Chatham cancer survivor inspires multiple myeloma patients

This article was originally posted on Strathroy Age Dispatch

Multiple myeloma was practically a death sentence when Joanne Ternovan was diagnosed.

Like many people who had this incurable cancer of the plasma cells, she was given three years to live.

That was 22 years ago.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it this long, but I’m glad. And it gives me a cause,” said the Chatham woman, who recently turned 80.

Ternovan – probably the longest living multiple myeloma survivor in the Chatham-Kent and Windsor-Essex regions – was the spokesperson for the 10th annual Windsor/Essex County Multiple Myeloma March on Sunday.

“I just want others to realize that you can survive this, even though there is no … cure,” she said. “It’s very treatable. Myeloma is treatable with the medications that are coming through.

“That’s what the march is doing. It’s paying for research. They hope to get about $650,000 across Canada, but about $40,000 or $50,000 in this area.”

Ternovan was a substitute teacher in 1997 when she had a routine checkup with her family doctor. The results of her blood work came back abnormal and, after further investigation, she was diagnosed the following year with the deadly blood cancer.

Within a year, she had debilitating back pain – a common symptom of myeloma caused by lesions in the vertebrae – and had to stop working. She began a treatment regime to slow the cancer’s progression and prepare her for a stem-cell transplant.

She underwent the autologous transplant in 2000 with stem cells from her own blood. It was successful and she was soon in remission.

She took part in a clinical trial of thalidomide in 2002 to avoid a relapse and was able to stop all treatments in 2003.

Thalidomide is perhaps best known for causing birth defects in children whose pregnant mothers took the drug to relieve nausea in the 1950s and ’60s.

“But something good does come from thalidomide,” Ternovan said. “It stops cell growth, and that’s what it did in my body.”

She has neuropathy in her hands and feet. She can walk, but not well or for long distances.

Ternovan is grateful for the love and support of her husband, Mike – “my saviour” – and their two daughters Susan and Cathy. She has five grandchildren.

She attends a support group for patients and their loved ones every other month in Windsor.

“It gives them hope,” she said. “When they see me living so long, they change their attitudes immensely. That’s why I keep going.”

She’s happy to share her story and serve as the kind of inspirational example that wasn’t around when she was sick.

“You can see a lot of peoples’ eyes light up that there is hope,” she said. “Certain people can last this long (and) that there is still life beyond diagnosis.

“It is amazing how far they’ve come in the last 20 years with earlier diagnosis and all the medications that have come out. And even with the stem cell transplants.”

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