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!

Book Re-Released

When I first started seriously writing my memoir in January 2017, I was in a bit of rush to get it completed. At the time, my disease outlook was less than favorable and I didn’t know how much time I would have to write. Somehow, I was able to complete and publish “A Walk with Purpose: Memoir of a Bioentrepreneur” before the end of April that same year.

Since then, my cancer has responded well to the current chemotherapy regimen. Six-months after publishing my book things are still stable — although I’m living from CT scan to CT scan.

After stepping away from my book for a while, I recently took the time to reread it with a fresh set of eyes. Besides, a lot has transpired over the last six-months. With the benefit of more time, I sought to revise some sections and remove others. I also updated the ending of the story to reflect my current prognosis.

If you have purchased an eBook version of the novel in the past, the new version is now available via Amazon at no cost. Simply update the content on your “Manage Your Content and Devices” page (www.amazon.com/gp/digital/fiona/manage).

Customers who download eBooks through Kindle Unlimited will receive the updated content as long as they haven’t returned the Kindle Unlimited borrow before the content update is initiated.

At this time, customers who download eBooks through Kindle Owners’ Lending Library don’t receive updated content.

Going forward, anyone who purchases either the paperback or eBook version will receive only the new, updated copy. To verify whether or not you are viewing the new/updated version, look for the text “5.1.101817” at the end of the copyright page (see red circle in image example).

While it’s not a complete rewrite, there are substantial updates throughout for those considering whether or not to reread the book.

Good News and TGIF

Earlier this week, I had my periodic CT scan to determine whether or not the chemotherapy I’ve been receiving is continuing to work. I just received word from MSKCC moments ago that indeed many of the tumors continued to shrink compared to my last imaging procedure in August (which showed a decrease in tumor size almost across the board). Importantly, there weren’t any new lung metastasis.

Raspberry flavored, oral contrast agent to drink before CT scan

Clearly, this is very good news. In a perfect world, one would like to see all the tumors completely disappear. That would be highly unusual, so I will gladly accept serial decreases in the tumors from period-to-period.

This coming Tuesday, I should receive my chemotherapy doublet (provided that my blood counts are sufficient).

That’s all for now…short and sweet…as I am going to hug my family and enjoy the weekend.

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.

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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Collecting More Information

Following Tuesday’s news that several of the tumors in my lungs actually increased in size and a new spot appeared on my spleen, Lorie and I headed back to the NIH on Thursday for more tests to help better guide subsequent treatment decisions.

The first test was a CT image of my brain taken Thursday mid-afternoon, which would be used to rule out the spread of cancer to that particular organ. Patients with brain metastases are often excluded from clinical trials due to historically dismal survival and concerns about blood brain barrier drug penetration. Fortunately, we learned the next morning that this test came back negative for cancer progression to the brain.

The second test on Friday was an image-guided biopsy of a single lung nodule to help guide between cancer progression and inflammation as the reason for the increase in size seen on the recent CT scan on the lungs. In my case, a core needle biopsy was performed, which is less invasive than surgical biopsy and doesn’t require general anesthesia.

Early Friday morning, Dr. Elliot Levy, an interventional radiologists at NIH trained in radiology and minimally invasive procedures, met with us first to discuss the procedure. He pulled up a cross sectional image of my lungs, which showed several of the suspicious nodules.

CT scan of my lungs, showing target nodule for biopsy with two lines representing potential needle angles for biopsy. Other nodules within the lungs circled in red, which could be more dangerous to biopsy.

One in particular was located in the pleural cavity – normally a thin membrane that lines the surface of the lungs and the inside of the chest wall outside the lungs. In the bottom of my left lung, however, fluid built up in the pleural cavity where one of the nodules was located. Dr. Levy explained to us how this nodule could be biopsied without puncturing the lung lobe, which can result in a longer hospital stay.

Sometimes, a collapsed lung (pneumothorax) occurs after a lung biopsy.  As a precaution, a chest x-ray is taken after the procedure to check for this before sending the patient home.

After meeting with Dr. Levy, I was escorted back to the biopsy procedure room and placed on my right side on a table. I was consciously sedated, produced by the administration of two medications: a single dose of fentanyl given intravenously that can produce good analgesia for 20-45 minutes, and midazolam, which has a fast-acting, short-lived sedative effect when given intravenously, achieving sedation within one to five minutes and peaking within 30 minutes. The combination produces an altered level of consciousness that still allows a patient to respond to physical stimulation and verbal commands, and to maintain an unassisted airway. Midazolam is a primary choice for conscious sedation because it causes patients to have no recollection of the medical procedure.

Dr. Levy worked out of sight behind me to perform the biopsy, as he went through my back side. I was fairly nervous going into the procedure, but everything went extremely well with absolutely no pain or unexpected events due to the sedation.

After recovery, a subsequent chest x-ray confirmed that the lungs were indeed fine after the biopsy and we left NIH shortly thereafter to head back home to Pennsylvania.

Thumbs up; recovering after biopsy procedure at NIH

The preliminary results from the biopsy should be available early this week. If the biopsy shows ample evidence of immune stimulation, an argument could be made to stay on the current drug and that the “pseudoprogression,” or the initial radiologic appearance of an increase in tumor burden, might actually be inflammation and followed by tumor regression. A remote possibility in my type of cancer, but worth confirming.

Should the biopsy results instead demonstrate increased tumor burden, then we could consider switching to another investigational agent or even chemotherapy to shrink the tumors before proceeding again with one of the immunotherapy clinical trials.

Lorie and Michael Becker in front of cherry blossoms

Determined to stay positive, Lorie and I took advantage of the warm spring day on Thursday to stop outside NIH and snap a picture in front of some cherry blossoms. Unfortunately, snow and cold returned on Friday for the commute home.

We’ll know more this week, so stay tuned…