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Michael Tessmer got out of his parents' car and stared at the hospital building before him. His parents had brought him to a hospital in his home state of Iowa for the first of 14 surgeries to repair a cleft palate. Each time, young Michael would be dropped off on the front steps of the hospital, and he would not see his parents again until the hospital released him. "I don't know if that was hospital policy or what," he says. "But I'd be down there anywhere from two weeks to a month each time, all alone." That did little to instill trust and confidence in the medical world. In fact, it did just the opposite. "I was terrified of doctors and hospitals," Michael says. "I'm not ungrateful that they fixed me. I'm very happy they did.” But he admits it left him with questions about that approach. So after the last of his surgeries, Michael stayed as far away from doctors, nurses and other health care providers as he could -- going in to be seen only when it was absolutely necessary. Thankfully, that changed after one of Michael's daughters decided to go to nursing school.
When 69-year-old allergist and rheumatologist Mike Mass. M.D., was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in August 2013, he quickly realized that being the patient and trusting the advice of a fellow physician with expertise in a disease outside of his realm of expertise would be a challenge. “I’ve always advocated open communications with my patients about their treatment options, as it’s important for the physician and patient to be on the same page,” says Dr. Mass. “Although I’m not a cancer expert, I know enough about the disease to ask lots of questions of my own oncologist on the best treatment options available. It was hard balancing the need to express my opinions without impeding my physician’s own expert medical judgment.” Dr. Mass was in private practice in the Jacksonville, Florida, area for more than 30 years before going part-time and joining an allergy group practice in 2008. That’s where he worked until his diagnosis in 2013, when he finally decided to retire from practicing medicine. He had known he was at a greater risk for contracting multiple myeloma for many years because of a condition called monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance , or MGUS, which he was diagnosed with decades ago. MGUS is a condition in which an abnormal protein (M protein) is found in the blood. That increases the risk of developing multiple myeloma at some point in the patient’s life. Dr. Mass had no symptoms but found out several years ago after some blood work that his M protein levels were at the point where he now had “smoldering myeloma,” an early phase of this cancer condition.
After being diagnosed with cancer, Joan Hittner, along with her husband, David, created an organization to raise money to find a cure. Today, David and daughter Christine continue the work. In 2011, Joan and David Hittner opened a letter from the Mayo Clinic Department of Development. Inside was a request: Would they consider donating $25 to support cancer research? The Hittners quickly agreed that $25 wasn’t nearly enough. “After what we’d just been through, that seemed a minuscule amount,” says David. “We started talking about what more we could do.” The couple, from the Winona, Minnesota, area, had recently returned from Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where Joan had undergone surgery to remove tumors that had encompassed her pancreas and invaded her intestines. Joan's battle with cancer had started six years earlier. She’d gone to her doctor with what she thought was a gallbladder problem. Instead, Joan found out she had carcinoid cancer, and she was told surgery was her only treatment option. “The cancer was incurable,” says David, and “chemo and radiation wouldn’t work.”