always positive. If you are looking to connect with a fellow patient or caregiver give the Myeloma Coach program a try.

A cancer diagnosis is challenging. There are rough waters to navigate, but there are people that have gone before ready to provide comfort and guidance.

Watch the signs now
You’ll know what they mean
You’ll be fine now
Just stay close to me
And may good hope, walk with you through everything


Happy Congratubirthday


I woke up this morning to my 60th birthday and the news that my fourth grandchild was born at 12:30 a.m. Yep, this is going to be a good day.

I don’t want to be dark, because I’m not in a dark mood, but I need to get this out of the way. Six years ago I honestly didn’t know if I would be here to see this day. Of course none of us knows if we will see our next birthday, but when you are diagnosed with an incurable cancer, and the existing statistics suggest a short survival time, you have a right to question your longevity. I once joked that my new mattress had a longer warranty than I did.

Of course, the miracles of modern science brings me here today healthy and without any measurable signs of cancer in my blood. That means I’m here to welcome another grandchild to the family, the third since my diagnosis. I also attended three of my children’s weddings in the last year. As I discussed in my last column, a great deal of life has happened in the last 5-6 years, and I’m savoring it all.

Birthdays were never a big deal for me, but I will admit today is pretty special. As I begin my seventh decade and my sweet granddaughter begins her first, I’m confident I will be here to love her, her siblings and cousins, for the foreseeable future. That is a great birthday present indeed.

Today is a very good day. Happy Congratubirthday to me.


New life at 5

© 2021 Mark Pouley. Sunset over the San Juan Islands.

For a child, five years can be a lifetime. They grow so big, they learn so much, and they experience so many new things. For adults that same amount of time flashes past in a blink, often without much change. When you undergo a stem cell transplant they sometimes call it your “re-birthday.” My re-birthday was five years ago, and like a child, it seems like a lifetime has passed since July 22, 2016.

When I was diagnosed a year before my transplant I wasn’t suffering much physical illness. I was one of the lucky myeloma patients that discovered the disease during a routine blood test before it had a chance to do much damage to my body. At the time fear and anxiety became my biggest ailment.

During an early conversation with my doctor, I was told I might only survive six years. When I heard those words I understood very little about myeloma or its treatment. The thought of not surviving to my 60th birthday often paralyzed me. Strong support from loved ones, professional counseling, education, and time allowed me to move well past the debilitating shock I suffered.

The other memory that seems so far away today is of the many hours spent driving to the cancer clinic, sitting in waiting rooms, and enduring tests and procedures. The early days of testing and treatment were scary. While it became somewhat “routine” over time it was never normal. For now, thankfully, that part of this new life is on hold.

I was lucky to experience a relatively easy transplant, but looking back, I have perspective on the impact even that “easy” transplant had on me. In the first year following transplant I was definitely in “recovery” mode. I spent a frightening night in the ER with an unexplained 102 fever. I suffered frequent coughs and colds, many times requiring trips to the walk-in for chest x-rays and medications. Fatigue was a real thing and naps were frequent. My muscles were far weaker than my pre-transplant non-athletic form. Over time, however, most of these reminders of my cancer have faded.

At the beginning of 2020, I learned all the hard work paid off. Tests revealed that I was MRD negative. The most sophisticated testing science currently offers detected no myeloma cells in my body. While regular blood tests were clear for over a year, the MRD test was monumental. The test confirmed that myeloma isn’t lurking behind the stable blood tests and my general good health.

2020 was historic for the world, not just me. Like so many, when I left the office in March and began working from home there was no way I thought I would still be here over a year later. The uncertainty surrounding the virus, and its deadly consequences put most people on edge. Having a compromised immune system, which appeared to be working very well, caused me concern. I certainly paid more attention to the health warnings and followed the most conservative advice. Eventually, my wife and I settled into our covid inspired home office and reinstated our transplant cleaning protocols to stay safe.

Given how strange life was for everyone last year, I’m hard-pressed to feel I was any more impacted than the majority of people. Being separated from people probably contributed to the fact 2020 was the first year since my transplant I didn’t have at least one cold or coughing spell. With the amazing introduction of multiple effective vaccines, there is hope we will all return to “normal” very soon. On this anniversary of my re-birth, the world is showing encouraging signs of its own reincarnation.

I’ve passed the initial six-year prognosis; in fairness, my doctor was optimistic I would beat that number. I’ll be celebrating my 60th birthday later this year. I remain cancer-free, my test results are stable, and I feel healthy. The aches and pains I complain about now appear more associated with being 59 than being a cancer survivor.

Since my cancer diagnosis and transplant my life has changed so much, and for the better, in these five years. My grandchildren are growing and another will join us in November. My adult children are living incredible lives. My wife and I inch closer to our retirement plans. Contrary to ending my career I’m pursuing exciting new opportunities. Most significantly, with a better understanding of myeloma, the success of my current treatments, and the development of even more treatment options, I’m hopeful that I will continue to enjoy many more cancer-free days.

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Together Apart.

