Climbing to New Heights: James Berenson, MD, and the Institute for Myeloma and Bone Cancer Research

Nick Sambides, Jr
Published: Friday, May 27, 2011
James Berenson, MD
James Berenson, MD
Oncologist James Berenson, MD, likes all of his patients, especially the ones with whom he skis.

The treatment rooms in Berenson’s West Hollywood, California clinic, where he treats hundreds of multiple myeloma patients, are named after famous slopes in the western United States. “When I am examining a patient, I imagine I am skiing a mountain,” Berenson says.

Berenson was skiing with a patient, investment adviser Geoffrey Wainwright, in Utah when he took a spill and fell on his head. As Wainwright’s wife, an orthopedic surgeon, stood over him, the 58-year-old oncologist couldn’t help cracking a doctor joke.

“OK,” Berenson announced, “I get a free consult.”

A free consult might be a kind gesture of gratitude to the oncologist, but a year later the Wainwrights would show another sign of appreciation. A multiple myeloma patient of 4 years at the time, yet still an avid mountain climber, Wainwright overcame frostbite, howling zero-degree winds, and thin air to climb atop Mount Kilimanjaro’s 19,340-foot summit, the world’s tallest freestanding mountain. Once at the summit, Wainwright and his wife held up a sign that read, “Thank you, Dr Berenson.”

A photo of that triumphal moment hangs in Berenson’s office. Now at the 4½-year mark and planning more mountain climbs and some sprint triathlons, the energetic Wainwright says he can’t help thinking of Kilimanjaro without also thinking of his doctor.

Sunset Medical Tower
Sunset Medical Tower, home of the Institute for Myeloma and Bone Cancer Research.
“I don’t think I would be alive today if it weren’t for Jim,” Wainwright said. “Four years ago, I didn’t know I would still be alive. Here I feel great doing all the things I wanted to do and wouldn’t have imagined I could do. Even training for Kilimanjaro was a daunting task, and Dr Berenson, to his credit, was never one of those doctors who said I couldn’t do it.”

Berenson’s work at the Institute for Myeloma and Bone Cancer Research, where he serves as the medical and scientific director and chief executive officer of Oncotherapeutics, may be keeping many myeloma patients like Climbing to New Heights James Berenson, MD, and the Institute for Myeloma and Bone Cancer Research Wainwright alive, and for years longer than they expect.

And their quality of life has risen dramatically as well, Berenson said. The reasons, his patients and fellow doctors say, involve a three-pronged approach.

“He has a first-class laboratory doing research, a clinic where he does treatment with his patients, and then he does the fundraising. It is unique with a capital U,” said Anne Meyer, MD, a physical medicine rehabilitation and pain management specialist who treats Berenson’s patients. “When he has the fundraisers, his patients love to be there and give back. It’s a sign that they’re so connected to him and his mission that they want to give back. They don’t forget him.”

Berenson is proud of his Institute, its staff, and its capabilities. “The only thing we send out for is radiation and surgery. We have a mini-university,” he said.

The Institute is also, Berenson added wryly, “a three-ring circus.”

"...The bigger the institution, the more you can blame it on everybody else. That doesn’t happen here. Here we are all responsible.”
—James Berenson, MD
Berenson, said patient Jackie Rabinowitz, is the ringmaster. A 47-year-old therapist with multiple myeloma, Rabinowitz was diagnosed about 2 years ago and went to the Institute almost immediately.

“Pretty much everyone I spoke with said he was the way to go, that he was a cutting-edge, out-of-the box thinker, leading the field with his research. I liked that because what I had read online about multiple myeloma seemed a little bit daunting,” Rabinowitz said.

According to American Cancer Society statistics released in April 2010, the lifetime risk of contracting multiple myeloma is 1 in 159 in the United States. About 20,180 new cases will be diagnosed (11,170 in men and 9,010 in women) annually.1

The 5-year relative survival rate for multiple myeloma is around 35%, with younger people more likely to live longer. However, the statistics indicate that recent improvements in treatment may result in a more favorable outlook for recently diagnosed patients, with, in some cases, the cancer going into remission for a time.2


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