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Catherine Kerr

Watertown, MA; ckerr@fas.harvard.edu

1965 / Class of '96 / Type: IgG/ use of Meditation and Chinese Martial Arts / Last Update: 1/02

I was diagnosed in January of 1996 after a random blood test picked up an elevated protein. After a few retests, it was determined, shockingly to me, that I had smoldering IgG Myeloma with an initial level of 4400. I was 31 years old and had just moved to the Boston area to take a lectureship at Harvard.

It was quickly decided, after a consultation with Dr. Robert Schlossman at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, that I was not "yet" ready for therapy--no bony involvement. But Schlossman suggested that an allogeneic transplant would be appropriate sometime between 6 months to 4 years hence.

After that, I entered a state of “watchful waiting” – in which I was to receive no active therapy until the disease progressed. Left to my own devices, I very doggedly pursued a number of alternative remedies – the most important being private training in meditation and martial arts (Tai Chi, qigong) with a martial arts teacher named Ramel Rones here in Boston (his teacher is Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, a well known author on the Chinese martial arts). This training has helped me stay sane; it has made me more focused. I feel much stronger, both mentally and physically, than I did before my diagnosis. And, I believe, it kept me from needing active therapy for much longer than my initial consultations with Dr. Schlossman and others led me to expect.

Things stayed pretty stable for the first four and half years. In late 2000, however, my IGG protein began to rise each month and my hematocrit began to drop. Deciding to begin treatment was very difficult because I had taken a very conservative approach to the disease—I wanted to smolder as long as possible. I didn’t want to “waste” a bullet if I didn’t have to. And, I worried that any treatment I might choose today could foreclose a future option-- especially as there are several promising remedies that will be available in just a few years.

I finally did start on pulsed Dexamethasone in June 2001. Since that time my protein has slowly been “ramping” down. I will continue with pulsed treatments, perhaps adding in some thalidomide, in order to get the protein level down to a normal level. When that happens my oncologist and I (along with my husband and family) will talk about what to do next.

Weirdly enough, the disease has been a blessing. It's forced me to confront fear, death and to feel and express love (and fear and sadness) much more than I had ever done before. It has also helped me to find a new career which I really enjoy. I've become an alternative medicine researcher. I began by helping my martial arts teacher and researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard design and launch a protocol testing the effects of qigong on Natural Killer Cell Activity of former cancer patients (no results yet. Still in the pilot stage). I am now initiating some of my own research projects—for instance, investigating how a patient’s understanding of a therapy (like acupuncture, for example) can affect the type of result that he or she gets from that therapy. I am especially interested in 1) how someone’s mental understanding of their physical condition can affect their physical experience of their own body, and, 2) how certain physical sensations (elicited by meditation, martial arts or acupuncture, for example) can change a person’s understanding of their physical disease or condition.

So much has changed in the world of Myeloma since I was diagnosed—so many new treatments, so much more hope. To make sense of all of this, I have consulted with myeloma specialists to help me and my oncologist form a treatment plan. The two whom I have turned to, Drs. Brian Durie and Kenneth Anderson, have been both very helpful. Of Dr. Durie, I found there is something about the way he listens to what you have to say and tries to make sense of it -- rather than fitting it into a cookbook notion of the disease -- that is very calming and very sane (in particular, immediately following diagnosis, he was decisive in steering me away from a consideration of the older style myeloablative allogeneic transplant). And, of course, here in Boston, Dr. Anderson is an incredible researcher and clinician. He has consulted with us at critical moments;at one point last year, when quick decisions had to made, he was wise and very helpful.

Right now, my major life goal is to work on my most important relationships -- my husband and my sisters and parents and extended family, and close friends -- and to continue to heal from the six year experience of living in close proximity to this entity. While the whole thing has been very strange, in the end I feel, at some deep level, that everything will be all right.

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