After beating the odds myeloma patient inspires others
Father of four, Richard Cheal, was "living the dream" before his life-changing diagnosis with myeloma at the age of 38. He'd been married to Karen for 17 years, they had a young family, and he loved his outdoor job in Marine and Fisheries Enforcement for the Northern Territory Police Force. "I was very happy with life in general," said Richard.
However, frustrated and hampered by constant and increasing back pain, he made numerous trips to doctors over 18 months. Eventually, when sleeping only a few minutes each night due to the agonising pain, he was diagnosed with a tumour in his upper spine.
"I got myself to the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney where I underwent tests," said Richard, as Territory doctors were unable to treat his condition. In Sydney he was given little chance of surviving more than several months as the tumour had grown around his spinal cord and, during further tests, a biopsy revealed Richard had myeloma - a disease he'd not heard of. "The tumour had dissolved two vertebrae and the doctors were at a loss as to how I was still walking," said Richard who had a complicated 10-hour surgical procedure in October 2006 to remove the tumour and stabilise his spine with titanium rods and screws. This gave him a new start at life.
After a short trip back to the Territory to catch up with family and friends, he had radiation treatment for six weeks in Sydney. After returning to Darwin, he spent 10 months recovering and went back to work. "I received fantastic support from my work colleagues, senior Police management, friends and most importantly, my family," said Richard who self-managed his ongoing treatment long distance, via consultations with his Sydney haematologist over the telephone.
He concentrated on trying to get back to being an effective member of his team at work. "I also decided to take ownership of the disease and was proactive in learning about myeloma and what I should do to fight the disease." To take stock of recent events and plan their uncertain future, Richard camped for a month which his family on the banks of his beloved Roper River. "At that time we were living our life three months at a time - the period between blood tests," said Richard.
These tests showed the disease was still active. Richard's paraprotein levels were rising, indicating the myeloma was firing up again. "Our research indicated that at some stage in the future I would require radical chemotherapy to treat the disease and also that emerging stem cell technology played an important part in treating myeloma," he explained. "During this time, we were thankful for the support from the Leukaemia Foundation through mentoring and workshops."
While at one of these workships, Richard said he gained confidence, and his morale and spirits were lifted from speaking to others about the disease, in particular a stem cell transplant recipient. So in early 2008, Richard and Karen travelled to Melbourn where Richard's stem cells were harvested with the intention of storing them for a rainy day. He also had a full restaging of his disease. It showed myeloma all through his spine and a large lesion on his hip. That 'rainy day' had come sooner than expected - he needed a stem cell transplant immediately.
"We returned to Darwin, packed up the family and went back to Melbourne," said Richard. His transplant was in June 2008 and after 10 weeks Richard went home, spent "a long time recovering", and returned to work in 2009.
In February this year, he returned to Melbourne for a review and was told - if there was such a thing as remission with myeloma, he was in it.
During this stay, the Cheal family was accommodated by the Leukaemia Foundation at Bell City. "We were well looked after in the magnificant facilities and got some timely support," said Richard. He is on a treatment program of bonefos, dexamethasone and thalidomide until late next year. "I have no doubt this treatment has been crucial in keeping the myeloma suppressed and under control."
The last four years have not been easy for Richard or his family. "I am thankful for each and every day though and try to make the best of it." When times are tough and he needs a change of attitude, his wife reminds him of his 10% chance of surviving the operation in 2006.
"I wasn't told until well after the operation that if I did survive, I was expected to be a paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair. Credit must be given to some very special medical people who have allowed me the privilege of extending my life's journey."
Richard took part in this year's inaugural National Myeloma Awareness Day and participated in the Leukaemia Foundation's Light the Night event in September with Karen and their children. "I feel it is now my turn to help others where I can," Richard said. "I hope I might be able to provide inspiration and hope to others to show it is possible, with help and grace, to survive with blood cancer."