© 2020 Mark Pouley

For over 30 years our house has been the home of Thanksgiving. When we were college students our apartment was the place students who couldn’t make it home for the holidays would convene. When we moved back to Washington, family, friends, friends-of-family, new significant others, new babies, and new pets migrated yearly to our home to celebrate. We will miss that this year.

Our circumstances are not unique as families across the country will experience Thanksgiving differently this year. If your traditions involve gathering with friends and family, eating, watching football, playing games, chatting, arguing, and giving thanks, this year will be strange. Granted, not everyone will heed the medical cautions and congregate as usual. I pray they don’t pay a terrible price.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. There is no contest. While there are traditional foods to enjoy, my primary joy comes from the gathering. I’m close with my family, we stay in touch throughout the year, but this is the time we are all together. There is an indescribable connection on this day. Memories of Thanksgivings past and family that are no longer with us are shared. We laugh about things that happened years ago and five minutes ago. Oh, how we laugh.

I remember the first Thanksgiving after my diagnosis. While myeloma has never put me on death’s door, I’ve contemplated my early departure and how precious these times are. I’m fighting not to feel cheated this year since my health is so good. How many more Thanksgivings will I be given? While I know these negative thoughts are unhealthy I feel a greater loss this year because I know how valuable my limited time with family is.

I must pack my depressing thoughts away and deal with the hand that was dealt. That’s not denial, but acknowledging what is. The warnings are real and they are clear. We can’t safely gather this year as we have in the past. Mourning that loss, or projecting to an unknown future is pointless. I can, however, be happy for what I have. I have a choice to keep my family safe and I have hope for a better tomorrow.

There will be over 250,000 empty chairs at Thanksgiving celebrations this year. The families and friends of those lost to Covid don’t get to decide if it might be safe to get together. They don’t get to bring the family together and hope the virus skips their holiday table. For the loved ones of the passed the holidays will never be the same.

I will stay the course on my treatments and I have faith my myeloma journey has miles to go. I will be able to hold my family again and share their love. Whether it is Thanksgiving 2021 or some other day, we will be together again. In 2020, for everyone’s safety, we won’t gather on the fourth Thursday of November. Perhaps it will happen in June of 2021. Does it matter on which day we join again? If we stay safe today, we will have a tomorrow to join again.

This year we will spend the holiday Together, Apart.

Another year, oh what a year.

© 2020 Mark Pouley.

It’s that time of year again. It’s my fourth SCT birthday and the state of my body is good. I’m happily surprised I can say that. Although 2020 is taking a toll on my mind, I try to remember how lucky I am to be with my family, still working, and basically healthy. Four years ago that was all up in the air. Today I feel I’m on firmer ground.

Like the rest of the world, Covid-19, not multiple myeloma, has impacted my life the most this year. Luckily my immediate family and circle of friends have been spared from the wretched virus, but we’re all significantly impacted. I’m still working from home, avoiding public contact as much as possible and I haven’t hugged a grandchild since March.

On the positive front, with my wife and daughter (my multigenerational housemate) we’ve completed numerous home-improvement projects this year. The gardens and yard around our house look spectacular. I’ve also discovered that retiring from daily trips to the office might not be as boring as I imagined. I’m now hoping my good health holds long enough for me to leave work voluntarily in a few years and make this a normal state of affairs.

Earlier this year I learned I was MRD negative. While my monthly labs are technically unable to confirm MRD status, they continue to show no sign of myeloma. I’m thankful that I’ve remained cancer free nearly the entire 4 years since my SCT. Except for fatigue and “chemo brain” I’ve been relatively symptom and side-effect free as well.

Because I’ve stayed so healthy, my care team decided I could reduce the medications included in my maintenance regime. I dropped weekly trips to the cancer center for Kyprolis infusions and bid farewell to the mood swings and sleeplessness caused by Dexamethasone. I continue to take Pomalyst 21 of 28 days. This, however, has created issues I’m still dealing with.

When I switched to Pomalyst only maintenance the dosage was doubled to 4mg. My fatigue increased and daily naps became the norm. My monthly blood tests revealed my tiredness was caused because my white cell count and neutrophils tanked. For the first time since my SCT I’d become neutropenic. Obviously this is extra dangerous during a world-wide pandemic.

My care team had me hold the Pomalyst a week and retake my labs. My white count and neutrophils returned so I’m back on medication. While I will repeat the labs this week, we now know my system is working (it produced good cells absent the medication), so we just need to pinpoint a safe and effective dose.

While this episode was briefly troubling, it is encouraging to see my system respond quickly and positively once the medication was removed. That means my marrow is still resilient even after 4.5 years of constant chemotherapy. The episode was an important reminder that I need to be extra careful. Complacency at this time could have very serious consequences, no matter how good I feel.

The months after my diagnosis were my darkest mentally in my life. Time, support and counseling helped me out of a dark hole. This year is challenging for the crown of “worst”. Not surprisingly surviving cancer has only been a small part of my troubles. Like many others, the state of the world today weighs heavily on my mind. I’m trying hard to be optimistic, a skill honed after my diagnosis, but it’s challenging.

I approach this birthday melancholy for sure, but there is much to be thankful and hopeful. Unlike this time in 2016, when I counted each day post transplant, today I’m planning for years from now. I’m no longer mourning my lost retirement years, but looking forward to them.

