The Art of Dying

Last week, I underwent my first CT scan since stopping chemotherapy in March 2018. It would have been surprising for the tumors in my lungs and spleen to remain unchanged in size during this period. Nonetheless, I admit to secretly hoping that there was little or no growth.

Instead, all of my existing tumors roughly doubled in size. In my lungs, several nodules that measured one centimeter in diameter are now two centimeters. Cancer in my spleen grew from two centimeters to four centimeters.

A few new spots also appeared. In particular, in the mediastinum and thoracic nodes near the heart, thymus gland, windpipe, and large blood vessels.

In other words, cancer resumed its growth in the absence of chemotherapy.

However, with a taste of life without the toxic effects of chemo – I don’t want to go back. A point that I made in the recent Forbes article and video The Art of Dying.

In keeping with that theme, I’ve decided to remain off treatment. The obvious result is that cancer will continue to grow unabated. It wasn’t an easy decision, and it wasn’t made in a vacuum.

During today’s appointment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) with my oncologist, Dr. David Pfister, and Nicole Leonhart, ANP, RN, we discussed a lot of topics: How quickly will my disease progress? When will my quality of life diminish? How long until I die?

All valid questions, but each very difficult to answer. I already witnessed the perils of making such predictions last summer when I didn’t expect to see my 49th birthday. And yet, here I am – having just enjoyed the best several months since first being diagnosed in late 2015.

When my treatment changed from curative to palliative intent, I knew that cancer would likely claim my life. It didn’t stop me from living. In fact, in many ways it made me appreciate life even more.

Some readers will offer battle/combat analogies. “You can still beat this.” “Keep fighting.” “Don’t give up.”

Fighting words may help some people, but I prefer to embrace acceptance. My patient advocacy efforts, such as raising awareness for the human papillomavirus (HPV) and various cancers it can cause (including mine…), are not made more or less successful based on my disease outcome.

Throughout my life, I did things my way (cue Frank Sinatra). And I don’t plan on changing that now. I feel good and plan on enjoying it for as long as it lasts. Quality, not quantity, of life, is what matters most to me now.

Eventually, my disease will progress and pose a problem. But not today or perhaps even tomorrow. So, until then, I’m going to continue savoring experiences and my remaining time. I’ve had a fantastic life and will continue to greet each new day as a gift.

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.

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.