Small Steps, Big Dreams
After learning to walk again following a life-changing multiple myeloma diagnosis, Richard Bell takes on Mount Washington.
BY Katie Kosko
PUBLISHED September 19, 2019
In July 2004, Richard Bell was a newlywed who had just moved from London to California, purchasing a new home with his wife, Claire. When severe back pain kicked in, he attributed it to some heavy lifting along the way. After what Bell calls typical male procrastination, he visited a doctor in September. A CT scan revealed a large mass on a vertebra in the middle of his back. The next day, following the advice of the radiologist, Bell consulted an oncologist, who suspected multiple myeloma.
Not yet fully established in the United States and without health insurance, Bell had no choice but to head back to London for treatment. He remained there for a year and a half. The diagnosis, he says, forever changed his life. It also connected him with the Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma program, a partnership between CURE® and the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF), which runs endurance events several times a year to raise awareness and funding for the disease. In an interview with CURE®, Bell details hearing that he had months to live, relearning to walk and taking the climb of a lifetime.
CURE®: Can you describe your multiple myeloma diagnosis and treatment?
Bell: In a lot of cases, I was very lucky that I had this tumor on my T7, because I got a fairly quick diagnosis. It was within six months. My oncologist said, “Look, if you don’t do anything about this, you’ve got six months to live. I think it’s multiple myeloma.” I had never heard of multiple myeloma. He didn’t let me out of his sight. He put me in a wheelchair and took me across the parking lot to the hospital where they did a bone marrow biopsy that evening. (The next) morning, we got the results confirming multiple myeloma. I immediately had three weeks of radiation at Mission Hospital, a targeted treatment to shrink the tumor. The tumor had impinged on my spinal cord, and I lost all feeling from the waist downward. I had a lot of problems with walking and not feeling anything. At that time, I hadn’t been in the states for a year, and I didn’t have any medical insurance. I hadn’t set up my business, which I had planned to. I went back to the UK and had my treatment there.
What was it like to hear “You have multiple myeloma”?
Pretty dramatic. When someone tells you that you have six months to live unless you do something, it’s kind of a kick in the teeth. It’s twofold. It’s something that you never heard of before. If they said “leukemia,” you’d go “Oh yeah, leukemia — that’s a blood cancer.” But multiple myeloma, what the hell is that? So, you do what I imagine 99% of people do, which is go to the (internet) and get frightened to hell. It’s an incurable blood cancer. At that time, rates of survival weren’t particularly good. Amazing things have happened since 2004. It’s a life-changing moment — there’s no way around it — and it was upsetting for me because I was upset for Claire.
You recently climbed Mount Washington as part of the Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma program. How did you get involved with this?
I’m an unusual myeloma case. I was young and was able to have an allogeneic transplant with my sister. There are so few people around who are in my position. Over the years, I gradually fell away from going to group meetings and being involved in myeloma in any way, but that didn’t stop me from receiving emails and reading up on treatments. How I got to Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma was in my normal way of keeping up to date.
When I found the videos, I was really impressed. And I thought, “I walk every day.” Part of my therapy and recuperation was walking. I pretty much had to learn to walk again after my bone marrow transplant because I was so weakened by being in bed and from treatment. A simple thing of walking was a huge deal. The walking and hiking aspect was very appealing.
Do you have a favorite part of the trip?
It was fabulous to be with like-minded people. In the end, the trip didn’t go quite as planned, because we couldn’t get to the top of the mountain. But in some ways, it was almost a tougher hike than the original plan, which would have been up (the mountain), stay the night, and come down the next day. We walked about seven miles. The comradery was fantastic. And (it was nice) hearing (about others’) experiences.
I trained very hard for it. I had been doing nine miles a day, every other day and walking up a very steep local hill. I would walk up it four times. I think if I hadn’t done that, I certainly would have been a lot more tired than I was. It was a hell of a climb down.
What did the Mount Washington climb mean to you?
(It was about) giving something back to all the people who helped me. My treatment was unusual, so I haven’t been able to advise many people in groups or give back an awful lot. I was happy to be able to raise money to help other people. Part of it was also for a specific guy, Ray, who was in the fire service with me and who also had myeloma. He died while I was having treatment. I thought about him a lot during the hike. And, basically, for the young people — it’s nice to be able to give some money back to the MMRF so they can do what they do, because it seems to me that there have been more and more young patients with myeloma coming into the fold over the past 10 to 15 years.
What advice do you have for others who are living with multiple myeloma?
(Take) small steps. I came up with small-steps thinking after my bone marrow transplant. Before they would let me out of the hospital, I had to walk the length of the ward and up the stairs to the next level of the hospital, and that took a week just to walk. When I got back from the UK, I learned to start walking again around Dana Point Marina. Plain walking doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a great brain/mind and physical therapy.
Do you have a motto or quote that you live by?
Accomplish something every day. It doesn’t matter how big that something is. For me, if it’s a bigger thing, then that’s great, but if it’s something that takes only an hour, it’s equally as important. I also try not to stress anymore, enjoy life and not procrastinate.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
As far as the average myeloma patient is concerned, I think going to groups and talking with other people is a great thing. It was of help to me in the beginning. In the early days, Orange County didn’t have a multiple myeloma group. I had to drive monthly to San Diego. Communication and talking with like-minded people who had similar treatment is key so people don’t feel isolated.