A deeper fear

© Mark Pouley

In 2015 I thought my cancer diagnosis would be the scariest thing that would happen the rest of my life, and then came 2020.

I’ve been working from home since March 10, 2020. I haven’t been able to add to this blog since shortly after being ordered to stay home by my doctor, my governor and, my employer. It isn’t that I didn’t have time, or didn’t have thoughts to share, I just found it difficult to translate my feelings into words. It isn’t any easier today, but I’m compelled to try.

As I sit here this morning I’m watching pictures of my city and my country burning. The tally of souls lost to Covid-19 moves past 100,000 with no clear end in sight. The divisions in our communities grow into chasms that may never heal. I am heartbroken and I am scared.

This blog is about my journey with multiple myeloma. It has never been political, even if discussing the U.S. healthcare system sometimes touches on politics. I still don’t intend to be political, but what is happening is so profound, I can’t write about my cancer without acknowledging the world in which I’m trying to survive.

When I was diagnosed with cancer I was scared. First I grieved for myself, thinking about the years I might lose and the things I might miss. I was also sad for my family and loved ones, for leaving them without my support. Those feelings were personal as the world around me kept going. Part of the challenge of survivng with cancer is learning to function in the “normal” world while my existence is threatened. In the last few months, while my disease reached healthy stability, the world around me unraveled. Today I fear for us all.

In my last column I wrote about the need for everyone to understand the threat of infection to those of us in high-risk categories. I was hopeful that people would learn we’re all in this together and those of use with underlying health threats depend on the otherwise healthy population to keep us safe. Sadly, since writing that column I’ve witnessed acts of unbelievable selfishness and ignorance. The death toll from this virus is far beyond what it likely could have been if only we were united in our efforts to defeat it.

As spring moves to summer our leaderships’ focus turns to putting people back to work to get commerce flowing even though all reasonable evidence suggests we are far from through the threat of this pandemic. A lesson I learned after my diagnosis is that no matter how well I respond to treatment I will never return to my pre-diagnosis life. Too many of our population fail to understand the threat of this virus has changed our lives forever. We are not going back to pre-covid lives. We can’t wish away Covid-19 any better than I can wish away my cancer.

As the length of our quarantine stretched into months the news was dominated by images of armed, mostly white, protestors occupying capital buildings demanding states to “reopen”. What we didn’t see were police meeting these heavily armed and agitated protestors with tear gas and rubber bullets. Instead, they were allowed to carry their weapons into the halls of legislation to scream their demands.

The pandemic laid bare the divides in our country. People of color were carrying the burden of keeping our essential services operating and paying the price with their lives in disproportionate numbers. Even though the health threat isn’t over, many in power have calculated this cost of moving the economy forward is acceptable.

In my sadness watching this modern plague ravage our country I was stunned by images of black men murdered in broad daylight by vigilantes and people sworn to protect us. Unfortunately, our history is bloody with these killings, but those murders, in this time, led to protests and violence in the streets across the nation.

People are in the streets demanding justice for all people of color. The crowds are large and diverse and the message is familiar. These crowds, unlike those we saw earlier in the month, are being met by militarized police, tear gas, and rubber bullets. People in leadership, ostensibly condemning the murders are demanding swift retribution for the unruly protests.

I don’t condone violence by anyone, but the response to the two groups of protestors couldn’t be starker or more disturbing. We can only hope the convergence of events will open eyes and hearts.

With or without myeloma, I’m approaching the end of my time on this planet. My generation squandered its chance to make this a better world. I fear what we’ve left for my children and grandchildren.

While today I feel overwhelmed with sadness, I can’t count the number of times in the last three months I’ve been brought to tears witnessing stories of human strength and love. We’ve seen kindness and heroics from people of every color and background. Will the inherent goodness of people someday overcome the systemic evils?

Perhaps there is hope. There must still be hope.

Surviving during a pandemic

Snow geese gather in the Skagit Valley fields, in the shadow of Mt. Baker.

This is an interesting time to be living with cancer. For the first time in my life, I realize I’m now in the class of “highly vulnerable adults.” While this has been true during all flu seasons since my diagnosis it took a pandemic for me to process what this means, and to empathize with other’s that have been in this group much longer. 

Since my transplant in 2016, I’ve understood that I’m more vulnerable to viruses and infections and I need to use extra caution. During the transplant itself, we took extraordinary measures to keep me healthy. Even so, except for the time immediately after my transplant, I’ve generally been able to live a “normal” life with some precaution. 

With Covid-19, safety measures for everyone are turned to high, and for those of us with compromised immunities, they’re off the charts. While I feel lucky to be as healthy as I am, and I feel for my fellow patients that aren’t as healthy right now, this outbreak brings a new sense of anxiety and a new perspective.

Too often during this outbreak, I’ve heard healthy people say, “It’s no worse than the flu. The symptoms are minor and I’ll get over it easily.”  While there may be other issues at play this year behind such statements, they are not unheard any time we have a wave of flu or other illness. What these people may not understand is that this sentiment disregards the risk faced by the vulnerable population.

