The Art of Dying

Last week, I underwent my first CT scan since stopping chemotherapy in March 2018. It would have been surprising for the tumors in my lungs and spleen to remain unchanged in size during this period. Nonetheless, I admit to secretly hoping that there was little or no growth.

Instead, all of my existing tumors roughly doubled in size. In my lungs, several nodules that measured one centimeter in diameter are now two centimeters. Cancer in my spleen grew from two centimeters to four centimeters.

A few new spots also appeared. In particular, in the mediastinum and thoracic nodes near the heart, thymus gland, windpipe, and large blood vessels.

In other words, cancer resumed its growth in the absence of chemotherapy.

However, with a taste of life without the toxic effects of chemo – I don’t want to go back. A point that I made in the recent Forbes article and video The Art of Dying.

In keeping with that theme, I’ve decided to remain off treatment. The obvious result is that cancer will continue to grow unabated. It wasn’t an easy decision, and it wasn’t made in a vacuum.

During today’s appointment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) with my oncologist, Dr. David Pfister, and Nicole Leonhart, ANP, RN, we discussed a lot of topics: How quickly will my disease progress? When will my quality of life diminish? How long until I die?

All valid questions, but each very difficult to answer. I already witnessed the perils of making such predictions last summer when I didn’t expect to see my 49th birthday. And yet, here I am – having just enjoyed the best several months since first being diagnosed in late 2015.

When my treatment changed from curative to palliative intent, I knew that cancer would likely claim my life. It didn’t stop me from living. In fact, in many ways it made me appreciate life even more.

Some readers will offer battle/combat analogies. “You can still beat this.” “Keep fighting.” “Don’t give up.”

Fighting words may help some people, but I prefer to embrace acceptance. My patient advocacy efforts, such as raising awareness for the human papillomavirus (HPV) and various cancers it can cause (including mine…), are not made more or less successful based on my disease outcome.

Throughout my life, I did things my way (cue Frank Sinatra). And I don’t plan on changing that now. I feel good and plan on enjoying it for as long as it lasts. Quality, not quantity, of life, is what matters most to me now.

Eventually, my disease will progress and pose a problem. But not today or perhaps even tomorrow. So, until then, I’m going to continue savoring experiences and my remaining time. I’ve had a fantastic life and will continue to greet each new day as a gift.

Life’s a Beach

Last summer I was in terrible shape. I had not one, but two chest tubes to drain fluid from my left lung. My disease was progressing with each CT scan. I was contending with a newly discovered blood clot and bleeding issues from the corresponding medication. Also, a rapid heart rate required a brief stay in the ICU. The prognosis at that time was grim. In fact, if someone told me at the time that I’d still be here this summer—I wouldn’t have believed them.

However, after starting combination chemotherapy, my cancer regressed (still present, but smaller). Both chest tubes were eventually removed as the fluid in my lung cleared. My heart rate has been stable since starting medication. An inferior vena cava (IVC) filter, a medical device, was implanted into my inferior vena cava to catch blood clots and stop them from moving up to the heart and lungs.

After finishing my ninth cycle/month of combination chemotherapy (carboplatin and paclitaxel), I decided to take a treatment break in March 2018 at the suggestion of my oncologist. With each passing day, my energy and appetite have improved. Today, I almost look and feel “normal” for the first time since beginning treatment back in early 2016.

But this coming week marks my periodic CT scan to see how my disease has behaved (or not) without any treatment during the past few months. Understandably stressful and causing me great anxiety (scanxiety), I’ve had four migraines in a little over one week. Uncharacteristic enough in frequency to warrant a trip to the emergency room, but an MRI of my head showed everything was fine. Or, “f.i.n.e.” as far as my brain goes! (A reference to rock band Aerosmith’s acronym “Fucked Up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional”)

For me, distractions are key during periods of scanxiety. So, my youngest daughter, Megan, and I spent the day at the shore (Ocean Grove Beach, NJ) on Friday. We’re the only two members of our immediate (and very pale) family who truly enjoy going to the beach. It was my first trip there since before being diagnosed in 2015!

However, more fun than the sun, sand, and sea were the impromptu singing sessions in the car ride there and back. Since they were young, I’ve exposed both our daughters to a wide variety of music. I’m proud they still know the words and can sing along to diverse artists such as Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Guns N’ Roses, Van Halen, and many others. I cannot carry a tune in a bucket, but Meg has a decent singing voice.

The perfect ending to the day, I barbequed burgers for Lorie and me after arriving home late that afternoon. School is still in session, so she had worked a full day. It was quite a feast – fresh sweet corn, baked beans, and chips. Preparing a meal for her was nice for a change.

I’ve lost count of the fantastic times that I’ve experienced during my recent treatment break. But yesterday was one that will stand out for quite some time. It was a darn good day!

