Barbara Robins doesn’t let her chronic blood-related cancer stop her from seizing the day thanks to clinical trial, treatment advances.
By Elizabeth Katz
Featured photo by Timothy J. Haunert
Barbara Robins, 75, of Franklin has lived a full life, working as a financial adviser while also keeping herself in optimum health and enjoying her friends, travel and art. Because she’s kept herself so healthy and active, a diagnosis of multiple myeloma in 2015 stopped her in her tracks.
“It was completely a surprise,” she said. “My internal medicine doctor saw that there was something off in my blood counts. I had a bone marrow biopsy and I expected to be fine.”
Though she had no physical symptoms, her doctor discovered multiple myeloma — a cancer of the blood plasma.
“It was total grief,” she said, adding that she had never been diagnosed with a cancer and had, in fact, years ago volunteered to be on a bone marrow registry to help others who might need a bone marrow transplant.
“I never expected to be diagnosed with this,” she said.
Robins, who is Jewish and a member of Congregation T’chiyah in Oak Park, had her bone marrow transplant at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit. She describes the procedure as something that went well but was not without its attendant worries.
“I had the transplant and all I did was worry about dying,” she said, “but if you spend your days worrying, you’re not living. Coping with cancer has taught me to live in the day and not think about what might happen.”
Today, Robins sees Jeffrey Zonder, M.D., the leader of the Multiple Myeloma Team at Karmanos. She is currently on a clinical trial for her disease.
“I learned about the clinical trials available,” she said. “I felt it was my chance to be on the best and newest drugs. I persevered. It’s working very well for me. Being on a clinical trial, I can help other people and I can help myself.”
Zonder said that substantial progress has occurred in the treatment of multiple myeloma. Patients with the disease are living long and full lives while being monitored by an oncologist.
“The average survival for myeloma patients has tripled since I started practicing oncology around 20 years ago,” he said. “One of the reasons is the availability of new drugs. Another reason is the use of maintenance therapy —
lower-dose therapy given on a continuous basis to maintain disease control that is obtained initially with full-intensity treatment regimens.
“I have many multiple myeloma patients in my practice who are more than 10 years from the time of diagnosis and a few who are more than 20 years.”
Zonder added that part of his job is to meet with patients participating in a clinical trial as part of their treatment.
“Clinical trials are almost always among the options available to myeloma patients treated at the Karmanos Cancer Institute,” he said. “Sometimes, a trial with a promising (therapeutic) agent may represent the best option for a patient. Patients generally participate in clinical trials to gain access to promising therapies, but, at the same time, they are making a major contribution to medicine, since well-designed clinical trials are what advance the field as a whole.”
In addition to participating in the clinical trial, Robins attends the Women’s Support Group at Karmanos’ Weisberg Cancer Treatment Center in Farmington Hills. It is a support group open to all cancer patients, not just those being treated at Karmanos.
Zonder said getting involved in a support group is beneficial for patients living with a chronic disease like myeloma. “It is particularly helpful to be able to talk about a new treatment with someone else who has already had it,” he said.
Robins said that taking part in the support group has been “profound.”
“It’s a beautiful thing to see people gain hope from the group as they live with cancer,” she said. “Being part of the support group has been an important part of my experience.”
Today, Robins continues to work as a financial adviser and makes time for the activities she enjoys, including traveling to see friends and collecting art.
“I’ve accomplished a lot in my life,” she said. “I would like to continue living my life and being the best person I can be.”
Free Public Info Session
Jeffrey Zonder, M.D., leader of the Multiple Myeloma Team at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, will hold a free public education session at 5:30 p.m. Monday, May 13, at Karmanos’ Weisberg Cancer Treatment Center in Farmington Hills. He will discuss recent advances in the management of multiple myeloma, including the use of antibody-based therapy, new disease maintenance options and new therapies, including the use of CAR-T cells, which mobilize a patient’s own immune system to fight the disease. To RSVP for the session, call Kathleen Hardy, oncology social worker at Karmanos, at (248) 538-4712.