The fight against blood cancer has gained more awareness in recent months with the diagnosis of renowned journalist, Tom Brokaw who was recently diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. According to reports “every four minutes a new person is diagnosed with a blood cancer, and every 10 minutes somebody dies from a blood cancer.” It’s the “third largest cancer in the United States.” The numbers are frightening, and hispanics and children are at the greatest risk. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Marquez-Dulin, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Executive Director for Southern Florida and Puerto Rico, and 53-year-old Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML) survivor, Monica Alvarado. They were kind enough to discuss the importance of gaining more awareness for blood cancer, how blood cancers differ from other cancers, why hispanics are at a greater risk for developing blood cancer, treatment options and how patients can receive support.
Candace Rose: Emily, how does the The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) raise awareness for blood cancers through this awareness program?
Emily Marquez-Dulin: “We raise awareness many, many ways. I think the most important one is we provide services to our patients on an ongoing basis, that’s what we do every single day of our lives. The second way, truly, is to provide education to health care professionals, physicians, nurses, social workers. The third one is exactly what you and I are doing today, through these interviews it makes a lot of sense- you as a credible source and myself, we make sure that people understand what there is to know about leukemia and lymphoma. At the same time I would say the fourth one, if you haven’t seen it already, we do have a public service campaign, it’s called ‘Someday is Today’ and it speaks to the fact that the cure is closer for blood cancers today than it ever has been before. We have billboards, we have brochures, we have radio spots, TV spots- so altogether is how we raise awareness for leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma, as well as Non-Hodgkins disease.”
Candace Rose: What are blood cancers, and how do they differ from other cancers?
Emily Marquez-Dulin: “Well, blood cancers are those cancers that specifically affect the cells in your blood system as well as your lymphatic system. What makes them truly different is the fact that you can’t prevent them and there’s no screening in place to really detect that you have a blood cancer.
Just to put some statistics out there- every four minutes a new person is diagnosed with a blood cancer, and every 10 minutes somebody dies from a blood cancer. Keep in mind that it’s the third largest cancer in the United States. We follow lung cancer and gastrointestinal cancer and then come the blood cancers. It’s a very concerning number, and just so you know hispanics in particular have a higher incidence of blood cancers than the rest of the population.”
Candace Rose: As a hispanic myself, why is the rate higher for hispanics than others?
Emily Marquez-Dulin: “We don’t know the root cause of that, but we do know that when we look at statistics that certainly hispanics, and specifically children have a high incidence of leukemia. This is why it’s so important to raise awareness for it, so that people can actually understand if there’s any anomaly going on in their body or in the body of their child that they be sure to speak to their physician.”
Candace Rose: Monica, can you tell us about your diagnosis and treatment?
Monica Alvarado: “Certainly. I was diagnosed with Acute myeloid leukemia in March of 2004. I underwent chemotherapy treatment, which put me into remission, but I needed a transplant. It was so aggressive that it would come back within a year. I underwent a bone marrow transplant four months later.”
Candace Rose: How has LLS helped you on your journey from diagnosis through treatment?
Monica Alvarado: “Well, about a month later after my diagnosis, a friend told me ‘you need to contact the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, they will guide you, they will help you’, and that’s exactly what I did…I contacted them. They informed me and my family as to what the situation was, they gave me a lot of support, they were very caring and guided me through the sources. They also supported me financially by reimbursing medical co-payments that I had incurred.”
Candace Rose: Did you face any unique challenges as a Latina on your journey?
Monica Alvarado: “I did. Actually, I had to move to Seattle for four months to get my bone marrow transplant, and I was in a place where nobody really spoke Spanish. I traveled there with my parents, who were to be my caregivers and it was hard on them. They had to be in the center where I was treated, they had to be provided with an interpreter so that they would understand everything that I was going through. It was very hard that I couldn’t really care for them that way because I was very sick.”
Candace Rose: What would you say to someone recently diagnosed with blood cancer? Do you have any advice for them and their family?
Monica Alvarado: “Yes. I would ask them to contact the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, so they can get educated…so they don’t go through what I went through- they will help them.
I would tell them to be positive, you need to have a positive attitude. Cancer is not a death sentence. It’s a challenge, and you can take this challenge and fight for your life, and I did. You can do it also, I would tell the patient, ‘You can do it, it can be done!”
Candace Rose: How are you involved with LLS, today?
Monica Alvarado: “Well, I’m a participant of a program that they have, it’s called the First Connection Program. They match the patient who has a similar diagnosis to mine with me. I either call them on the telephone and speak to them on my experience, which helps them a lot because when you’re going through that, you feel you’re alone, that no one else has gone through this. Knowing that a person has gone through it and survives it, is so encouraging, I always have a good response. If the person is locally where I live and if I’m able to visit them I go to the hospital, so they can see that you can be sick and feeling horrible at that time, but years down the road you can look the same way I do full of life.”
Candace Rose: Do either of you have any additional information you’d like to share?
Monica Alvarado: “Sure, our website is www.lls.org. In Spanish, it’s www.lls.org/espanol. Also, our information resource center, the number to call (there are people that speak both English and Spanish) is 1-800-955-4572. And of course, we have a network of chapters throughout the United States, there’s one in your backyard. You can just pick up the phone and call one of your local chapters if you have any type of questions or would like to make a donation so we can find that cure, sooner rather than later.”