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).

Not So Nifty Fifty

I cannot recall a time when I was this upset with myself. I’m not a doctor, but I feel my background should have allowed me to piece together the clues and help come up with a differential diagnosis much earlier. The perfect opportunity to participate in my healthcare by joining in the discussion and raising the right questions.

Lorie and I made a trip to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s (MSKCCs) urgent care center last Tuesday (11/6/18). This was due to a fever and breathing difficulty both after going up/down stairs and following coughing episodes. Consider what was known at the time:

  1. X-ray at urgent care suggesting pneumonia
  2. Shortness of breath
  3. Non-productive cough
  4. Low-grade fever
  5. History of radiation therapy to lungs in late July/early August

Pneumonia is a bacterial infection that inflames the air sacs in one or both lungs, but a subsequent CT scan and blood work didn’t confirm. Nonetheless, to be safe and in the absence of any other condition, I was prescribed one week’s worth of the broad spectrum antibiotic levofloxacin (Levaquin®) and instructed to follow-up with my oncologist.

Figure 1: Still untouched birthday ice cream cake

During the following week, all of the symptoms persisted. Between the breathing issues and fever, I didn’t feel like doing much other than resting on the couch all day and writing. Thankfully, I did manage to rally for an early birthday barbeque celebration this past Sunday. Then again, perhaps I jinxed myself by celebrating and posting early! Right, @23aloha? 😉

Aside from the aforementioned, recall that I’ve been suffering from back pain due to the progression of cancer to the spine. In early October, I met with a neurosurgeon at MSKCC in advance of receiving targeted radiation to two areas of my spine. To help prevent or minimize the pain flare that is common following radiation treatment to the skeleton, the neurosurgeon prescribed a steroid (dexamethasone).

Among other side effects, patients who are on steroids for three-weeks or longer are more susceptible to infections than are healthy individuals per the product prescribing information. After finishing radiation treatment to my spine on October 18th, I inquired with my health care team at MSKCC and began gradually reducing my dexamethasone dose to zero beginning on November 1st and finishing on November 6th (hint: day of my trip to urgent care, didn’t seem relevant at the time).

As referenced in my prior post, I’m not a big “birthday” person, but I was looking forward to celebrating my 50th milestone this past Monday. I hoped that the antibiotic would work and I’d be feeling somewhat better by then. No such luck. In general, I felt worse that day, and by the evening my temperature jumped to 101.9 Fahrenheit. No restaurant celebration or interest in my favorite ice cream cake (Figure 1). I took two acetaminophen, which brought the temperature down, and made an appointment the next afternoon to see my oncologist, Dr. David Pfister, and Nicole Leonhart, ANP, RN.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a commute between home and NYC without experiencing some significant delay. This time, a tugboat struck the Portal Bridge and we were held for close to an hour as the bridge was inspected for safety. We arrived at our appointment an hour late, but MSKCC was very accommodating.

After reviewing a new chest x-ray, my medical team offered a differential diagnosis of radiation pneumonitis based on empirical evidence. As soon as I heard the words, it made perfect sense. How could I have missed that! I knew radiation pneumonitis was a potential risk.

Radiation pneumonitis and pneumonia share many clinical features, including inflammation of the lung(s). Radiation pneumonitis is one of the most common toxicities of stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT). Most cases are either asymptomatic or manageable, with the reported rates of symptomatic radiation pneumonitis after SBRT range from 9% to 28%. However, most patients develop late pulmonary toxicity characterized by localized pulmonary fibrosis (scarring) in the region receiving the high-dose.

Sure enough, the suspicious areas on my chest x-ray correlated almost exactly with the areas targeted with SBRT over the summer. The sudden appearance of symptoms corresponding with tapering of the prior steroid dexamethasone also provided an important clue. It is likely the steroid meant to address potential bone pain flare issues was also treating the radiation pneumonitis. When I stopped the dexamethasone, the radiation pneumonitis was left untreated and suddenly became symptomatic. Ta-da!

The good news is that with adequate steroid treatment, most patients achieve complete recovery from their symptoms. As a result, I was prescribed an initial two-week supply of another steroid (prednisone). But a diagnosis of pneumonitis does increase the risk of developing subsequent pulmonary complications, including fibrosis, a permanent scarring of the lungs.

While it wasn’t a perfect birthday in the traditional sense (whatever that even means), I prefer to focus on the fact that Lorie, Rosie, and Megan (and the zoo!) were with me on this 50th milestone, and that the recent symptoms weren’t due to further cancer progression (my initial concern) but rather a manageable radiation treatment side effect. Honestly, that is the best gift I could have received.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge how important all of the happy birthday calls, texts, gifts, and social media posts were to me. It is one thing to hear from family and friends, but some messages from people I’ve never met in person were also truly lovely and brought a smile to my face. I do read EVERY post! So, to everyone who took time out of their day to acknowledge my birthday—thank you from the bottom of my heart!

 

Fifty (50)

“Birthdays are good for you. Statistics show that the people who have the most live the longest.”—Reverend Larry Lorenzoni

I’ve never been a big birthday person. However, I have enjoyed celebrating some of my more significant age milestones so far—16, 18, 21, 30, and maybe even 40. But somehow approaching the big 5-0 tomorrow seems different; more momentous.

It may sound morbid, but my first thought was “at least now I won’t die in my forties.” Making it to 50 somehow sounds better. At my worst in the summer of 2017, Lorie and I were convinced that I’d never even see my 49th birthday.

I’m not sure what makes turning 50 so unique. Perhaps it’s because I’ve finally settled into my skin, even if I have a hard time recognizing my reflection in the mirror these days.

Or maybe after reading and reflecting on mortality during the past three years, it is comforting to see progress in breaking down the cultural silence around death and dying. For example, in recent years, there has been a slew of books authored by “expert patients.” Doctors, scientists, and writers who are reflecting on their departure and have sought to show us different, kinder ways of ending (Atul Gawande, Paul Kalanithi, etc.).

This is encouraging. Most popular cultural conversations around cancer focus on survivors and miracles. Their stories should be celebrated, but we don’t hear from terminal cancer patients as often—perhaps they are too sick or too busy to tell them. It’s their stories that may help inspire big questions and positive change.

“There are only two days with fewer than 24 hours in each lifetime, sitting like bookmarks astride our lives: one is celebrated every year, yet it is the other that makes us see living as precious,” writes Kathryn Mannix in her book, With the End in Mind.

