Back on Track

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.

Michael Becker receiving chemotherapy at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

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.

Michael Becker asleep on the Amtrak train home. Although my blood counts are okay, Lorie is appropriately cautious and likes me to wear a mask when on the train or in other public spaces.

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.

Michael Becker with WHYY’s Dave Heller. (WHYY photo)

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.

Ending Up in the ICU

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.

Michael Becker in MSKCC’s ICU

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.

Adam Feuerstein’s Tweet

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.

Day Number Four in the Hospital

Life has been hectic since this past Sunday when Lorie and I drove to New York City for another visit to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s (MSKCCs) urgent care facility. Drainage from my chest tube once again changed from amber fluid to the color of a fine Cabernet wine, which signaled that bleeding resumed. More alarming was the accompanying shortness of breath and increased coughing. I was out of breath even from walking a short distance to go to the bathroom.

We arrived at MSKCC around 10am and, following a brief review of recent events, had a chest x-ray taken to get a quick read on the situation. The resulting images showed a complete “white-out” in the left lung, which indicated that fluid had essentially filled the entire space. Normally, the lungs look transparent or black on an x-ray due to air in the lungs.

The fact that I had only one viable lung explained the shortness of breath and coughing. What the x-ray couldn’t reveal was the composition of the fluid (serous fluid, blood, tumor) or its source. For more information, a CT scan was required and scheduled. Unfortunately, weekends at any hospital can be hectic and my CT scan didn’t take place until close to midnight and I was admitted.

Monday morning, we had the pleasure of meeting again with surgeon Dr. Bernard Park, deputy chief of clinical affairs, thoracic service at MSKCC. In December 2016, Dr. Park had successfully performed a bronchoscopy procedure to biopsy a suspicious lymph node near my airway. We knew that we were in good hands.

Dr. Park explained the situation and the requisite next-steps were abundantly clear. For whatever reason, the Aspira Pleural Drainage Catheter in my left lung wasn’t fully draining the fluid – especially towards the top section of my lung. That fluid needed to be drained in order to alleviate shortness of breath and coughing. How to best accomplish this was a source of significant discussion.

One short-term solution was to temporarily insert a plastic tube straight through the front of my chest into the top section of the lung to manually extract the fluid. This would require a brief stay in the hospital while the tube was present and it would be removed prior to going home. A longer-term solution was to place a second PleurX catheter that could be accessed whenever needed at home to extract fluid from the top section of the lung.

In either case, a potential pitfall was that the fluid in the upper section of the lung may actually be fibrotic scar tissue (called loculation) or tumor, preventing effective drainage. Dr. George Getrajdman, an interventional radiologist at MSKCC, proposed a step-wise procedure. First, he would try to extract the fluid near the top of the left lung using a syringe to see “if” anything could be extracted. If so, he could confidently proceed with placement of a second catheter (Option A) or the fluid could simply be drained with the syringe to see if that provided symptomatic relief before proceeding with more permanent catheter placement (Option B). Placing a temporary plastic tube was also a consideration (Option C), with the downside being that fluid accumulates again in the future – requiring another procedure. If no fluid could be extracted with a syringe, then the space was being occupied by something more solid (fibrotic scar tissue and/or tumor mass) and a catheter would be pointless. Ultimately, I decided to proceed with Option A.

Requiring more urgent resolution, however, was the recently discovered blood clot in my iliac vein near the pelvis and its potential to detach and cause a pulmonary embolism (PE) – a condition in which one or more arteries in the lungs become blocked by a blood clot, which could stop blood flow to the lung. With essentially only one lung functioning, a PE in my remaining viable lung would likely be fatal. Hence the sense of urgency.

Due to the recurrence of blood in the drainage from my original chest tube, we reached the point where taking anticoagulant medication (Lovenox®/ enoxaparin sodium) to treat and prevent deep vein thrombosis (DVT) was no longer viable and was discontinued. The only alternative was placement of an inferior vena cava (IVC) filter device designed to trap/prevent my blot clot from traveling from the largest vein in the body, the inferior vena cava, to the lungs or heart.

To insert an IVC filter, I was given medication to help relax and a local anesthetic to numb the area of insertion. Implanting the IVC filter was Dr. Getrajdman, who inserted a catheter through a small incision in my neck. Using X-rays images to guide the procedure, he advanced the IVC filter through the catheter and into the inferior vena cava. Once the IVC filter was in place, he removed the catheter and put a small bandage on the insertion site.

X-ray image following drainage of 1.5 liters of fluid from left lung showing air returning to the top portion (red circle).

Fortunately, Dr. Getrajdman was also able to deal with the left lung issue during the same procedure. Approximately 1.5 liters of fluid were successfully acquired from the top portion of the lung, so he proceeded with placement of a second catheter as planned/hoped. Both procedures took about 1.5 hours in total to complete. Afterwards, an x-ray confirmed that the top portion of the lung was free of fluid as shown in the accompanying image.

