Still More to Do

If you’re like me, the holiday season often brings with it a certain bittersweet nostalgia. I reflect on the good times, such as Thanksgiving dinner gatherings with kindhearted neighbors who embraced our family after we moved from Illinois. I remember subsequently packing up the car with holiday gifts and traveling back home to celebrate with relatives. Other times I think about loved ones long gone or how life changed following my formal cancer diagnosis back in December 2015. It’s a period filled with both joy and stress.

This holiday season started off rough due to pain associated with cancer progression to my spine along with developing radiation pneumonitis (inflammation of the lung) following palliative radiation therapy directed to tumors in my lungs over the summer. Fortunately, my oncologist, Dr. David Pfister, and Nicole Leonhart, ANP, RN, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) were able to give me a “tune-up” in advance of Thanksgiving and two upcoming speaking engagements.

A new course of steroids (prednisone) helped address the coughing and breathing difficulty from the pneumonitis. Separate palliative radiation treatment to my spine tumors helped reduce, but not eliminate, pain from those sites. Bone is a frequent site of cancer spread and typically indicates a short-term prognosis in cancer patients. Following radiation therapy to my spine, I developed a compression fracture likely due to the destruction of healthy bone from cancer. So far, the remaining pain is mostly managed with oxycodone and prednisone. I still use a walking cane for those infrequent times when the pain breaks through.

Thanks to the successful cancer tune-up at MSKCC, I was able to honor the kind invitation by Matthew Herper, Senior Editor, Pharma & Healthcare at Forbes, to speak at the Forbes Healthcare Summit, held November 28-29, 2019 in New York. Participating in the event was a fantastic experience, although I underestimated the emotional impact and fought back the tears during most of my speech titled “It’s Time to Talk About Dying.” A video replay of the seven-minute talk is available below:

My last dose of systemic (versus local) cancer treatment was in March 2018 after completing nine months of a chemotherapy doublet (carboplatin and paclitaxel). Systemic treatment means affecting the entire body, as opposed to local treatment that targets a single organ or body part. I was exhausted, as I had little if any break in treatment since January 2016. It was suggested that I take a treatment break for a month or two to give both my body and mind some time to recuperate. I agreed.

As my strength, energy, taste, and hair returned, however, I began to appreciate “quality” of life over the “quantity” of life potentially afforded by toxic treatments. It was the best I felt in three years, which made me decide to extend my systemic treatment hiatus indefinitely. As appropriate, I could still opt to receive local palliative treatment, such as external radiation. Those side-effects were minimal by comparison.

In the absence of chemotherapy or other systemic treatment, my disease progressed during the nine-month break. Existing sites of cancer returned to their pre-treatment sizes, such as the tumor on my spleen and certain lung tumors. New locations also appeared, including my spine. None of this unexpected given the lack of systemic therapy.

Initially, I envisioned having a good quality of life for a few months during the treatment break before cancer came roaring back and then succumbing to the disease in approximately six months. In other words, I REALLY didn’t expect to still be here today. Sure, adverse events could still occur at any time without notice, but nothing is suggesting my imminent demise.

Chasing a few sites of cancer using external radiation worked well initially, but as the disease progressed, I found myself spending more time traveling to/from New York for simulation appointments, treatment, and follow-up. I wondered, was it time to revisit systemic therapy?

Since the beginning, Dr. Pfister and Nicole have been terrific about customizing treatments based on the concerns I expressed. This included forgoing treatment that included 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) and/or cetuximab (Erbitux®) based on my reservations. (Disclaimer: Both 5-FU and cetuximab are approved agents with established efficacy and roles in cancer treatment. In addition, I am not a doctor and do not have formal medical training—my treatment decisions are not recommendations or medical advice).

During a recent office visit, we discussed various systemic treatment options. Among the available alternatives, restarting the chemotherapy doublet was proposed. The treatment was quite effective for nine-months, but the toxicities negatively impacted my quality of life. I spent most of that time napping on the couch, many foods tasted bad, and towards the end, my blood counts were slow to return to normal.

Of the two drugs, it was carboplatin that I really disliked. It was the harsher of the two chemotherapeutics. Accordingly, Dr. Pfister proposed starting with paclitaxel alone for a cycle of treatment (approximately one month). It’s “possible” that the paclitaxel was responsible for most of the favorable treatment effects and the carboplatin was only adding toxicity to the equation. Since I’ve always received the two in combination, there’s no way to tell. At the end of the paclitaxel cycle, we can see whether it has any benefit as a monotherapy. If not, we can decide whether or not to reintroduce carboplatin in a subsequent cycle.

Michael and Lorie Becker in the chemotherapy suite at MSKCC

Lorie accompanied me for my first infusion of paclitaxel yesterday afternoon. In contrast to recent trips, there were no problems with our commute to MSKCC via train from Pennsylvania. Even better, my infusion was uneventful and started earlier than expected. This left us both in good spirits!

Writing this blog for the past three years has taught me that some readers will view a post as the glass being half full, while others see it as half empty. So, just for the sake of clarity, my prognosis is unchanged. I’m a terminal cancer patient who will eventually succumb to the disease. Exactly how and when no one on earth knows. There are currently no curative treatment options. Palliative treatment might prolong my life to some degree and minimize discomfort.

Despite my extended treatment break and disease progression, I remain healthy enough to continue advocating for myself and others. I plan on doing so for as long as I am able, as there is still more to do concerning issues that are important to me (human papillomavirus/HPV and its link to six cancers, HPV vaccination, talking openly about death/dying, patient rights, and more). In this regard, I look forward to my role as keynote speaker at BioNJ’s upcoming Third Annual Patient Advocacy Summit being held on December 13, 2018, at Celgene Corporation (click here for details).

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!

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.