In 2005, just three years after retiring from his professional career as an NFL player, Elijah Alexander was diagnosed with multiple myeloma at 35 years old. Up until his death five years later, he not only battled the blood cancer but also worked hard to raise awareness of the disease.
For his wife, Kimberly, Elijah’s passing was just the beginning of her work. Inspired by her husband’s advocacy, she vowed to stay connected with the cancer community. And during this year’s Multiple Myeloma Awareness Month, she is helping to educate the black community about the facts, including risks and treatment options, as an ambassador for Celgene’s Standing in the Gaap initiative.
“I was so very proud of my husband’s work, raising awareness and funds for patients who needed help, as well as sharing his experience with cancer,” Alexander said. “So I’m keeping his legacy going. Not many people know about myeloma and the increased risk among the African American community.”
Kimberly recently joined Liesel Wabnig, a Celgene registered nurse to talk about how multiple myeloma affects African Americans differently via Facebook Live.
KIMBERLY ALEXANDER HAS CONTINUED TO BE ACTIVE IN THE MULTIPLE MYELOMA COMMUNITY BEYOND HER HUSBAND’S PASSING. SHE CHAIRED THE 2016 NORTH TEXAS LEUKEMIA & LYMPHOMA SOCIETY MAN OF THE YEAR EVENT WHERE DR. BRIAN BERRYMAN, ELIJAH’S ONCOLOGIST, WON THE TOP HONOR.
In fact, African Americans are twice as likely to be diagnosed with this deadly blood cancer compared to white Americans. However, because African Americans are often diagnosed with a less aggressive form of myeloma, they can do as well as, if not better than, white Americans when they get timely diagnoses and treatment.
Unfortunately, African Americans often face barriers to early diagnosis and proper treatments.
“Elijah’s diagnosis came as a real surprise to us because he was young and seemed healthy,” Alexander said. “Cancer can affect anyone at any time in their life, so everyone needs to be aware.”
While myeloma is usually associated with older adults, African Americans are diagnosed at a younger age on average (66 years) than are white Americans (71 years).
Getting an annual physical and knowing the most common symptoms—which include bone pain, fatigue and poor kidney function—can increase the chances of catching myeloma early.
Before his diagnosis, Elijah didn’t notice many symptoms other than some pain in his feet. Although treatments helped keep Elijah alive for five years, Alexander believes that he may have survived longer if they had known more about myeloma before he was diagnosed.
“We only discovered his disease through a blood test,’” Alexander said. “It’s important to have an annual physical and blood screening, which can help detect myeloma earlier.”
The more African Americans participate in clinical trials, the better and faster we can understand why myeloma impacts African Americans differently.
Many mysteries still surround the disease. For example, scientists don’t know why African Americans are at a higher risk for myeloma. One thing that can accelerate scientists’ understanding is increased enrollment in clinical trials, of which Alexander is now working to raise awareness.
“Today, clinical trials are the best way to access the most innovative treatments,” Alexander said. “The more African Americans participate in clinical trials, the better and faster we can understand why myeloma impacts African Americans differently.”
While the future of myeloma treatment continues to improve with new approaches such as immunotherapy, a cure has remained elusive. To do her part, Alexander plans to keep supporting the myeloma community any way she can, until the disease becomes a footnote in history.
“Helping those affected by myeloma has truly become a passion in my life,” Alexander said. “I will never forget what the disease did to my husband, and that’s why I will continue to be involved in the community.”