My breathing improved immediately following the procedure and I felt fine with all of the pain medication. However, waking up the next day (Tuesday) I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. There was a fair amount of pain at both the incision on my neck from the IVC filter insertion and the newly placed catheter site. As the day progressed, the pain diminished and I started feeling much better.

By late afternoon, tissue plasminogen activator (TPA) was injected through my original Aspira chest tube to help clear the line by breaking down blood clots. Afterwards, we were trained on using the “new” PleurX catheter and then proceeded with draining fluid from both the top and bottom catheters. The top PleurX catheter rapidly drained 500cc of fluid, which looked far less bloody than what had previously been extracted from the bottom. We were only able to drain 200cc of fluid from the bottom Aspira catheter, which was still bloody and thicker. It’s speculated that the fluid from the bottom was left over from before and there was no active bleeding, which will be confirmed by monitoring hemoglobin levels.

With the IVC filter in place and the ability to drain both top/bottom fluid from my left lung, I was able to proceed with my second dose of chemotherapy while in the hospital. This consisted solely of paclitaxel and then next week should be my initial loading dose with cetuximab.

We’re planning to try draining both chest tube sites today (Wednesday) and looking for further improvement in subsequent chest x-rays. Assuming all goes well, I should be released from the hospital but need to stay in NYC overnight and see my oncologist tomorrow. I’m feeling much better now, but the coming days should be when the effects of my first week of chemotherapy (paclitaxel/carboplatin) start materializing. In any event, I’ll be happy to get home hopefully tomorrow and see how big our new puppy Humphrey has grown in the short time we’ve been away.

Never Thought I’d Do It Again

Despite the hectic backdrop of late, I’ve been busy researching treatment options for patients like me with incurable squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN). My first inclination was to pursue another immunotherapy, as there are a lot of clinical trials with novel immunotherapies and combinations currently recruiting. With my disease progressing, however, I felt that perhaps a more aggressive approach backed by data was warranted.

For example, one viable option is the chemotherapy-based “EXTREME” regimen with 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), cisplatin or carboplatin, and the monoclonal antibody Erbitux® (cetuximab). Initially, I discounted this option because 5-FU-based regimens can be associated with significant toxicities. Nonetheless, a multicenter phase III trial in SCCHN demonstrated a 36% longer median overall survival using the EXTREME regimen versus chemotherapy alone (10.1 months vs. 7.4 months, respectively). It was the kind of data-based treatment I was seeking, but I was really against receiving 5-FU.

One of the many nasty side effects from 5-FU is palmar-plantar erythrodysesthesia (PPE), also known as hand-foot syndrome (HFS). There are currently no treatments or preventions for HFS, which is characterized by tingling in the palms, fingers and soles of feet and by erythema, which may progress to burning pain with dryness, cracking, desquamation, ulceration and oedema.

I learned a lot about HFS while serving as CEO of VioQuest Pharmaceuticals. The company was developing a 1% uracil topical formulation to prevent HFS. Uracil is a naturally occurring substrate that directly competes with 5-FU for the enzymes that metabolize 5-FU to its toxic metabolites. When applied topically, the concentration of uracil in the skin greatly exceeds the concentrations of 5-FU, thus blocking the formation of 5-FU’s toxic metabolites. Unfortunately, there haven’t been any updates on the product’s development status since April 2010 according to ClinicalTrials.gov.

When we arrived at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) late Sunday evening, I had already decided that if it came down to the EXTREME regimen as my best option – I would simply forgo further treatment, contact hospice, and let things progress naturally.

Fortunately, my medical oncologist at MSKCC, Dr. David Pfister, suggested replacing 5-FU with weekly paclitaxel, resulting in a chemotherapy regimen known as PCC (paclitaxel, carboplatin, and cetuximab), that has been found to be efficacious and well-tolerated in patients with SCCHN when used as induction chemotherapy. As a result, 5-FU and paclitaxel can be viewed as somewhat interchangeable, but paclitaxel offers a more favorable toxicity profile.

Unlike the two chemotherapeutics, cetuximab is a chimeric human-murine monoclonal antibody (mAb). MAb therapy, the most widely used form of cancer immunotherapy today, is a form of “passive” immunotherapy that often does not require the patient’s immune system to take an active role in fighting the cancer.

Cetuximab targets and binds to epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFR) that are found on the surface of many normal cells and cancer cells. Doing so stops the cell from continuing the signaling pathway that promotes cell division and growth, effectively stopping the cancer by stopping the cancerous cells from growing and multiplying.

I’m a big believer in the power of immunotherapy and believe that my recent treatment with the experimental M7824 (first-in-class, bispecific fusion protein of an avelumab-like antibody linked to two molecules of TGF-beta trap) had a positive effect on my disease. More importantly, there may even be synergy between what M7824 has done so far in combination with the PCC regimen. Even if the PCC regimen only shrinks my lung tumors, the reduction in disease burden could help future immunotherapy treatments be more efficacious.

