Long Island isn’t the best place to train for climbing Iceland’s mountains and volcanoes. But it was here, in his hometown of Oceanside, NY, where Rich Appelbaum prepared for the Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma (MM4MM) team Fire & Ice trek across Iceland.* While five straight days of hiking for seven to eight hours a day would be tough for almost anyone, it posed an extra challenge to Appelbaum, who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2016 at the age of 62. Two years later, he found himself on a life-changing excursion.
MM4MM organizes treks that are more than just a physical challenge for its teams, with members who are all directly affected by multiple myeloma as patients, family members, friends, clinicians or advocates. This collaboration between CURE Media Group and the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF) brings attention to the need for additional research and treatments for the more than 118,000 people in the U.S. living with this cancer and an estimated 32,000 others were diagnosed in 2018. Team members each raised at least $7,500 for the MMRF, and together the Iceland team raised more than $135,000.
Pushing past the diagnosis
Appelbaum’s 2016 diagnosis was unexpected, arising out of a routine blood test for a life insurance application. “I was honestly expecting to receive a preferred status,” he said. Instead, he was not eligible, based on extremely high levels of protein in his blood. After a biopsy and bone marrow test, Rich was perplexed by his diagnosis, because he had never heard of multiple myeloma.He started treatments in January 2017 but continued to encourage himself. “When you’re diagnosed with cancer, certain doubts creep into your mind as to what you’re going to be able to do,” he said. The idea of hiking volcanoes, glaciers, lava beds, gorges and up to waterfalls was a personal challenge that motivated him.
Appelbaum was a novice hiker. “I’d never even carried a backpack before, and I was told I’d need to get used to carrying an extra 30 or 40 pounds on my back,” he said. he filled a backpack with weights, put on hiking boots and walked around Long Island with his wife. Eventually, he joined friends on day trips to nearby trails on the weekend. “My motto has always been, if it’s worth doing – it’s worth overdoing.”
Appelbaum encountered his first hurdle before the trek even began. Initially, the MMRF didn’t respond to his application. As the closing date approached, he sent them videos of himself at the gym with accompanying music from the film “Rocky.” Before long, the organizers offered him a spot on the trip. Good thing for the MMRF, too – Appelbaum not only completed and in some instances excelled on the hike but was the top team fundraiser, bringing in more than $20,000 for multiple myeloma research.
In the process of raising funds, he also raised awareness of multiple myeloma and the MMRF among the thousands of his followers who read his social media updates about the trek. “I made it clear that all the funds would go to the MMRF. That made it understandable for people to support me.”
My motto has always been, if it’s worth doing – it’s worth overdoing.
RICH APPELBAUM, CENTER, IS MOST GRATEFUL FOR THE BONDS HE MADE WITH HIS TEAMMATES DURING THEIR TREK ACROSS ICELAND.”
Forging friendships on the trek
While completing the trek was a major personal accomplishment, Appelbaum’s most valuable takeaways were the friendships he forged with his teammates and the stories they shared while hiking through the craggy landscape. Even eight months later, the teammates are still in touch daily. “I’m inspired by all of them,” he said. “One of my teammates was told she had a 20 percent chance of living five years when she was diagnosed; she has already lived 10.”
Appelbaum is also grateful for the bonds he made with the health care professionals on his team. “They’ve been very supportive and I consider them good friends as well.”
Stepping out of his comfort zone
Appelbaum sees parallels between the excursion and his battle with multiple myeloma. “The trek definitely forced me out of my comfort zone, and I think dealing with cancer does the same,” he said. “You may no longer necessarily be able to do things on your own terms or your own schedule.”
The experience also made him appreciate recent treatment advances, including those supported by the MMRF, which has supported more than 350 research grants worldwide and has helped bring ten drugs to market since its inception. “I’m truly amazed by how often I read about advances in medication for multiple myeloma and ways to identify which medication is best for each patient,” Appelbaum said.
To learn more about the MMRF and how you can support multiple myeloma research, visit the MMRF website.
*The MM4MM Fire & Ice trek across Iceland was partially sponsored by Celgene Corporation.