Michael Becker's blog about living with Stage IV head & neck cancer caused by HPV
Michael D. Becker
My name is Michael and I have more than 20-years of diverse experience as a serial entrepreneur, C-level industry executive, communications expert, pharmaceutical developer, Wall Street securities analyst, registered financial advisor, and an internationally published photographer. I was previously chief executive officer (CEO) of two biotechnology companies working in the treatment and diagnosis of cancer, including Cytogen Corporation – one of the first monoclonal antibody companies. I have authored original articles on medical, financial, communications, marketing, and regulatory topics relevant to the biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and medical device industries and have been widely quoted by the press. I live in Bucks County, PA, but was raised in the great city of Chicago and am a loyal Cubs baseball fan – which just goes to show that I am an eternal optimist!
The past week is a blur. It started last Saturday with the airing of a national television segment on CBS during both their morning and evening broadcasts. Reported by Dr. Jon LaPook, Chief Medical Correspondent for CBS News, the show highlighted the recent rise in head/neck cancer in men due to “oral” human papillomavirus (HPV) and featured my story as an example. Special thanks to everyone who played a role in creating this important segment! A replay is available below:
On Monday, I traveled to Washington, DC via train to speak at the Rare Disease Legislative Advocates 2018 Legislative Conference in the session titled, “Right to Try – Is it a Solution?” I haven’t been shy about my cynical perspective on this pending legislation. You can learn more by reading my opinion article on the topic (click here) and listening to a replay of my interview with NPR’s Scott Simon (click here).
Tuesday morning marked the beginning of my ninth cycle of chemotherapy at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in NYC, which will slow me down a bit. Recall that each chemotherapy cycle is four weeks, beginning with both carboplatin and paclitaxel on week one, paclitaxel only for week two, and then no treatment for weeks three and four to allow blood counts to recover. Towards the end of March, I’ll have another CT scan to determine if my disease is still stable or progressing. In this regard, I’m hoping March indeed goes out like a lamb!
In the meantime, I’m participating in several additional media opportunities to help tell my story and create more awareness for HPV and its link to cancer in both men and women. Interestingly, the International Papillomavirus Society (IPVS) has declared this Sunday, March 4th as “International HPV Awareness Day” to promote awareness of and education around HPV infection, how it spreads, and how HPV infection and the cancers it causes can be prevented. Click here for more information.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In my prior post, I referenced that more and more terminal cancer patients are placing their most private, personal journeys in this entirely public, impersonal domain we call the Internet. Among the blogs about fashion, food, home design, travel, and others, numerous blogs about severe disease and dying have appeared in recent years.
Personally, I find that writing a cancer blog is cathartic – and I’ve been doing it for more than two years now. It’s a great way to share updates and information quickly and efficiently to others who are interested in your health. Blogs and participation in other online patient forums also make the experiences of cancer illness publicly visible, provide alternative voices to that of the medical expertise, and challenge the traditional patient-doctor relations. What a remarkable era for patient advocacy.
But maintaining open and honest communication with your health professionals is an essential part of the cancer patient’s care. Doctors, nurses and patients work best together when they can talk honestly and openly with one another. In this regard, it is essential that patients avoid blogging or posting anything on social media that could jeopardize this relationship. When in doubt, discuss material and images that you plan on blogging with them in advance – especially when the information pertains to participation in an ongoing clinical trial where sensitivities to confidential data may exist.
So far, healthcare professionals have embraced my public visibility. For example, I first met my incredible medical oncologist, Dr. David G. Pfister at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), in December 2015. Since that time, I published my memoir, more than 75 cancer blog posts, and three opinion editorials in various media outlets. It’s probably safe to say that I’ve been among his more “uniquely” visible patients during the past two years. But Dr. Pfister and others at MSKCC, along with my team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), have mainly been accepting and supportive of my blog, book, and photojournalism. And, for the first time, my wife Lorie was even able to snap a quick photo of me with Dr. Pfister this week that I will treasure.
On the topic of this week’s appointment, we reviewed the CT scan results from last Friday’s imaging session. As updated briefly via social media, the results were favorable – stable disease (there were no new sites of disease, and the existing tumors stayed about the same size from the prior scan). Growth in the current tumors or new sites of disease would indicate disease progression and likely necessitate switching therapies. Since that wasn’t the case, and since I’ve handled chemo well with no neuropathy or need for growth factors, the plan is to continue with my current chemotherapy regimen. It consists of a four-week cycle starting with carboplatin and paclitaxel on week one, paclitaxel only for week two, and then no treatment for weeks three and four to allow blood counts to recover. I’ll have two more cycles and then do another CT scan around the second week of April 2018.
After the meeting with Dr. Pfister, I started my eighth cycle of this chemo regimen and was back home by late afternoon. The purpose of this treatment is palliative – to keep the tumors in my lungs and other organs from growing to a point where they cause pain, breathing difficulty, and other issues. It is different from care to cure your illness, called curative treatment.
When treatment is palliative, some patients may feel uncomfortable asking their doctor, “How long do you think I have to live?” The truth is that this question is often awkward for doctors too. Nonetheless, it is a question on the mind of many terminal cancer patients – including me.
Every patient is different, and a statistical prognosis is just an estimate, not a firm prediction. For example, last summer I was in terrible shape (two chest tubes, progressive disease, blood clot and bleeding issues, rapid heart rate requiring a stay in the ICU, etc.). The prognosis at that time was grim, and I wasn’t expected to live more than a few months.
But, effective treatments can sometimes dramatically improve a person’s well-being and even survival. After starting chemotherapy again, cancer regressed, and both chest tubes were removed as the fluid in my lung cleared. My heart rate has been stable since starting medication. I celebrated my birthday, Megan’s birthday, holidays, and welcomed the New Year. It’s now likely that I will be there for Lorie and Rosie’s birthdays next month and even our 26th wedding anniversary in March. I have been given additional precious time.
My disease is still likely incurable, and the current statistical prognosis indicates a median life expectancy of less than one year. I suffer from fatigue, anxiety, depression and other issues that negatively impact my quality of life. Knowing my prognosis, however, is helpful for guiding critical personal plans and life decisions.
I believe that blogging about life with a terminal illness can offer unique insights into how it is to live with cancer and to face the final phase of life. Hidden away and sequestered, removed from everyday experience, death has made a mediated return to the public sphere through digital and networked media.
The days preceding my periodic CT imaging sessions to determine if my cancer is regressing (good), progressing (bad), or unchanged are often very difficult for many other cancer patients and me. Stressing about the results won’t change the outcome, but that doesn’t stop me from mentally exploring all of the various scenarios. There’s even a term for it – scanxiety – coined by fellow cancer survivors.
I find that writing helps keep my mind occupied during periods of scanxiety. Even when I am writing about cancer, the process of organizing my thoughts or researching a topic online is a welcome distraction that helps me pass the time.
So, this morning, I decided to Google “terminal cancer blogs” to research the writings of other cancer patients. I was looking for common themes among the multitude of cancers, not just my particular diagnosis. I was also generally curious how many “other” bloggers there are like me.
The exercise started innocently enough. Within 0.54 seconds, Google informed me of the approximate 580,000 search results. I clicked on the title of the first one that caught my eye – “Terminally Fabulous.” With a positive name like that, I hoped to find an inspirational blog.
Suddenly, I was engrossed in the life of Lisa Magill, a Brisbane, Australia woman who started her Terminally Fabulous blog in February 2016, three years after being diagnosed with an incurable rare form of stomach cancer at the age of 30. Ominously, the first thing I noticed upon visiting her blog was that the most recent post was from nearly a year ago (February 24, 2017). Only by following the link to the Terminally Fabulous page on Facebook did I learn that Lisa succumbed to her disease in early March 2017 at the age of 34.