Starting treatment with the two chemotherapeutics (paclitaxel and carboplatin) on 7/18/17 at MSKCC

Having plenty of time to weigh the future treatment options while the bleeding issue with my chest tube was being addressed, I decided that Dr. Pfister’s proposed PCC regimen made a lot of sense. Much to my surprise, I was able to start treatment with the two chemotherapeutics (paclitaxel and carboplatin) on Tuesday and return home that evening. Next Tuesday I will receive my first loading dose of cetuximab.

Regarding the bloody drainage from my chest tube referenced in my prior post, I had a liter of fluid drained using a vacuum-like device connected to my catheter and the drainage returned to a healthier apple juice color. I was started on Lovenox again while continually monitoring the fluid output through the tube looking for the color to change back to bloody. Fortunately, the color remained the same and it looks like Lovenox wasn’t the likely culprit. I’m back on Lovenox and so far, so good.

I never thought I’d say the phrase “I’m back on chemotherapy.” But here I am, continuing the fight. Why? Because Lorie slept at a hotel on our second night in NYC to get some much-needed rest and my mind went drifting down memory lane as I sat alone in the patient room at MSKCC. I thought about all the good times we shared, the family we raised, and how much we love each other. I cried and cried. Suddenly, I knew that if chemotherapy could give me even just one more day with her, it would be worth the drug’s side effects.

And yes, there is still the hope of doing better and living longer than expected. The chances are remote, but not zero. More updates soon…

It Could Always Be Worse

After a full day of activities yesterday, Lorie and I decided to grab an early dinner in Bethesda, MD at a restaurant recommended to us. We really haven’t explored much of the local establishments, so it was nice to venture out and try something new.

We sat down and I immediately focused on the cheese appetizer selection and ordered three different types. Half way through the appetizer, however, my cell phone rang. It was Dr. Strauss from the NIH.

I could tell from the initial line of questioning (are you still at NIH, where are you now, are you alone, etc.) that bad news would shortly follow. Sure enough, yesterday’s CT scan revealed a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) on the left side of my pelvis and Dr. Strauss requested that we promptly return to NIH to start treatment with Lovenox (enoxaparin). With that, we paid our restaurant bill and left our dinners behind to take an Uber back to NIH.

VIDEO CAPTION: 3D CT image from NIH showing tumor locations highlighted in green. The largest mass (lower right) is from my spleen.

Both Dr. Gulley and Dr. Strauss met us back at NIH in the day hospital and we went to an empty treatment room to talk in private. Unfortunately, the blood clot was merely a sideshow for the bigger news, which was that several tumors increased in size from the prior scan taken 6-weeks ago. For the first time, my outlook was black & white: the cancer was winning the tug-of-war with my body’s immune system. Receiving further treatment with the experimental agent M7824 would be hard to justify and more aggressive treatment, such as chemotherapy, appeared to be the favored next step.

After a brief tutorial on self-injecting Lovenox twice daily, we returned to the hotel and planned on meeting early the next morning to review the CT scans and have further discussion. The mood was somber and neither one of us slept very well.

Michael and Lorie Becker reviewing CT images with Drs. James Gulley and Les Folio of NIH. Photo credit: Daniel Sone of NCI

The NIH is only one of two places to have advanced imaging technology that was truly fascinating and dramatically improves the ability to visualize and follow specific tumors over time. Personally, I was amazed by the progress radiology has made since I last reviewed such images. We were engrossed in discussion about the various images displayed on the three monitor screens when Lorie’s phone rang. It was our oldest daughter Rosie.

The first few calls were easy to dismiss since we were in an important meeting, but then came a text – “emergency.” Driving home from class, Rosie apparently veered into the lane of oncoming traffic and hit another car going 30-40 MPH. All of the airbags deployed and the car is totaled. She was taken to the local hospital for x-rays, but nothing was broken and she was released. We understand the driver of the other car is okay as well.

Immediately, my mind wandered from my own mortality being visualized on the computer screens to how Rosie’s accident could have been far, far worse – perhaps even fatal. I’m not sure exactly how I would have reacted to that news on top of my disease update, but I do know it would pale by comparison to my own situation.

On more than one occasion, Lorie and I have uttered the words “it could always be worse.” Lately, it has been harder and harder to make that statement. However, with Rosie largely unharmed in what could have been disastrous, today definitely could have been worse.

I will blog more about my condition and treatment options in future posts after digesting all of the information from the past 48-hours. In the meantime, with no infusion of M7824 today, we are on the train home to be with Rosie.

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Thankful

It’s that time of year again; where we get together with family and friends to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. It is also a time for reflection and appreciation, which has even greater meaning for me this year.

It was the day before the Thanksgiving holiday in 2015 when I first discovered a suspicious lump protruding from the right side of my neck. The formal diagnosis of Stage IV oropharyngeal cancer would occur several weeks later, but I knew at the time that the palpable growth just below my jaw line was anything but benign.

