Patient conquers his personal Everest

Last March, John Raithel of Grosse Ile completed a group mountain climb across treacherous paths and jagged rocks to reach Mount Everest base camp, elevation 17,500 feet.

The achievement is more remarkable considering that just 15 months earlier, John was recovering after receiving a bone marrow transplant at the Karmanos Cancer Center for multiple myeloma.

John says his personal achievement of climbing Everest—which raised funds for multiple myeloma research—is secondary to the peaks he scaled while battling his disease.

“I’m blessed to have done the Everest climb,” says John, 59, who owns a printing equipment company. “But I reached the summit beforehand by accomplishing things cancer wanted to take away, like walking my daughter down the aisle and seeing my newborn granddaughter.”

John was always physically active and enjoyed hiking, camping and fishing. So he was surprised when a routine physical in 2012 showed his urine had abnormal levels of protein. Further tests revealed John had smoldering myeloma—a precursor to multiple myeloma.

“The cancer diagnosis was scary and overwhelming,” John says. “I didn’t think about tomorrow in the same way.” 

Multiple myeloma is a type of cancer that affects plasma cells. Malignant cancer cells accumulate in the bone marrow, where they crowd out normal plasma cells that fight infection. Doctors diagnose about 25,000 to 30,000 new cases each year in the United States. While patient survival has improved over the past 20 years, the disease remains incurable.

Seeking treatment at a hospital that specializes only in cancer care, John made an appointment at Karmanos. He saw Jeffrey Zonder, M.D., a member of the center’s Malignant Hematology Oncology Multidisciplinary Team and a multiple myeloma specialist. 

Dr. Zonder saw John every six months for three and a half years. His health was steady and he felt fine. That changed in 2015 as the disease became more aggressive.

“My kidneys were failing,” John says. “I received eight weeks of chemotherapy but it wasn’t effective.”

After further discussing his treatment options, John opted for a bone marrow transplant (BMT). Karmanos’ BMT program is one of the largest in the country with the most options for treating multiple myeloma and other cancers of blood-forming organs. Karmanos’ BMT team performs approximately 270 transplants a year and the program has ranked higher than the national average in patient outcomes, with a strong reputation for treating high-risk patients like John.

In January 2016, John had a bone marrow transplant at Karmanos and remained hospitalized for six weeks.

“John had an unusually severe and rapid kidney injury from his myeloma, which complicated his case,” Dr. Zonder says. “He was extremely weak heading into the transplant and had a very slow recovery. Fortunately, as John recovered, so did his kidneys. He’s back to his baseline health.”

During treatment, John became close friends with Dr. Zonder, who shares a love of hiking. In December 2016, Dr. Zonder mentioned the Everest fundraising climb, part of the Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma program which supports the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation and Consortium. Karmanos is a member of this prestigious research group. Dr. Zonder asked if John would join him on the climb.

“That moment changed my life, because it gave me hope and a purpose,” John says. “I realized cancer didn’t rule my life. I could do extraordinary things because Dr. Zonder gave me courage and confidence for tomorrow. I started training for the climb.”

When John reached the Everest base camp, he did so alongside Dr. Zonder and Silva, Dr. Zonder’s wife. This year, both men and their wives are planning to participate in fundraising climb in Patagonia, South America. 

“I had the support of a three-legged stool: a hopeful attitude, my wife and family, and the exceptional care at Karmanos,” John says. “If patients can have those three things, they can reach their personal summits.”

For more information about cancer services and treatments, including bone marrow and stem cell transplants: 

  • Call 1-800-KARMANOS (1-800-527-6266)
  • Request Appointment Online  – a Karmanos representative will contact you within 24 hours of your request, Monday through Friday