Just A Walk

Finally. The type of day that begs you to go outdoors. Sunny and warm, with just the hint of a breeze. Time to go outside and shake the winter blues. Just a walk; no purpose this time.

Usually, I would have traveled to NYC today for chemotherapy treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). However, my recent hospital stay due to low white blood cell counts led my oncologist to postpone treatment for an extra week just to be safe.

Humphrey

I didn’t need to ask our three dogs if they were interested. As soon as I grabbed a leash, they all swarmed me like I was holding leftover steak. I used to be able to manage two at a time for a walk, but not anymore. Three guesses as to which one got to go first.

I’m not sure who is in worse shape – me or Humphrey. Before we embarked, I set my expectations low. If I could manage only a few blocks, then so be it.

As soon as we got out the door, the warm air and sun on my skin felt amazing. I wore a sweat jacket over a t-shirt but took it off after only a block or two. Before I knew it, Humphrey and I had made it to my stretch goal – the Garden of Reflection 9-11 Memorial. Approximately a 2-mile roundtrip walk from our house.

Humphrey

When we arrived back home, I was sweating and Humphrey didn’t stop panting for 30-minutes. Clearly, we need to do this more often.

They’re an increasingly rare event, but days like today when I’m both motivated and have energy are a blessing. Hopefully, tomorrow will be the same  and I can walk the other two pups!

My Valentine

Valentine card symbol – birds in love

Valentine’s Day is widely recognized as a day for celebrating romance, with people buying flowers, candy, jewelry and other gifts as a sign of love and devotion for their beloveds. While no one has pinpointed the exact origin of the holiday, its romantic association is apparently related to the time of year when birds choose their mates.

Regardless of its origin, Hallmark Cards began mass producing valentines in 1913 and February 14th hasn’t been quite the same since. But “Valentine” comes from the Latin word valentia, which means “strength” or “capacity,” and it’s those attributes that serve as the inspiration for this blog post.

It’s strange how certain moments can really stick in one’s mind. For me, one such memory is from the beginning of Deadpool, a 2016 American superhero film based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name. A comedy seemed appropriate, as I was undergoing initial cancer treatment at the time and needed a good laugh.

Watching the movie alone from the comfort of my home on cable television, there were many moments when I chuckled. However, one scene caught me off-guard. You see, after learning that he has advanced cancer, lead character Wade Wilson (Deadpool/Ryan Reynolds) breaks up with his fiancé Vanessa rather than subject her to life with a terminally ill man.

“Listen, we both know that cancer is a shit-show. Like a Yakov Smirnoff opening for the Spin Doctors at the Iowa State Fair shit-show. And under no circumstances will I take you to that show. I want you to remember me, not the ghost of Christmas me.”

“The worst part about cancer isn’t what it does to you… but what it does to the people you love.”

– Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) in Deadpool

Sure, it was only a movie. But the dark cancer message “what it does to the people you love” haunted me for days. Would my wife and children actually be better off not being subjected to my forthcoming shit-show? It wasn’t just a Hollywood moment, but rather a genuine concern.

Studies have shown that wives who encountered the unexpected and uncontrollable situation of having a husband with diagnosed cancer experienced a multitude of coping difficulties. In addition, wives underwent psychological disorganization, disequilibrium, and emotional imbalance. Not surprisingly, they also reported that their children had coping difficulties. Partners of patients who are experiencing a recurrence of their illness or who are in the metastatic stage of the disease are more vulnerable to increased distress and problems of adjustment.

Yup, running away. Disappearing. Going off-the-grid so that no one could find me. Deteriorating, suffering, and ultimately dying alone. No record or witness for what I went through. Those who knew me would simply remember me for who I was, not what I had become – a terminally ill cancer patient. I foolishly gave it all serious consideration in the name of protecting my family. Acquiring superhero powers just didn’t seem as viable.

Fast-forward to today and clearly, I did the exact opposite of simply disappearing into obscurity. I started this blog, published my memoir, and became a vocal patient advocate. Through radio, television, and numerous articles and interviews, I helped increase awareness for the human papillomavirus (HPV), its link to cancer, and the importance of HPV vaccination. Knowing that I couldn’t shield my family from the shit-show, helping others avoid my plight seemed like the only logical alternative to extract some good from a bad situation.

I suspect many people on the outside will have strong opinions as to whether or not I made the right decision. Entering my third year of treatment, I can say that I’m still not completely sure. There is a long, long list of sights, sounds, and sadness during this period that I would gladly erase from my family’s memory. But there are also many good times that I truly treasure.

