Milestones

After completing the third and final palliative radiation therapy (RT) session this week, I was finally able to return home from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) after being admitted on March 8, 2019. The severe pain that plagued me during this period is due to the progression of cancer in my spine, which is managed through a combination of steroids and oral/IV narcotics. Hopefully, the RT will also provide pain relief in the coming days/weeks and reduce my dependence on the other medications.

In view of the relatively rapid cancer progression and difficulty in getting my pain under control, I made the decision that it was time for hospice. While many people believe that hospice care is only appropriate in the last days or weeks of life, it can be beneficial as much as 6 months before death is anticipated.

Hospice arrangements were coordinated with MSKCC, so I was sent home connected to a patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) pump allowing me to administer my own IV pain relief. With the press of a button, I can activate the fentanyl pump when/if the pain manages to break through the relief being provided by methadone, acetaminophen, gabapentin, and other oral analgesic drugs.

A hospital-style bed was waiting for me in our family room when I arrived home. Later that afternoon, members of the hospice team arrived to answer questions and ensure that I had all of my medications. It was a very smooth transition.

Lying in bed this morning, I could hear birds chirping outside as the first light of day crept over the horizon. Why was I awake so early? Perhaps it’s from the stimulative effects of the steroid medication. Maybe it’s just too hard to go back to sleep after finding myself once again tangled up in IV tubes connecting me to the fentanyl PCA.

My mind drifts to the principle of Occam’s razor: that the easiest explanation tends to be the right one. My mind is reeling over the fact that today marks another beautiful milestone. One that I didn’t think I would live to see, but am so blessed to witness. Today, Lorie and I celebrate our 27th wedding anniversary (Figure 1).

Many people are thankful to witness the dawn of a new day. My father-in-law used to say that any day he could wake up and tie his own shoelaces was a good day. I couldn’t relate to the sentiment at the time, but now as a terminal cancer patient on hospice—it makes perfect sense.

Consider the plight of people living with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and the impact of this awful condition on their caregivers. As time passes and the disease progresses, memory problems worsen. The AD patient may fail to recognize close relatives, which can lead to irritability, outbursts of unpremeditated aggression, or resistance to caregiving.

Similarly, cancer can induce cognitive impairment. This can be attributed to the direct effects of cancer itself and/or due to the adverse effects of the treatment(s) given for the disease. Most studies have identified attention, memory, and information processing as the most common cognitive domains impacted by cancer and cancer-related treatments.

I have been irritable as of late, which is likely a side-effect of stress, steroids, and other medications more so than disease progression. But most of my cognitive impairment is mild and relegated to simply forgetting something I said or did. Fortunately, it would take much, much more to impact my ability to recall that for the past 27 years I’ve been the luckiest man alive. Happy Anniversary, Lorie!

Michael and Lorie Becker, March 29, 1992
Figure 1: Michael and Lorie Becker, March 29, 1992

No Such Thing as “Risk-Free”

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.

Side-effects that Michael Becker has experienced from cancer and its treatment (click image to enlarge)

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.

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