Reading previous entries on Terminally Fabulous, I appreciated Lisa’s writing – full of humor, brutal honesty, and courage. In one entry, she referenced Emma Betts, a friend, cancer survivor and inspirational fellow blogger. Through her Dear Melanoma blog, Emma (like Lisa) shared her cancer journey to help educate others about the importance of cancer awareness and protection methods needed to help prevent melanoma. My heart sunk a little more profoundly after reading the opening text of the Dear Melanoma blog: “Hi, I’m Leon, Emma’s dad. By now I’m sure you’ve heard that Emma passed away in April 2017.” She was 25.
Yes – of course, there are always exceptions (and I still “hope” to be one…). Take blogger Sophie Sabbage, diagnosed on October 13, 2014, at the age of 48 with Stage 4 terminal cancer – multiple tumors in her lungs, lymph nodes, bones, and brain. According to a recent blog post from December 22, 2017, her brain scan showed EVERY tumor had gone except for an 8mm spot. She even states that her cautious oncologist called this “fantastic.” Twice.
What I learned is that more and more terminal cancer patients are placing their most private, personal journeys in this public and impersonal domain we call the Internet. Take some time to read these brave stories and embrace their author’s vulnerability. They serve to remind ALL of us that our time on this planet is limited and some even provide inspiration to lead happy and more meaningful lives as a result.
I hope to provide an update on my CT scan results early next week, so stay tuned…
What a relief that the weather for yesterday’s periodic commute to New York for chemotherapy was much warmer than the bone-chilling, windy backdrop of the past several days. Even more pleasant was a punctual public transportation commute, which got me to my appointment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) on time. Work on the signals and tracks at NY Penn Station frequently delayed my trains in recent weeks, so I never know quite what to expect these days.
My blood counts were amenable to the scheduled dose of chemotherapy, which was infused as planned. My positive transportation karma continued, and I was back home resting in Pennsylvania by mid-afternoon. No more treatment until after my CT scan later this month for an update on my disease status (queue “scanxiety”).
Traveling alone, I took time during my commute to listen to music on my headphones and catch up on news events. Scrolling through my Twitter feed, I came across the fact that January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. It caught my eye, as cervical cancer and oropharyngeal cancer (tongue, throat, and tonsil – as in my particular diagnosis) collectively account for more than two-thirds of the cancer cases caused by high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. According to the CDC, more than 30,000 new cancers attributable to HPV infection are diagnosed each year.
For most people exposed to HPV, the virus goes away on its own, but a small group of people will experience health problems — sometimes even 20 or 30 years after the initial contact — and go on to develop cancer. In these individuals, HPV can cause changes in the body that can lead to the development of:
Cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancer in women;
Penile cancer in men; and
Oropharyngeal (the tongue, tonsils, and back of the throat), anal, and rectal cancer in both women and men.
So, with PLENTY of room for progress in vaccinating both girls and boys against HPV, please schedule a time to talk to your pediatrician now to eradicate this cancer-causing virus.
PS – There is undoubtedly a role for gender-specific cancer awareness activities, such as Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. From pink ribbons to professional sports apparel, breast cancer awareness advocates have done a fantastic job spreading the word that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But each September, during National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, the color blue doesn’t consume the country with the same vigor. And reduced awareness correlates with less money*, as prostate cancer research receives less than half of the funding as breast cancer research from the American Cancer Society. On this note, perhaps it is time to at least consider “HPV-Related Cancer Awareness Month” or something gender neutral?
Early this morning, my youngest daughter Megan and I arrived at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) to start round number seven of my current chemotherapy regimen (a combination of carboplatin and paclitaxel). What a fun way to welcome 2018!
Each treatment appointment is preceded by a blood test to look at the levels of various components (red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, electrolytes, etc.). Not surprisingly, all of my counts were good enough to warrant treatment today as planned after a two-week break at the end of December 2017.
Knowing today might be a bit crazy, I had scheduled an early morning appointment to try and get ahead of any delays. We arrived a few minutes before my 7:45 am ET blood test and ended up catching the 12:20 pm ET train from New York to return home. Everything went fine with treatment, although I don’t usually start feeling the side effects for a few days.
The best news of the week was being able to spend New Year’s Eve celebrating with my wife, Lorie. Actually, “celebrating” might be a strong word–unless you expand the definition to include sitting on the couch watching Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest and going to bed before midnight. But, we were together for yet another milestone. One that, frankly, I was quite surprised to see.
To my family, friends, colleagues, researchers, health care providers, members of the media and anyone reading this blog post–thank you for your interest in my cancer patient journey. I wouldn’t be here today without such a robust support network. Best wishes for good health, plenty of happiness, and much prosperity in 2018 and beyond to all of you!
A new study published in the journal Cancer represents the largest population-based study of survival for human papillomavirus (HPV)-associated cancers in the United States, covering 59% of the population. The study covered 220,211 histologically-confirmed cases diagnosed during 2001 through 2011 (see Figure 1).
For most people exposed to HPV, the virus goes away on its own, but a small group of people will experience health problems — sometimes even 20 or 30 years after the initial contact — and go on to develop cancer. In these people, HPV can cause changes in the body that can lead to the development of seven different types of cancer:
Cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancer in women;
Penile cancer in men; and
Oropharyngeal (the tongue, tonsils and back of the throat), anal, and rectal cancer in both women and men.
According to the new study, HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer surpassed the incidence of cervical cancer during the period (80,151 versus 79,425 patients, respectively). Of the 80,151 oropharyngeal patients, nearly 80 percent (63,457) were male. Collectively, these two cancers accounted for more than two-thirds of the cases in the study.
For women diagnosed with cervical cancer, the 5-year relative survival rate was high (64.2 percent), which may reflect the availability of screening tools and early detection. Patients diagnosed at the localized stage (only in the part of the body where it started) generally have a better prognosis compared with those diagnosed at regional or distant stages. In this regard, nearly one-half of cervical cancers in the study were detected at the localized stage.
The 5-year survival rate for patients with HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer (51.2 percent), was the second lowest among HPV-associated cancers. Study researchers observed that more than 60 percent of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers were diagnosed at the regional stage (spread to adjacent organs, structures, or regional lymph nodes) compared with less than 40 percent for other HPV-associated cancers. Only 15.9 percent of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers were diagnosed at the localized stage.
The authors conclude that in the absence of routine screening, with the exception of cervical cancer, primary prevention through HPV vaccination is essential—especially for oropharyngeal cancer, which is expected to become the most common HPV-associated cancer by 2020. HPV vaccines are approved and recommended for use among both boys and girls.
Sadly, only 49.5 percent of girls and 37.5 percent of boys in the United States were up to date with the HPV vaccination series, according to a 2017 CDC report. In sharp contrast, around 80 percent of adolescents receive two other recommended vaccines—a vaccine to prevent meningococcus, which causes bloodstream infections and meningitis, and the Tdap vaccine to prevent tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis.
Please talk to your pediatrician about vaccinating your 11-year-old boys and girls against HPV today to eradicate this cancer-causing virus.
Yesterday marked the beginning of cycle number six for my third-line chemotherapy treatment. In this regimen, one full cycle is comprised of four weeks. During week one, two different chemotherapeutics (carboplatin and paclitaxel) are given along with the requisite premedication (steroid, anti-nausea meds, and an antihistamine). During both the second and third weeks of a cycle, I receive only one chemotherapeutic (paclitaxel) and the same premeds. Week four is a holiday/break, with no scheduled treatment that helps provide recovery time for blood counts and other markers. Then the four-week cycle repeats.
