Kathy Giusti with Colin Powell multiple myeloma

(CNN) – In 2003, when Colin Powell announced he was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer, I remember being struck by the news. As a cancer patient myself — I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 1996 — I knew how difficult it was to speak out about a diagnosis. Making that information public made you vulnerable. And that only increased for someone who was also the secretary of state.

A decade and a half later, I had the honor of meeting General Powell at an event hosted by the research and advocacy group I co-founded with my sister, the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF). He was to join me for a fireside chat at our annual dinner in the fall of 2019. In a tragic twist of fate, he called me shortly before the event to let me know that he had recently been diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

We talked about whether he would reveal his diagnosis, and he ultimately decided he would. The evening of the event, our fireside chat spanned everything from how he proposed to his wife to the leadership lessons that served him throughout his decades in Washington. As our discussion drew to a close, General Powell shared his diagnosis. The room went silent. The guests, over four hundred patients, caregivers, clinicians and researchers, processed a four-star general revealing this deeply personal news. Out of respect, that news never left the ballroom.

Until his passing this week, General Powell’s diagnosis remained private. And as our nation reflects on his legacy as a civil servant and military leader, and the history he made as the first Black secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we also understand how cancer can put even the strongest among us at the highest of risk. And our vulnerability is only heightened as we continue navigating the Covid-19 pandemic.

Treatment for multiple myeloma — and other cancers — can impact the immune system. Research indicates that patients may have a weak response to the Covid-19 vaccine, or no response at all. This puts them at a greater risk not just for contracting the virus, but also facing the serious complications that can result from it. Additional risk factors, like a person’s age or other underlying health conditions, only heighten the danger of Covid-19 for someone who has been diagnosed with cancer.

So where does that leave us? For one, cancer patients must stay vigilant. It’s imperative they receive the Covid-19 vaccine as an initial line of defense against the virus. Following that, they should confer with their physician to test their antibody levels and ensure that their immune systems are responding to the vaccine. Likewise, patients should ask their doctors about getting booster shots — especially as they become available to those who received the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

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