Hopefully, as declarations of emergency spread worldwide, people are learning the error of such sentiments. While it is true that most people will overcome this virus just fine, we are all responsible for each other. 

Mild symptoms for the healthy can lead to fatal consequences for a grandparent, a co-worker or neighbor with cancer, or a stranger with asthma encountered in the store. Taking care of oneself is also taking care of the people we encounter. 

Now that I’m in that vulnerable population I better understand the feeling of being dismissed, mostly unintentionally, by so many. I hear it. It does hurt.

I’m responsible for my own health, but I depend on the actions of many others. I realize now, I depend on the healthy population to take steps to help me stay healthy. 

I feel guilty at times. My wife and children are making sacrifices because they want to protect me. When I hear their deliberations and plans to avoid points of exposure, staying home from events (before they were all canceled) and delaying birthday celebrations I feel sad. Similarly, my co-workers have always been careful to shield me from their coughs and colds and other sources of germs that come into our workplace. The impact of my disease goes beyond my life and to theirs.

After some thought, I understand and appreciate their sacrifice. While I may be the most immediate beneficiary of their thoughtfulness, I now better appreciate their act of community sacrifice. 

Like most others, I’m more upset by the disruption to life this is causing than I am by any personal threat. While I don’t feel particularly fearful of Covid 19, I know that if I became infected it could be dangerous. Even so, I think the reason I’m not afraid is that I’m surrounded by people that care about me and are acting to protect me. 

I’m sure there will be a lot of lessons that come out of this shared crisis, but hopefully one of them will be a keener understanding of how much we depend on one another and how hurtful it is when we dismiss people that are different from us. 

At times like these, I resort to the words of a great philosopher,

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” – Spock

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Photo Credit: © 2020 Mark Pouley

During my recent isolation I took some time to get away from the news and get outside to enjoy the beautiful nature around my home. Each year flocks of Snow Geese use the farmlands of the Skagit Valley as a rest area to fatten up for a long migration. They can be seen, and heard, eating in the fields and flying in massive groups in the shadow of Mt. Baker.

An Unexpected Surprise

I experienced an unexpected emotional response when I learned I was going to cut back the treatment regimen I’d been on for nearly four years.


It is difficult to describe how surprised I am. I’ve thought about this day a lot. I’ve written about it here more than once. I was disappointed when I thought it wasn’t going to happen. Still, I didn’t expect the deep emotional feeling I experienced as I walked out of the treatment bay for the last time.

Let me back up a minute.

Following my autologous stem cell transplant (ASCT) in 2016, I began an aggressive three-drug maintenance regimen of Kyprolis, Pomalyst, and Dex (KPD).  Three years later, in September 2019, I met with my doctors expecting we would reduce the treatment. I was disappointed when he recommended continuing the treatment, but with possibly lower doses.  

Not only did I feel disappointed, irrationally perhaps, I also felt defeated. This was a low spot for me emotionally. I wondered if I’d ever feel I’d advanced in my treatment or ever get a break from the constant treatment.

Before making the final decision on the on-going treatment we agreed to undergo more precise testing; MRD testing.  I’ve shown no monoclonal proteins in my blood tests in at least 3 years, so is it possible that I have no minimal residual disease? As I just wrote, I underwent a bone marrow biopsy and a PET/CT to confirm that I am MRD-. This is the best possible response a myeloma patient can achieve under today’s testing methods. It is not a cure, but it is a very deep response and a statistically good predictor for a long progression-free survival and longer overall survival. 

With that great news, I met again with my doctor and his view had changed. He was ready to recommend Pomolyst only maintenance. No more Carfilzimib and, surprisingly no more Dexamethasone. 

I’d given this much thought for months. Even though my gut tells me Carfilzimib may have been the heavy hitter getting me to MRD-, I want to take advantage of this moment of good health, no matter how short, to enjoy my life a bit more. My schedule opens, the treatments are easier, I spend more time at home, and less time driving and sitting in treatment. It is worth the chance that I may open the door to relapse even a crack to get some life back. Of course, we won’t take our eyes off the ball.

I will get blood drawn at a lab near my home once a month. I will see my care team at Seattle Cancer Center every two months. We may do another biopsy and MRD test in a few months to watch for early signs of relapse. Even so, hours, days, weeks of my life will no longer be spent driving to and from Seattle, waiting for labs, and waiting for infusions. I received a great gift of time.

Of course, this is all the cerebral part of the decision to change. I was unprepared for the emotion that was about to sneak up on me following my final carfilzomib infusion.

When I posted a short note about my new treatment plan to a General Myeloma Facebook group, a fellow patient commented, “It’s surreal, too, isn’t it? You may find you seem to have a lot of time on your hands, or you keep feeling like you’ve forgotten something. It’s awesome and terrifying at the same time.” She’s right. Surreal is exactly the feeling that began to wash over me at this moment. I’m also sure there will be days when my body expects to make a trip to Seattle and I’ll need to “pinch myself” when I remember I can stay in my pajamas and enjoy another cup of coffee.