Having received five cycles over the past five months, my blood counts are slower to recover – particularly my white blood cells. As a result, my medical oncologist (Dr. David Pfister at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC)) modified the last treatment to forgo the third week of chemo since that is usually about the time that my white blood cells are on the low side. In other words, the most recent two cycles of treatment have been “two weeks on, two weeks off” meaning that I get two chemotherapeutics (carboplatin and paclitaxel) on week one, only paclitaxel on week two and then a two-week break during weeks three and four before starting the cycle over again.
Considering that the latest 2/5 cycles have been reduced in terms of the total amount of chemo I’m receiving, it is encouraging to see that each CT scan still shows decreases in the size of some tumors. For example, take the largest tumor (on my spleen) that originally measured 6.4 cm on its longest axis and 6.0 cm on its shortest axis back in early January 2017. Since starting third-line chemo over the summer, those dimensions have decreased on each subsequent CT scan: 5.4 x 4.8 cm, 3.2 x 2.6 cm and most recently 2.9 x 2.0 cm. Many other lymph nodes in my lungs and abdomen are also now 1 cm x 1 cm or smaller, which is typically the size of a “normal” lymph node—although PET imaging would help inform whether or not there is still disease activity.
But just exactly how unusual or encouraging is all of this? During the MSKCC appointment, I gathered that the general expectation would have been decreased disease from the first treatment cycle, perhaps stable disease on the second cycle and then possibly progressive disease on the third or later cycles. Bottom line: my cancer continued to decrease across all three recent scans, which is better than normally expected.
I’m happy about the results and extremely thankful that I received strong encouragement to give chemotherapy another chance. And it’s not just about tumors shrinking, there have also been meaningful improvements in my quality of life. For instance, at the start of chemotherapy I had not one but two chest tubes placed to help reduce fluid around my left lung. Both have since been removed, as the fluid buildup is gone. Associated side effects with the fluid, such as coughing and difficulty breathing have also disappeared. Oh, and it is a lot easier to shower without wrapping your chest and abdomen in plastic wrap each time to avoid water getting into the tubes!
I’m a curious person by nature and seeking potential answers as to “why” my disease is responding a bit better than expected to the current chemo regimen. As a long-time champion of immunotherapy, I can’t help but wonder about my prior second-line therapy with M7824, an experimental bispecific fully human antibody designed to simultaneously block two immuno-inhibitory pathways (both PD-L1 and TGF-β) that are commonly used by cancer cells to evade the immune system. The aim of this investigational drug is to control tumor growth by restoring and enhancing anti-tumor immune responses.
While receiving M7824 at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a participant in their Phase I trial, results from biopsies of both my tumor and pleural fluid provided evidence of immune system activation in the vicinity of the tumor, indicating that the experimental agent M7824 was performing as designed. In particular, the presence of tumor-reactive CD8-positive T-cells, which have emerged as the predominant effector in most cancer immunotherapy settings. In fact, one published study in head and neck cancer patients whose tumors were densely infiltrated by CD3-positive and CD8-positive T cells had a significantly longer overall survival (OS) and progression-free survival (PFS) compared with patients whose tumors were poorly infiltrated.
It’s quite possible that based on the large tumor burden in my body, the immune system activation resulting from M7824 might not have been able to overpower the disease. However, with my tumor burden now having decreased substantially through subsequent chemotherapy, I can’t help but wonder if M7824 could be playing a role in my ongoing disease improvement.
While answering this question is purely academic, it could help inform the design of future combination studies with M7824 and chemotherapy. From a personal perspective, it would also validate that I made the right decision to jump into the M7824 trial after failing first-line therapy (chemoradiation).
As someone with no formal medical training, my initial thought was to have the largest, most accessible tumor biopsied to look for residual immune system activation. Unfortunately, the largest remaining tumor is on my spleen and my oncologist frowned on the prospects of poking needles around that area. A good to time to remind readers that while I have a fair amount of working knowledge in biotech, I always rely upon the wisdom and experience of the treating physician. They’ve gone to med school…I have not.
But I do feel it is very important, to the full extent possible and without substantial added risk to me, to find some signal—even if anecdotal—that M7824 did something good. For my friends in the medical community, please feel free to email me any ideas or thoughts!
 Targeting CD8+ T-cell tolerance for cancer immunotherapy. Stephanie R Jackson, Jinyun Yuan, and Ryan M Teague. Immunotherapy. 2014 Jul; 6(7): 833–852.
 Tumour-infiltrating lymphocytes predict response to definitive chemoradiotherapy in head and neck cancer. P Balermpas, Y Michel, J Wagenblast, O Seitz, C Weiss, F Rödel, C Rödel and E Fokas. British Journal of Cancer (2014) 110, 501–509. doi:10.1038/bjc.2013.640
It was July 18, 2017 when I started my third line of treatment (carboplatin/paclitaxel) for Stage IV squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck. Things weren’t exactly going great at the time and I remember thinking that I wouldn’t make it until my 49th birthday in November.
For example, I had two chest tubes to manage a pleural effusion (buildup of fluid in the pleural lining of the lung). My tumors were slowly growing with each CT scan. Additionally, I had an IVC filter put in to manage clots since blood thinners had caused bleeding issues. I was a mess and in-and-out of the hospital constantly.
Earlier today, however, I received my third consecutive CT scan report since starting chemo again that showed further decreases in my lung, spleen, and pleural metastases (where the cancer had spread). It looks as though the cancer continues to respond to the treatment, which is great news.
It just goes to show the perils of trying to answer the question every cancer patient wants to know: How much more time do I have left? It doesn’t stop us from asking physicians, but as a dear friend consistently points out to me – you just have to live in the moment and enjoy every day. Much easier said than done, but sage advice nonetheless.
I can’t help but wonder if our 8-month old golden retriever puppy, Humphrey, is perhaps some kind of good luck charm? We got him about a month before I started treatment and things have been going relatively well since then. Not that we need another reason to love him! He’s such a clown, always making us laugh and smile. We love all of our other pets too, but there’s just something about Humphrey that makes him special. At the very least, he’s a great therapy dog for me.
In any event, today is a very good day. It will be nice to bask in the warmth of some good news as the colder weather of the season approaches.
You’ll know from the opening pages of my memoir A Walk with Purpose that it was the day before Thanksgiving in 2015 when I first discovered a large lump on the right side of my neck. The discovery catapulted me on a journey that I never could have imagined, full of twists and turns and changing the very fiber of my being—physically, emotionally and spiritually.
A lot has changed in the past two years—some good, some bad, some perhaps downright ugly. But Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays—a time of reflection and giving thanks for the goodness of the season past instead of complaining about what we don’t have.
Throughout the process of writing my memoir, I was constantly amazed to see how all the gifts and experiences of this world came together like tiny puzzle pieces to reveal the bigger purpose of my life. In particular, how an unlikely career path to the biotechnology industry would help forge key relationships, open new doors, and help me navigate a cancer diagnosis and treatment through the knowledge gained over decades of service and leadership. Most importantly, how I could use all of the aforementioned to help others facing head and neck cancer caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).
In some ways, my revelation was reminiscent of the first time I saw the movie Signs written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. In the movie, a father and former priest lives with his asthmatic son, his daughter who constantly leaves glasses of water sitting out around the house, and his younger brother, a failed minor league baseball player, on an isolated farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (coincidentally where we have lived for more than 15-years…). The father lost his faith and gave up his priesthood after his wife died in a local traffic accident. Towards the end of the movie, a crucial scene reveals the unlikely connection between asthma, glasses of water, and the mother’s final words to her husband instructing his brother to “swing away.” At the end of the movie, the father is shown returning to his priestly duties, apparently having regained his faith.