As a senior executive working in the field of biotechnology, and in particular the area of oncology, being diagnosed with cancer was difficult – but hearing “Stage 4” was especially disheartening. While staging systems are specific for each type of cancer, in general the cancer stage refers to the size and extent of the disease and is assigned a number from 1 to 4. If my cancer was confined to the right tonsil (where it started…) and hadn’t spread elsewhere, I would have been diagnosed with Stage 1 disease. Localized spreading would have been Stage 2 and depending on the extent of involvement of nearby lymph nodes – progress to Stage 3. When cancer has metastasized, or spread to other organs or throughout the body, it can be classified as Stage 4 and may also be called advanced or metastatic cancer. Stage 4 usually carries a grim prognosis compared to earlier stages of the disease.

Accordingly, when one is diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, the immediate concern is whether or not the individual will be able to survive the disease. For me, however, the bigger concern was surviving the treatments and their side effects. In particular, my experience licensing and launching a product to treat oral mucositis made me very familiar with this debilitating side effect from both radiation and chemotherapy.

When reviewing treatment options with Dr. David Pfister, my medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), I was really hoping that I would be a candidate for recent advances, such as biologic agents and immunotherapies. This was due to my familiarity with their targeted and less toxic profiles, especially when compared with chemotherapy and radiation. In fact, back in early April 2010 I published a 150-page industry report titled “Cancer Vaccine Therapies: Failures and Future Opportunities” and later that year held the inaugural “Cancer Immunotherapy: A Long-Awaited Reality” conference that took place at the New York Academy of Medicine in New York. For more information and background on immunotherapy, read “Insight: Training immune system to fight cancer comes of age” by Bill Berkrot of Reuters.

Unfortunately, approved targeted agents like Erbitux® (cetuximab) still require combination with radiation therapy and its associated side effects. Immunotherapies, such as Opdivo® (nivolumab) and Keytruda® (pembrolizumab) were only recently approved by the FDA to treat head and neck cancer, but their initial indications are limited to patients with disease progression during or after chemotherapy. I remain hopeful that use of these and other new agents will expand to newly-diagnosed patients going forward and that ultimately we no longer rely upon chemotherapy or radiation to treat this disease.

Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see two new drugs approved to treat head and neck cancer this year and know that there are options for me in the unfortunate event that my disease returns. In this regard, I was glad to help ring the Nasdaq Stock Market Opening Bell last month to celebrate cancer immunotherapy advances and the one-year listing anniversary of the Loncar Cancer Immunotherapy ETF (Ticker: CNCR). I first met Brad Loncar (@bradloncar on Twitter), Chief Executive Officer of Loncar Investments, at my inaugural cancer immunotherapy conference and he was kind enough to extend me an invitation to the Nasdaq event.

Photograph by Christopher Galluzzo / @NASDAQ
Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, Ph.D., CEO and Director of Scientific Affairs of the Cancer Research Institute, Brad Loncar, Chief Executive Officer of Loncar Investments, and Michael Becker. Photograph by Christopher Galluzzo / NASDAQ

Ultimately, I went through seven weeks of daily radiation and three cycles of chemotherapy at the start of this year, which as actor Michael Douglas was quoted “somehow seemed very accurately mapped to the seven circles of hell.” In 2010, Michael Douglas was also diagnosed with Stage 4 oropharyngeal cancer and went through the same treatment regimen at MSKCC in New York.

So, while this year started off rough (understatement), I am extremely lucky and thankful to have no evidence of cancer following treatment and to finally be free of “most” of the debilitating side effects from therapy. For example, in recent months I have noticed a dramatic improvement in both energy level and saliva output and have started to reverse a 40-pound decline in weight I experienced during and after treatment.

Aside from eternal gratitude for my wife and daughters’ love and support throughout the process, I would like to extend a special thanks to all of the healthcare providers at MSKCC for their superb care. From my “dream team” consisting of medical oncologist Dr. David Pfister, radiation oncologist Dr. Nancy Lee, and surgeon Dr. Benjamin Roman to amazing nurse practitioner Nicole Leonhart and all of the others who cared for me. I wouldn’t be here today without you!

Photo of Michael Becker and Dr. Nancy Lee
Photograph of Michael Becker with radiation oncologist Dr. Nancy Lee of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) taken November 18, 2016

For my family, friends, and colleagues – too numerous to name – thank you again to EVERYONE that helped in some way…the thoughts, emails, prayer chains, food deliveries, financial support, hospital visits, etc. were all greatly appreciated.

My next PET scan is scheduled for early February 2017 and I hope to report that all remains clear around that time.

PS – as a native of Chicago and loyal fan, I am also thankful to have witnessed the Cubs baseball team winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years in 2016! Go Cubs Go!