Between those bookmarks is where life takes place. When dealing with a terminal condition, some people decide to focus on quality versus quantity of life, rejecting medical options that might negatively impact their body image, cognitive functioning, mental health, fatigue, sleep problems, physical functioning, pain, and more. They have made their peace—if not with cancer, then with their living and their dying. They want their remaining valuable time to consist of more than a war against cancer.

This is where I have been since March 2018, with no systemic anti-cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, during the period. My only therapy has consisted of externally targeted radiation to several painful metastatic sites on my spine and a bisphosphonate infusion to help strengthen my bones. Also, I’ve had radiation aimed at the tumor on my spleen as well as a few mediastinum/thoracic nodes to alleviate coughing.

The good news is that radiation mainly addressed the pain originating from my spine. However, destruction of the bone by the tumor left little remaining support for the L5 vertebral body, which subsequently progressed to a compression fracture and resulting pain. In a few weeks, I have an appointment with a neurosurgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) to discuss options for stabilizing the spine. I’m also meeting with my oncologist to review recent CT scans showing growth in the pulmonary and thoracic nodes.

That’s the rub with cancer. There is always something going on; something else to be done. Another fire to be put out. Fortunately, the majority of my issues have been manageable with palliative treatment thus far. Indeed, nothing to stand in the way of some upcoming speaking opportunities or tomorrow’s quiet birthday celebration with Lorie and the girls (and our small petting zoo).

Steak on the grill

We even started my birthday celebration a little early last night. The November evening was cold and dry, which made it possible to use the barbeque one more time this season. So, I grilled some steaks Lorie got from the store, and we had a delicious homecooked meal that everyone seemed to enjoy. Despite my stomach upset and taste issues, I was able to eat about half my usual serving (par for the course these days).

Hopefully, last night is a good omen for what life has in store for me after turning 50. Until then, I’m just going to keep enjoying each day as it comes.

Thanks in advance to everyone for the birthday thoughts and wishes!

100th Blog Post

Humphrey Celebrating 100th Blog Post

Pop the champagne! Today is the publication of my hundredth (100th) blog post for My Cancer Journey.

I still remember typing the inaugural post on November 25, 2015. That was the day I first discovered a suspicious lump on the right side of my neck. In many ways, it feels like yesterday. In other ways, it seems so very long ago.

At the time, I opted to start blogging versus keeping a private journal about my experience with Stage IV oropharyngeal cancer after being formally diagnosed in December 2015. Beyond finding writing cathartic, blogging allowed me to efficiently keep family and friends updated about my disease progression and treatments.

Blogging is a unique experience. And it isn’t for everyone. Sharing your personal thoughts and feelings with the whole world can be unnerving. In the beginning, I often wondered if anyone was even reading my material. Maybe my words weren’t reaching or inspiring anyone. Was I wasting my precious remaining time putting words into the ether?

But over the past nearly three years, I’ve heard from so many of you who have been following my blog and leaving comments after my articles. I’ve even been able to meet some of you. Traffic to my blog has grown substantially. All of this inspires me to keep publishing, to put myself out there, with the hope that my words might be making a difference to somebody.

While I’ve always enjoyed writing, it’s now quite valuable. When fatigue or pain restrict my physical activities, I can usually still muster the energy to write. And like everything else I do in life, I write—with a purpose! Raising awareness for the human papillomavirus (HPV) and its connection to six different cancers, advocating for preteen HPV vaccination, fighting for patient literacy, rights, safety, and more.

Having such a purpose is critical to me. Being a productive member of society, or just being able to go out and do normal things, can make all the difference to a cancer patient. Throughout my journey, cancer has robbed my family and me of many “normal” aspects of life—loss of work, income, physical stamina, future plans, and much more. I’m sure others feel the same.

I used to think that my purpose in life was to develop new medicines and bring them to patients who need them. And it was a very fulfilling job. But cancer gave me a new walk, a new purpose. One that I never saw coming. And so far, no other activity compares with the level of personal satisfaction and self-esteem derived from my current role as an expert patient.

And every time I think that I’ve run out of things to do or say, my cancer journey takes a new turn, and the words continue to flow. Next week I’m scheduled for an additional radiation session targeted to my spleen tumor at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). I will also have another MRI of my spine, as the recent radiation treatment didn’t completely knock out my pain.

Until the next post, thank you for reading my blog and for your interest in me and my cancer journey!

Solid Pain Relief, No Bones About It

On Wednesday, I finished my fifth and final session of radiation therapy to my troublesome spine tumors at L5 and T7. I received a total of about 30 gray (Gy) to each spine site, which is the unit for radiation measurement of absorbed dose. As hoped, the treatment already alleviated some of my more severe pain, which should only improve as the radiation continues to exert its effects and decrease the size of the targeted tumors.

With a background in radiopharmaceuticals, I’ve been a strong proponent of radiation therapy for some time. Despite the improvement in surgical techniques and advances in systemic therapies, management of patients with metastatic bone disease remains a powerful cornerstone for the radiation oncologist. Nothing works quite like radiation to reduce bone pain!

That same day, I also received an intravenous infusion of Zometa® (zoledronic acid). The drug belongs to a class of bone-strengthening agents called bisphosphonates. Zometa used to both prevent and treat skeletal complications in patients with bone metastases due to all solid tumors.

Within three days after zoledronic acid injection administration, an acute phase reaction has been reported in some patients. Symptoms may include fever, fatigue, bone pain and/or joint pain, muscle pain, chills, and influenza-like illness.

Michael Becker received a flu shot at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC)

Sure enough, about 4 am ET Thursday morning I could not keep warm in bed despite layering several blankets (and a 90-pound golden retriever). I was shivering but didn’t have a fever. The buttock discomfort also came raging back, but this pain flare phenomenon is common with both radiation therapy and bisphosphonate use. I couldn’t do much at all yesterday concerning activity, but the symptoms usually resolve within a few days, and today (Friday) I’m already feeling better.

During my appointment on Wednesday, I also had a treatment planning procedure called a simulation for more radiation therapy targeting my spleen (I received about 9 Gy in a single session last time). The simulation is where your treatment site is mapped so you get the right dose of radiation directed to cancer with minimal exposure to nearby healthy tissue. During the procedure, my torso was marked with permanent little tattoo dots and CT scans were taken to identify the area that will be treated in subsequent visits. As of now, the spleen radiation is set for five sessions/appointments at MSKCC in late October.

Importantly, during Wednesday’s visit, I also received the annual influenza vaccine. While you should get the flu shot to protect yourself against the virus, it is also important to help protect many immune compromised cancer patients (and others at risk) who use public transportation and are constantly exposed to people sneezing and coughing. PLEASE get your flu shot today to help protect them (and do it for you!).