After this week’s CT scan and subsequent radiology report, I’ll post another blog update. So, stay tuned.

Suicide in Head and Neck Cancer Survivors

During a recent speaking engagement, there was an audible gasp from the crowd as I relayed a startling statistic from the 2018 Cancer Survivorship Symposium: The mortality rate due to suicide in head and neck cancer patients is more than double the suicide rate of the most common other cancers in the United States.[1] Only male pancreatic cancer survivors have a higher suicide ratio. (see Figure 1)

Figure 1: Click to enlarge. Adapted from – Osazuwa-Peters N, Simpson MC, Zhao L, et al: Suicide risk among cancer survivors: Head and neck versus other cancers. 2018 Cancer Survivorship Symposium. Abstract 146. Presented February 17, 2018.

In the general population, suicide is already one of the ten leading causes of death in the United States.[2] The recent deaths of fashion designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain only heighten concerns of “suicide contagion” among mental health experts who fear that vulnerable youth are susceptible to the influence of reports and portrayals of suicide in the mass media.[3]

Following a period of nearly consistent decline from 1986 through 1999, suicide rates in the United States have increased almost steadily from 1999 through 2014.[4] The average annual percent increase in the age-adjusted suicide rate was about 1 percent per year from 1999 through 2006 but rose to 2 percent per year from 2006 through 2014.

Coincidentally, on January 9, 2007, Apple first introduced the iPhone[5] and the percentage of the United States population using any social media soared from 24 percent in 2008 to 67 percent in 2014.[6] In a study published in November 2017 in Clinical Psychological Science, Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, correlates the increasing use of social media, gaming and internet browsing with rising symptoms of depression and suicidal behaviors in teenagers.

One particular at-risk group are cancer survivors, who have nearly twice the incidence of suicide compared with the general population.[7] And patients with head and neck cancer have more than three times the prevalence of suicide compared with the general population.

Depression and hopelessness are the strongest predictors of a desire for death among terminally ill cancer patients.[8] Despite the impact of depression on people with cancer, available studies to assess the efficacy, tolerability, and acceptability of antidepressants for treating depressive symptoms in adults with cancer (any site and stage) are very few and of low quality.[9]

However, there are several other factors than depression that could drive a cancer survivor into suicide. This is especially true for head and neck cancer survivors who deal with unique physical, social, and emotional issues after their treatment.

Significant psychosocial distress in patients with head and neck cancer throughout their illness is well-documented. Depression, suicidality, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance dependence/abuse, issues with body image, self-confidence, interpersonal relationships, social stigma, and loss of work and productivity almost universally afflict those with head and neck cancer in some combination.[10]

In one study, hypopharyngeal, laryngeal, and oral cavity and/or oropharyngeal cancers were associated with the highest rates of suicide.[11] Increased rates of tracheostomy dependence – a surgical procedure to create an opening in the neck for direct access to the trachea – and difficulty swallowing and/or feeding tube dependence in these patients may help explain the higher rate of suicide observed. The impact of newer technologies with reduced side-effects, such as transoral robotic surgery (TORS) and intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), have not yet been investigated.

More than 15 million individuals in the United States are currently living with a cancer diagnosis, 430,000 of whom are head and neck cancer survivors.[12] Many of these patients will experience distortions of voice, hearing, taste, chewing, swallowing, and breathing for decades after successful treatment. Although a relatively rare event, additional research and effort should be devoted to the psychological toll that cancer, treatments, and resulting morbidity have on patients to help prevent more suicides in the future.

References

[1] Osazuwa-Peters N, Simpson MC, Zhao L, et al: Suicide risk among cancer survivors: Head and neck versus other cancers. 2018 Cancer Survivorship Symposium. Abstract 146. Presented February 17, 2018.

[2] Heron M. Deaths: Leading causes for 2013. National vital statistics reports; vol 65 no 2. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2016.

[3] Gould M, Jamieson P, Romer D. Media Contagion and Suicide Among the Young. American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 46 No. 9, May 2003 1269-1284.

[4] Curtin SC, Warner M, Hedegaard H. Increase in suicide in the United States, 1999–2014. NCHS data brief, no 241. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2016.

[5] Apple press release January 9, 2007. https://www.apple.com/newsroom/2007/01/09Apple-Reinvents-the-Phone-with-iPhone/

[6] Statista. Percentage of U.S. population who currently use any social media from 2008 to 2017. https://www.statista.com/statistics/273476/percentage-of-us-population-with-a-social-network-profile/

[7] Anguiano L, Mayer DK, PivenML, Rosenstein D. A literature review of suicide in cancer patients. Cancer Nurs. 2012;35(4):E14-E26.

[8] Breitbart W, Rosenfeld B, Pessin H, et al. Depression, hopelessness, and desire for hastened death in terminally ill patients with cancer. JAMA. 2000;284(22):2907Y2911.