During 2017, I was fortunate to write and publish (then rewrite and republish…) my memoir. Since my diagnosis, I’ve also published a total of 70 posts (gulp!) on my patient blog. Supporting these efforts, I’ve worked with a publicist and conducted numerous interviews and penned guest editorials for various media outlets. All of these actions designed to: 1) help increase awareness of HPV and its link to six cancers in men and women; 2) underscore the need for additional prevention efforts for HPV-associated cancers, including efforts to increase vaccination coverage; 3) correct the misperception that HPV is mainly a disease affecting women; and, 4) highlight how HPV can be spread in the fluids of the mucosal membranes, which line the mouth, throat and genital tracts. Looking back at my efforts, I hope you’ll agree it has been a productive year.
I’m currently going through my third treatment regimen (chemotherapy) with the simple hope of buying more time. My body is weary from repeated assault with toxic chemicals aimed to keep the cancer at bay—hoping to see the day when a better treatment option becomes available. Fortunately, my current quality of life allows me to continue my walk with purpose. In fact, today I am doing a couple of media interviews and meeting with a head and neck cancer patient support group in Princeton, New Jersey.
My next CT scan has been scheduled for the last week of November. The results of which will inform whether or not my cancer continues to shrink, stays stable, or is progressing. Regardless of the outcome, I strive to simply live in the moment and take advantage of the Thanksgiving period to consider how we can spread more happiness around, to look back at all the great memories and good people who came into our lives.
May the good things of life be yours in abundance not only during November but throughout the coming year. Thank you to everyone with an interest in my story for your continued support and for keeping in touch!
Possibly due to my early days of computer programming and/or work creating one of the first brokerage firm websites, I recognized very early on the power of the Internet to connect people. When I first started my cancer patient blog in December 2015, it was mainly an efficient tool for me to keep family and friends updated on my health. However, I quickly realized that social media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, blogging) also afforded me the opportunity to provide unprecedented access to my personal experience as a terminal cancer patient. In doing so, I felt that my insight could be beneficial to others dealing with a head/neck cancer diagnosis and the effects of treatment. Importantly, I hoped that sharing my story could also help create awareness for the cause of my cancer (human papillomavirus, or HPV) and how today’s vaccines can prevent it.
Writing about my cancer experience is cathartic and that alone made all of the blog posts, Tweets, Instagram images, and Facebook entries seem worthwhile. What I didn’t expect was how my social media activities actually helped me deal with my own cancer diagnosis. Accordingly, the purpose of this blog post is to highlight some of these interactions with the hope that other cancer survivors find similar ways to derive benefits from social media.
For example, some people have a talent for making new friends. Unfortunately, not everyone is born with the gift—including me (yes, it’s true). Some side-effects associated with cancer and its treatment make this situation even more difficult. Being fatigued and depressed can lead to a lot of time being secluded in one’s own home—not working and feeling isolated and alone. The ability to meet new people and establish relationships can be enhanced through social media and other Internet activities.
In this regard, I’ve been fortunate to have met several Twitter acquaintances during their visits to the East Coast from as far as Buenos Aires, Argentina (@BursatilBiotech), the Pacific Northwest (@SheffStation), and Lenexa, Kansas (@bradloncar). Meeting individuals in person was an unexpected yet pleasant surprise in view of today’s digital communication era. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that our family’s latest animal addition, a golden retriever puppy named Humphrey, has attracted his own cult following on social media.
In late September 2017, I received an unsolicited email from fellow head/neck cancer survivor Paul Reitano. His surgical oncologist had posted a story about me on Facebook that led him to both my book and blog. Beyond our shared cancer background, we both enjoy photography and Paul wanted to include me in his personal project regarding portraits of cancer survivors. We set a date for early October when he was in town and spent the better part of a beautiful autumn day talking about common interests as he clicked the shutter on his camera. By late afternoon, we were like old friends even though we had just met. Among many excellent captures, Paul took a beautiful photo of me and my wife, Lorie, that we treasure. Aside from an array of gorgeous photos, Paul and I keep in touch and it has been great to have another head/neck cancer survivor in my life.
More recently, I had the pleasure of connecting with another head/neck cancer survivor, Jason Mendelsohn, through social media. Jason was recently the subject of a NBC news segment reporting on the silent epidemic of HPV-related cancers among men. Like me, Jason is determined to help others by sharing his story and experience through his blog.
Another unexpected benefit from social media is the support from reporters and related contacts I’ve developed throughout my career or who have recently covered my cancer story. One of the more memorable experiences was when @adamfeuerstein dedicated his 2017 Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC) ride to me as a token of his support over the summer. PMC raises money for life-saving cancer research and treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute through an annual bike-a-thon that crosses the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Through social media, I’ve also been fortunate to make several new media connections, such as @BiotechSusan, editor of BioCentury, and @JohnCendpts, co-founder of Endpoints News, among many others.
Social media can also be a means for health education and public messaging. Through Tweets and sharing articles, I’ve enjoyed being able to help correct the popular misconception that HPV vaccination is only for girls and cervical cancer. Creating awareness about HPV’s link to six different cancers and the proven safety/benefits of HPV vaccination for both boys and girls is one of my personal goals, which has been enhanced through my participation in social media.
The role for social media in cancer care is embryonic and evolving, but my experience thus far suggests that there are many potential benefits. There are, of course, certain challenges, not the least of which includes the potential for sharing inaccurate medical information and the lack of privacy and confidentiality when discussing deeply personal situations.
As an example of both, one need look no further than Michael Douglas’ revelation in 2013 that his cancer may have been caused by performing oral sex has and the resulting embarrassment caused to his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones. In fact, only a few studies have looked at how people get oral HPV, and some show conflicting results. Some studies suggest that oral HPV may be passed on during oral sex (from mouth-to-genital or mouth-to-anus contact) or open-mouthed kissing; others do not. The likelihood of getting HPV from kissing or having oral sex with someone who has HPV is not known. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more research is needed to understand exactly how people get and give oral HPV infections.
Perhaps the world just wasn’t ready to hear about the links between oral sex, HPV and head/neck cancer at the time, but fast forward to today and Michael Douglas’ story may have helped create greater awareness and a sense of urgency to better treat and prevent what is becoming the one type of oral cancer whose numbers are climbing, especially among men in the prime of their lives. The world could use more support from celebrities affected by HPV and cancer to further increase awareness and/or raise research funds for new treatments and diagnostics.
In view of growing use, researching and defining the role for social media in cancer care represents an important area of unmet need. Certainly, this is a subject that merits further investigation and could be an interesting workshop at an upcoming major medical conference, such as the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting. In the meantime, thank you to ALL of my social media connections who help make the world seem a bit smaller and a whole lot brighter!
Back in early August 2017, I had my two chest catheters removed during one of my many hospital visits during the summer. While insertion of both devices was done under twilight anesthesia, the medical professionals who arrived at my room explained that lidocaine injections would hurt more than the actual extraction – so no local anesthesia would be used.
I had two different catheters in my body. The first one was an Aspira® catheter, which was in my body approximately four months. The second was a PleurX® catheter that was used for a much shorter period.
Since the removal of both catheters, I’ve had issues with the area between where the Aspira catheter was inserted and the exit site (see Figure 1). The area was often sore and red, which got gradually worse during the past two months. This week, the exit site became raised and fluid started oozing from the previously healed exit incision.
To help keep the catheter tube in place, a retention cuff is used to facilitate tissue in-growth (see Figure 2). Accordingly, the catheter must be surgically removed by first freeing the cuff from the tissue, then by pulling the catheter out gently and smoothly.
Yesterday, an ultrasound imaging procedure revealed that the Aspira cuff was left behind and was the source of my discomfort. There was no surgical procedure used in the removal of my Aspira catheter back in August and therefore the cuff, which became quite attached to my body, didn’t want to leave.
Fortunately, I was able to see a surgical team late yesterday as well. After assessing the situation, they were able squeeze me in for a procedure. First, they numbed the area with lidocaine injections and then retrieved the rogue Aspira cuff. It was a quick procedure.
