September 8, 2022 – When Linda Carter talks about her late husband Robert Altman, you can immediately sense that this has been a love affair for ages.
“As I often said, if I were a friend of Robert, I was one of the luckiest people in the world,” says Carter, the singer, songwriter, and actress best known for her role as Wonder Woman on the 1970s TV series. He married attorney Altman in 1984.
For Carter, Altman, and their children, Jessica and James, everything changed in 2017, when Altman was diagnosed with myelofibrosis (fibrosis of the bone marrow), a rare bone marrow disorder—one case is reported in 100,000 Americans each year—found during Routine blood work.
“Robert has never been sick in his life,” she says in an interview. “He skied and swam, and in many ways we were in the prime of our lives together. When he was initially diagnosed, we weren’t even clear what he was suffering from. The buzzword was that he had a rare blood disorder, not cancer.”
The family was asked to wait and see if the disease would get worse, which, unfortunately, happened at the exact time COVID-19 struck.
This condition can progress from myelofibrosis (fibrosis of the bone marrow) to secondary acute myeloid leukemia (sAML), a rare blood cancer, says Michael Caliguri, MD, a leading researcher in immunology, lymphoma and leukemia and the president of the City Center National Medical Hope, one of the largest medical centers. Cancer research and treatment organizations in the United States
“This disease is chronic and changes slowly, but when it progresses more severely into a form of leukemia, it can progress rapidly,” he says.
In the acute stage, there is not much that can be done for the patient.
“This becomes very much a life-or-death situation,” he says. “You want to hope for the best, but there has to be an anticipation of the worst in terms of trying to prepare the patient and the family for what might come so that they can start psychologically and legally in arranging the person’s life.”
Despite all efforts, Altman passed away in February 2021 at the age of 73.
Now, to honor her husband, Carter is giving her time and resources to create the Robert and Linda Carter Altman Family Research Fund, and to work with the Institute for Translational Genomics Research (TGen), a leading institute for biomedical research, part of the City of Hope.
Objective: To accelerate critical research that will improve the early detection and survival of hard-to-treat leukemia.
“I’m excited to be part of this team and to be able to play a small role in helping other families facing the same diagnosis,” Carter says. “It’s exciting to see the progress these scientists are making, from genomic research to a world of trillions of codes that may in fact become a drug therapy one day.”
With the establishment of the foundation, there will be funding to develop better diagnoses and better treatments.
“In many cases, this research will shed light on other related disorders as well,” Caligori says. “Cancer is a disease of genes, and in most cases, we don’t inherit it from our mothers or fathers, but the DNA is swapped out in one of the trillions of cells in our bodies, the way the word is misspelled.”
What will happen next is that the cell does not die.
“Instead, it undergoes a nuclear reaction and grows and grows,” he says. In this case, the first evidence of a problem was myelofibrosis (fibrosis of the bone marrow). That time bomb continued until it exploded and turned into leukemia.”
Caliguri says the goal of their research is to develop a device that can rearrange that DNA or prevent changes to the DNA so the disease doesn’t develop into leukemia or, if that happens, “so that we can turn it into a chronic, not severe, life-threatening condition.”
For Carter, this foundation is one of the heartfelt ways she can honor her husband’s legacy.
“When I lost Robert, I had a lot of questions,” she says. I wanted to understand why rare cancers are so difficult to treat and what research or treatment advances have been made to change that. Robert has never been one for self-aggrandizement, but I think he would love this one. I think Robert would really be affected by this.”