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James Allen – Multiple Myeloma

James Allen – Multiple Myeloma Patient Story

After living with multiple myeloma for more than 30 years, James Allen figures he’s probably due a medal.

His cancer journey started in 1988 when the athletic Butler County assistant principal and former health and physical education teacher began experiencing confounding back pain. After seeing several doctors, he was finally diagnosed with multiple myeloma — a type of cancer that starts in the bone marrow.

His cancer was in his lower spine. At the time, James was given three to five years to live. He was 40 years old with two children — the youngest just a year old.

“I never thought I’d live to see my son grow up. He’s an attorney now and getting married in May,” says James, now 72. “My daughter, who’s a registered nurse in Butler County, has given us two beautiful granddaughters, too. I’m blessed.”

Although his cancer was not curable, it was treatable. James’ initial treatment included radiation followed by chemotherapy. He’s been in and out of remission since the early 1990s.

“There’s still no cure for multiple myeloma, but I’m still here,” says James, a Chicora resident. “My doctors at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center have been giving me the right things to keep me going.”

Over the past three decades, his treatment has included chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and other cutting-edge therapies. He also has participated in several clinical trials at UPMC.

His UPMC Hillman oncology doctors have continuously monitored him throughout that time, using bloodwork and periodic MRIs and PET scans to look for cancer “hot spots”.

“There were years when my markers were in the safe zone and we did nothing. My treatment plan was to come back in another three months or six months,” says James.

James is now under the care of UPMC medical oncologist Hongmei Liang, MD, PhD, who took over when his first UPMC oncologist retired in 2008. For the past two years, he’s been taking an oral chemotherapy drug and a targeted monoclonal antibody that slows or stops multiple myeloma.

“When new treatments like this become available, Dr. Liang and I discuss it and make judgements together about where to go with treatment,” says James.

“I’ve always been a part of the decision making with my UPMC oncologists. They treat me like a partner in the process — and I appreciate that,” he adds.

Despite his ongoing, decades-long cancer battle — and cancer-related stress and compression fractures in his legs and back — James rarely missed a day of work. He retired in 2010 after 40 years as an educator, including his final 14 years as principal of Butler Area Junior High School.

Although he credits his longevity to the “excellent” care he received from the doctors and nurses at UPMC St. Margaret, UPMC Shadyside, and at Hillman, James says his focus on fitness also helped.

He doesn’t run, swim, and lift heavy weights like he did in his younger years, but James remains active using light weights, working around the house, and doing yard work.

“It’s been over 32 years, but I’m still getting things done. Every day I try to accomplish something,” says James.

“I’m so grateful to everyone at UPMC. I’ve seen my children grow up and I’m now thrilled to spend time with my grandchildren. It’s been a good life.”