I’ll have plenty of time to rest, as my blood counts were once again too low for chemotherapy this week. Next week is my normal week off from chemo as well, so my next round of therapy should be on November 7th.
When I first started seriously writing my memoir in January 2017, I was in a bit of rush to get it completed. At the time, my disease outlook was less than favorable and I didn’t know how much time I would have to write. Somehow, I was able to complete and publish “A Walk with Purpose: Memoir of a Bioentrepreneur” before the end of April that same year.
Since then, my cancer has responded well to the current chemotherapy regimen. Six-months after publishing my book things are still stable — although I’m living from CT scan to CT scan.
After stepping away from my book for a while, I recently took the time to reread it with a fresh set of eyes. Besides, a lot has transpired over the last six-months. With the benefit of more time, I sought to revise some sections and remove others. I also updated the ending of the story to reflect my current prognosis.
If you have purchased an eBook version of the novel in the past, the new version is now available via Amazon at no cost. Simply update the content on your “Manage Your Content and Devices” page (www.amazon.com/gp/digital/fiona/manage).
Customers who download eBooks through Kindle Unlimited will receive the updated content as long as they haven’t returned the Kindle Unlimited borrow before the content update is initiated.
At this time, customers who download eBooks through Kindle Owners’ Lending Library don’t receive updated content.
Going forward, anyone who purchases either the paperback or eBook version will receive only the new, updated copy. To verify whether or not you are viewing the new/updated version, look for the text ***Second Edition*** on the copyright page.
While it’s not a complete rewrite, there are substantial updates throughout for those considering whether or not to reread the book.
Earlier this week, I had my periodic CT scan to determine whether or not the chemotherapy I’ve been receiving is continuing to work. I just received word from MSKCC moments ago that indeed many of the tumors continued to shrink compared to my last imaging procedure in August (which showed a decrease in tumor size almost across the board). Importantly, there weren’t any new lung metastasis.
Clearly, this is very good news. In a perfect world, one would like to see all the tumors completely disappear. That would be highly unusual, so I will gladly accept serial decreases in the tumors from period-to-period.
This coming Tuesday, I should receive my chemotherapy doublet (provided that my blood counts are sufficient).
That’s all for now…short and sweet…as I am going to hug my family and enjoy the weekend.
A couple of weeks ago, I received an unsolicited message on LinkedIn from a young woman we’ll call “Mary” for the sake of anonymity. Like me, Mary is extremely passionate about the biotechnology industry and she works as a scientist in the lab at a local company.
In her message, Mary stated that she recently read my memoir and found the story to be moving. She offered to meet for coffee and expressed an interest in hearing more about my career path. Knowing that I’m going through chemotherapy, she completely understood if I wasn’t up for meeting, but stated that she “couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask, as she was so inspired by my work.”
How do you say “no” to that? It isn’t every day that a fan reaches out to me requesting to meet (in fact, this was a first), so I was quite flattered. We settled on a date and time to meet for coffee in downtown Yardley, PA that worked for our respective schedules.
I informed my family about the upcoming meeting with Mary and they reacted as one would expect. Who is this person? Why does she want to meet? She could be a homicidal maniac, etc. Obviously, they were just being protective and looking out for my best interests. After all, I’ll admit that my mind wandered ever so briefly to Stephen King’s 1987 novel Misery about a psychotic fan who holds an author captive and forces him to write her stories.
I arrived at the coffee shop first and attempted the daunting task of identifying Mary solely on the basis of her LinkedIn profile picture. Instead, she instantly recognized me (not too difficult given my recent “bald head and bold eyeglass” look) and came over to say hello. I admit to a certain sense of relief that she looked nothing like Kathy Bates who played the psychopathic Annie Wilkes in the film version of Misery.
We ordered drinks and sat at a quiet table in the back of the shop. What ensued was a lovely conversation about my background and our mutual interest in the exciting biotechnology industry. It was clear that we were both bitten by the biotechnology bug and it was nice to exchange thoughts and perspectives about the field.
When asked, Mary shared that she was introduced to my memoir by a college professor at a prestigious university where she is participating in an online degree program. Apparently, the professor suggested the book to his class and others were reading it as well.
My ego sufficiently bloated, I asked Mary to provide me with the professor’s contact information so that I could at least thank him for recommending my book, which she did. I sent out the note without even making the connection that the professor and I had several prior exchanges on social media and that he was also a research scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He promptly responded and reminded me of the connection. What a small world after all…
The meeting with Mary at the coffeehouse lasted an hour and a half, but it went by quickly and felt much shorter. However, the high from interacting with a “fan” lasted a lot longer and inspired me to get out more often and meet with others who have an interest in my story. This could be via book signings, meeting with book groups, speaking at events, etc.
When I wrote A Walk with Purpose: Memoir of a Bioentrepreneur, it was with a historical perspective of my life’s journey. But I’m continually amazed to see that my walk and purpose are not yet complete. For example, at first I was humbled every time I learned that my book inspired a parent to reconsider vaccinating their child against human papillomavirus (HPV). Now, through my brief exchange with Mary, I have also witnessed how the book can ignite and/or reinforce one’s interest in the exciting field of biotechnology.
So, thank you Mary…and all of the others who have taken the time to share how my book has positively influenced them. Each of you inspire me to continue my walk with purpose!
In a recent guest editorial that I penned for BioCentury, I referenced that a parent’s choice whether or not to vaccinate their child against the human papillomavirus (HPV) isn’t a “risk-free” choice. Every drug has risks – consider the following statement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): “although medicines can make you feel better and help you get well, it’s important to know that all medicines, both prescription and over-the-counter, have risks as well as benefits.” I would also point out that there are risks in forgoing a medication.
Let’s take a look at the HPV vaccine’s side-effects according to the prescribing information for Gardasil® 9 (Human Papillomavirus 9-valent Vaccine, Recombinant). The most common side effects include pain, swelling, redness, itching, bruising, bleeding, and a lump where your child got the shot, headache, fever, nausea, dizziness, tiredness, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and sore throat. These are adverse events disclosed by the sponsor (Merck & Co., Inc.) to the FDA from completed clinical trials of Gardasil 9. Since licensure in 2006, over 270 million doses of HPV vaccines have been distributed and the sponsors are obligated to report any new side effects to the FDA.
What’s that you say? You don’t trust the pharmaceutical industry? The Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety (GACVS), an independent expert clinical and scientific advisory body that provides the World Health Organization (WHO) with scientifically rigorous advice on vaccine safety issues of potential global importance, first reviewed the safety data for HPV vaccines in 2007 and subsequently in 2008, 2009, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017. In each period, the GACVS examined various vaccine specific safety issues, such as links to Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) and other autoimmune safety issues. No other adverse reactions have been identified and GACVS considers HPV vaccines to be extremely safe. According to the WHO, there are now accumulated safety studies that include several million persons and which compare the risks for a wide range of health outcomes in vaccinated and unvaccinated subjects.
Early on, the GACVS was presented with signals related to anaphylaxis and syncope related to the HPV vaccines. According to the GACVS, the risk of anaphylaxis from HPV vaccines has been characterized as less than 2 cases per 1,000,000 doses, and syncope was established as a common anxiety or stress- related reaction to the injection. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that needs to be treated right away with an epinephrine (adrenaline) shot. Anaphylaxis is rare, and most people recover from it. Syncope, also known as fainting, is a loss of consciousness and muscle strength characterized by a fast onset, short duration, and spontaneous recovery. It is caused by a decrease in blood flow to the brain, usually from low blood pressure. For these reasons, the prescribing information for Gardasil 9 recommends observation of the individual for 15 minutes after administration.
