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Riverland grower has life-changing myeloma diagnosis after breaking his back

A cancer diagnosis was life-changing for David Coombs and forced him to sell his pistachio tree orchard. (ABC Riverland: Catherine Heuzenroeder)

After breaking his back lifting a 20-kilogram bag of fertiliser, David Coombs returned to his orchard and continued working. 

That was in February last year and despite being in constant pain, it was five days before he sought medical treatment.

His doctor thought the injury was at odds with the fit, not-yet-60-year-old who had spent his life working on a fruit block at Renmark in the Riverland of South Australia.

Mr Coombs was flown to Royal Adelaide Hospital the next day and it was there that he was told he had multiple myeloma, a complex blood cancer of the plasma cells found in bone marrow.

One of the symptoms was fragile bones, Breaking his back may have saved Mr Coombs' life.

"I was in kidney failure as a result of all the calcium in my blood and I was told if I had left it another day or two I could have slipped into a coma," he said.

David Coombs having his stem cells harvested ahead of an autologous stem cell transplant aimed at increasing the time of his remission. (Supplied: David Coombs)

Cancer diagnosis 'derails lives'

He was treated for three fractures in his back before starting chemotherapy, which put his cancer into remission.

But then Mr Coombs was told his best chance of staying in remission was to have a stem cell transplant.

"That was probably the hardest bit, two days before the stem cell infusion they gave me a really heavy dose of chemo which killed off everything," he said.

"Stem cells were put in to regrow all that, and I believe the idea was make my remission as long as possible."

Not only did Mr Coombs have to battle the physical effects of cancer, his plans for the future were uprooted.

"I can't lift a bag of fertiliser so I've had to sell the block as well," he said.

He had replanted his fruit block with pistachio trees, which take six years to mature, in the hope the crop would provide financial security in the future.

During his stay in Adelaide for cancer treatment Mr Coombs was provided with accommodation at Bridgestone Village, operated by the Leukaemia Foundation.

The foundation's chief executive Chris Tanti said patients needed social, psychological and practical supports to cope with a cancer diagnosis.

"It completely derails lives. We know people have not been able to pay mortgages, people have lost their homes, have had to take kids out of school," Mr Tanti said.

"There are a whole range of impacts. 

'It's bad enough getting the diagnosis, then things fall apart."

David Coombs at the Royal Adelaide Hospital during cancer treatment. (Supplied: David Coombs)

Search for cure continues

May is Myeloma Awareness Month and people are being encouraged to be aware of the symptoms of the disease.

"Specific symptoms include bone pain but other things like persistent tiredness, dizziness, anaemia. People would think they are overworked or doing it too hard but these are the things to look out for," Mr Tanti said.

He also said to be alert for repeated infections, and increased or unexplained bruising.

While there are treatments for myeloma, there is no screening program and more money is needed for research.

"There isn't a cure. David is one of the lucky ones, it has a 50/50 survival rate," Mr Tanti said.

"With COVID there was enough money pumped into the system to find vaccines and that happened pretty quickly.

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