For many years, Thomas Palayoor and his wife, Sanjeewani, were engaged in cancer research in India. Inspired by the revolutionary advances being made in the biomedical field in the United States, they decided to move to the U.S. in 1978.
Working at the medical schools of Ohio State University and Yale University, Palayoor branched off to molecular genetics, and Sanjeewani to radiation oncology. The ultimate objective of their research, however, was singular and uniform: understanding how a normal cell transforms itself into a cancer cell.
Years later, Palayoor’s work took on an additional significance when he was forced to confront his own cancer diagnosis.
An unexpected discovery
For more than 35 years, Palayoor, now 80, has had a condition known as ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease which causes inflammation and ulcers in the lining of the large intestine. As part of his care, Palayoor’s blood was frequently tested by protein electrophoresis, a test that separates proteins based on their electrical charge.
While the test can be used to diagnosis a number of different diseases and conditions, it is often used to detect the presence of M proteins, or monoclonal proteins, in the blood. These abnormal proteins are the tell-tale diagnostic markers for the blood cancer multiple myeloma.
When doctors discovered monoclonal proteins in Palayoor’s blood, he was immediately scheduled to meet with an oncologist. He then underwent a bone marrow aspiration and in 2007, at the age of 68, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
“The announcement of my diagnosis still holds as the most painful and unnerving experience of my entire life,” says Palayoor. “Though years have passed since that announcement, the pain and helplessness still remain in all its agonizing details in my mind. It will be with me forever, perhaps.”
Finding the right team
Once diagnosed, Palayoor says he knew he wanted to be treated at Dana-Farber. A current resident of Grafton, Massachusetts, Palayoor is now under the care of Michael Constantine, MD, medical director of medical oncology at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center at Milford Regional Medical Center.
Unlike most cancers, multiple myeloma isn’t always initially treated upon diagnosis. Patients like Palayoor, who have early stage multiple myeloma and are asymptomatic, are often simply monitored until their disease progresses. This “active surveillance” can go on for years, and in the case of Palayoor, he did not start treatment until 2011: four years after his initial diagnosis.
“When I learned my disease had progressed, I was distressed and relieved at the same time; relieved that the treatment would arrest progression of myeloma,” recalls Palayoor.
Working towards a single goal
While multiple myeloma is not curable, it can be managed with the goal of giving the patient a high quality of life. Since beginning treatment, Palayoor has responded well to his various therapies, and researchers are continuing to investigate other potential treatments for the disease.
“Palayoor is one of the most remarkable and brightest gentlemen I know. He understands this disease well and knows what is needed of him,” Constantine says. “Our goal is to offer him a high quality of life, and every decision we make works towards that goal.”
Advent of a writer
Living with a cancer diagnosis is challenging, and the unpredictability and fear of the future can lead to anxiety and nervousness. To help alleviate these intense experiences, Palayoor turned to writing and painting. Over time, he decided to concentrate on writing and ventured to start his own novel.
Palayoor first put pen to paper in 2015, but was forced to take a break after suffering major complications from a surgery to address his ulcerative colitis. However, he resumed writing as soon as he recovered. The ultimate result of his creative efforts was a novel entitled, “A Village Under the Streetlight,” which was published in 2018.
“A Village Under the Streetlight” depicts the events in the life of Muthoma, an outcast with a kind and never wavering spirit, who becomes a guardian angel for the helpless and vulnerable in his small village of Manoor, India.
“Working on this novel was an exhilarating and beautiful experience, and one that helped me to find enormous relief from what cancer brings to a patient’s life,” adds Palayoor.
Since publishing the book, Palayoor is already working through ideas for his second novel and plans to begin writing soon.
“Painful as it is, a cancer diagnosis is not the end of life,” says Palayoor. “There are many avenues one can explore to make life bearable, rich and rewarding.”