California woman with rare cancer to conquer world's highest free-standing mountain

Nancy Dziedzic, of Sacramento, California, enjoyed hiking in her 20s, but she had never tackled any major mountains. Now 51 and more than three years after being diagnosed with a rare blood cancer, Dziedzic is preparing to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, towering at 19,340 feet, and the highest free-standing mountain in the world.

Dziedzic and five other multiple myeloma patients start their 11-day quest on Feb. 17. The Kilimanjaro hike is part of Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma, a collaboration between CURE Media Group, Takeda Oncology and the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF). Together, the groups send patients, as well as their family members, caregivers, and myeloma doctors and nurses on hikes with challenging terrain, including the Grand Canyon and  Machu Picchu.

Multiple myeloma develops in the plasma cells found in the bone marrow. These plasma cells are critical for maintaining the immune system, but abnormal antibodies turn them into malignant melanoma cells. The cancer typically occurs in the spine, pelvic bones, ribs and areas of the shoulders and hips— the bone marrow with the most activity.  According to the American Cancer Society, about 30,280 new cases of multiple myeloma will be diagnosed this year, resulting in 12,590 deaths. The lifetime risk of getting multiple myeloma is 1 in 143 (.7 percent).

More on this...

Dziedzic, who works for the state of California in housing and community development, first heard of Moving Mountains through a Facebook myeloma support group post about the 2016 climb. Because she was doing well on her treatment, her doctor encouraged her to apply, and she was accepted in February.

“I’d always dreamed of going to Africa, so I was really interested,” Dziedzic told Fox News. “I followed the trek last year and was really excited and inspired by them.”

Dziedzic was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in September 2014 after feeling pain in her midsection. After several months of seeking a diagnosis, doctors identified multiple lesions and fractures on her ribs. These lesions form when groups of myeloma cells cause other cells in the bone marrow to remove the solid part of the bone. They do not occur in all myeloma patients.

After receiving her diagnosis, Dziedzic was immediately admitted to the hospital for about a week and started chemotherapy. Doctors then put her on five months of a three-drug cocktail, including Takeda’s Velcade, which led to drop in her cancer cells down to negligible amounts. In April 2015, Dziedzic underwent a stem cell transplant to replace healthy cells damaged by chemo, and, four months later, she started on a daily maintenance drug of an oral chemotherapy.

“I’m in complete response— they don’t call it remission— my levels are at very low, negligible amounts, and haven’t really changed at all since my stem cell transplant,” Dziedzic said. “Right now I’m feeling pretty normal, as much as you can.”

Dziedzic’s care is now down to blood work once a month and a visit to the oncologist every two months.

The importance of being active

Climbing through the six different ecosystems— cultivated areas, rain forest, heath, moorland, alpine desert and the summit— of the mountain poses challenges for healthy individuals and even more so for multiple myeloma patients. However, conquering the mountain is possible, and even beneficial, for people like Dziedzic, said Dr. Betsy O’Donnell, an oncologist and researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, and a fellow Kilimanjaro hiker.

“There’s nothing to limit Nancy or any of these other climbers in any of their efforts on Kilimanjaro,” O’Donnell told Fox News. “There is tremendous data that exercise is beneficial at any stage of therapy. It’s important for patients to engage in physical activity.” In her research work, O’Donnell often partners with Takeda on clinical trials. A triathlete, she joined the Moving Mountains trip after being contacted by Takeda employees who knew about her active lifestyle.

Takeda manufactures multiple myeloma drugs, including Velcade, a type of chemotherapy that’s the standard of care for first-line melanoma treatment, O’Donnell said.

“Pretty much every patient with a multiple myeloma diagnosis will see it,” she said. “The standard, backbone therapies come from a handful of drug companies.”

While imperative, staying active during treatment for multiple myeloma or any other cancer can also be challenging, noted O’Donnell, who is also the director of the Lifestyle Medicine Clinic at Mass General. The American Cancer Association recommends most cancer patients engage in 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise every week, plus two strength and conditioning sessions. Patients should consult their health care providers to ensure their fitness plan is appropriate.

After receiving a diagnosis, patients typically receive the treatment Dziedzic had: a three-drug combination and, depending on the patient’s age, a stem cell transplant, which requires a high dose of chemotherapy and hospitalization. During that time, doctors encourage patients to walk, but the recovery time after discharge can have a significant impact on patients’ cardiovascular health.

“During the recovery period, where you’re mostly at home laying low for a month after, it’s a long period of time,” O’Donnell said. On top of that, most multiple myeloma treatments include four to eight months of steroids, which often leads to a loss of lean muscle mass and increased visceral fat.

“Taking steroids definitely made a difference,” Dziedzic said. “I gained weight, and you have these highs and lows because the days you’re taking steroids, you are just going 100 percent. It’s really hard to sleep on those days, so it disrupts your whole week.”

Prior to her diagnosis, Dziedzic walked as her main form of exercise, and skipped the gym when she got sick to avoid exposing her immune system to germs. After she was accepted for the hike, her doctor encouraged her to return to the gym, where she’s been working on cardiovascular and strength training, as well as hiking outdoors on the weekend and after work.

Ready for the climb

Once they reach Tanzania, the team will hike from four to six hours a day and will spend a few days doing acclimatization hikes, going up high and then back down to adjust to the altitude.

The 16-member team of patients, family members and supporters  includes a mix of ages and fitness levels. Participants’ costs are fully covered by Takeda and CURE Magazine and the team’s fundraising efforts go toward MMRF to fast-track research on multiple myeloma treatments. O’Donnell estimated the trip costs $3,000-$4,000 for each hiker, plus transportation and donated gear.

On July 9, 2016, the Kilimanjaro teammates had a practice hike on Mount Bierstadt in Colorado, climbing the 14,065 foot mountain.

Dziedzic hopes her experience will raise awareness and inspire other multiple myeloma patients the way the previous expedition team did for her.

“They can resume a normal life, and even do incredible things like climb Kilimanjaro or whatever is in their capabilities,” she said. She’ll take her first vacation since her stem cell transplant, eight days on safari, after the hike is complete.

Dziedzic is nervous but hopes her training has been enough.

“I feel very mentally prepared, and I think that’s a big hurdle that in some ways is even more important than the physical,” she said. “I feel ready mentally for it— hopefully my body follows along with that.”