The treatment floor at SCCA is a series of individual treatment rooms with either a patient bed or chair set up for treatment. I estimate there are about 45 treatment bays scattered around the floor.  I’m familiar with each hall and many of the bays as I’ve roamed this floor over the last 4 years (counting initial treatments).  Today I was assigned bay 14.  Just across the hall from bays 17 and 18. Those were the rooms in which I received high-dose chemo to kill my bone marrow and then received a transplant of my stem cells to reboot the production of healthy bone marrow. My autologous stem cell transplant (ASCT) happened here.

It probably snuck up on me, but suddently I put together the significance of reaching MRD negavtive status, dramatactily reducing my treatment regimine, having my doctor express how good I looked nearly five years from the first time he saw me. I am working nearly as much and as hard as I did the day before my diagnosis. I’m able to participate in nearly every past-time I’ve enjoyed my entire adult life. I have accomplished so much. Today there are so many objective and subjective measures telling me I have accomplished so much.

I have read in the past about other types of cancer patients getting to “ring a bell” as they leave their treatment for the last time. A sign of completion, joy, celebration. I’ve lamented at times that myeloma patients won’t ever “ring the bell” beacuase we never know when our treatments will be done. But walking down the hall on this day I mentally “rang a bell”, taking a last look around and silently saying “goodbye.” 

Chances are this state is not permanent, but today I won’t think about that. Today is a truly remarkable day standing out at the beginning of many more remarkable days.

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Photo Credit: © 2012 Mark Pouley

The sunrises on another day, another field, in the Skagit Valley farmlands. The fields have produced crops for decades, but each day brings a new sunrise, new hope, a future crop.

Product Review: EasyPill

Product Review: Easy Pill – A quick and easy application to track the many daily medications I take.

Easy Pill screen shot.

Until my diagnosis, I didn’t regularly take any medications so tracking when to take a pill was never an issue. Of course, multiple myeloma changed all that. Since my stem cell transplant, I take about 11 pills per day. I say “about” because the number varies; I take at least five extra pills on infusion days, and I intermittently take additional medications to address insomnia, heartburn, cramping, neuropathy, pain, and other side effects.  

Being a geek at heart I looked at this new reality as an opportunity to find a technological solution, hopefully one that involved my iPhone and AppleWatch.

I discovered an application called Easy Pill for iOS by BirdsCorp.com and have been using it since 2016. Easy Pill is an iOS app that tracks my medications and gives me reminders when it’s time to take a pill. 

The obvious first step to using Easy Pill was to input my medications into the app. I could create a list of medications either on a mobile device or the Easy Pill web page. 

I didn’t use the web page, but if I had, I would have created a list of all my medications, doses, and schedule. The page then creates a QR code to scan with the app which then transfers all the information into the app. I tested this method and it works well. At the time I started using the app, however, I didn’t want to upload my medications to a web page I hadn’t researched.

I chose, instead, to input my information directly into the app on the phone. I wouldn’t call this process “intuitive”, but it didn’t take long for me to get the hang of it.

Honestly, part of the challenge was a good thing because it comes from choosing between the many options available. How often do you take the pill? Do you take the pill the same time every day? What is the duration of time taking this pill? Easy Pill offers a lot of flexibility to tailor the schedule exactly the way I want it for each medication. It took me a while to get everything the way I wanted, but I appreciated that I could create a schedule that was accurate and useful. 

Medications can be viewed in two different ways. In one view, pills are listed alphabetically with all their vital information. The more useful view, and the one I use most of the time, is the daily view. It shows a chronological list of all the pills I take each day. An icon next to each pill tells me the time to take the pill and the color of the icon gives a visual cue if a pill is overdue or needs to be taken in the future.

The most useful feature of Easy Pill is that it reminds me to take my medication. This is accomplished with simple alerts that appear on the phone and with a tap on my wrist from my watch. The app gives options for setting up the type and frequency of the reminders so the app can nag as much or as little as I like. When the pill is taken a single touch on the phone or watch logs the dose as taken.

Easy Pill records the exact time I took medication and the icon for the pill changes to alert me that the status has changed. I can also skip a dose or pause a medication from the reminder alert. When I finish a course of medication Easy Pill remembers that and automatically moves the medication to the archives. I can open the archives to look at the history of the medication, or move it back into my active schedule if I start taking the medication again.

I use the archives to reactivate the cycles of treatment. For instance, I take Pomalyst twenty-one of twenty-seven days. When I take pill twenty-one, the app moves Pomaylst to the archives. When I begin a new treatment a cycle I just change the start date on the archive listing and Pomalyst becomes active again in the day view on day one of the new cycle.

Another handy feature of Easy Pill, though I haven’t used it much, is a direct Google link for each medication. I can follow the link to find information about and images of each medication. This is a nice way to remember what a pill looks like and learn about common side-effects.

Easy Pill not only reminds me to take my medications, but it tracks my progress in a number of ways. Easy Pill reports how many doses and how consistently I took the medication. If I input the quantity of pills when I start, Easy Pill will remind me when it’s time to refill the prescription. 

Easy Pill also exports a medication list that includes pills that are currently taken or archived, detailed medication information and a dose log. This could be useful when I need to share a complete history of all my medications with care providers. 