Train Pain

Last night, we boarded the 6:02 pm New Jersey Transit train to New York for the first of five radiation treatment sessions at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). My appointment was scheduled for 8:45 pm, so we left plenty of extra time for the unexpected. I had my walking cane, pain medications, and most importantly my wife, Lorie, for support.

As the train departed Trenton station, I noticed the engines ran for only a short time before we began merely coasting. Eventually, the conductor announced over the PA system that our train wasn’t working properly and we’d be returning to Trenton to transfer to another train. No worries, we still had plenty of time. Or so we thought.

Arriving at Secaucus, the last station stop before our destination (New York Penn Station), we were asked to change trains again. This time, due to a derailed train blocking one of only two open tunnels to the city. No estimate for when traffic would be allowed in and out of New York Penn Station again.

Lorie phoned MSKCC to inform them that we were going to be late for my appointment. Their correct response—”just get here safely, we’ll be waiting.”

We briefly disembarked from the train in search of a taxi or Uber to drive the balance of the trip from Secaucus. After being told there was at least an hour wait for alternate transportation, we returned to the train and awaited more information.

Around 9:10 pm, MSKCC called my cell phone for a status update and estimated time of my arrival. Fortunately, the train started moving at that very minute. My best guess was that it would be another thirty minutes before arriving at MSKCC—assuming no other delays. If it was going to be more than an hour, however, MSKCC suggested rescheduling.

At Penn Station, Lorie (aka—momma bear) ran ahead to grab a cab as I hobbled behind with my cane. Sitting is among the most uncomfortable positions for my back at the moment. And three hours of sitting on the train was not what I needed.

In all of my years going to NYC, I’ve never asked a cab driver to get me to a destination as quickly as legally possible. That is, until last night. Lorie relayed our travel situation, my cancer prognosis, and that we were running very late for treatment. The compassionate cabby made terrific time (earning a big tip!), and we arrived at MSKCC around 9:40 ET.

Radiation treatment was uneventful, and everyone at MSKCC was delightful despite the fact I was late and the last patient of the night. However, towards the end of the radiation session, my pain level was increasing. The result of sitting for hours on the train and now being flat on my back for 45-minutes.

Michael Becker standing on the train home after midnight (more comfortable than sitting). The expression on my face says it all-photo by Lorie.

Late at night, the trains don’t run express. We caught the 12:14 am local train home. I stood during most of the ride since it was a more comfortable position. We arrived back in Trenton to get our car around 2 am. Home, washed up, and in bed by 3 am. A long day to say the least!

Radiation therapy for bone metastases is associated with limited side effects. However, I knew from my background with radiopharmaceuticals that a pain flare, or transitory aggravation of bone pain after treatment, can occur in 2% to 40% of patients. The exact cause of the pain flare is unknown. It has been suggested to arise through temporary inflammation of the irradiated bone resulting in nerve compression or the release of inflammatory cytokines. Dexamethasone, a steroid, has shown potential for preventing and treating pain flares. This medication was added to my opioid pain treatment arsenal and appears to be helping already.

We go back to MSKCC this evening for my second treatment session. Hopefully, our commute will be less eventful this time! Then I get a break over the weekend before my final three radiation treatments Mon-Wed next week.

Thank goodness it’s Friday!

Up to Eleven

Late last month, I experienced severe pain in my left hip/buttock that warranted a trip to the urgent care facility at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). With random movement, a sharp, electric-like pain radiated down my left leg. It was like nothing I’ve experienced before. Lying down on my right side made the pain better, but sitting or climbing stairs was unbearable.

During my stay at urgent care, an x-ray of my pelvis showed no evidence of fracture. There was also no indication that cancer had spread to that area, which was naturally my initial concern.

While waiting to see the doctor, I was given a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) called ketorolac via intravenous infusion to help address the pain. It worked so well that I was later released. The pain was attributed to an inflammatory condition, possibly bursitis according to the discharge papers.

Since the cancer wasn’t responsible for my pain, I was instructed to follow up with a local orthopedist for further evaluation and treatment. In the meantime, I found it unusual that oral NSAIDs and even narcotics like oxycodone failed to address my growing pain.

An x-ray of my spine was taken by the orthopedist, which also came back normal. I was prescribed physical therapy for 4-6 weeks and a steroid regimen to help address inflammation that was possibly putting pressure on my sciatic nerve. I required a walking cane, as it felt like my left leg was going to collapse every time I experienced a bolt of pain.

Completing the steroid regimen and two weeks of physical therapy, I was feeling only marginally better. During a follow-up appointment with my orthopedist, I received a steroid injection directly into the left sacroiliac (SI) joint region. I was told pain relief could take a few days, for which I anxiously awaited.

At this point, I was due for a periodic CT scan of my chest, abdomen, and pelvis at MSKCC. It would reveal how cancer responded to the recent stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) directed to three areas—a lesion in each lung and also my spleen. It was hoped that the SBRT would decrease the size of targeted tumors in the lungs enough to alleviate a nagging cough that I developed.

Given the unique pain I was experiencing, thoughts of cancer progression still swirled in my mind. Bone is the third most common site for the spread of cancer, with half or more of patients diagnosed with cancer experiencing bone pain.

Coincidentally, I became quite familiar with pain arising from metastatic bone disease (MBD) during my tenure as CEO of Cytogen Corporation. The company had developed and commercialized Quadramet®—an injectable radiopharmaceutical used to treat bone pain associated with cancer.

Pain from MBD results from bone destruction and fragility. A pain scale measures a persons pain intensity based on self-report, with pain levels between 0 (pain-free) and 10 (pain that makes you pass out). Since late August, my daily pain went from a low of 5 at rest up to 11 with movement (“Up to eleven” coined in the 1984 movie This Is Spinal Tap).

Since I was scheduled to travel to MSKCC for the CT scan, I asked my treatment team if an MRI of my spine made sense to plan for that same day. I couldn’t help but think the severe pain was caused by cancer progression to bone. They agreed, and both imaging procedures were scheduled for September 19, 2018.

Meanwhile, after completing oral steroids, two weeks of physical therapy, a steroid injection, and walking with a cane, my resting pain level slightly improved. Regretfully, I second-guessed my request for an MRI of my spine due to the modest pain improvement and canceled that appointment after consulting with my treatment team.

