West Oak Lane woman raises awareness about bone-marrow cancer that could have killed her

Joan Howell went to her doctor about chronic back pain that she had been experiencing when she was close to retiring in 2002.

Originally, her symptoms were diagnosed as a case of arthritis. Then, a bone scan showed some abnormalities including bone lesions which led to a diagnosis of stage four Multiple Myeloma, a rare form of cancer that causes an excess of abnormal plasma cells to form tumors throughout the bone marrow.

It was the first time that the West Oak Lane resident and her daughter had heard of a disease that the Philadelphia Multiple Myeloma Networking Group (PMMNG) says is the second most-common blood cancer and affects an estimated 750,000 people worldwide.

“I was shocked and it didn’t settle well,” Howell recalled, “but we had to accept it to know what was the next step.”

A mission

Because of its rarity, the 73-year-old makes it her business to tell everyone that she comes in contact about the disease.

She also serves as a contact person for those who have been recently diagnosed and encourages them to stay positive and upbeat because it is a treatable disease.

“What I suffer with now, if I should catch a cold or my immune system really weakens, I don’t have the energy level,” said Howell. “I just got over that a couple of weeks ago and I was confined to the house because I was very weak, but that doesn’t happen too often and I have been very fortunate.”

To help spread awareness, she also helps with PMMNG fundraising which, this week, involved drawing attention to the fifth annual “Miles for Myeloma” event which supports research initiatives of several groups including the International Myeloma Foundation, Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Multiple Myeloma Financial Assistance Program.

The annual event takes place at 7:30 a.m. Saturday along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She has raised more than $1,000 and expects to have about 10 people to join her there.

“If it had not been for research, I don’t think I would be here today,” said Howell. “When I get finished the dosage I am on and they find out it’s not working, they are already working on something else.”

For more information about the event, go to Philadelphia.myeloma.org.

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