Living his best life: Bone marrow transplant patient scales peaks to raise funds for multiple myeloma research

“Whatever your Everest is, you can achieve it.”

"...I became determined to let others who have been diagnosed with this disease know that it’s a journey and not a death sentence."

First, John Raithel ascended Mount Everest.

Now, he plans to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

But most importantly, he is conquering cancer every single day of his life.

Raithel, a 64-year-old resident of Grosse Ile, received a multiple myeloma diagnosis in 2011. The disease is a type of cancer that affects plasma cells. Malignant cancer cells accumulate in the bone marrow, crowding out normal plasma cells that fight infection. According to the American Cancer Society, about 35,000 multiple myeloma cases are diagnosed yearly in the United States. While patient survival has improved over the past 20 years, the disease is incurable.

But Raithel has never let cancer define his life. Instead, he describes the disease as the best thing that’s happened to him.

“My life is filled with hope and joy,” said Raithel, who owns a printing equipment company. “Since being diagnosed, I’ve become a better husband, father and friend, and I became determined to let others who have been diagnosed with this disease know that it’s a journey and not a death sentence.”

Raithel makes his point by participating in the Moving Mountains for Myeloma group climbs and hikes to raise funds for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF). He was a passionate outdoorsman and hiker before his diagnosis and strives to get back to that caliber of athleticism around his treatments.

“I think we can both safely say we’re both in better shape than we were when we went to Everest,” said Jeffrey Zonder, M.D., Raithel’s hematologist at Karmanos who will be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with him, and who also climbed Mount Everest on the same mission in 2018. “John is able to be a more regular and vigorous exerciser now than he was then.”

Dr. Zonder is referring to the bone marrow transplant that Raithel had just 15 months before he completed the climb across treacherous paths and jagged rocks to reach the Mount Everest base camp at 17,500 feet. His transplant was also done at the Karmanos Cancer Center. And the recovery was not easy.

“I agree, the transplant was miserable, but the fact of the matter is, I’ve always felt the transplant was the key turning point for your health that we needed to get your disease under control,” Dr. Zonder described to Raithel. “Even though you’ve needed therapy since, you hit that next therapy in a completely different state of health – post-transplant, you were restored basically to a normal level of health again.”

Now, Raithel is planning an eight-day trek to summit Mount Kilimanjaro in September 2023 to support the same cause. Since early 2023, he has been the top individual fundraiser for the Kilimanjaro hike. As of the end of July, he’s raised over $28,500 with an overall goal of $30,000. All funds go directly to the MMRF for multiple myeloma research.

“I don’t do this to rack up climbs,” explained Raithel, an avid hiker, camper and fisherman. “I do it to give hope to people diagnosed with multiple myeloma that they can get through their cancer journey. Someone else’s Everest may be seeing a grandchild graduate high school, spending time with family and friends, or enjoying a personal hobby or activity. Whatever your Everest is, you can achieve it.”

Expert care and treatment

Raithel has always been a physically active person who enjoys the outdoors. So, he was surprised to learn in 2011 during a routine physical that he had abnormal protein levels in his urine. Further tests revealed Raithel had smoldering myeloma—a precursor to multiple myeloma.

He sought treatment at the Karmanos Cancer Center, where he met with Dr. Zonder, leader of the Multiple Myeloma and Amyloidosis Multidisciplinary Team (MDT) and member of the Hematology Oncology MDT.

Dr. Zonder saw Raithel 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,” Raithel disclosed. “I received eight weeks of chemotherapy, but it wasn’t effective.”

After further discussing his treatment options, Raithel opted for a bone marrow transplant (BMT) in January 2016, performed by Lois Ayash, M.D., hematologist and medical oncologist, and member of the Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant Multidisciplinary Team. Karmanos’ BMT program is one of the largest in the country with numerous options for treating multiple myeloma and other cancers of blood-forming organs. The program ranks above the national average in patient outcomes and is particularly suited to treat high-risk patients like Raithel.

“At Karmanos, the working relationship between hematology oncology and BMT is extremely strong due to the close collaboration between the two teams,” expressed Dr. Ayash. “We have weekly multidisciplinary meetings to discuss patient cases. This includes reviewing pathology slides, radiology scans, and discussing how to handle each patient’s case best. That could involve providing novel drugs and conventional therapies or moving on to a bone marrow transplant.”

Dr. Ayash adds that having the BMT and Hematology Oncology MDTs in close physical proximity within the Joseph Dresner Family Clinic for Hematologic Malignancies & Stem Cell Transplantation at Karmanos’ main campus in Detroit fosters collaboration.

“We’re always near each other and ready to consult with each other,” Dr. Ayash said. “In addition, over the past few years, we’ve added a number of doctors who do conventional hematology as well as bone marrow transplants. That makes our work pretty seamless."

During a bone marrow transplant, the patient’s stem cells are removed from the bone marrow. Then, the patient receives a high dose of chemotherapy to eliminate cancerous cells that remain following conventional therapy. Afterward, the transplanted stem cells are put back into the patient’s bloodstream to find their way to the bone marrow, where they can begin producing healthy blood cells.

“A bone marrow transplant is not a cure, but patients do live longer in remission,” Dr. Ayash explained. “The transplant can also lead to myeloma responses that are so deep that even the most sensitive tests available can’t detect it. We call this being ‘minimal residual disease negative.’”

A patient and his physician join forces

After receiving his bone marrow transplant at Karmanos, Raithel remained hospitalized for six weeks.

“Mr. Raithel had an unusually severe and rapid kidney injury from his myeloma, which complicated his case,” Dr. Zonder said. “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.”

“When I tell John’s story, I always refer to Dr. Lois Ayash as the person who saved John’s life. She was instrumental.”

Raithel became close friends with Dr. Zonder during treatment – they both love hiking. In December 2016, less than 11 months after Raithel’s bone marrow transplant, Dr. Zonder mentioned the Mount Everest fundraising climb and asked if Raithel would join him.

“That moment changed my life because it gave me hope and a purpose,” Raithel stated. “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 Raithel reached the Everest base camp, he did so alongside Dr. Zonder. Since then, they’ve been on multiple backpacking trips with their spouses and others who participated in the climb. Now, both men are preparing for the Mount Kilimanjaro climb. Dr. Zonder also continues to monitor John’s health diligently.

“I continue my daily treatments and visit Karmanos and Dr. Zonder regularly for checkups,” Raithel said. “Everyone is always available to answer my questions. It’s very reassuring to know I can go about my life because Karmanos is keeping a close eye on my case.”

Raithel adds that his close relationships with Dr. Zonder and Dr. Ayash – he and Dr. Ayash both love baseball – reinforce his positive demeanor.

“For Dr. Zonder and I to complete these climbs as a team—that’s incredibly powerful,” said Raithel. “With the exceptional care of the doctors and staff at Karmanos, as well as my supportive caregivers, we’ve accomplished great things. It really inspires hope.”

If you or someone you love has received a cancer diagnosis, seeking an evaluation from cancer experts before beginning treatment is essential. Please call 1-800-KARMANOS (1-800-527-6266) to speak with a trusted oncology patient navigator who can help you determine which tests are right for you.

The Eunice & Milton Ring Multiple Myeloma Cancer Research Fund supports the studies that scientists at Karmanos are conducting to understand this disease more and find breakthroughs in treatment for patients with multiple myeloma. You can support multiple myeloma research at Karmanos here.