By Jessica Gorman
A Public Life With Cancer
Geraldine Ferraro talks candidly about taking her multiple myeloma diagnosis public
By Jessica Gorman
One day last August, Geraldine Ferraro was waiting in line, about to check out at a grocery store on New York’s Long Island. A woman ahead of her turned. “Are you Geraldine Ferraro?” she asked.
The woman’s 32-year-old son had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, the same cancer that Ferraro, the former U.S. congresswoman, has lived with since 1998. “She said, ‘I know you have multiple myeloma, I’ve read all about it,’ ” recalls Ferraro. They were soon engaged in a long discussion about the woman’s son, his diagnosis and medications, and Ferraro’s own treatment.
It was the sort of deeply personal conversation Ferraro, 72, finds herself having regularly, with strangers who have—or are close to someone who has—multiple myeloma. They call from all over the country, locating her through their members of Congress, her doctors, her speaker’s bureau or her friends. Others, familiar with Ferraro’s diagnosis, stop her on the street to ask how she’s doing, or to talk about their own experience with cancer. “I find that people who have cancer just need somebody else to talk to ... who has been hit with the same bad news,” she says.
It wasn’t until she was diagnosed—and given three to five years to live—that Ferraro became familiar with multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. (Other blood cancers are leukemia and lymphoma.) In patients with multiple myeloma, plasma cells—a type of white blood cell—are overproduced by the bone marrow and don’t make specific antibodies the body needs to fight infection. The plasma cells instead make a useless antibody while overcrowding the bone marrow. The most prominent symptom of the disease, which is characterized by bone weakening and lesions, is severe bone pain. This year, nearly 20,000 people will be diagnosed with the disease and more than 10,000 will die of it, according to the National Cancer Institute.
It is some of those newly diagnosed patients who find their way to Ferraro—a woman whose busy schedule, no-nonsense attitude, and climb to the upper rungs of the political ladder belie a warm, unhurried demeanor when encountering another patient or recounting her experience with the disease. “She makes herself available, takes her own time, sits and listens very carefully, and with a very sensitive, caring, heartfelt concern, tries to deal with both medical and personal issues that patients have,” says Ken Anderson, a hemotologist-oncologist who specializes in multiple myeloma at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and who is one of Ferraro’s doctors and a friend. “She always is speaking to the patients as no one else can. As a patient herself, she knows the disease. She knows the symptoms and signs. She knows the treatments, and the side effects and benefits of those treatments, and so she can—when speaking to both patients and caregivers—give a unique perspective.”