Looking Over Your Shoulder

CancerAs I approach the five-month mark since completing chemoradiation, I can FINALLY start to see light at the end of the tunnel. Just this month, I’ve started to notice significant improvement in both energy and ambition. A few weekends ago, I actually went out to see a movie, ran errands, did a photoshoot, and even jump-started a car. It seemed like a miracle! Prior to that, my weekend activities consisted solely of laying on the couch napping or watching television after managing to get through the exhausting work week routine.

I’m not sure if the increased energy was related to my body finally starting to heal or the fact that a few weeks ago I started taking a special type of ginseng supplement that has been shown to help with cancer treatment-related fatigue. For more information, you can read about it here. Either way, the difference is dramatic compared to a month ago.

Unfortunately, my appetite isn’t quite back to normal and my weight is now down 46 pounds from the start of therapy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to have shed those unwanted pounds – but I don’t think the chemoradiation diet fad will catch on anytime soon. Aside from not being hungry, my saliva output is still greatly diminished and that impacts on food selection and taste.

However, with the recent favorable PET scan, energy returning, and being back to what I consider my ideal weight – you’d think the word “cancer” would slowly start to fade from everyday thoughts and discussion. Not so.

Case in point: this past weekend. A series of minor gastrointestinal issues was easy to dismiss until escalating Friday evening. After vomiting for the fifth time during the evening, I briefly passed out while making my way to the bathroom and my wife had to call 911. While I couldn’t imagine any possible connection between head/neck cancer and the new gastrointestinal symptoms, it didn’t stop me from going to that “dark place” while laying face down on the bathroom floor and during the short ambulance ride to the hospital (PS – my first ambulance ride; not as exciting as it seems on television). Fortunately, this was one of the few non-cancer related trips to the emergency room and I was simply diagnosed with the norovirus, also known as the winter vomiting bug (lucky me to catch such a bug during the middle of summer…). After receiving two bags of intravenous solution to replenish my electrolytes, along with anti-nausea medication, I was released and felt much better by Monday.

What I hear from other cancer survivors is true – every little ache or anything out of the ordinary immediately causes anxiety that the disease has somehow returned. You are always looking over your shoulder.

Week #7 – Done and Done

Friday marked the last day of my seven week chemoradiation therapy journey. Aside from some routine follow-up appointments and recovering from lingering toxicities, I will now wait several months for the repeat PET scan that will provide some insight as to whether or not the treatment was a success. Of course, I’m trying to stay optimistic that the combination of radiation and chemotherapy treatments that I endured over the past seven weeks successfully eliminated all of the cancer – but there is always that nagging thought that it did not and that leaves a pit in my stomach.

Michael Becker's Radiation Mask
Michael Becker’s Radiation Mask

Fortunately, on Friday I was able to take home with me the dreaded radiation mask (see enclosed image). No longer will I need to wear this mask for daily radiation therapy, which makes me VERY happy. The nuclear technicians offered humorous insight as to what other patients do with their masks after radiation treatment is done.  Some make decorative items, such as flower pots. Others simply burn them in a sadistic revenge ceremony, which I must admit holds a certain type of appeal. Although it somehow conjures up thoughts of Darth Vader’s helmet, last seen burning in a funeral pyre in ‘The Return of the Jedi,’ winding up in the hands of Kylo Ren in the ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ movie…

Regardless of what I do with my mask, I am enjoying a certain freedom knowing that I’m no longer beholden to a daily treatment schedule and that I have received the very best treatment possible for my disease by the entire team at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). It is amazing how quickly the seven week treatment cycle passed and it all seems like a blur right now. While I did not look forward to the daily radiation treatment, the appointments were at least a reminder that I was doing something to treat the disease. Now I have that same empty feeling that plagued me when I was first diagnosed and searching for the best treatment – the feeling that I should be doing something but cannot.

Final Day of Chemotherapy

Today was my last chemotherapy appointment. It was bittersweet watching the final drops of cisplatin fall from the bag, stream down the winding tubes, and finally enter the intravenous line into my vein.

On the positive side, I was able to complete all of the three cycles of chemotherapy that are associated with the encouraging survival rates published by the physicians at MSKCC. Some patients don’t make it through all three cycles due to side effects, and I was nervous earlier this week when I started running a fever that they may skip the last cycle.

On the negative side, the week following chemotherapy has been difficult for me in terms of nausea and a general sense of feeling crappy. On top of that, the doctors keep reminding me that the coming few weeks will be the toughest. This is due to the cumulative effects of both radiation and chemotherapy, as the two therapies continue to exert their toxic effects even after they are discontinued.

Michael Becker and Daughter Megan in the Chemotherapy Suite at MSKCC
Michael Becker and Daughter Megan in the Chemotherapy Suite at MSKCC

Fortunately, I was joined not only by Lorie but also my youngest daughter Megan. Megan was able to come to NYC thanks to Lorie’s best friend since 3rd grade of elementary school – Debby Novack. She came into town to help out after Lorie’s sister went back to Illinois after her three week tour of duty. Not an overly exciting day for Megan sitting around the chemotherapy suite and shuffling between various appointments, but it was great having her there.