Next, let’s consider the risks of not getting vaccinated against HPV. Again, according to the prescribing information for Gardasil 9, the vaccine helps protect girls and women ages 9 to 26 against cervical, vaginal, vulvar, and anal cancers and genital warts caused by 9 types of HPV. Gardasil 9 also helps protect boys and men ages 9 to 26 against anal cancer and genital warts caused by those same HPV types. Accordingly, individuals who do not get vaccinated against HPV are at risk for the aforementioned cancers and genital warts.
In addition, the 9 types of HPV that infect the genital areas can also infect the mouth and throat (called oropharyngeal cancers). HPV is thought to cause 70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States, with HPV type 16 causing 60% of all oropharyngeal cancers. The HPV vaccine was originally developed to prevent cervical and other less-common genital cancers and has been shown in clinical studies to prevent cervical and other precancers. However, HPV vaccines could also prevent oropharyngeal cancers because the vaccines prevent infection with HPV types that can cause oropharyngeal cancers.
HPV vaccines were not available until I was age 38, which is well-beyond the upper age limit of 26 when the vaccines are considered effective. In late 2015, I was diagnosed with poorly differentiated, oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma, HPV type 16 related. My three treatment regimens thus far have included: chemoradiation, immunotherapy and currently chemotherapy.
My diagnosis is terminal, so “death” would be the primary side effect from the disease that I would gladly forgo in favor of any of the aforementioned HPV vaccine side effects. Setting my grim humor aside for the moment, there are more than a dozen other side-effects that I have personally experienced to date from either cancer or its treatment (see accompanying image for details). And these side-effects don’t include others that I haven’t personally experienced, such as kidney damage.
I’m an advocate of HPV vaccination and strongly encourage parents to speak with a physician when it comes to deciding whether or not to vaccinate a child. The purpose of this blog post is to underscore that deciding not to vaccinate against HPV isn’t a risk-free decision. In my experience, the diagnosis of any one of the six cancers resulting from HPV infection is associated with plenty of important risks for parents to also consider.
The purpose of my blog and entries is multifaceted. Some are designed to entertain, while others focus on education and enlightenment for those suffering from cancer and the people who surround them. Others are simply updates on my disease for family and friends.
I don’t consider myself an optimist or pessimist, but rather a realist. Accordingly, I prefer to let the facts in my blog speak for themselves and let you, the reader, decide if the glass is half full or half empty.
For me, life is usually viewed in absolutes. Things are either black or white; rarely, if ever, shades of gray. And I like it this way…nice and neat. This is probably why uncertainty, which falls into the shades of gray zone, doesn’t sit well with me. Unfortunately, living with a terminal cancer diagnosis introduces a fair amount of uncertainty – almost from day one.
It starts with waiting for the initial diagnosis. Is it cancer or not? Usually this is a black or white analysis. The diagnosis of cancer then leads to a myriad of uncertainties. The patient wants to know details about the treatment options, their side effects and quality of life, and whether the potential for cure exists. Lots of gray zone issues suddenly appear.
Although clearly outside of my comfort zone, I’ve been able to successfully navigate the sea of uncertainties for the past two years with one notable exception: how much time do I have remaining? Or at the very least, how much time remaining where my quality of life allows me to function as a productive member of society?
Right now, life isn’t horrible. Sure, I suffer side effects from weekly chemotherapy treatment, such as loss of appetite and fatigue. And I lost my hair but save a ton of money on haircuts and shampoo. Nevertheless, I’m able to enjoy time with family and friends and keep busy with my mission to help raise awareness of the human papillomavirus (HPV), six cancers that are directly linked to HPV, and the available vaccines that could prevent such cancers for others in the future.
Enduring weekly chemotherapy is made easier given the fact that my tumors decreased in size according to my last imaging procedure. Exactly what the tumor regression means in terms of extending my life is unknown. Reality check – published scientific literature still favors that celebrating the New Year isn’t a likely event for me.
However, every patient is different – and there is one absolute truth in life: no one knows exactly when or how they will die. While perhaps the exception versus the norm, we’ve all heard dramatic stories about people living longer than originally expected. My realist nature makes me reject such anecdotes, but it does allow me to consider the fact that progress in treating cancer is advancing at a rapid pace and perhaps my existing treatments will buy me just enough time to receive some new exciting approach that keeps my disease in check.
In the interim, my greatest challenge is what to do with the “space between.” I’m talking about the period between now and when I eventually die, which could be measured in as little as one, two, or three months or as many as several years. No one knows for sure.
For example, I could start to write a new book. Although having recently gone through that process, it is a tremendous investment of time and focus away from spending quality time with family and friends. While it could be a worthwhile sacrifice, I just couldn’t bear the thought of embarking down that road again without knowing that I had sufficient time to finish it.
My other passion, photography, is made challenging since I really don’t know how much energy or how I’m going to be feeling on any given day. This makes scheduling photo sessions weeks in advance to allow adequate preparation time a risky proposition at best. For example, I never could have predicted ending up in the hospital on three separate occasions in July/August (including a trip to the intensive care unit). While life has been quite calm as of late (thank goodness…) there is always the chance that something else is lurking around the corner.
Besides, I was already able to complete two significant bucket-list items this year with the publication of both my memoir A Walk with Purpose and large format, high-quality, coffee table photography book, Strength, Confidence, & Beauty. In the near future, could I really top what I’ve already accomplished in each area?
Equally important to projects that produce legacy materials of a life well-lived, there is that pesky task of providing income to help support my family. I haven’t quite found an appropriate place on my resume for “terminal cancer patient” and I suspect few employers would find that an attractive attribute. On the flip side, freelance work or part-time positions might be workable solutions.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not laying on the couch every day pondering the “space between” and wallowing in depression. I’ve been keeping plenty busy promoting my books and taking advantage of the plethora of amazing media outlets that express an interest in helping me with my HPV awareness mission. Perhaps that is simply how I’m meant to fill the space between?
At first, I thought if I could simply touch one person’s life through my efforts then I made a difference. But I’ve been inundated with messages from family, friends, and complete strangers who share personal stories about having their children vaccinated for HPV as a direct result of my efforts. Is there anything else I could do that would be as gratifying?
If you or a loved one is affected by cancer, I’d love to hear how you deal with the space between. Rather than messaging me directly, please feel free to comment on this post so that others can benefit from your shared experience.
It’s been a few weeks since my last blog post, so I wanted to provide a brief update. The good news is that life has been rather uneventful – no trips to the emergency room, no new side effects, etc. Let’s face it, we were due for a break!
Last week was not only the Labor Day Holiday but also a scheduled break from chemotherapy to allow my blood counts, etc. to recover. As a result, as of Monday morning I was feeling better than any time in recent memory. My appetite has been good and my energy level afforded us an opportunity to take our puppy Humphrey with us to walk around a local art fair this past weekend.
This week, however, I’m back to week #1 of my treatment schedule starting with a doublet of chemotherapies (paclitaxel and carboplatin). For me, the carboplatin results in greater side effects, particularly stomach upset, decreased appetite, and fatigue. My typical four week treatment “cycle” looks like this:
Week #1: paclitaxel + carboplatin
Week #2: paclitaxel only
Week #3: paclitaxel only
Week #4: holiday/break (no treatment) Lather, rinse & repeat
Before this week’s chemo appointment, I had time and energy to visit with another one of my social media connections for the first time (@BursatilBiotech). She traveled from Argentina to New York with a relative for vacation and we had arranged a brief meeting in the morning while she was in town.
My next chemo break falls during the first week of October. At that time, I’ll have my periodic imaging procedure to see if the cancer is continuing to respond favorably to the treatment. Based on improved air flow to my lungs, I’m hopeful for some continued good news.