Easy Pill is $2.99 and it works on the iPhone and iPad. Oh look, its time to take another pill… until next time.

Picture this

Highly sensitive imaging can be performed to identify myeloma lurking inside and outside bone marrow.


As I wrote in my last column, I recently learned that I am MRD negative.  There are a few different test methods to detect minimal residual disease and the prognostic value of the tests varies with the testing method employed.

In my case, after doctors withdrew a sample of bone marrow from my hip it was assessed using next-generation sequencing (NGS). As I understand the process, an older marrow sample is used to identify the DNA of my original myeloma cells. The assay then looks for that DNA sequence against millions of cells in the newly extracted marrow, in my case 2,922,325 cells.  If no cells with matching DNA are detected there is no minimal residual disease and the patient is said to be MRD negative.  

It is possible, however, that sequencing of the cells from a marrow sample may not detect all residual disease because myeloma can appear outside the marrow.

A PET/CT (Positron Emission Tomography)/(computerized tomography) scan is an imaging technology that allows doctors to “see” areas in the body where multiple myeloma has caused tumors in soft tissue and/or congregated in the marrow.  While sensitive analysis of the bone marrow can detect MRD inside the marrow, a PET/CT can detect minimal residual disease inside and outside the marrow. This is called “imaging” MRD testing.

To perform a PET scan a radioactive sugar is injected by IV. The sugar travels in the body normally and creates a “tracer”. When the patient is scanned about an hour after injection, images of the distribution of the sugar are obtained. Because cancer cells use sugar at a higher rate than normal cells they appear as “hot spots” in the images. The PET scans are merged with the CT tomographic x-rays, cross-sectional images of anatomical structures, to show doctors with great specificity the existence and location of cancer cells.

It is well accepted that patients that achieve a deeper response to treatment are more likely to enjoy longer progression-free and overall survival. So it follows, achieving MRD negativity, the deepest response that can currently be measured, is a good prognostic predictor. While it seems logical, research last fall concluded that patients that are both MRD negative in a bone marrow assay and imaging analysis have statistically improved progression-free and overall survival.

The PET/CT is an interesting test, but generally not too uncomfortable unless you are claustrophobic or have trouble being still for long periods.

To start, I began fasting six hours before the test and couldn’t exercise in any way. Exercise “fires” up the muscles and changes the way the muscles metabolize sugars, and that would throw off the scans. Presumably eating causes a similar issue. The fasting was a challenge, but I didn’t have much trouble sitting idle all morning and watching television.

When my appointment began I was injected by IV with a radioactive glucose solution.  I didn’t feel anything, but I was suspicious when the nurse pushed herself away from me as we continued our small talk. When the injection was complete I was told to relax and not move around for forty-five minutes to let the tracer fluid distribute through my body. I heard “take a nap” and I always follow directions.

I was called back to the scanning room and directed to go empty my bladder as best as possible. “Be careful not to get urine on your hands, it’s radioactive. Wash up well when you are done.” Encouraging instructions, I’m sure this is all safe.

 Lying flat on my back, my head in a U-shaped pillow, the bundling process began. A large rubber strap was placed around both arms at my biceps, the weight of my arms against the strap holding them in place at the sides of my chest. My toes were similarly bound to keep my feet and my legs from rotating outward. Having my arms and legs thoroughly secured, I was swaddled head-to-toe in warm blankets. This was welcome as the room was frigid.

Now resembling a mummy, the slab I was on moved back and forth, foot to head, through the large round scanning machine. It’s a bit like being passed through the hole of a giant donut.

Before the scan started the technician explained the procedure and emphasized that if I moved we would need to start over.  The scanning process was easy. I tried to relax as best I could, listened to the music in the room, and tried to ignore the desire to move around. Of course, as we started I experienced an uncontrollable urge to cough. Thankfully, about 30 minutes after we started the scans I was informed they were complete and “useable.”

I was sent home to await the results. Unlike the cellular assay, when I expected the tests to detect at least some minimal residual disease, I hoped the PET/CT would confirm the earlier MRD negative findings. The PET/CT found “No abnormal osseous or extraosseous radiotracer uptake to suggest viable myelomatous involvement.” 

In other words, the doctors were unable to identify any minimal residual disease in either the assay or imaging. Time to take a breath and savor another victory in this long journey.

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Photo Credit: © 2010 Mark W Pouley

“Morning Calm” was 0ne of the first photos I captured when I recognized something special and needed to share it with others. The photo was taken very early in the morning on North Twin Lake. “Mirror” images are a common tool for photographers, showing the real and the reflected. By capturing a moment in time we get to see what the eye sees naturally as well as a fleeting hidden image seen only when the waters are calm.

Welcome to the Myeloma Roller Coaster

Living with multiple myeloma is full of ups and downs, twists and turns and surprises. For me an unexpected twist has led to a very happy place.

Welcome ladies and gentlemen to one of the scariest rides of our generation. It will bring you to the highest point only to drop you down at unimaginable speeds. You will enter turns you never see coming and remain breathless to the very end. Welcome to the multiple myeloma roller coaster.

