It was in the fall of 2014 when Andrea Zwarich first experienced pain.
Zwarich, a long time horse rider and trainer, was at her ranch outside of Saskatoon working on her therapy program for at-risk youth.
“I thought it was fatigue because there is a lot of physical work with throwing hay bales, plus paperwork, plus emotional work,” Zwarich recalled.
“At first I thought I was walking through mud. Then getting near Christmas I thought maybe I needed to do some personal training because I had some pain in my hip.”
“It only got worse.”
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She was also exhausted and sleeping often.
Zwarich was eventually referred to a physiotherapist after seeing doctors and other specialists.
“The physiotherapist said ‘you’re presenting like a trauma victim, I can’t even touch you,’ and I’m like, ‘I know,’” Zwarich said.
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X-rays confirmed she had multiple rib fractures.
“It totally explained why it hurt to sleep, it hurt to walk, it hurt to do anything,” Zwarich recalled.
“It became more painful than childbirth.”
But the pain didn’t go away and in the spring of 2015, Zwarich went for more tests, including blood work.
When the results came in, Zwarich received a phone call telling her to get to the emergency department at St. Paul’s Hospital due to elevated calcium levels.
Zwarich said the next two weeks were a blur as more tests were carried out.
Then came the news.
“They told me I have multiple myeloma, and I’m like ‘multiple what?’ and it didn’t really hit me that it was cancer,” Zwarich recalled.
Although generally referred to as a blood cancer, multiple myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells found in bone marrow.
Zwarich was transferred to the bone marrow transplant unit at Royal University Hospital, where she met Dr. Julie Stakiw, who specializes in blood diseases and disorders.
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Stakiw said multiple myeloma is becoming more prevalent in Saskatchewan, usually in people over the age of 55, and although incurable, it is treatable.
One of those treatments is a stem cell transplant.
“When patients are first diagnosed, we assess whether they will be a stem cell transplant candidate or not, and that’s based on age and the patients overall health, and their ability to undergo a transplant,” Stakiw explained.
A typical stem cell transplant usually involves the patient receiving their own cells.
Rarer is an allogenic stem cell transplant, which uses donor cells, and are usually carried out with younger and fitter patients.
Treatment is aggressive, which can including a combination of chemotherapy and radiation.
The patient is left with no immune system for a period of time, and the donor cells can sometimes attack host organs, which can be fatal.
Zwarich was approved to undergo an allogenic stem cell transplant.
“I felt there was no other choice. I’m a mom, I’ve got a son to raise,” Zwarich said.
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Two matches were found – Zwarich’s sisters – one whom became the donor.
Zwarich’s transplant happened in April 2016 and Stakiw said a patient usually takes two years to fully recover if all goes well.
Zwarich has recovered and is now organizing a march in Saskatoon to raise awareness about myeloma.
“We haven’t done one in Saskatoon for two years … I’m doing well, I need to relaunch this, it’s the tenth anniversary for Myeloma Canada,” Zwarich said.
“I am living proof that access to innovative treatments has an impact on patients, which is why the Multiple Myeloma March and its mission play such an important role in supporting the myeloma community,” Zwarich said.
The march, which anyone can take part in, starts at 2:30 p.m. at Zion Luther Church, with a goal of raising $10,000.
“A lot of patients are excited for it … and I keep seeing more and more interest every day,” Zwarich said.
“That really excites me.”