In the meantime, I’ve been keeping busy with my mission to raise awareness for the human papillomavirus (HPV), its direct link to six cancers, and the available vaccines that can prevent HPV. For example, my guest editorial on the topic appears in this week’s issue of BioCentury and is freely available to view on their website by clicking here. In addition, last Thursday I did a television interview with CURE Today and you can view the first segment on their website by clicking here. I’m so very grateful to these and other media outlets that have provided me with a platform to advance my mission!
Most importantly, today is another gift that I will truly treasure…as I get to celebrate my youngest daughter’s birthday. Happy 17th birthday Megan!!
Thankfully, yesterday’s cardiology appointment and weekly chemotherapy session were both uneventful. The mystery fever hasn’t come back and I haven’t had any more rapid heart episodes since my last visit to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s (MSKCCs) urgent care facility.
Before my first appointment, we had a chance to stop by and say “hello” to Dr. Susan Slovin at MSKCC for a few minutes. She specializes in prostate cancer, clinical immunology, and other genitourinary malignancies. If you’ve read my memoir, you are aware that we’ve known each other for quite some time and that she is a trusted resource and friend. As always, she had some words of wisdom to share and put a smile on our faces. Truly a great start to the day – thank you Dr. Slovin!
The cardiologist did change my medication, as the beta blocker I was taking (metoprolol) also resulted in some fairly low blood pressure readings and lightheadedness when going from a sitting to standing position. But again, minor complaints compared to being in the intensive care unit (ICU) a short while ago. My latest EKG looked fine and I simply need to follow-up in one month.
The consensus seems to be that my rapid heartbeat was caused by a perfect storm consisting of a high fever, low electrolytes, and possible bacterial infection. So, my job is to help make sure not to repeat these circumstances by keeping hydrated and getting plenty of electrolytes.
In terms of chemotherapy, my blood counts are doing well – especially after last week’s doublet of carboplatin and paclitaxel. While I only get carboplatin every three weeks, it does seem to hit me much harder than the paclitaxel alone – especially with regard to appetite. In any event, yesterday’s chemo session went as planned with just the paclitaxel and various premedication.
We finished everything by early evening and planned on staying in NYC overnight rather than rushing to get home. Since I was hungry for a change, Lorie and I went to the hotel’s rooftop bar and enjoyed dinner outside under the stars. It’s moments like those that make everything worth it – and I savor every one.
The rescheduled visit by my sister and her family went well this past weekend. I haven’t made it back to Chicago to see them in a while and I was amazed by how much their two boys had grown since I last saw them. It meant a lot to be able to spend some quality time with all of them and I appreciate their long drive back-and-forth from Illinois to Pennsylvania just to see me (okay, perhaps they really came to see Humphrey…).
The plan for now is continued weekly chemotherapy with a possible break during Labor Day week. Treatment would then resume with an eye towards imaging in early October to see how things are progressing – or perhaps more optimistically “regressing.”
Knock on wood, things will remain calm for a bit as Lorie goes back to work and our girls return to school. It’s always a stressful time for them, so it would be nice for my disease to behave for at least a little while.
Lastly, I recently gave my book website a makeover, so please take a look and let me know what you think at www.awalkwithpurpose.com
Bacterial cultures from the tips of two chest tubes that were recently removed revealed growth of a pseudomonas organism on one of them. These are fairly common pathogens involved in infections acquired in a hospital setting. Whether or not this was the source of my fevers, I was prescribed an antibiotic (levofloxacin, 500mg daily) since pseudomonas can lead to other nasty conditions.
I continued running fevers for a few days after starting the antibiotic, but was free of fever for the 48-hours leading up to my next scheduled chemotherapy round. Aside from the mystery fever, my blood counts have been good throughout the three weeks of chemotherapy that I received thus far. Accordingly, my medical oncologist (Dr. Pfister) supported resuming treatment.
On Tuesday, August 15, 2017, Lorie and I took the early morning train to NY so I could receive an intravenous infusion of paclitaxel and then carboplatin as planned. I was quite anxious to resume treatment after a one week break – especially after seeing the decrease in tumor size from the recent CT scan.
I looked at my blood test results from that morning and noticed my magnesium level was again low. Knowing that this “could” have played a role in the recent cardiac event, and that my daily oral magnesium isn’t keeping up, I requested an additional intravenous course of magnesium just to be safe and the medical staff agreed.
The chemotherapy infusions went well and we were able to take an afternoon Amtrak train back home. Benedryl® is one of the pre-medications they give me, so I slept a good portion of the trip home. Lorie was kind enough to capture me asleep with her phone.
After postponing their prior trip due to my hospitalization, my sister and her family are planning to visit us this weekend. Hopefully life is uneventful and we all get to spend some time together.
It was surreal that exactly one week after being in the intensive care unit (ICU) at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), I felt good enough to participate in a scheduled radio interview conducted in Philadelphia on August 10, 2017. Just goes to show there are good days and there are bad days. NPR member radio station WHYY host Dave Heller knew an awful lot about my book “A Walk with Purpose: Memoir of a Bioentrepreneur” and it was so great working with him during my first experience in a radio recording studio. Please take a moment to listen to a replay of this 20-minute segment and other events, along with reading newspaper and other media reprints, under the “In the News” menu tab at my memoir website by clicking here.
Hopefully I continue to feel okay the next couple of days and look forward to seeing family while in town. It should take a week or so for the latest treatment effects to materialize. If not, however, I’m sure Humphrey will provide them with endless hours of amusement!
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention in closing that the start of the new school season is a great time to schedule an appointment with your pediatrician to talk about an important immunization that could prevent 6 cancers in boys/girls. You can learn more about this vaccine in an earlier blog post by clicking here. Had this vaccine been available when I was a child, it could have prevented the cancer that’s killing me. Start the discussion with your doctor – today! And help spread the word by using the #DiscussHPV hashtag in your social media posts.
My recent hospitalization was the longest and most volatile, resembling that of a roller coaster ride at an amusement park. What started with a fever prompting our arrival at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s (MSKCC’s) urgent care facility in New York last Thursday evening ended up escalating to a brief visit to the intensive care unit (ICU) as detailed in my prior post.
The isolated cardiac event appears managed by medication (metoprolol) and hasn’t reappeared. However, despite numerous blood cultures, chest x-rays, CT scans, and other diagnostics, the cause of my fever – the original reason for my hospital visit – remains a mystery.
After an infectious disease consult, bacterial infection was ruled out as the likely source of the fever and I was taken off the broad-spectrum antibiotics that were being delivered via intravenous infusion. Some of the cultures take time to process, so there is always a chance that something will materialize in the coming days.
One silver lining amidst the tight turns, steep slopes, and inversions on my roller coaster ride was the fact that my left lung appeared much improved in terms of fluid accumulation. This coincided with almost zero drainage from my two chest tubes over the past week or so and it was determined that removing both of them was in my best interest since they weren’t serving any functional purpose and there is always a risk of infection in having two foreign objects in the body.
Insertion of the two chest tubes (one while at the National Institutes of Health and the other at MSKCC) was done under twilight anesthesia, where I was awake but sedated. This is accomplished via administration of a concoction of agents including a benzodiazepine (midazolam) and the narcotic fentanyl. For both procedures, I had little if any discomfort.
Naturally, I expected that removal of the chest tubes would also be done under twilight anesthesia. Much to my chagrin, I was informed that the extraction procedure is normally done bedside and without anesthesia. Two medical professionals arrived at my room at MSKCC and provided a reasonable explanation for the lack of lidocaine or other local anesthesia (the injections would hurt more than the extraction, several would be needed to cover the entire area, and risk that the tubes could be punctured via the needles).
Ever since their initial placement, I’ve been anxious when cleaning or touching the plastic tubes that protruded from the front of my left chest. There was just something unnerving about seeing the foreign tubes that looked like they would be better suited on a Borg, a fictional alien group that appeared in the Star Trek franchise.