The following two days (Thursday and Friday) are also my final days of radiation therapy. It will be so nice to have at least part of my life back next week – not having to be a slave to the daily treatments and the three chemotherapy cycles. Any remaining doctor appointments will simply be routine checkups leading up to a PET scan in approximately 3-4 months to determine in part whether or not the treatment was successful or if further intervention is needed.

Most important, my lower back pain has greatly subsided and I can get up and down much better than even a few days ago. Either the muscle spasm went away on its own or the myriad of pain medicines and muscle relaxers finally started working. Regardless, I’m happy and better positioned to deal with the coming weeks with one less ailment to worry about.

Snake Eyes

It seems as though each time I make an optimistic blog post, something goes wrong. Since my last post was titled “Lucky Seven,” it seemed appropriate to keep with the gambling theme and title this one “Snake Eyes.” For those unfamiliar with the term, a throw of two ones with a pair of dice results in the lowest possible score, and by extension the term is also used to reference bad luck¹.

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Snake Eyes

Today was supposed to be the start of my final round of chemotherapy, with the second and final day on Tuesday. Sunday night, however, I started running a temperature of 102 degrees Fahrenheit that prompted my second trip to the urgent care center at MSKCC over the weekend. The obvious concerns being influenza, bacterial infection, etc. that would delay receiving chemotherapy.

After a variety of tests, influenza and infection were ruled out. While it is possible to run a low grade temperature from daily radiation, a high temperature such as mine is unexpected. This left all of us wondering what was causing my fever and why it was so high. Since there was no immediate cause for concern, they decided not to admit me overnight and said that I could use Tylenol for the fever. They acknowledged that it was unlikely I’d be receiving chemotherapy on Monday.

The next day (Monday) I saw Nicole – the nurse practitioner. I could tell she was on the fence proceeding with chemotherapy that day given that my temperature was again above 100 degree Fahrenheit. She conferred with Dr. David Pfister my medical oncologist and they opted to be cautious and postpone chemotherapy by one day. The only good news is that this shouldn’t change my final day of chemoradiation therapy which is this Friday.

Around the time of my daily radiation treatment, my temperature had dropped to low grade and I’m hopeful that we can continue with chemotherapy tomorrow morning. Separate from having cancer or receiving treatment, my lower back pain continues to be a problem so they switched me to some stronger opioid medications. I’m not talking minor pain or discomfort – but rather debilitating pain making it tough to get out of bed or getting up from a sitting position. I’ve experienced lower back pain issues in the past, but they usually only last a day or two and aren’t this severe.

It’s the final stretch and I “should” be done with therapy this Friday, so I’m trying not to complain. Hopefully these are just minor speed bumps on the road to Friday and then recovery. Until then, keep those thoughts, prayers, and good vibes coming!

¹ http://wordsmith.org/words/snake_eyes.html

 

Steady As It Goes

The second round of chemotherapy and end of Week #4 was relatively uneventful – especially when compared with the first cycle when I came down with the flu. The biggest changes are increased taste alteration and fatigue.

Michael Becker Receiving IV Hydration
Michael Becker Receiving IV Hydration

My heart rate and blood pressure were elevated this week, so my physician ordered an extra 2-hour intravenous hydration session. Frankly, I was happy to do so – as I planned on coming home to Pennsylvania for the extended weekend.

I took the train home on Friday afternoon, but spent most of the day on Saturday sleeping which isn’t like me at all. I’m not normally one to take naps, but the fatigue from radiation and chemotherapy makes it hard to even keep my eyes open at times. I feel like I’m sleeping the entire weekend away!

Lorie’s sister Maureen is in town for a few weeks and has been a tremendous help around the house. She’s also a great cook and has been making some fabulous meals, although I just haven’t been up to eating them and have very little appetite. However, Lorie and the kids are enjoying them.

Sunday (today) is Lorie’s birthday in addition to being Valentine’s Day, which is another reason why I really wanted to make it home this weekend. I definitely owe her a proper celebration after we are past the cancer treatment, but in the meantime it will be nice to have a small celebration at home.

Monday starts Week #5 and it looks like March 4th will be my last radiation session. From what the doctors tell me, this is where things start to get rough with the treatment. Accordingly, I’m a bit nervous about what the coming days/weeks will bring…

Second Round of Chemotherapy

Today was the start of week #4 for my chemoradiation treatment. It was also the second time that I was scheduled to receive chemotherapy (cisplatin) in addition to my daily radiation treatment. I receive a total of three chemotherapy treatments – one at the beginning, one in the middle, and then one at the end of my therapy.