When last we spoke, I was celebrating three years post-ASCT and preparing to pare back my aggressive 3-drug maintenance regimen to something more manageable. I looked forward to a return of precious time to me and my family.  Since that column, the plan shifted to more testing and continuation of the same treatment regimen.

The good news is that my general health remains outstanding with no apparent changes in my myeloma. Regular blood tests continue to register no measurable monoclonal proteins, my free-light chains are normal, and my other blood counts and kidney functions are good for a person taking regular chemotherapy medication.

My physical health is strong, in fact, we ended the summer with a fabulous family vacation to New York and I wrapped up the year attending two-week-long conferences in Minnesota and Tulsa with several hundred colleagues. 

Shortly after writing my last column I met with my doctor, but the conversation didn’t go as I expected. Instead of suggesting a reduction in treatment, he said he wanted to continue the three-drug regimen indefinitely. The reasoning was understandable, given my high-risk cytogenetics, but it was still a big disappointment.

Approaching this meeting I felt I’d achieved an unexpected turning point in my myeloma journey. The treatments had gone so well that I was considering an even greater return to my pre-diagnosis life. While that was always my hope, I didn’t know if it would happen and reaching that point was cause for celebration. While not intended, the conversation with my doctor tempered the celebration.  Wrongly or not  I felt a level of defeat.

More realistically, it all comes down to the risk of relapse. All myeloma patients have the same goals; find the best method to forestall a relapse as long as possible, and be prepared for a relapse of myeloma that is more difficult to fight than the prior incarnation. For high-risk patients like myself, the goals are the same, but the chances of a harsh relapse are greater.

My current treatment has achieved complete response for a substantial time and there are no current signs that is about to change. I’ve tolerated this level of treatment extremely well. The theory, as I’ve been told, is “if what you are doing is working keep doing it, otherwise do something else.” Because the disease could return more aggressively and may not respond as well to the next treatment there is great value to preserve the progress I’m enjoying today for as long as possible.

My doctors and I both recognized we needed more information to make this decision. On my doctor’s advice I underwent another bone marrow biopsy in November 2019, but this time we would test for minimal residual disease (MRD). With a regular blood test, doctors can identify one cancer cell in up to one-hundred thousand blood cells. By contrast, MRD testing can identify one cancer cell in one million blood cells. Because it requires a bone marrow biopsy and it is more costly than blood testing, MRD testing is not regularly prescribed. Myeloma professionals also still debate the value of MRD testing as it relates to treatment decisions for individual patients.

Because the testing requires such precise measurements I waited sixty days for the results. I was not expecting that length of uncertainty, but I tried to temper my expectations. Given the current science, being MRD negative, finding no minimal residual disease, is still fairly rare and a bit of a milestone. During my wait, I assumed I was MRD positive (there must be a monoclonal cell hiding somewhere). I felt it was better to expect the “worst” and be surprised by the best.

I finally received my MRD test results on January 15, 2020 (a whole decade after the procedure). I was shocked and ecstatic to learn I am MRD Negative.

My first reaction was surprise. Perhaps because I’ve conditioned myself to be hopeful, but not overly optimistic I didn’t expect this result. My second response was to feel validated. At least that’s the word that comes to mind. I’ve felt healthy and “normal” for a long time, but knowing I had multiple myeloma and all that goes with it I figured it was a bit illusional. While I know MRD Negative doesn’t reflect any sort of “cure”, and I remain vulnerable to relapse and all the attendant risks of myeloma, at least for this moment there is no myeloma. I’m feeling healthy because there is no cancer. I’m not fooling myself, I deserve to feel good.

I have a new appointment to have a new conversation with my doctor. We may decide that some level of treatment will continue, but I won’t be disappointed this time. I have proof that all the work and effort is paying off. I have cause for celebration, but I’m not letting down my guard. 

A lesson learned from my myeloma journey is to not allow myself to get too high or too low. Since my diagnosis I’ve been up and down the roller coaster enough times to prepare for the next big turn or drop. For now my arms are raised high, I have a big smile on my face and I’m ready for whatever comes next. 

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Photo Credit: (c) 2019 Mark Pouley.

My family closed out 2019 making a trip to New York. For a week I set aside being a myeloma patient as we went all-in as tourists enjoying all the sights, sounds, and tastes of the “Big Apple.”

Anniversary and decision point

Celebrating the three-year anniversary of my stem cell transplant brings new choices about treatments and the possible improvement in my quality of life.


Today, how­ever, I’m still enjoying a com­plete response and rel­a­tive­ly good health with remarkably few side effects. My perspective on the future also is much brighter, and three more years of good health doesn’t seem like a stretch anymore.

Much of my current success is due, I believe, to the aggressive main­te­nance treat­ment I have been receiving. This third anniversary is not only cause for celebration of 36 months of pro­gres­sion-free survival, but it also raises a de­ci­sion about how to proceed.

