Understanding Geraldine Ferraro's 'Blood Cancer'

From the WebMD Archives

June 19, 2001 - Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run for vice president from a major party, announced Tuesday morning that she is battling a formidable new opponent -- the rare, bone-destroying blood cancer called multiple myeloma.

Half of the 14,000 people diagnosed annually succumb within five years, but two-and-a-half years since a routine physical revealed blood irregularities, Ferraro says she's feeling fine. She plans to testify at a senate hearing Thursday about the importance of scientific research in cancer, which was responsible for suggesting how an old drug could give new hope to people like Ferraro.

The former congresswoman and her doctors credit her continued good health to the infamous drug thalidomide. Back in the 1960s, when pregnant women who'd taken thalidomide to quell morning sickness began delivering severely deformed infants, the drug was banned. Its name quickly became synonymous with medical horror.

Despite its tragic history, thalidomide is a powerful drug with benefits only now being realized, cancer researcher Robert Ilaria, MD, tells WebMD. Recently, "it's been used for skin disorders, graft vs. host disease in transplant patients, and now in multiple myeloma." He is assistant professor of internal medicine and hematology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

And you can now get a legal prescription, he says, although only doctors who've registered with the drug's manufacturer can write one, and "you have to go through a few hoops."

Before receiving the drug, available only as a one-month supply, patients must wade through cumbersome informational pamphlets. Female patients -- even those nearing or in the midst of menopause -- must "undergo pregnancy testing and sign a statement every month that she will be on two different forms of birth control," says Ilaria.

Men must sign a side-effects sheet describing potential problems -- from debilitating numbness of the hands and feet, called neuropathy, to excessive sleepiness to extreme blood pressure changes, as well as acknowledging the drug's reproductive dangers.

But multiple myeloma patients have faced their deadly disease without a single new treatment option in nearly 40 years. When conventional chemotherapy and steroid treatments fail, and when bone marrow transplant is not an option, a few hoops seem a small price to pay.

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It's more than worth the trouble, says Guy Strickland, devoted son-in-law of 88-year-old myeloma patient Tom Hartwell. The two men gladly make the monthly four-hour round-trip from their homes in Wichita Falls, Texas, to Dr. Ilaria's office, where they fill out forms and pay the $60 that Medicare and their supplemental insurance won't cover.

"Right now he's at the senior citizen's center, where he eats and socializes every day," says Strickland of the man who only months ago was placed in a hospice to die, after chemotherapy and steroids left him sicker and weaker than ever. "He'd be buried by now if it hadn't been for the thalidomide," he tells WebMD. "It's given us more hours and days with dad. ... It works."

According to Ilaria, "thalidomide works in about one-third to one-half of patients. Mr. Hartwell is having an unbelievable response. He's on the lowest dose, and his blood counts are now completely normal."

Thalidomide appears to work in a number of ways, some of which remain mysterious, says Ilaria. First, it stops the development of the new blood vessels crucial for tumor growth. "We also think it affects the immune system," he says. "And it could be working via other mechanisms. We're investigating that now."

Photograph of Geraldine Ferraro courtesy of AP Photo/Tim Roske

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