Fortunately, I felt well enough last Friday to come home to Pennsylvania for the weekend. It was great to see my wife and kids, pets, and sleep in my own bed for the second weekend in a row. I was really glad I could make it, since I missed being with Rosie for her 18th birthday during the week while I was in NYC. I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t with her to celebrate her birthday in person, although I was able to FaceTime and sing happy birthday.

This morning, my wife and I took the morning train from Bucks County, PA into NYC for my chemotherapy appointment. I was feeling a lot of pain this morning from the mouth sores and for the first time in my throat as well. I was miserable the entire train ride, but made it to New York and we headed to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) for treatment.

The day started with radiation therapy and then an appointment for blood work and then a meeting with Nicole – the nurse practitioner before starting chemotherapy. Last week when I met with her, she prescribed gabapentin and a lidocaine gel to help manage the pain. Today when I communicated my current pain level to her, she also prescribed Oxycodone. After about 30-minutes, the pain was improving and continued to do so throughout the next few hours with the Oxycodone. Nicole also mentioned that the steroids administered as part of the chemotherapy could also help with inflammation and might help alleviate the mouth and throat pain.

Chemotherapy (cisplatin) infusion pump

My chemotherapy was scheduled for 1pm, but the routine blood test came back with some bizarre readings in the metabolic panel. In fact, had the results been correct – the nurse said my heart would likely have stopped! Needless to say, they also couldn’t proceed with chemotherapy if the results were accurate. They needed to take another blood test to determine whether or not the readings were true. Not surprisingly, the first results were wrong and the second set was perfectly normal. As a result, the chemotherapy treatment proceeded – but not until around 2:30pm.

I finally finished chemotherapy at 7:45pm and Lorie and I went to a nearby restaurant for a late dinner before heading to the apartment. The second dose of Oxycodone left me feeling little pain and I actually had an appetite. It was the first time I felt comfortable going out to eat in more than three weeks. The French toast sounded like a good bet for some much needed calories and I ate the entire portion except for some of the crust. It was a fantastic end to a day that started off a little rough.

Tomorrow is the second day of chemotherapy and then I’m back to just daily radiation for the next few weeks. It will be interesting to see how I handle this round of chemotherapy as opposed to the first round when I came down with the flu.

Week One and Done

Following this evening’s (Friday) radiation treatment, I will have completed week one of my 6-7 week chemoradiation treatment schedule. No therapy is given on the weekends and I’m very much looking forward to the upcoming two-day break despite the dire winter weather forecast.

Monday and Tuesday’s chemotherapy sessions took a toll by Wednesday of this week as the nausea side effect started to really kick into gear. After switching to a different anti-nausea medication (ondansetron) later that day, things improved a bit. By Thursday, I was “mildly” interested in food again – although meals don’t quite taste the same now. Known as dysgeusia, this alteration in taste is a common complaint of patients undergoing chemotherapy and research indicates that 46-77% of patients receiving chemotherapy report changes in taste (Bernhardson, Tishelman, & Rutqvist, 2008).

I was able to move into an apartment in New York this week, which makes a huge difference in terms of commuting to both work and daily radiation therapy appointments. It’s walking distance to both my oncologist and radiation oncologist, which is quite convenient. The biggest downside is not being able to see my wife and kids daily, but I’m trying to stay focused on the relatively short duration of treatment and looking forward to being back home in a few months.

In addition to daily radiation therapy, next week’s appointment schedule includes some PET imaging studies, which will provide some insight into how treatment is impacting the cancer.

Treatment – Day One and Two

Yesterday (Jan 18) was my first day of therapy. As expected, it was bittersweet. On one hand, it felt great to finally get started with attacking the disease. The flip side is knowing what lurks around the corner in terms of side effects.

Michael Becker in chemotherapy lounge at MSKCC
Michael Becker in chemotherapy lounge at MSKCC (click to enlarge)

The day started at 8:45am with bloodwork and consultation with a nurse to answer any remaining questions. Next was two hours of intravenous fluids, an hour of intravenous anti-nausea medications and kidney protection medication, an hour of intravenous chemotherapy, and then two more hours of intravenous fluids. Of the six hour total infusion time, the four hours of fluids cover flushing out the kidneys, which are at risk for damage from the chemotherapy.

The time actually passed quickly. My wife and I chatted throughout, had a small lunch, checked emails, etc. Not quite a day at the spa, but no unpleasant surprises. It’s so great having her by my side! Luvya babe.

The fun wasn’t over yet. Next was a shuttle bus to the radiation center for that component of the therapy. The radiation treatment is only about ten minutes, but there is setup time, changing clothes, etc. that take up about an hour total.

You do not feel anything during the radiation treatment.  The side effects come later, so literally you leave day one feeling emotionally drained but physically fine. The worst part of radiation treatment is that darn mask! The confining nature of the mask and being pinned to the table is more of a mental challenge than anything else.

Today (Tue), I woke up early at 5am feeling wide awake, which can be a side effect from the steroids they gave me. However, a short while later I started to get a bit nauseous. It was disturbing to see the chemotherapy side effect so soon after treatment, but I took a pill for nausea they prescribed and felt better after about 30-minutes.

