Patient Story

Derrell’s story: Conquering myeloma with courage


Derrell James’ journey began in September 2020 when he began experiencing persistent pain in his ribs after a day of yard work. He dismissed it as overwork, which he admitted he’s prone to do if he has a lot in front of him. He went to an orthopedist who performed X-rays and diagnosed Derrell with costochondritis.

Derrell_before diagnosis“Basically a strain in the muscle sheath under my ribs,” Derrell said.

After several months, Derrell was still in pain. He went to see his general practitioner, Dr. Robert Dambach, who suspected a form of myeloma despite normal blood tests.

“I am so thankful he kept working to help me,” Derrell said. Dr. Dambach referred Derrell to Dr. Mary Ninan at Northside Hospital Cancer Institute. She performed additional tests, scans and a rib biopsy.

“Dr. Ninan advised my wife, Dawn, and me that I had non-secretory multiple myeloma,” Derrell said. That was in June 2021.

Non-secretory is a rare form of multiple myeloma (about 3% of myeloma cases), which was why it went undetected in Derrell’s blood tests. Dr. Ninan confirmed Derrell had lesions on seven ribs and one on his skull. It was an advanced case or a minimum of grade 3.

Derrell said that because his general practitioner was forthcoming with his concerns and Derrell had the chance to research the disease and ask questions, his reaction to Dr. Ninan’s diagnosis wasn’t one of shock, but more of “OK, what’s the process for treatment?”

“I tend to get very clinical or non-emotional when confronting a major issue of any kind, perhaps as a self-protection mechanism,” Derrell said.

Derrell and Dawn worked together to process all of their emotions — fear, anger, frustration, confusion and, ultimately, a peaceful acceptance.

Dr. Ninan outlined a treatment plan. Derrell would receive five rounds of induction RVD therapy and XGEVA shots with side effects, including fatigue, peripheral neuropathy and osteonecrosis of the jaw. In time, he also would need an autologous stem cell transplant.

Transplant DayDerrell continued to work full-time as the vice president and general manager of a contact lens manufacturer. He enjoyed hiking and gardening, although at a much slower pace.

That fall, he started the stem cell collection process; he was fortunate to have enough stem cells collected during one electrophoresis. But he began to feel anxious because he knew what was next.

On Nov. 16, Derrell was admitted to Northside, where Dr. Kent Holland and the hospital’s blood and marrow transplant team performed Derrell’s stem cell transplant, which brought its own set of challenges.

For the next 21 days, Derrell and Dawn drove back and forth between their home in Flowery Branch and the hospital in Sandy Springs for daily care.

“I watched my blood counts go toward zero and, just as I was told, day five was probably the worst,” he said.

Days of fever, nausea and fatigue followed, and Derrell was readmitted to Northside for nine days “with all sorts of antibiotics, antifungals and antivirals pumping into me.”

After completing the first 21 days, Derrell went to a less frequent care schedule and began “the earnest work of recovering at home.”

“I spent my days reading, binge-watching my favorite shows, taking small walks and playing games, but mostly remaining quarantined,” Derrell said. “I started a journal of favorite inspirational quotes and finished with about 500 of them.

“Dawn took leave from her work, stayed by my side throughout, and was an amazing caregiver and a tremendous source of hope and love.”

Day 100 post-transplant marked a return to work and the start of maintenance therapy with Revlimid. Osteonecrosis of the jaw proved painful, but Derrell remained hopeful for continued progress and to ultimately win his war against myeloma. Today, he is in remission.

“I know that when the cancer does return, I will be in good hands, and can win all the battles yet to fight.

“I’m moving more slowly now, but still enjoy hiking and gardening. I tell my wife that I am much better with ‘downs’ (sit down, lie down, walk downhill) than ‘ups’ (climb up, jump up, push up),” Derrell said. “And we lean on each other when I do get a bout of dizziness or lose my stamina.”

Derrell said he loved his nurses at Northside. On his last day of regular visits, Dawn presented them with a hand-woven blanket with a prayer knot after each row was completed.

“We all cried and hugged one another and were so thankful for their care,” Derrell said. “Dr. Holland gave us updates on my progress and lots of encouragement. My transplant coordinators, Debby and Shayla, were always there to answer any questions. The phlebotomists were amazing — always cheerful and welcoming and reminding me to get my coffee before going back.”

“Most importantly, I look at each moment of each day and can slow down and enjoy things that I would rush past before – how leaves change color when the wind blows over them, how rain can sound like steaks on the grill, the smell of roses and gardenias in my garden, the freshness of a crisp morning up on a mountain watching the fog dissipate.

“Each experience is a gift from God, and each moment is a reminder that the beauty, love and support of my wife and daughters, Maddy and Emma, are all the sustenance I need to continue to fight … and fight I will.” 

Learn more about the Northside Hospital Cancer Institute Blood Cancer Program.

* The health story shared here may portray atypical results of survival for this type of cancer, given its severity and stage. Atypical results are considered surviving a cancer that has less than a 50% five-year survival rate. Patients should consult an expert to discuss specific treatment plans and the possible outcomes before making medical decisions. 


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