a man's height being measured at the doctor's office

Losing Height with Multiple Myeloma

Often these days, I find myself humming a song of my youth aptly titled “Short People.” In fact, once I start humming, it's hard to get the song out of my head, as you may experience after reading this.

I always saw it as a sing-along; a fun, novelty song, sung by a short guy. I understand how it could have been a little controversial though. Since I continue to hear it on the radio these days, I guess “novelty” eventually won out. I didn’t realize until recently that the singer and songwriter, Randy Newman, is actually 6’, which is a stretch to claim shortness.

It's all relative

“Short” is a relative term. I grew to the monstrous height of 5’11”, which was achieved when I was 17. I was actually the tallest in my immediate family, but short, compared to most of my father’s side male first cousins; none of which were less than 6’4”. I remember feeling bad about losing the gene lottery every time we had family reunions. On the flip side of things, my mom’s family was pretty short in stature. My grandma was 4’11” and my mom was 5’2”.

Eventually, I learned that I was really pretty blessed to be the height I was. I could hold my own on a basketball court, ride in economy seating and still have a little legroom, and grab a sweater off the shelf in my closet, without standing on my tippy toes.

For certain, I didn't take my height for granted. I couldn’t do a lot of things my taller friends could, but hey, I could still perform random acts of kindness by grabbing stuff off of the higher shelves at the store for those a little more vertically challenged.

Multiple myeloma leads to collapsed vertebrae

For 42 more years, I maintained my top height. I knew I would eventually “shrink” when I got older, but certainly, I was not prepared for what was about to happen.

Multiple myeloma hit me when I was a few months shy of my 60th birthday. It started out as back pain I thought was a muscle pull. After several weeks and seeing multiple doctors, I was diagnosed with a collapsed vertebra, which started the search as to why. In the next 6 weeks, I experienced six more collapsed vertebrae, on the way to a total of 10.

Long story “short” (hehe), I was the incredible shrinking man and didn’t even realize it. For the next four months, I was having back operations and was rarely on my feet. My myeloma was getting under control, and my focus was on healing and getting ready for my transplant.

About a month prior to my transplant, I started feeling a new discomfort in my back. I would soon find out I had three more collapsed vertebrae. This probably was the worst day since my diagnosis, especially when I was fitted for a thoracic brace, and told I may have to use it for the rest of my life if I wanted to walk upright.

An unexpected side effect... height loss

Unbelievably, my height had not been measured through this period. I will never forget going to the Duke Adult Bone Marrow Center for my initial tests. As became the norm, I was taken to the scale for my weight measure. Once weighed, I was asked how tall I was. My natural response was what my height had always been, 5’11". The nurse wanted to make sure. I got up against the measuring arm, straightened my back as much as possible, and heard, “it says 5’7"."

It was then I realized the obvious; when the medical reports said my vertebrae had collapsed 80%, it meant they also lost 80% of their height. That was the first time Newman's words came to my head; “Short people got nobody...”

Let’s fast forward to now. I’m still 5’7”, which is good. I certainly don’t want to lose any more. A lot has changed since that day at Duke. Even though my loss of height really bothered me for a while, like almost every other calamity brought on by MM, I have realized it’s not the end of the world.

Adjusting to a new normal

Also, like almost every other calamity, I’ve adapted (without the brace so far). There’s really no other choice. I now have to use a stool to put up dishes and sweaters, adjusting shower heads can be a challenge, and when I hug tall friends, I really have to stretch even to get the bro shoulder bump.

In reality, I’m still taller than 24% of the male population (down from 74%).1 There are many worse things I could be facing (but convince my ego of that).

Truthfully, the toughest thing to deal with is how unproportioned (is that a word?) I am. Losing four inches on your torso makes it very difficult to buy shirts. To get a shirt to fit my chest, it usually hangs below my butt cheeks. Yes, I know, there are companies that sell short shirts, but I’m not paying $100 for them. I would rather look like I’m sporting the Megan Markle “boyfriend shirt” look.

Also, I pretty much had to throw out more than half of every suit, jacket, and shirt I owned. The good news is that most of that stuff was dated, so I do get to upgrade my wardrobe when I find something that fits. The bad news is that my arms are the same length, so I’m a knuckle-dragger. In basketball terms, the announcers would say, “He’s only 5’7”, but has the wingspan of someone close to 6’ tall."

Through all of this though, I still do have one mildly related, burning concern/question. When I measure my BMI, do I do it based on my old height or new height? I already know what my answer is.

Whatever... In the words of that 6’ giant Randy Newman, which are really the core of his song...

Short people are just the same
As you and I
(A fool such as I)
All men are brothers
Until the day they die
(It's a wonderful world)2

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