The day of the CT scan, my pain was back to full force. I knew that I couldn’t hold still long enough to complete the CT scan. It took 10 mg of oxycodone to sedate me and alleviate my pain just enough to get through the 10-minute procedure.

Yesterday, Lorie and I reviewed the CT scan results with my oncologist at MSKCC, Dr. David Pfister, and Nicole Leonhart, ANP, RN. My cough disappeared, so I was very confident that the inferior left hilar node decreased in size following SBRT. The radiology report confirmed that it declined from 1.3 cm x 1.3 cm on the prior scan to 0.6 cm x 0.6 cm.

Unfortunately, that was the only good news contained in the CT scan results. While the tumor on my spleen also received radiation, it nearly doubled in size from 4.0 cm x 2.7 cm to 7.4 cm x 5.1 cm. Could this be inflammation following the radiation treatment, or did it genuinely represent tumor growth? No one could be sure based merely on imaging.

Figure 1. Vertebral body

Our hearts sunk as the discussion turned to the suspicious new lesions found on my spine. Specifically, the L5 and T7 vertebral bodies—spool-shaped structures that constitute the weight-bearing portion of a vertebra (see Figure 1). Most spine tumors are metastatic, representing the spreading of cancer from a different part of the body. Unfortunately, metastatic or primary tumors, trauma, and infection are prominent pathologies of L5.

Figure 2: MRI images showing the location of cancer spread to the spine (dark areas near arrows). Click to enlarge.

Correlation of the findings using an MRI was needed. Immediately, I regretted second-guessing my decision to get an MRI done while in town for the CT scan last week. Amazingly, I was able to get an MRI done the same day of my appointment at MSKCC. The results confirmed that cancer had now spread to my T7, L5, T5, and S2 vertebral bodies (see Figure 2).

When cancer spreads to the spine, it can replace your bones or compress your nerves, resulting in compression fractures, pain, and reduced blood supply to the spinal cord. Fortunately, cancer has not yet contacted my spinal cord. Otherwise, I would likely have been admitted for emergency spinal surgery. Spinal cord compression needs to be treated right away to try to prevent permanent damage to the spinal cord.

The good news, if there is any, is that radiation therapy provides excellent relief for painful bone metastases and retreatment is safe and effective. Within a week or so, I will undergo both mapping and radiation treatment for the painful spine metastases. In the majority of patients, radiation therapy can provide substantial pain relief.

Figure 3: Michael Becker’s disease and treatment milestones. Click image to enlarge.

After finishing my third cancer treatment in March 2018 (nine months of combination chemotherapy—carboplatin and paclitaxel), I decided to take my first treatment break after being diagnosed (see Figure 3). As I had hoped, the past six months were precisely what I needed and left me feeling refreshed and reenergized.

Assuming my bone pain is addressed, I’m faced with the option of pursuing novel therapies or merely continuing my treatment hiatus. For example, I have not yet been exposed to cetuximab, a biologic agent that blocks the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and is FDA approved for the treatment of metastatic colorectal cancer, metastatic non-small cell lung cancer, and head and neck cancer. Alone or in combination with an investigational agent, cetuximab could be a viable treatment option that doesn’t negatively impact my quality of life in the same manner as chemotherapy.

As soon as I get past the bone pain issue, I plan on meeting with Dr. Pfister to continue hearing his thoughts on potential next steps that could achieve my goal of maintaining a decent quality of life while still pursuing active treatment. To be continued…

Update: Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy (SBRT)

In my prior post, I discussed a worsening cough and recommendation from my oncologist, Dr. David Pfister at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), to consider stereotactic body radiation therapy or SBRT. This treatment is designed to deliver extremely precise, very intense doses of radiation to cancer cells while minimizing damage to healthy tissue.

My radiation oncologist, Dr. Nancy Lee at MSKCC, developed a treatment plan using SBRT to target single tumor sites in each of my lungs and spleen. Starting with my left lung, the first treatment took place Monday, July 23, 2018, and continued on Wednesday and Friday of that same week. The same schedule was used the following week for my right lung. A single SBRT session was used to target the lesion on my spleen, which was completed last Wednesday, August 15, 2018.

The unit for radiation measurement of absorbed dose is “gray” (Gy). I received a total of about 27 Gy to each lung site (9 Gy per session / 3 sessions) and about 9 Gy to my spleen in a single session. In contrast, I received about 70 Gy to my head/neck over the course of 7 weeks back in early 2016 as part of my conventional chemoradiation treatment.

With SBRT, only a small area of your body is exposed to radiation. This means that SBRT usually causes fewer side effects than other types of radiation therapy. According to patient education materials provided by MSKCC, about half of the people who have SBRT don’t have any side effects from treatment.

So far, the SBRT “experience” has been exactly as billed. Other than post-traumatic stress from going through the radiation procedure again, along with some mild fatigue, I haven’t experienced any significant side effects from SBRT. Encouragingly, my cough has already diminished both in frequency and severity. So, the radiation is likely doing its job of shrinking tumors that may be obstructing my airway.

Towards the end of September, I’ll have another CT scan to see how the radiated (and non-radiated) tumors responded to the SBRT. Radiation can cause inflammation in the short-term, which hampers the interpretation of scan results. Accordingly, it is prudent to wait at least a month before imaging.

Until then, I’m continuing my human papillomavirus (HPV) awareness activities and encouraging vaccination of preteen boys and girls to help prevent six cancers linked to HPV. Sadly, there is still a lot of room for improvement in vaccination rates.

In 2017, nearly 49 percent of adolescents received all the recommended doses to complete the HPV vaccination series according to a new study. This is less than a 5% increase from 2016 when 43.4% of adolescents (49.5% of females; 37.5% of males) were up to date with the HPV vaccination series. Today, 51 percent of adolescents still have not completed the HPV vaccine series!

To be meaningful, HPV vaccination rates need to be closer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Healthy People 2020 target of 80 percent coverage. This isn’t unrealistic, as around 80 percent of adolescents receive two other recommended vaccines—a vaccine to prevent meningococcus, which causes bloodstream infections and meningitis, and the Tdap vaccine to prevent tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis.

Parents, I beg you again—please vaccinate your children against HPV.

Radioactive

As I compose this post, I cannot get the 1985 song “Radioactive” by English rock band The Firm out of my mind. But perhaps this will make more sense in a moment.

At the end of June 2018, I announced my intent to remain off cancer treatment. A decision so complex that it couldn’t be adequately addressed in a blog post. Simply put, after going through three very difficult therapies from 2016-2018, I decided to emphasize the quality of life over quantity of life.

