Skagit Valley Hospital Article

Survivor finds new role: To inspire others (with photo of Becky)

Becky Voelkel of Concrete says faith, family, friends and great care are carrying her through treatment for multiple myeloma.

Voelkel was diagnosed with the disease in September 2008 and immediately started treatment at the Skagit Valley Hospital Regional Cancer Care Center in preparation for a bone marrow transplant on Sept. 30, 2009 at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA).

Skagit Valley Hospital Regional Cancer Care Center is a network member of the SCCA, a partnership of the world-renowned Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine and Seattle Children’s, providing patients with access to research, clinical trials and the latest in diagnosis and treatment.

According to the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, the incurable but treatable disease is a cancer of the plasma cells in the blood. The Foundation estimates nearly 20,000 new cases are diagnosed annually in the United States.

For Voelkel, who also has Type 2 diabetes, the illness was spotted before she had any obvious symptoms during routine checks with her primary care physician who noted an elevated protein in her blood in May 2008.

“I wasn’t feeling sick. I wasn’t feeling any pain,” she said. “What I’ve learned is most people go undiagnosed, so, by the time it’s found, it’s much more serious.”

Voelkel completed all of the preparatory chemotherapy and treatments and headed to Seattle in August 2009 where she would stay for nearly three months during the bone marrow transplant process. A family friend stayed with her in an apartment near SCCA for the treatment, performed on an outpatient basis.

There were two weeks of diagnostic testing and then a high dose of chemotherapy. She asked to delay her chemo one day so she could take advantage of some free tickets to see the Seattle Mariners play baseball. “That was a lot of fun,” she said.

Voelkel was also given a drug to promote stem-cell growth and several days later was hooked up to a machine to remove her stem cells for her transplant which followed on Sept. 30.

“The whole process was just amazing. The people are so caring and there was a whole team of people I could talk to,” she said. “I feel blessed living so close to have access to a world-renowned, top research hospital.”

While she had to be especially careful during some periods to avoid exposure to people or germs, other times allowed her great opportunities in Seattle. She went to the theater, symphony and to the top of the Space Needle for the first time in her life.

“They try to make your time enjoyable. There are times when you cant go out, but when you can, they encourage you to be active,” she said.

In a seamless transition of care, she returned to Skagit County on Oct. 30 and started maintenance therapy at the Regional Cancer Care Center in November. She is participating in a clinical trial through SCCA for one year on the use of Vorinostat for multiple myeloma patients post transplant. She is feeling good, and knows the continuing treatment will help.

“I have to remember that I had an aggressive form of cancer and this may help prevent it from coming back,” she said.

Becky received great news in February when doctors told her following a bone marrow biopsy that her disease is in remission.

“People tell me ‘you’re a cancer survivor,’ ” she said. “I never thought I wasn’t going to be!”

She returned to work part time in January and full time in February at the Tree of Life Christian Outlet in Burlington. She is living with her daughter in Mount Vernon to reduce the commute.

Along the way, the self-described timid Voelkel has found a voice to talk to people about her cancer and her faith.

“I think I have more people to talk to and to reach out to and that’s why I’m still here,” she said.