‘Carpe Diem’ Rings True for Little Silver Cancer Survivor   

‘Carpe Diem’ Rings True for Little Silver Cancer Survivor

Carmen getting treatment

The words “I can’t” don’t exist in Carmen Phaneuf’s vocabulary. She lives by the Latin aphorism, “carpe diem” or “seize the day.”

Carmen definitely does, having faced multiple myeloma for the past 20 years. This cancer of the blood’s plasma cells—the white blood cells responsible for making infection-fighting antibodies—develops in bone marrow and spreads throughout the body.

There is no known cure for multiple myeloma, so the goal of treatment is to address related conditions and slow its progress. Still, none of that has stopped Carmen from living a full life—even more adventurous than most.

A Candidate for Cutting-edge Cancer Treatment

When Carmen was 34 years old, she was working as a nurse practitioner and didn’t think much when her primary care doctor told her she had a low white blood count. To be safe, her doctor monitored it for about a year. But when her count continued to dip, she was referred to hematology/oncology specialist David Samuel Dicapua Siegel, M.D, Ph.D., at John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center.

In September 2002, Dr. Siegel diagnosed Carmen with multiple myeloma. “My white blood cell count and platelets remained low but not dangerously, so we did ‘watchful waiting,’” Carmen says.

Dr. Siegel told her that if she remained in remission for six months, it would be considered relatively safe to get pregnant. She did so and got pregnant in March 2003. Her daughter, Rachel, was born in December that year and is now a college freshman.

Carmen’s disease remained asymptomatic for more than a decade. But in February 2011, a screening MRI and PET scan revealed a bone lesion (a soft spot in her bone caused by the multiple myeloma). So she underwent chemotherapy, then tandem autologous stem cell transplants—using stem cells from her own body—five months apart in 2012.

That treatment plan helped Carmen stay in partial remission until about 2015. But in March 2016, she needed an allogeneic transplant—using healthy blood stem cells from a donor—and had to restart chemotherapy. Her doctors had to change her chemotherapy treatments five times as the disease became resistant to ongoing therapies. 

Fortunately, Hackensack offers another option to help multiple myeloma patients work toward remission. It’s one of a few locations in the region that offers CAR-T cell therapy, and Carmen—now age 54—was a candidate and began the therapy in November 2022.

During the CAR T-cell therapy process, T-cells (or immune cells) are:

  • Removed from the body
  • Genetically modified so they are able to find, bind to and kill cancer cells
  • Grown to large quantities
  • Returned to the patient to attack the cancer cells

“Carmen is relatively young and incredibly fit, both physically and mentally, which made her a good candidate for almost anything we could have tried,” Dr. Siegel says.

Zest for Life

Carmen’s 20-year battle and treatments hasn’t stopped her from living out her “carpe diem” mission. In addition to being a devoted wife and mother, she is also an accomplished skier who chooses advanced slopes over easier ones. She’s skied some of the most challenging slopes in Switzerland, France and Japan. She even skied down a volcano in Iceland, after being deposited by helicopter to the top of it.

“Skiing is an escape for me, and I can focus on getting down the hill in front of me,” she says. “It reminds me I’m still healthy enough to do something very physical. And on the chair lift, I can focus on the beautiful scenery.”

In September 2022, Carmen hiked from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland—a trek that totaled 125 miles over 12 days.

In addition to her quest to seize the day, Carmen is also paying it forward. She has completed five sprint or short-distance triathlons, along with other running races, and has raised $75,000 for multiple myeloma research.

Today, Carmen is in the recovery phase of the CAR-T cell therapy. While she isn’t currently in remission, her quest to live life to the fullest remains.

Carmen and her family

“Carmen tries to extract as much enjoyment out of each minute, and she does,” Dr. Siegel says. “She is always a joy. We should all have her remarkable zest for life.”

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.



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