Pulling out all the stops when fighting bone cancer

In too much pain to even pick up a ball, Jim Demersseman is back to enjoying competitive tennis.
March 19th, 2019
Jim holds a tennis racket on the court of his local tennis club.
Jim DeMersseman has played competitive tennis since he was 10, and he’s now back playing as captain of his men’s team. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

After playing competitive tennis for more than five decades, Jim DeMersseman found himself in too much pain to pick up his tennis ball.

“I thought I had injured my back,” said DeMersseman, 75, a former University of Colorado athlete. “I’ve hurt it, God knows, how many times before.”

He followed up with a massage therapist, physical therapist and chiropractor. Nothing was working; he wasn’t getting better. And the pain grew worse.

Having had joint surgery before, DeMersseman decided to return to his orthopedic surgeon at Orthopedic and Spine Center of the Rockies. An X-ray didn’t show any spine issues. So, they decided he’d get an MRI.

Three days later, his doctor asked him to come back.

“He had the images up on the screen,” DeMersseman recalled. “There were black dots throughout my spine and rib cage.”

Those dots weren’t supposed to be there.

The bad news

Immediately, his surgeon connected him to UCHealth’s Dr. Doug Kemme, a medical oncologist serving northern Colorado. DeMersseman, a high school English teacher at Greeley Central High for almost 30 years, knew of the local cancer doctor.

“Kemme is well-known locally,” DeMersseman said.

After several more scans and a biopsy of DeMersseman’s lower spine, Kemme confirmed the cause of the pain.

White blood cells found in bone marrow help fight infection. One type of cell — plasma cells — make antibodies to help attack and kill germs.

In DeMersseman’s case, his plasma cells had started to grow out of control, making abnormal protein and crowding out normal blood-forming cells, such as white and red cells and platelets.

The diagnosis was multiple myeloma — a bone cancer.

“That’s when I understood that I was a whole lot sicker than I thought I was,” DeMersseman said.

The cancer was not only compromising his immune system and lowering his blood count, it was also affecting his bone strength.

“Cancer that resides in the bones, for a lot of people and for Jim in particular, it weakens the bones, causing bone fractures and a lot of pain,” Kemme said. “It’s not unusual when they first show up for the patient to be in really bad shape. Jim was just miserable.”

The good news

Jim in the stands of spring training wearing a Colorado Rockies Baseball shirt
Jim DeMersseman enjoys a recent trip to Phoenix with his brother for spring training. Photo courtesy of Jim DeMersseman.

The good news is that a lot of treatment options have been developed over the past decade for myeloma, Kemme said. And being a part of UCHealth, Kemme could also provide DeMersseman access to clinical trials, the latest drug-treatment options and an expert who’s spent his career studying and treating this specific type of cancer, all while getting that care in his northern Colorado community.

Myeloma is fairly rare. Kemme only sees a few new patients a year for myeloma, so he reaches out to subspecialized oncologists at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital and the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and Dr. Peter Forsberg.

“Our role at the university is a bit different in that we sometimes sub-subspecialize,” said Forsberg, an assistant professor at CU School of Medicine whose clinical and research focus is multiple myeloma and related diseases including amyloidosis and Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia. “Through training, we like to specialize even more than medical oncologists, so we get to be pretty knowledgeable about diseases where management is more complex. The nuance in how we specialize (treatment) is patient-by-patient rather than following broad-stroke guidelines.”

Battling multiple myeloma

Before reaching out to Forsberg, Kemme had started Mersseman on radiation therapy to the most painful areas and on three non-chemotherapy drugs, including the pill Revlimid. DeMersseman had a good response, but after a few months he developed a skin rash.

“Everyone reacts differently to treatment and that is why a tailored approach with the very best doctors is essential”, Kemme said.

The combination of the rash, and the fact that Revlimid’s effectiveness at battling the cancer seemed to have plateaued, had Kemme seeking alternatives.

“I have a good idea of our options but there might be a new drug or new research that has just come out, so that’s when I reach out to Dr. Forsberg,” Kemme said.

“There is such a benefit with having a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center an hour down the street that we’ve been working with for years,” Kemme said.  “We know each other and we have each other’s cell numbers and trust each other. That’s not something that happens overnight or over long distances.”

DeMersseman stopped taking Reylimid and started taking Darzalex, a monoclonal antibody.

“That caused a good response, and his tumor markers dropped quite dramatically,” Kemme said.

He continued with weekly treatments, and his body responded well. And because things were looking good, he began having treatments every other week.

Getting back to lifeJim stands next to his brother in front of the Colorado Rockies sign

He was doing so well, in fact, that a week before his 76th birthday — now a celebration that also marks another year of surviving cancer, he said — he was in Phoenix with his younger brother for Colorado Rockies spring training.

“My brother and I historically have gone on trips together, and a measurement of their success is that neither of us can walk by the end,” DeMersseman said from his hotel room. “We rented bikes as there is a great bike path nearby. We practice golf and go to the Rockies’ games. By the end of the day we can barely move.”

He credits his well-being not only to his treatment but also to his rehab program.

DeMersseman is able to get his treatment locally at the UCHealth Cancer Care and Hematology Clinic in Greeley. UCHealth refers its Greeley-area cancer patients for physical therapy to the University of Northern Colorado Cancer Rehabilitation Institute, with which it has a great working relationship, Kemme said.

DeMersseman said that his therapist, who’s also a competitive softball player, has tailored DeMersseman’s therapy so he can fulfill his desire to again play competitive tennis.

Back on the court

DeMersseman will never be cured of his cancer but through treatment and rehabilitation, he can manage it with a decent quality of life, Kemme said.

Jim playing tennis.
Jim DeMersseman worked back to competitive tennis slowly after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He credits his return to competitive tennis to his treatment and rehabilitation regimens. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

“It will never go into complete remission,” he explained. “So we work to find the best drug combination to manage it. And that’s where I’m at now.”

He will continue to receive treatment every other week as well as have blood draws on that same schedule to make sure his drug regimen is still working.

But in between, he’s back on the court — a lot.

“I’m playing good enough tennis that I can play with my team,” he said proudly.

In addition to twice-weekly set court times, he is the captain of a men’s tennis team that starts league play in May. He conducts practices once a week.

“He’s a superman,” Kemme said about DeMersseman. “There are plenty of people who don’t push themselves like Jim. And some whose bone damage is such that they can’t. But Jim had a good response — both to treatment and his diagnosis. He is one of our miracle men.”