March is Multiple Myeloma Awareness Month. For 2016, The American Cancer Society predicts more than 30,000 new cases and over 12,650 deaths from myeloma in this country.
“I’m really lucky. I’m one of the very few that’s still around who was diagnosed back in 2003,” said Charles Wakefield, a 69-year-old dentist who doesn’t easily get winded.
He is also a veteran, a marathon runner, motorcycle racer and long-distance cyclist.
“I was the old man on this mission,” said Wakefield.
It was cancer that slowed him down.
“I started doing walks in the park,” Wakefield recalled. “You're so weak, you just start all over.”
Following his multiple myeloma diagnosis, Wakefield tackled chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant. Years later, he received a life-changing phone call from his oncologist, Dr. Brian Berryman.
“[He said,] ‘Would you like to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation?’” Wakefield recalled. “And I went, ‘Well yeah I'm in.’”
The two joined a team on a journey to east Africa.
“There's just a lot of fear because you have no clue -- how are you going to be at 19,000 feet? Are you going to finish?” said Dr. Berryman, a Baylor-Texas Oncology physician.
“So you start out in a rainforest and jungle,” explained Wakefield. “It’s summer in Africa. It’s hot and humid.”
Their seven-day climb was underway.
“I think it was the third or fourth day, there was a pretty heavy downpour," said Dr. Berryman.
“You’re living in the dirt,” Wakefield said of the experience. “It's wet and it's cold. And, it's rocks -- it's not a nice grassy field where you're getting in your tent and everybody's happy."
The group, led by guides, hiked between six and eight hours each day. Their trek, in many ways, mirrored Wakefield’s cancer journey.
“I hoped and prayed I'd be able to be as strong on that mountain as he's been ... during his cancer treatment,” said Dr. Berryman of his patient, turned friend and tent-mate.
“Your whole mouth is totally dry,” said Wakefield. “And you're dehydrated - but you keep moving on."
Their ascent became a moving meditation. At times, Dr. Berryman found himself being pushed along by his patient and memories of his own mother.
Dr. Berryman’s mother died of multiple myeloma in 1997. His life’s passion became personal while he was still in medical school.
Through the ups and downs, by week’s end, the group hiked all night to summit by daybreak.
“It was about 10 to 15 degrees on the summit with about 30-to-50 mph winds," said Dr. Berryman. “On the top, it was amazing.”
Together, they made it. And vowed to go back and do it again.
“To be able to do it with [Wakefield] -- and feel like you had a part in getting him there… brings me tremendous joy,” said Dr. Berryman.
“He's the reason I'm alive,” said Wakefield. “He really is.”
In all, the climb raised nearly $250,000 for the MMRF. Dollars that Dr. Berryman said translate into lifesaving research and medicine.
Last year, the FDA approved three new drugs for multiple myeloma.