A lawn chair, an old coffee table, an IBM typewriter, a ream of paper, and three people with very different backgrounds: that was the checklist of assets and experience that the International Myeloma Foundation had when it was born 22 years ago. Every day, no matter our triumphs or tragedies, I usually have a moment reflecting on where we began.
Comparing the IMF of today to the time of our founding, it is remarkable to me how far we've come...and how far we still have to go. Think of the maturing process of a young 22-year-old; how far he or she has developed since birth and yet still unsure of what the future will hold. That is how I feel about the IMF.
Like an infant, in our early days we were happy to have achieved something, anything. Following Brian Novis's diagnosis of myeloma, we had little idea of what lay ahead of us and lived day-to-day, thankful for every good one and knowing that they would become fewer sooner rather than later. Brian immediately understood that the main thing missing was information: information that patients could use and, sadly, information that most doctors and researchers didn't have.
As the idea of the IMF began to gel, we had few goals but great ambition. The first important achievement was the organization of the first international conference of myeloma experts. This meeting of 40 experts sharing ideas has evolved into a biannual international conference attracting thousands of clinicians and researchers. Additionally, since that time, the topic of myeloma has gone from being a peripheral concern at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology (ASH) to a highly anticipated forum and megaphone about the advances in myeloma treatment and research for thousands of doctors and researchers, and hundreds of thousands of patients and caregivers from every part of the globe.
The IMF seized on this opportunity to form a board of Scientific Advisors who, in 2001, met to publish the first ever management guidelines for myeloma. As many long-time IMFers well know, this initiative led to the creation of the International Myeloma Working Group (IMWG). This collection of internationally recognized experts is now the source of guidance and information for all with an interest in myeloma. We have now hosted three annual meetings of the IMWG, which has produced numerous management guidelines covering every facet of myeloma treatment.
Because of the achievements, clinicians have immediate, timely access to the best, most recent information to provide patients everywhere the best care possible. But that doesn't mean everyone has access to ideas yet.
The central idea that grew out of those early days was the value and importance of patient education. After attending that first clinical conference I began asking, "Why don't we have these kinds of gatherings for patients?" It had never happened before, so initially there wasn't much interest. But we persevered and held the first ever--for any disease group anywhere--Patient & Family Seminar in 1993. Since that time we have held hundreds of patient education meetings all around the world. This year alone we have hosted or co-hosted more than 45 patient meetings in 17 nations.
Also in 1993, we produced our first info packs, arguably the best information available for myeloma patients everywhere. In the early days we were busy at the copy machine churning out as many as we could afford. Today we produce more than 100 patient education booklets in at least 30 languages that are free to anyone who asks.
Looking back, we never could have imagined in 1990 the scope and range of programs that the IMF was capable of producing:
- A Hotline that takes thousands of calls per year, professionally staffed, and for most who call, the first optimistic words they hear about their myeloma diagnosis.
- An advocacy program that voices the concerns and needs of myeloma patients to policymakers.
- Research grants given to the best young and experienced minds in the field of myeloma.
In 22 years, the IMF is a mature, ever-growing organization that constantly seeks the input and direction from our members so, if there is a need, we do all we can to address it.
Over the years, I have been struck by the common hopes and fears of myeloma patients and caregivers everywhere. We all have simple, yet invaluable desires: to see our children graduate from school, to hold our grandchildren, to celebrate that important anniversary with our loved ones, to laugh with our friends, to hold hands on a peaceful walk in the woods. And in the simplicity of these desires, you experience what the core mission of the IMF is. We are here to serve every individual who has been touched by myeloma.
Thanks to advances in medicine and the treatment, especially within the past 14 years, myeloma patients are living significantly longer with a vastly improved quality of life. We can envision a day when myeloma will become a chronic disease, something that Brian could never conceive.
In 2002, I was honored to testify before the U.S. Senate on behalf of all cancer patients to advocate for funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI). I described to the senators a situation that is far too familiar to too many of us: "Brian's doctor said he had three to five years to live. Our family and friends hoped and prayed that he was wrong, that we would be able to raise a family and have a long and happy life together. We were wrong--the doctor was right. Brian died in 1992, just four years after his diagnosis at the age of 37. Our life together, however brief, was happy. And even though we never had children we did create a family. Our family became the International Myeloma Foundation. A family comprised of patients, family members, caregivers, and friends."
Much like a parent who nervously, but confidently, anticipates a productive life for their 22-year-old child, I am confident, not nervous, that as our 22-year-old idea continues to mature we will make significant contributions with our core mission and programs.
Looking back on the past 22 years, I realize that together we have created so much more than a family. We have helped create a loving and caring community. A community of hundreds and thousands that can trace its birth to a lawn chair, a coffee table, an IBM typewriter, a ream of paper, and three people with very different backgrounds.