Fortunately, I had complete faith in my wife, Lorie. I knew her resolution, inner power and confidence, which I found attractive qualities from day one, would help get her through the shit-show. She possessed the requisite strength and capacity.

It has been anything but easy, yet I believe our relationship is even stronger now as a result of cancer. Or, perhaps Lorie is just experiencing the Florence Nightingale Effect, as she has become quite a skilled cancer caregiver.

As we approach Valentine’s Day (also her birthday!), a special “thank you” to Lorie for simultaneously juggling work, caregiving, housekeeping, raising our daughters, being a strong role model for them, managing our small petting zoo, and much, much more. Happy Birthday and Happy Valentine’s Day, Lorie! You didn’t deserve a front row seat at the shit-show and I’m very lucky to have you by my side.

Uneventful Streak Ends

It started with a runny nose and sneezing last weekend. Then came a cough and a mild fever that never went above 99.7 Fahrenheit – that is until the following Wednesday. A brief telephone discussion with the doctor on call late that evening confirmed that a trip to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s (MSKCCs) urgent care facility was in order.

Following my latest round of chemotherapy, a fever of 100.4 Fahrenheit or higher is disconcerting. It could signal that I’m neutropenic – running dangerously low on a type of white blood cell (neutrophils) that serve as the body’s primary defense against acute bacterial and certain fungal infections. The chemotherapy I’ve been receiving can reduce the number of neutrophils circulating in the blood. Alternatively, a fever could be associated with the flu, which is particularly dangerous this season and breaking records.

Lorie and I started packing for an overnight stay at the MSKCC “bed and breakfast” as we like to call it. Before heading out, I hugged each of our dogs – just in case. Unfortunately, that simple action set into motion a rush of feelings and steady stream of tears down my cheeks. I was a total mess by the time Lorie backed the car out from the garage. Our daughters weren’t home at the time, which in retrospect was probably best.

At first, I failed to appreciate why Lorie attempted to set a new land speed record for shortest travel time between Bucks County, PA and New York City. Then, I remembered how I narrowly missed having a tachycardia event (abnormally fast heart rate) on the New Jersey Turnpike during our last trip to MSKCC’s urgent care facility in August 2017 when I ended up in the ICU.

Upon arrival at urgent care just before midnight, a series of tests were ordered – blood work, urine, chest x-ray, and nasal swab to test for influenza. The blood work came back first and my absolute neutrophil count (ANC) was 800 cells per microliter of blood. With an ANC below 1,000 cells per microliter of blood, the risk of infection increases. Combined with my fever, the medical team informed me that I was going to be admitted to the hospital and given a broad spectrum, intravenous antibiotic Zosyn® (piperacillin and tazobactam).

One by one, the other test results came back normal – that is until the nasal swab revealed I was positive for Influenza B. Influenza A and B are the two main types that routinely spread in humans and cause seasonal flu epidemics. Fortunately, I had received a flu shot this season, as this can help reduce the severity of the virus.

Alas, being hospitalized ended the longest “uneventful” streak of my cancer experience. But for six glorious months, living with cancer was relatively dull and boring. And it was wonderful.

With the source of my fever identified as the flu, I was prescribed Tamiflu® (oseltamivir phosphate) and the general plan was to release me from the hospital as soon as my ANC returned to 1,000 or higher. My prior chemotherapy was given on January 30th, so its adverse effect on my blood counts should be diminishing. Patients often have their lowest number (called a nadir) and highest risk of infection around 7 to 10 days after the start of chemotherapy.

However, my next ANC count was 400. When ANC falls below 500 cells per microliter (severe neutropenia), the risk of infection increases significantly. Accordingly, my stay at the bed and breakfast was extended.

Michael and Lorie Becker at MSKCC

By Friday, my ANC rebounded slightly to 700. Heading in the right direction, but still below the 1,000-level needed for my release home. I felt much better than when I was admitted, which was frustrating. In fact, the fever went away as did a runny nose, sneezing, and coughing.

A repeat blood test was scheduled for very early Saturday morning, with the expectation that my ANC would finally rise above 1,000 and we’d be sent home. Or so I hoped. But the test results showed a slight decrease from the prior day to 600.

I was then given a shot of Neupogen® (filgrastim), which works like a natural protein in your body to promote the growth of new white blood cells. Interestingly, Neupogen was among the very first biotechnology products that I learned about during my introduction to the sector in the late 1990s. It was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) back in 1991.

My blood counts will continue to be monitored until the ANC improves, but sometimes it can take 24-hours to see the effect of Neupogen. And so, we wait.