As such, you can imagine my surprise as one of the medical professionals from interventional radiology wrapped the first tube around her hand and proceeded to yank it with the same intensity as trying to start a lawn mower by pulling the cord. To be fair, the pain wasn’t terrible and this was one of those situations where speed was definitely better than dragging it out. Nonetheless, I was shocked by the experience and now had an idea what extraction of the second tube would be like.
The first tube was easy by comparison, as it was only placed a short while ago. The second extraction was more difficult as that tube was in place for 4-months and had grown quite attached to me. The first attempt yielded little, if any, movement from the tube. Fortunately, the second try was successful and I am now “tube free.” The tips of both tubes were cut and sent to be cultured in case either was the source of infection that was causing my fevers.
There are plenty of other possibilities to explain my fevers, including the tumors, blood clots, and others. For now, the plan is to carefully monitor my temperature and hope that it continues to respond to Tylenol®. If not, we’ll be back at the hospital.
In view of the current situation, my medical oncologist (Dr. Pfister) appropriately held back on this week’s cycle of chemotherapy to be safe. Encouragingly, the CT scan used to look for pneumonia and other potential reasons for the fever provided a sneak peek of how the tumors responded to the first three weeks of chemotherapy and almost all of them showed decreases in size. This is definitely better than having the tumors grow or stay the same size, but likely doesn’t change the “terminal” nature of my disease. It does, however, hopefully buy me some more time.
It’s great to be back home and I cannot wait to see my daughters and the petting zoo…especially Humphrey! And words cannot begin to express our family’s gratitude for all of the many people that helped out while we were at MSKCC the past 5-days.
On Tuesday, August 1, 2017, I received my third dose of chemotherapy. Everything went well and the next day I was feeling excellent, although some of that can be contributed to the steroid pre-medication. As an added plus, I was looking forward to having family in town for the weekend. Life seemed pretty good.
In the back of my mind, I knew that I likely hadn’t reached the nadir, or lowest point, in my blood counts from the prior chemotherapy. As such, there was a possibility that I might not be feeling 100% for my visitors.
Sure enough, by Wednesday evening I started running a mild temperature. No big deal – it was below the 38 degrees Celsius (°C) cutoff for an “official” temperature. On Thursday I wasn’t feeling energetic and napped most of the day. Then the real fun started.
My temperature rose Thursday evening and the physician-on-call at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) recommended that I come to urgent care to get things checked out. So, Lorie and I made the drive from Bucks County, PA to New York City for the third visit to urgent care within the past three weeks! We debated taking the train as opposed to driving, which would have been faster.
By the time we arrived at MSKCC, my temperature was above 39 °C and I felt the familiar muscle aches and general fatigue that I associated with influenza. Coincidentally, it was the diagnosis of influenza during my first week of chemoradiation in early 2016 that resulted in my first trip to MSKCC’s urgent care facility.
Flu season doesn’t usually begin until October, so this time concern focused on bacterial infection. With my white blood cell counts negatively impacted by chemotherapy, it was possible that my body couldn’t fight off an infection in one of my chest tubes or another location.
I was triaged with the usual battery of blood tests and a chest x-ray before being placed in an exam room. Urgent care was very crowded and I was just happy to have a bed and looked forward to resting horizontally for a while.
I sat on the bed, preparing to relax when I clutched my chest from a sudden, stabbing pain. Lorie could tell from the expression on my face this was no ordinary situation and called for the nurse who arrived immediately to assess the situation. As various cables were connected, I felt my heart racing and Lorie was shocked to see my pulse was 225 on the computer monitor.
Normally, the heart beats about 60 to 100 times per a minute at rest. But in tachycardia, the heart beats faster than normal in the upper or lower chambers of the heart or both while at rest. The episode ended within a minute or so, but tachycardia can disrupt normal heart function and lead to serious complications, including heart failure, stroke, and sudden cardiac arrest or death. Patches were promptly applied outside of my chest wall, which could be used if needed to provide a brief electric shock to the heart to reset the heart rhythm back to its normal, regular pattern.
My heart wasn’t the only one racing as the medical team placed a crash cart outside my door and a sense of urgency filled the room. The contents of a crash cart vary, but typically contain the tools and drugs needed to treat a person in or near cardiac arrest. I was sure that the end was near.
Fortunately, no further cardiac events occurred and I was admitted to MSKCC’s intensive care unit (ICU), where seriously ill patients are cared for by specially trained staff. While I have never had the misfortune to be admitted to an ICU in the past, I was amazed by the both the medical staff and technology used to monitor my condition and knew I was in good hands.
I was placed on an antibiotic and medication to stabilize my heart rate while the team worked to determine the source of the tachycardia and whether or not my episode had caused any damage to my heart. Preliminary assessments ranged from one of my tumors or chest tubes rubbing up against the sensitive tissue surrounding the heart to low electrolyte levels, which are important minerals in your body that have an electric charge. Maintaining the right balance of electrolytes is key for your body’s blood chemistry, muscle action and other processes.
On Friday, my temperature returned to normal and there were no further cardiac events. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps it was time to contact hospice and let the cancer take its course. I had faced my share of obstacles since being diagnosed with cancer in late 2015 and three recent trips to the hospital resulted in further erosion of my quality of life with two chest tubes, being back on chemotherapy and its side effects, and now the prospect of potential cardiac issues. Lorie and I discussed the topic of hospice and she rightfully pointed out that such a decision shouldn’t be made while sitting in the ICU.
I shared my thoughts about hospice with one of nurses while he assisted me with walking a few laps around the floor. Much to my surprise, he shared with me that it was about 11-years ago that he underwent a bone marrow transplant at MSKCC and how it caused him to pursue a career in medicine. He discounted my outlook on hospice, stating that I was young, up-and-walking, and seemed otherwise quite capable of enjoying further quality time with my wife and daughters. When my quality of life truly diminishes, that would be the time to consider hospice.
Our daughters, Rosie and Megan, traveled by train to NYC and were able to visit me briefly in the ICU. However, they all stayed overnight in a nearby hotel thanks to my father and step-mother. Being in the ICU wasn’t conducive for the planned family visit, which unfortunately got cancelled.
I was released from the ICU to a regular room very late Friday evening. I’ll be here for at least another day or two because the source of the fever still hasn’t been identified. With the fever gone, it appears the antibiotics were successful in treating the infection, but without knowing the source or strain – treatment can be challenging.
Viewing my Twitter feed briefly from the ICU on Friday, I was delighted to learn that Adam Feuerstein, Senior Writer at STAT News (statnews.com), Tweeted that he was dedicating his Pan-Mass Challenge ride to me.
Each year the Pan-Mass Challenge brings together thousands of impassioned cyclists, committed volunteers, generous donors and dedicated corporate sponsors. Together, they strive to provide Dana-Farber’s doctors and researchers the necessary resources to discover cures for all types of cancer.
“Michael, we love you, support you. Your strength will inspire me tomorrow.,” Tweeted Adam. Well, Adam, your Tweet and the many acknowledgements on Twitter helped brighten my day and I’m still here giving cancer everything that I’ve got. Godspeed on your ride and thank you for an amazing gesture!
And special thanks to all of Lorie’s friends who have helped our daughters get to NYC and/or babysit our small petting zoo while we’re away. It’s a lot to ask, and we’re so grateful for the help since it is one less thing to worry about. Humphrey appears to have made new puppy friends, as evidenced by the photos and videos that I love seeing.
It’s Saturday afternoon as I finish writing this blog update. Lorie, Rosie, and Megan are able to visit longer since I’m in a regular room now. Seeing people in the hospital isn’t tops on most teen’s lists of favorite activities, but it means so much to me having them here.