Blogging for the Terminally Ill

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 me and many other cancer patients. 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.

Humphrey suffering from writer’s block

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 what other cancer patients write about. 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 of the importance of cancer awareness and protection methods needed to help prevent against melanoma. My heart sunk a little deeper 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.

After visiting several more terminal cancer blogs from my Google search results, including Darn Good Lemonade, Anna Swabey: Inside My Head, Tina’s Journey, Cancer in Context by Debra Sherman and others, the grim common theme became clear: Terminal cancer indicates a disease that will progress until death with near absolute certainty.

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 most public, 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…

Cervical Cancer and HPV

What a relief that the weather for yesterday’s periodic commute to New York for chemotherapy was much warmer than the bone chilling, windy cold 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 catchup on news events. Scrolling through my Twitter feed, I came across the fact that January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. This 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.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Nearly 80 million people — about one in four Americans — are currently infected and about 14 million people become infected with HPV each year. Nearly all sexually active people get infected with HPV at some point in their lives.

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.

The good news is that HPV infections and the seven cancers attributed to them are highly preventable with available vaccines that protect against the high-risk HPV 16 and HPV 18 types responsible for 90 percent of HPV-related cancers. The bad news is that despite strong data showing the safety and benefits of the vaccines, the rate of vaccination in both sexes is disappointing. Across America, only 49.5 percent of girls and 37.5 percent of boys were up to date with the recommended HPV vaccination series, according to a 2017 CDC report. Interestingly, 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.

So, with PLENTY of room for progress in vaccinating both girls and boys against HPV, please schedule 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 an amazing 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 verve. 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?

* Of course, correlation does not imply causation…

First Chemo of 2018

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.

Michael and daughter Megan Becker in the chemo suite at MSKCC

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 7:45am ET blood test and ended up catching the 12:20pm 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.

I met with my oncologist Dr. Pfister during today’s appointment. He discussed doing my next CT scan around the end of January 2018, which would be after the current chemo treatment cycle is finished. Depending on those results, he discussed maintenance treatment with just one of the two chemotherapies if the scan looks good. Otherwise, he might recommend switching to cetuximab (Erbitux©) if the chemo isn’t continuing to work. Either way, it looks like I’ll be coming to another key treatment decision point early in 2018.

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 strong support network. Best wishes for good health, plenty of happiness, and much prosperity in 2018 and beyond to all of you!

 

New Study Highlights Importance of HPV Prevention

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).

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Nearly 80 million people — about one in four Americans — are currently infected and about 14 million people become infected with HPV each year. Nearly all sexually active people get infected with HPV at some point in their lives.

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.

Figure 1 (adapted from Cancer Volume 124, Issue 1, January 1, 2018, Pages 203–211)

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.

A Glass Half Full

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.

Lorie and Michael Becker in the chemotherapy suite at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center on 12/5/17

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[1]. 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[2].

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!

References:

[1] Targeting CD8+ T-cell tolerance for cancer immunotherapy. Stephanie R Jackson, Jinyun Yuan, and Ryan M Teague. Immunotherapy. 2014 Jul; 6(7): 833–852.

[2] 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

Good Luck Charm?

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.

Our pup Humphrey

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.

Two Years Gone

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!