My last palliative systemic treatment consisted of nine cycles/months of combination chemotherapy (carboplatin and paclitaxel). For a while, it significantly reduced the size of tumors in my lungs and spleen. Most importantly, it prolonged my life—and for that, I am very grateful.

But most cancer treatments are associated with toxicities, which can range from mild to severe. For example, my initial treatment consisted of daily radiation to my head/neck in combination with chemotherapy and was brutal with regard to side effects. In exchange for these toxicities, however, chemoradiation offered the “potential” for a cure at the time. It seemed like a fair trade.

Once my disease spread (metastasized) to distant sites, including my lungs and spleen, the intent of treatment switched from curative to palliative—providing relief from disease symptoms and helping me live longer. Accordingly, I became less willing to endure the side effects of palliative systemic treatment (chemotherapy, cetuximab, etc.) with cure no longer a likely option. This largely resulted in my decision to discontinue treatment.

However, I discussed my worsening cough during a recent appointment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) with my oncologist, Dr. David Pfister, and Nicole Leonhart, ANP, RN. Absent chemotherapy, the tumors in my lungs continue to grow and create additional problems—chronic coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, etc. To address my cough, Dr. Pfister introduced the concept of stereotactic body radiation therapy, or SBRT, to deliver extremely precise, very intense doses of radiation to cancer cells while minimizing damage to healthy tissue.

For more than a century, radiotherapy has been an effective treatment for cancer patients. But the new millennium saw the affirmation of SBRT, especially for the treatment of metastatic tumors. In fact, select patients with limited metastases treated with SBRT are long-term survivors.

During a follow-up appointment with my radiation oncologist, Dr. Nancy Lee at MSKCC, she informed me that SBRT is associated with fewer side effects than the conventional radiation therapy I received as part of my initial treatment back in 2016. Conventionally fractionated radiation involves low-dose fractions given once a day (e.g., 10–30 fractions of 1.8–3 Gy each), while SBRT involves giving smaller numbers of higher-dose fractions (e.g., 1–5 fractions of 6–30 Gy each). Accordingly, SBRT can usually be given in five or fewer daily sessions within a week. Fast, safe, and effective—there was a lot to like about SBRT.

SBRT involves the use of sophisticated image guidance that pinpoints the exact three-dimensional location of a tumor so that the radiation can be more precisely delivered to cancer cells. Adverse events associated with SBRT can include pneumonitis, cough, pain, esophagitis, and dermatitis. However, severe toxicities (Grade 3 and 4) are fairly uncommon, occurring in 5% to 10% of patients after SBRT.

Possibly due to my background working with radiopharmaceuticals, I’ve long been interested in the role of radiation therapy beyond its cytotoxic effects. Radiation therapy interacts with cancer and immune system through a variety of mechanisms. It promotes the release of tumor neoantigens during cancer cell death in addition to stimulating immune adjuvant effects, engaging the two key arms of the immune system and functioning like an in situ vaccine, generating tumor-specific T cells.

In fact, localized radiation can infrequently trigger systemic antitumor effects, called the “abscopal effect.” Recent studies presented at ASCO 2018 have explored SBRT in combination with checkpoint inhibitors to potentially improve the abscopal effect with mixed results.

In one study, cancer patients were treated with SBRT and at least 1 cycle of pembrolizumab. Results of the study showed an abscopal response defined by 30% reduction in any single non-irradiated measurable lesion was present in 27% of patients, but only 13% of patients when defined by a 30% reduction in aggregate diameter of non-irradiated measurable lesions. It is difficult from these data to separate out whether the effects seen were because of the combination or from SBRT alone.

In another study, head/neck cancer patients with at least two measurable lesions were randomized to either nivolumab alone for 2 cycles or nivolumab with SBRT to a single lesion (9 Gy x 3) between the 1st and 2nd doses of nivolumab. While safe, the addition of SBRT to nivolumab failed to improve objective response rate (ORR), progression-free survival (PFS), or overall survival (OS).

For now, a treatment plan was developed using SBRT to target tumor sites in each of my lungs. Starting with my left lung, the treatment takes place Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of this week. The same schedule will be used next week for my right lung. For reasons still unclear, questions remain regarding the use of SBRT to also target the lesion on my spleen.

Yesterday was my first SBRT session. Lorie stopped me for a quick kiss before I disappeared into the men’s locker room at MSKCC to change clothes. It was traumatic to see the same rooms and equipment from my prior chemoradiation experience. And while my body needs to be kept in the same position for each treatment, thankfully this is accomplished through the use of a mold of my back instead of being pinned to the table by a face/shoulder mask like last time.

The SBRT session was quick and painless. I thought readers might enjoy seeing what the process is like, so embedded in this post is a brief time-lapse video of me holding still on the table in my shorts and shoes as the linear accelerator components twirl around me.

I’ll update the blog with any significant updates on my SBRT experience. For now, I’m simply hoping to get some relief from coughing.

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.

Whirlwind

The past week is a blur. It started last Saturday with the airing of a national television segment on CBS during both their morning and evening broadcasts. Reported by Dr. Jon LaPook, Chief Medical Correspondent for CBS News, the show highlighted the recent rise in head/neck cancer in men due to “oral” human papillomavirus (HPV) and featured my story as an example. Special thanks to everyone who played a role in creating this important segment! A replay is available below:

On Monday, I traveled to Washington, DC via train to speak at the Rare Disease Legislative Advocates 2018 Legislative Conference in the session titled, “Right to Try – Is it a Solution?” I haven’t been shy about my cynical perspective on this pending legislation. You can learn more by reading my opinion article on the topic (click here) and listening to a replay of my interview with NPR’s Scott Simon (click here).

Panel session titled, “Right to Try – Is it a Solution?”

Tuesday morning marked the beginning of my ninth cycle of chemotherapy at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in NYC, which will slow me down a bit. Recall that each chemotherapy cycle is four weeks, beginning with both carboplatin and paclitaxel on week one, paclitaxel only for week two, and then no treatment for weeks three and four to allow blood counts to recover. Towards the end of March, I’ll have another CT scan to determine if my disease is still stable or progressing. In this regard, I’m hoping March indeed goes out like a lamb!

Michael Becker receiving chemotherapy at MSKCC on 2/27/18

In the meantime, I’m participating in several additional media opportunities to help tell my story and create more awareness for HPV and its link to cancer in both men and women. Interestingly, the International Papillomavirus Society (IPVS) has declared this Sunday, March 4th as “International HPV Awareness Day” to promote awareness of and education around HPV infection, how it spreads, and how HPV infection and the cancers it causes can be prevented. Click here for more information.

