A Kalamazoo woman with an incurable blood cancer is hiking to the base of Mount Everest. Even before you get to the mountain, altitudes on the trek can reach more than 18,000 feet. That’s about as high as the summit of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America.
Jennifer Davis and 17 others are doing this to raise money for multiple myeloma research. Davis was diagnosed with the disease four years ago. She says it all started with back pain:
“A lot of people experience that at one point or another, but it was back pain that kept progressively getting worse over several months. And I would go to the doctor, they’d check me out and do x-rays and they’re like we don’t see anything. Take some ibuprofen, everything should be fine.”
Davis says eventually the pain started wrapping around the front of her ribs and it was too much for her to handle.
“I woke up one morning to get ready for work and I collapsed in my bedroom. My back essentially gave out and I couldn’t walk,” she said.
Davis says she was rushed to the hospital where they found three fractures in her spine. While having surgery to stabilize it, Davis says doctors ran a few tests. That’s when they found out she had multiple myeloma.
It’s a cancer where plasma cells push out other healthy cells in your bones. It’s also rare — according to the American Cancer Society only 1 out of every 143 people gets multiple myeloma.
“It’s a jarring thing to hear, it’s shocking," said Davis. "You go from being a healthy person who was very athletic and would enjoy the outdoors and play with your kids — to I have cancer? I’m a 37 year old mom with cancer, how does this happen?”
Davis says she had high-dose chemotherapy for about five months and then had a stem cell transplant with healthy blood cells — a treatment that’s relatively new for this cancer.
According to the pharmaceutical company Takeda Oncology, it was popularized in the early 90s.
“Getting the stem cell transplant now today is a more common practice to help get a person into remission and extend your life beyond five years and you’re seeing patients that are living much longer,” said Davis.
Though there’s no cure, Davis says she’s in what they call remission — she’s as close to cancer-free as she can get.
“It never 100 percent leaves your body. So you can look at it like it’s sleeping right now, with the chance it could wake up at any time,” she said.
Davis says she has to take daily chemotherapy medication, likely for the rest of her life. She also gets monthly and yearly doctors’ visits. She says she still has back pain sometimes and the spinal fractures caused her to lose three inches in height.
“I had to have my pants hemmed which I like to joke about,” she laughed.
Davis says she had done races and other fundraisers for multiple myeloma research in the past, but a year ago she was looking for something bigger. That’s when she found the program Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma.
Starting next week, Davis and other hikers will go on a nine-day trip to the base of Mount Everest. She says it will be difficult. She’ll be carrying a 15 pound backpack, walking four to six miles a day — and then there’s the altitude to deal with.
But Davis says she’s more worried about getting sick before the journey — because the cancer compromises her immune system.
“But as far as the climb itself I feel like I’m strong enough," she said. "I do feel like my back will be good. I do train with a weighted backpack, so that’s been kind of like my test."
To get ready, Davis and her group also climbed to the top of Colorado’s Mount Democrat in July — that’s about 14,000 feet up. Davis says doing that hike made her even more eager to take on Everest.
“I’m so excited for many reasons," she said.
"I never thought I’d be able to be here and tell you that I’m climbing Mount Everest — after the hard work and the physical therapy and all the work I had to do to get strong enough to even be able to attempt something like this.”
So far, Davis has raised about $20,000 for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation — twice as much as her original goal. But Davis says her main objective is to make people aware of the disease and that patients don’t have to take it as a death sentence.
“It’s very easy to go to a dark place when you get a diagnosis like this and I think I just want to share with them that you can push through,” said Davis.