Run your own race,” a friend once told Gary Lambert, an adage he repeated over and over as searing pain shot through his hips and legs during a 100-mile bicycle race in April 2014. The probation officer from Philadelphia pushed to finish the event, but the dis- comfort persisted. Lambert thought he had over- trained or overexerted himself or perhaps a disk had herniated. But after resting and months of physical therapy, the pain was
worse. Six months after the race, the once-formidable
athlete was walking with a cane. On Dec. 10, 2014, after
a battery of tests and just a day shy of his 38th birthday, Lambert found out he had multiple myeloma, an
uncommon and incurable form of blood cancer.
Bone pain is a common symptom of multiple
myeloma, a disease that attacks white blood cells in
bone marrow—the soft, spongy tissue at the center of
bones. The rapid growth of cancer cells destroys the
bone marrow, causing soft spots to form—especially
inside the bones of the spine, pelvis and rib cage.
These bone lesions are painful and can weaken the
bone, often leading to fractures.
More than three years after Lambert’s multiple
myeloma diagnosis, the race has changed for the
husband and father of t wo. His large biceps belie his
struggle with multiple myeloma, and he likes it that
way. “I know the cancer is there. I know my limitations, but I don’t let the disease define me,” he says
with a rebellious grin.
An active 41-year-old, Lambert doesn’t completely fit
the profile of a multiple myeloma patient. Nearly t wo-thirds of people diagnosed with the disease are at least
65 years old. Only 2 percent of multiple myeloma patients
are under 40. Lambert’s race and ethnicity point toward
an elevated risk, however: He’s Afro-Caribbean, born in
Jamaica, and black men are more than twice as likely to
get multiple myeloma as the general population.
His diagnosis came at a time when he was making
strides to improve his health. In 2012, at age 35, Lambert
decided to get fit and lose some weight. “Up until that
point, I had lived a pretty sedentary lifestyle,” he says.
Lambert weighed more than 350 pounds, and the excess
weight was exacerbating his asthma. He started riding
his bicycle to work. Then he began jogging. By early
2014, he had dropped 130 pounds. It was the healthiest
he had ever felt.
In retrospect, he realizes the pain started to creep
in before the 100-mile bike ride. There was hip and
leg pain that never really subsided after he ran a
half-marathon in March 2014, but he kept training.
The pain soon spread to his lower back. In June, he
started physical therapy, hoping to get relief. When
the pain did not subside, Lambert’s doctor ordered
an X-ray of his spine. “We thought he had injured
himself, and we were looking at back surgery,” says
Lambert’s wife, Nadia. “At the time, cancer was not
on our radar in any way, shape or form.”
But the X-rays showed a more troublesome
problem—soft spots in Lambert’s spine that are a tell-
tale sign of multiple myeloma. An MRI, bone biopsies
and an X-ray survey of his entire skeleton led to the
diagnosis of stage III multiple myeloma. Cancer cells
had overtaken 80 percent of his bone marrow.
“Emotionally, I think Gary just shut down for a little
while,” says Nadia. “He’s always been more outwardly
stoic about things. Of course, I was making puddles
every where from copious weeping.”
In those first difficult hours, Lambert thought
a lot about the future, and about his wife and two
children, Ethan and Ava, then ages 6 and 5. He asked
his doctor, “Well if there isn’t a cure, what can we do
to extend my life?”
THINKING LIKE MACGYVER
Although multiple myeloma isn’t curable, it is treatable. The day after his diagnosis, Lambert started
chemotherapy at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center
at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
Multiple myeloma patients who are candidates
can be treated with a combination of high-dose
“I know the cancer
is there. I know my
limitations, but I don’t let
the disease define me.”