A quick review of my history lays the groundwork for the de­ci­sion I face this fall. I was diag­nosed in 2015 with “high-risk” multiple myeloma due to the presence of the del(17p) chromosomal ab­nor­mal­i­ty. I was initially treated with Velcade (bor­tez­o­mib), Revlimid (lena­lido­mide), and dexa­meth­a­sone, which proved ineffective. I moved on to Kyprolis (car­filz­o­mib), Pomalyst (poma­lido­mide), and dex (KPD), followed by an au­tol­o­gous stem cell trans­plant. At 60 days post-transplant, I had achieved a nearly com­plete response and had to decide whether and what main­te­nance ther­apy to undergo.

July 22 marked the third anniversary of my au­tol­o­gous (own) stem cell trans­plant. Honestly, although the treat­ment went well, when I was sent home, three-years in the future seemed like a very long time away. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a relapse had arrived before this day.

If I’ve learned one thing about multiple myeloma, it’s that it can be uniquely personal in the way it develops and affects a patient, but more so, how it will react to treat­ments. Maintenance ther­apy, it seems to me, can be even more of a gamble then initial treat­ments. If a patient responds well to initial treat­ment and a trans­plant, is there a reason to con­tinue treat­ment to main­tain that progress? This can be a tricky question, especially for standard-risk patients who did well after initial treat­ment. In a nutshell, all treat­ments come with risks. To undergo main­te­nance ther­apy, a patient must decide that the chance of achieving extended pro­gres­sion-free and possibly over­all survival outweighs those risks.

There is data suggesting that main­te­nance ther­apy for “high-risk” patients like me can extend time without relapse, so fol­low­ing my trans­plant, my doctors rec­om­mended an aggressive main­te­nance ther­apy of a half-dose of the pre­vi­ous KPD treat­ment. This de­ci­sion was based on research out of Baylor University that sup­ported a triplet of medications for three years for high-risk patients.

During the first ten months after my trans­plant, my lab results showed a barely measurable amount of M-protein. After that, over two years now, there has been no measurable amount of cancer detected in my blood tests. By all standards, this is a great result and con­sis­tent with the best out­comes reported in the Baylor study. While there is no way to know if my current con­di­tion is because of the main­te­nance treat­ment, given all that has occurred in the last three years, I believe the de­ci­sion to proceed with the aggressive main­te­nance ther­apy was correct.

Now that I’m ap­proach­ing that three-year mark, I must decide what’s next. It’s easy to think that if the dis­ease is being kept at bay and I’m not suffering many side effects, I shouldn’t change any­thing. Though my current results are all we could have hoped for, as I under­stand the research, there is little in­for­ma­tion about what benefits, if any, I might achieve by continuing this treat­ment beyond three years. There is, how­ever, an ever-growing risk that the toxicity of the treat­ments will eventually be more than my body can handle, and that may open the door for more serious side effects or sec­ond­ary cancers.

Since there is a lack of clear data about the clin­i­cal benefits of continuing this aggressive course of main­te­nance, I will decide based primarily on how the treat­ments impact my quality of life.

I’m convinced that Kyprolis is a myeloma-killing champion for me. Other than my trans­plant, it also has had the most sig­nif­i­cant impact on my quality of life. Kyprolis is admin­istered by in­fusion. As an initial treat­ment, it required trips to the clinic on two consecutive days three weeks on, one week off. As main­te­nance treat­ment, the trips are cut to one day a week, but still three on, one off. For me, that means a two-hour roundtrip drive and any­where from two to five hours at the clinic. Since starting Kyprolis in Jan­u­ary­ 2016, that has been a lot of time on the road and in the clinic. Since my appoint­ments are generally Friday or Saturday, it also means I can’t plan to travel or par­tic­i­pate in an activity on many weekends because I have treat­ment.

My wife and I cope with this schedule because we under­stand it is nec­es­sary and because my getting better has be­come one of our jobs. We are used to the inconvenience in our schedules and our lives, but it would mean everything to retake this time from the dis­ease.

Time, I have discovered, is more precious to me than any­thing else. Time with my family. Time with my grand­chil­dren. Time to take pictures and enjoy the world I live in. Time to work on the projects that are priorities to me at work. Time is finite with our without myeloma, and making use of the time doing what I want to do, instead of sitting in traffic or in a clinic bed, is the ultimate im­prove­ment to my quality of life.

Based on the ever-increasing risk of toxicity, the lack of compelling evi­dence I would im­prove my chances of long-term survival, and the thought of even a short-term return to a more nor­mal life, I have decided to drop the Kyprolis from my on-going treat­ment plan. On my doctor’s advice, I will con­tinue the oral medications of Pomalyst and the dreaded dexa­meth­a­sone. We will closely monitor my health and meet regularly with my specialist, ready to change course at the first sign of a relapse.

When I was first diag­nosed, I looked at treat­ment as a way to avoid dying. On this anniversary, I celebrate the past success and look at main­te­nance ther­apy as a way to keep living my life.

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 Photo Credit: (c) 2019 Mark Pouley

I celebrated my anniversary this year, as in the past, vaca­tioning at our eastern Washington lake retreat. As always, it was splendid. When we’re at the lake, I spend early mornings on my boat looking for scenery and wild­life to photograph. This year a bald eagle let me get unusually close, and it stayed and posed for many great photos.

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