Uneventful Streak Ends

It started with a runny nose and sneezing last weekend. Then came a cough and a mild fever that never went above 99.7 Fahrenheit – that is until the following Wednesday. A brief telephone discussion with the doctor on call late that evening confirmed that a trip to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s (MSKCCs) urgent care facility was in order.

Following my latest round of chemotherapy, a fever of 100.4 Fahrenheit or higher is disconcerting. It could signal that I’m neutropenic – running dangerously low on a type of white blood cell (neutrophils) that serve as the body’s primary defense against acute bacterial and certain fungal infections. The chemotherapy I’ve been receiving can reduce the number of neutrophils circulating in the blood. Alternatively, a fever could be associated with the flu, which is particularly dangerous this season and breaking records.

Lorie and I started packing for an overnight stay at the MSKCC “bed and breakfast” as we like to call it. Before heading out, I hugged each of our dogs – just in case. Unfortunately, that simple action set into motion a rush of feelings and steady stream of tears down my cheeks. I was a total mess by the time Lorie backed the car out from the garage. Our daughters weren’t home at the time, which in retrospect was probably best.

At first, I failed to appreciate why Lorie attempted to set a new land speed record for shortest travel time between Bucks County, PA and New York City. Then, I remembered how I narrowly missed having a tachycardia event (abnormally fast heart rate) on the New Jersey Turnpike during our last trip to MSKCC’s urgent care facility in August 2017 when I ended up in the ICU.

Upon arrival at urgent care just before midnight, a series of tests were ordered – blood work, urine, chest x-ray, and nasal swab to test for influenza. The blood work came back first and my absolute neutrophil count (ANC) was 800 cells per microliter of blood. With an ANC below 1,000 cells per microliter of blood, the risk of infection increases. Combined with my fever, the medical team informed me that I was going to be admitted to the hospital and given a broad spectrum, intravenous antibiotic Zosyn® (piperacillin and tazobactam).

One by one, the other test results came back normal – that is until the nasal swab revealed I was positive for Influenza B. Influenza A and B are the two main types that routinely spread in humans and cause seasonal flu epidemics. Fortunately, I had received a flu shot this season, as this can help reduce the severity of the virus.

Alas, being hospitalized ended the longest “uneventful” streak of my cancer experience. But for six glorious months, living with cancer was relatively dull and boring. And it was wonderful.

With the source of my fever identified as the flu, I was prescribed Tamiflu® (oseltamivir phosphate) and the general plan was to release me from the hospital as soon as my ANC returned to 1,000 or higher. My prior chemotherapy was given on January 30th, so its adverse effect on my blood counts should be diminishing. Patients often have their lowest number (called a nadir) and highest risk of infection around 7 to 10 days after the start of chemotherapy.

However, my next ANC count was 400. When ANC falls below 500 cells per microliter (severe neutropenia), the risk of infection increases significantly. Accordingly, my stay at the bed and breakfast was extended.

Michael and Lorie Becker at MSKCC

By Friday, my ANC rebounded slightly to 700. Heading in the right direction, but still below the 1,000-level needed for my release home. I felt much better than when I was admitted, which was frustrating. In fact, the fever went away as did a runny nose, sneezing, and coughing.

A repeat blood test was scheduled for very early Saturday morning, with the expectation that my ANC would finally rise above 1,000 and we’d be sent home. Or so I hoped. But the test results showed a slight decrease from the prior day to 600.

I was then given a shot of Neupogen® (filgrastim), which works like a natural protein in your body to promote the growth of new white blood cells. Interestingly, Neupogen was among the very first biotechnology products that I learned about during my introduction to the sector in the late 1990s. It was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) back in 1991.

My blood counts will continue to be monitored until the ANC improves, but sometimes it can take 24-hours to see the effect of Neupogen. And so, we wait.

Continuing with Chemotherapy (and Blogging)

In my prior post, I referenced that more and more terminal cancer patients are placing their most private, personal journeys in this entirely public, impersonal domain we call the Internet. Among the blogs about fashion, food, home design, travel, and others, numerous blogs about severe disease and dying have appeared in recent years.

Personally, I find that writing a cancer blog is cathartic – and I’ve been doing it for more than two years now. It’s a great way to share updates and information quickly and efficiently to others who are interested in your health. Blogs and participation in other online patient forums also make the experiences of cancer illness publicly visible, provide alternative voices to that of the medical expertise, and challenge the traditional patient-doctor relations[1]. What a remarkable era for patient advocacy.

But maintaining open and honest communication with your health professionals is an essential part of the cancer patient’s care. Doctors, nurses and patients work best together when they can talk honestly and openly with one another. In this regard, it is essential that patients avoid blogging or posting anything on social media that could jeopardize this relationship. When in doubt, discuss material and images that you plan on blogging with them in advance – especially when the information pertains to participation in an ongoing clinical trial where sensitivities to confidential data may exist.

Michael Becker and David G. Pfister, MD

So far, healthcare professionals have embraced my public visibility. For example, I first met my incredible medical oncologist, Dr. David G. Pfister at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), in December 2015. Since that time, I published my memoir, more than 75 cancer blog posts, and three opinion editorials in various media outlets. It’s probably safe to say that I’ve been among his more “uniquely” visible patients during the past two years. But Dr. Pfister and others at MSKCC, along with my team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), have mainly been accepting and supportive of my blog, book, and photojournalism. And, for the first time, my wife Lorie was even able to snap a quick photo of me with Dr. Pfister this week that I will treasure.

On the topic of this week’s appointment, we reviewed the CT scan results from last Friday’s imaging session. As updated briefly via social media, the results were favorable – stable disease (there were no new sites of disease, and the existing tumors stayed about the same size from the prior scan). Growth in the current tumors or new sites of disease would indicate disease progression and likely necessitate switching therapies. Since that wasn’t the case, and since I’ve handled chemo well with no neuropathy or need for growth factors, the plan is to continue with my current chemotherapy regimen. It consists of a four-week cycle starting with carboplatin and paclitaxel on week one, paclitaxel only for week two, and then no treatment for weeks three and four to allow blood counts to recover. I’ll have two more cycles and then do another CT scan around the second week of April 2018.

After the meeting with Dr. Pfister, I started my eighth cycle of this chemo regimen and was back home by late afternoon. The purpose of this treatment is palliative – to keep the tumors in my lungs and other organs from growing to a point where they cause pain, breathing difficulty, and other issues. It is different from care to cure your illness, called curative treatment.