[9] Ostuzzi G, Matcham F, Dauchy S, Barbui C, Hotopf M. Antidepressants for the treatment of depression in people with cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018 Apr 23;4:CD011006.

[10] Smith JD, Shuman AG, Riba MB. Psychosocial Issues in Patients with Head and Neck Cancer: an Updated Review with a Focus on Clinical Interventions. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2017 Sep;19(9):56.

[11] Kam D, Salib A, Gorgy G, Patel TD, Carniol ET, Eloy JA, Baredes S, Park RC. Incidence of Suicide in Patients With Head and Neck Cancer. JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2015 Dec;141(12):1075-81.

[12] Osazuwa-Peters N, Arnold LD, Loux TM, Varvares MA, Schootman M. Factors associated with increased risk of suicide among survivors of head and neck cancer: A population-based analysis. Oral Oncol. 2018 Jun;81:29-34.

Quite Refreshing Indeed

In my March 21, 2018 blog post, I wrote about taking a break from cancer treatment. I had just finished my ninth cycle/month of combination chemotherapy (carboplatin and paclitaxel), which significantly reduced the size of tumors in my lungs and spleen since last summer.

Over the past few years, I received three separate cancer treatments with little reprieve from many of the associated toxicities. At the encouragement of my oncologist, Dr. David Pfister at MSKCC, and with my disease stable since January 19, 2018, it was an opportune time to try and heal – both physically and mentally.

I was nervous about what my cancer would do during the break. Actually, I’m still very apprehensive. But what I experienced during this period exceeded my wildest expectations. In fact, it was nice to feel “normal” for a change. Or at least normal for a Stage 4 cancer patient.

Beginning in April 2018, my energy slowly returned. Just in time for the arrival of beautiful spring weather. After a long winter, I was finally able to get outside and go for extended walks with Humphrey. Flowers bloomed and the landscape was green again. Hope and renewal filled the air.

Feeling more confident about my energy levels, I accepted an invitation to speak at the Global Cancer Clinical Research, Drug Development and Therapeutic Accessibility Workshop in Bethesda, MD on May 1, 2018. The session focused on access to clinical studies and cancer treatment from the patient’s perspective.

On May 3, 2018, I published the second edition of my book A Walk with Purpose. I wrote the first edition in three months, as I was gravely concerned at the time that my health would deteriorate, and the manuscript wouldn’t get finished. But now I was afforded much more time to carefully review, edit, and rewrite the story. I’m finally happy with the result.

Shortly thereafter, I spent a week-long vacation with my parents, grandmother, and aunt in Lake Louise, a hamlet in Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. The company, weather, food, and scenery were wonderful. For a whole week, I almost forgot about cancer – especially as my appetite returned. So did my eyebrows and eyelashes – thank goodness.

Having not satisfied my zeal to hike, upon my return home from Canada I took Humphrey for a 5.5-mile walk on the Appalachian Trail. The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area is home to 28 miles of the Appalachian Trail and is less than a 2-hour drive from where we live. The heat, humidity, and insects were a sharp contrast to hiking in Canada, but it was important for me to get back to another one of my favorite places.

Lorie and I attended a fabulous Memorial Day barbeque with friends. This only reinforced the sense of normalcy during the period, including imbibing a few adult beverages. Certainly not one of my healthier decisions, but for a brief moment, I wasn’t that terminal cancer guy. It was nice.

Just last week, I returned to my hometown of Chicago in connection with the year’s largest cancer confab – the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting. I did a speaking event and second edition book signing for McKesson. In my 25-years working in the industry, I’ve never felt more welcomed as I did that night. It was truly humbling.

During the Chicago trip, I also had an opportunity to see many individuals for the first time in a while. This included Dr. James Gulley of the NIH, Brad Loncar, and many other longtime industry friends. Most importantly, I was able to reconnect with one of my younger cousins for the first time since Christmas 2012. It was exciting to hear about her husband’s brand new coffee business – Sandhill Coffee.

For the past two months, I’ve enjoyed being able to get outside, travel, and enjoy life without being hampered by the deleterious effects of chemotherapy. It’s been amazing and definitely the “pause that refreshes” – just as I had hoped.

But there is still so much to be done with regard to education and awareness of the human papillomavirus (HPV), its link to many cancers, and the available prophylactic vaccine. Accordingly, I hope that my “walk with purpose” as an expert patient is far from finished.

Towards the end of June 2018, I’ll have my first CT scan since being off treatment to assess whether my disease is progressing, regressing, or continuing to remain stable. The results of which will profoundly shape my future plans.

Until then, I’m going to continue to maximize this break from treatment and continue to enjoy every moment I can. I’m especially looking forward to school being out soon, so I can spend more quality time with my wife and daughters!

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