My wife and I stopped for breakfast and I was able to order my favorite banana toast meal from Bluestone Lane and had some coffee as well. We then headed over to MSKCC for day two of chemoradiation.

For the next few weeks, I won’t have to do the 5-6 hour chemotherapy. During that period, I “simply” have daily radiation Monday-Friday. Then, around week three I go through the same two-day chemotherapy with radiation and the process repeats. The total treatment cycle is 6-7 weeks.

The biggest epiphany so far is that commuting to New York daily for both treatment and work is likely going to be too much. As a result, I’m getting a temporary apartment in NY for the next few months. Not a cheap solution, but a necessary one – especially when side effects start to appear around week three or four. Fortunately, family has been there to help offset the added and unforseen expenses (thanks again!).

Lastly, to everyone that posts on my Facebook page, comments on this blog, emails, texts me on my phone, etc. – I can’t tell you how much it means to me. The kind notes and supportive words really do keep my spirits high. Thank you!

Crossroads

It’s coincidental that after spending so many years leading a few small, oncology-focused biotechnology companies developing immunotherapies, radiopharmaceutical agents, and supportive care oncology products, I am now utilizing that experience, knowledge and network to make informed treatment decisions following my cancer diagnosis. Like driving down a familiar road, I am constantly seeing landmarks and signs that I know quite well from my time in the industry.

For example, some of the common side effects from chemotherapy and radiation therapy include oral mucositis (painful ulcers in the mucosa) and xerostomia (dry mouth). I studied these two side effects extensively as part of the due diligence process when I licensed and launched an advanced electrolyte solution called Caphosol® back in 2006. Based on this experience, I know what to expect from my chemoradiation treatment and hope to incorporate Caphosol into my arsenal against these debilitating side effects.

295077-smallWhile the streets may be familiar at times, I am still faced with difficult decisions at some of the crossroads. The latest example arose during yesterday’s follow-up visit with Dr. David Pfister, my medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). Separate from my upcoming daily radiation treatments, the appointment largely focused on scheduling my three chemotherapy infusions and discussing what to expect in terms of side effects from the treatment. The chemotherapy I will receive is called cisplatin, which was first approved for use in testicular and ovarian cancers back in 1978.  The list of potential toxicities includes nausea, constipation, kidney issues, hearing issues, and others.  The conversation shifted to potential clinical trials and Dr. Pfister mentioned one that is exploring an alternative to chemotherapy that may have less side effects. In the study, the chemotherapy agent (cisplatin) is replaced by Erbitux® (cetuximab) – another FDA approved agent for treating head and neck cancer. Erbitux is an inhibitor of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), a receptor found on both normal and tumor cells that is important for cell growth. But the study also adds an investigational agent BYL719, which is an inhibitor of PI3K, an enzyme which fuels the growth of several types of cancer. Having worked at several companies developing inhibitors of the PI3K pathway, this was more familiar territory. However, trading the proven results with cisplatin for “potentially” similar efficacy with lower side effects from the investigational combination is a difficult crossroad.

On the one hand, the aforementioned clinical trial includes an approved agent for treating head and neck cancer (Erbitux).  This is different from some other clinical trial designs that include a placebo arm or an arm with only an investigational agent. However, Erbitux has its own side effects and there are unanswered questions in the medical community regarding whether or not Erbitux is “as good” as cisplatin. As a result some physicians only use Erbitux as a replacement for cisplatin when the patient cannot tolerate cisplatin’s toxicities. In my mind, forgoing cisplatin and its proven efficacy could jeopardize the potential for cure. Partially offsetting this risk is the inclusion of a promising new investigational agent – the PI3K inhibitor BYL719 being developed by Novartis. The PI3K pathway is widely known in the oncology community as a potential target for cancer therapy – and in particular head and neck cancer. Preclinical data suggest that simultaneous inhibition of PI3K and EGFR leads to synergistic antitumor activity in head and neck cancer, but future randomized trials are required to answer the question of whether or not the combination is equal to (or better than) cisplatin. Lastly, BYL719 is an investigational agent and although it appears well-tolerated in studies to date, side effects may arise as more and more patients are exposed to the drug.

Ultimately, I decided to stick with the more established cisplatin for a variety of reasons. First, it is my understanding that the radiation therapy, which would be included regardless of whether I opted for cisplatin or the investigational Erbitux/BYL719 combination, is the driving force for both cure AND debilitating side effects.  Most of cisplatin’s side effects, such as nausea, constipation, and other issues, can be partially offset with medication and hydration. Second, cisplatin has been around for decades and appears to be the gold standard in combination with radiation for Stage IV head and neck cancer and it is hard to argue with the clinical data supporting its use to date. Lastly, in the unfortunate event that my chemoradiation therapy isn’t effective – I can always explore investigational treatments as a next step.