When treatment is palliative, some patients may feel uncomfortable asking their doctor, “How long do you think I have to live?” The truth is that this question is often awkward for doctors too. Nonetheless, it is a question on the mind of many terminal cancer patients – including me.

Every patient is different, and a statistical prognosis is just an estimate, not a firm prediction. For example, last summer I was in terrible shape (two chest tubes, progressive disease, blood clot and bleeding issues, rapid heart rate requiring a stay in the ICU, etc.). The prognosis at that time was grim, and I wasn’t expected to live more than a few months.

But, effective treatments can sometimes dramatically improve a person’s well-being and even survival. After starting chemotherapy again, cancer regressed, and both chest tubes were removed as the fluid in my lung cleared. My heart rate has been stable since starting medication. I celebrated my birthday, Megan’s birthday, holidays, and welcomed the New Year. It’s now likely that I will be there for Lorie and Rosie’s birthdays next month and even our 26th wedding anniversary in March. I have been given additional precious time.

My disease is still likely incurable, and the current statistical prognosis indicates a median life expectancy of less than one year. I suffer from fatigue, anxiety, depression and other issues that negatively impact my quality of life. Knowing my prognosis, however, is helpful for guiding critical personal plans and life decisions.

I believe that blogging about life with a terminal illness can offer unique insights into how it is to live with cancer and to face the final phase of life. Hidden away and sequestered, removed from everyday experience, death has made a mediated return to the public sphere through digital and networked media[2].

References:

[1] Andersson Y. (2017 Jan 1). Blogs and the Art of Dying: Blogging With, and About, Severe Cancer in Late Modern Swedish Society. Omega (Westport).

[2] Lagerkvist, A. (2013). New Memory Cultures and Death: Existential Security in the Digital Memory Ecology. Thanatos, 2(2), pp. 1-17.

Cervical Cancer and HPV

What a relief that the weather for yesterday’s periodic commute to New York for chemotherapy was much warmer than the bone-chilling, windy backdrop of the past several days. Even more pleasant was a punctual public transportation commute, which got me to my appointment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) on time. Work on the signals and tracks at NY Penn Station frequently delayed my trains in recent weeks, so I never know quite what to expect these days.

My blood counts were amenable to the scheduled dose of chemotherapy, which was infused as planned. My positive transportation karma continued, and I was back home resting in Pennsylvania by mid-afternoon. No more treatment until after my CT scan later this month for an update on my disease status (queue “scanxiety”).

Traveling alone, I took time during my commute to listen to music on my headphones and catch up on news events. Scrolling through my Twitter feed, I came across the fact that January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. It caught my eye, as cervical cancer and oropharyngeal cancer (tongue, throat, and tonsil – as in my particular diagnosis) collectively account for more than two-thirds of the cancer cases caused by high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. According to the CDC, more than 30,000 new cancers attributable to HPV infection are diagnosed each year.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Nearly 80 million people — about one in four Americans — are currently infected, and about 14 million people become infected with HPV each year. Almost all sexually active people get infected with HPV at some point in their lives.

For most people exposed to HPV, the virus goes away on its own, but a small group of people will experience health problems — sometimes even 20 or 30 years after the initial contact — and go on to develop cancer. In these individuals, HPV can cause changes in the body that can lead to the development of:

  • Cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancer in women;
  • Penile cancer in men; and
  • Oropharyngeal (the tongue, tonsils, and back of the throat), anal, and rectal cancer in both women and men.

The good news is that HPV infections and the seven cancers attributed to them are highly preventable with available vaccines that protect against the high-risk HPV 16 and HPV 18 types responsible for 90 percent of HPV-related cancers. The bad news is that despite reliable data showing the safety and benefits of the vaccines, the rate of vaccination in both sexes is disappointing. Across America, only 49.5 percent of girls and 37.5 percent of boys were up to date with the recommended HPV vaccination series, according to a 2017 CDC report. Interestingly, around 80 percent of adolescents receive two other recommended vaccines—a vaccine to prevent meningococcus, which causes bloodstream infections and meningitis, and the Tdap vaccine to prevent tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis.

So, with PLENTY of room for progress in vaccinating both girls and boys against HPV, please schedule a time to talk to your pediatrician now to eradicate this cancer-causing virus.

PS – There is undoubtedly a role for gender-specific cancer awareness activities, such as Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. From pink ribbons to professional sports apparel, breast cancer awareness advocates have done a fantastic job spreading the word that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But each September, during National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, the color blue doesn’t consume the country with the same vigor. And reduced awareness correlates with less money*, as prostate cancer research receives less than half of the funding as breast cancer research from the American Cancer Society. On this note, perhaps it is time to at least consider “HPV-Related Cancer Awareness Month” or something gender neutral?

* Of course, correlation does not imply causation

First Chemo of 2018

Early this morning, my youngest daughter Megan and I arrived at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) to start round number seven of my current chemotherapy regimen (a combination of carboplatin and paclitaxel). What a fun way to welcome 2018!

Each treatment appointment is preceded by a blood test to look at the levels of various components (red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, electrolytes, etc.). Not surprisingly, all of my counts were good enough to warrant treatment today as planned after a two-week break at the end of December 2017.

Michael and daughter Megan Becker in the chemo suite at MSKCC

Knowing today might be a bit crazy, I had scheduled an early morning appointment to try and get ahead of any delays. We arrived a few minutes before my 7:45 am ET blood test and ended up catching the 12:20 pm ET train from New York to return home. Everything went fine with treatment, although I don’t usually start feeling the side effects for a few days.

I met with my oncologist Dr. Pfister during today’s appointment. He discussed doing my next CT scan around the end of January 2018, which would be after the current chemo treatment cycle is finished. Depending on those results, he discussed maintenance treatment with just one of the two chemotherapies if the scan looks good. Otherwise, he might recommend switching to cetuximab (Erbitux©) if the chemo isn’t continuing to work. Either way, it looks like I’ll be coming to another critical treatment decision point early in 2018.

The best news of the week was being able to spend New Year’s Eve celebrating with my wife, Lorie. Actually, “celebrating” might be a strong word–unless you expand the definition to include sitting on the couch watching Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest and going to bed before midnight. But, we were together for yet another milestone. One that, frankly, I was quite surprised to see.

To my family, friends, colleagues, researchers, health care providers, members of the media and anyone reading this blog post–thank you for your interest in my cancer patient journey. I wouldn’t be here today without such a robust support network. Best wishes for good health, plenty of happiness, and much prosperity in 2018 and beyond to all of you!

 

A Glass Half Full

Yesterday marked the beginning of cycle number six for my third-line chemotherapy treatment. In this regimen, one full cycle is comprised of four weeks. During week one, two different chemotherapeutics (carboplatin and paclitaxel) are given along with the requisite premedication (steroid, anti-nausea meds, and an antihistamine). During both the second and third weeks of a cycle, I receive only one chemotherapeutic (paclitaxel) and the same premeds. Week four is a holiday/break, with no scheduled treatment that helps provide recovery time for blood counts and other markers. Then the four-week cycle repeats.

Lorie and Michael Becker in the chemotherapy suite at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center on 12/5/17

Having received five cycles over the past five months, my blood counts are slower to recover – particularly my white blood cells. As a result, my medical oncologist (Dr. David Pfister at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC)) modified the last treatment to forgo the third week of chemo since that is usually about the time that my white blood cells are on the low side. In other words, the most recent two cycles of treatment have been “two weeks on, two weeks off” meaning that I get two chemotherapeutics (carboplatin and paclitaxel) on week one, only paclitaxel on week two and then a two-week break during weeks three and four before starting the cycle over again.

Considering that the latest 2/5 cycles have been reduced in terms of the total amount of chemo I’m receiving, it is encouraging to see that each CT scan still shows decreases in the size of some tumors. For example, take the largest tumor (on my spleen) that originally measured 6.4 cm on its longest axis and 6.0 cm on its shortest axis back in early January 2017. Since starting third-line chemo over the summer, those dimensions have decreased on each subsequent CT scan: 5.4 x 4.8 cm, 3.2 x 2.6 cm and most recently 2.9 x 2.0 cm. Many other lymph nodes in my lungs and abdomen are also now 1 cm x 1 cm or smaller, which is typically the size of a “normal” lymph node—although PET imaging would help inform whether or not there is still disease activity.

But just exactly how unusual or encouraging is all of this? During the MSKCC appointment, I gathered that the general expectation would have been decreased disease from the first treatment cycle, perhaps stable disease on the second cycle and then possibly progressive disease on the third or later cycles. Bottom line: my cancer continued to decrease across all three recent scans, which is better than normally expected.

I’m happy about the results and extremely thankful that I received strong encouragement to give chemotherapy another chance. And it’s not just about tumors shrinking, there have also been meaningful improvements in my quality of life. For instance, at the start of chemotherapy I had not one but two chest tubes placed to help reduce fluid around my left lung. Both have since been removed, as the fluid buildup is gone. Associated side effects with the fluid, such as coughing and difficulty breathing have also disappeared. Oh, and it is a lot easier to shower without wrapping your chest and abdomen in plastic wrap each time to avoid water getting into the tubes!

I’m a curious person by nature and seeking potential answers as to “why” my disease is responding a bit better than expected to the current chemo regimen. As a long-time champion of immunotherapy, I can’t help but wonder about my prior second-line therapy with M7824, an experimental bispecific fully human antibody designed to simultaneously block two immuno-inhibitory pathways (both PD-L1 and TGF-β) that are commonly used by cancer cells to evade the immune system. The aim of this investigational drug is to control tumor growth by restoring and enhancing anti-tumor immune responses.

While receiving M7824 at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a participant in their Phase I trial, results from biopsies of both my tumor and pleural fluid provided evidence of immune system activation in the vicinity of the tumor, indicating that the experimental agent M7824 was performing as designed. In particular, the presence of tumor-reactive CD8-positive T-cells, which have emerged as the predominant effector in most cancer immunotherapy settings[1]. In fact, one published study in head and neck cancer patients whose tumors were densely infiltrated by CD3-positive and CD8-positive T cells had a significantly longer overall survival (OS) and progression-free survival (PFS) compared with patients whose tumors were poorly infiltrated[2].

It’s quite possible that based on the large tumor burden in my body, the immune system activation resulting from M7824 might not have been able to overpower the disease. However, with my tumor burden now having decreased substantially through subsequent chemotherapy, I can’t help but wonder if M7824 could be playing a role in my ongoing disease improvement.

While answering this question is purely academic, it could help inform the design of future combination studies with M7824 and chemotherapy. From a personal perspective, it would also validate that I made the right decision to jump into the M7824 trial after failing first-line therapy (chemoradiation).

As someone with no formal medical training, my initial thought was to have the largest, most accessible tumor biopsied to look for residual immune system activation. Unfortunately, the largest remaining tumor is on my spleen and my oncologist frowned on the prospects of poking needles around that area. A good to time to remind readers that while I have a fair amount of working knowledge in biotech, I always rely upon the wisdom and experience of the treating physician. They’ve gone to med school…I have not.

But I do feel it is very important, to the full extent possible and without substantial added risk to me, to find some signal—even if anecdotal—that M7824 did something good. For my friends in the medical community, please feel free to email me any ideas or thoughts!

References:

[1] Targeting CD8+ T-cell tolerance for cancer immunotherapy. Stephanie R Jackson, Jinyun Yuan, and Ryan M Teague. Immunotherapy. 2014 Jul; 6(7): 833–852.

[2] Tumour-infiltrating lymphocytes predict response to definitive chemoradiotherapy in head and neck cancer. P Balermpas, Y Michel, J Wagenblast, O Seitz, C Weiss, F Rödel, C Rödel and E Fokas. British Journal of Cancer (2014) 110, 501–509. doi:10.1038/bjc.2013.640

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.

Knock on Wood

Thankfully, yesterday’s cardiology appointment and weekly chemotherapy session were both uneventful. The mystery fever hasn’t come back and I haven’t had any more rapid heart episodes since my last visit to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s (MSKCCs) urgent care facility.

Before my first appointment, we had a chance to stop by and say “hello” to Dr. Susan Slovin at MSKCC for a few minutes. She specializes in prostate cancer, clinical immunology, and other genitourinary malignancies. If you’ve read my memoir, you are aware that we’ve known each other for quite some time and that she is a trusted resource and friend. As always, she had some words of wisdom to share and put a smile on our faces. Truly a great start to the day – thank you Dr. Slovin!

The cardiologist did change my medication, as the beta blocker I was taking (metoprolol) also resulted in some fairly low blood pressure readings and lightheadedness when going from a sitting to standing position. But again, minor complaints compared to being in the intensive care unit (ICU) a short while ago. My latest EKG looked fine and I simply need to follow-up in one month.

The consensus seems to be that my rapid heartbeat was caused by a perfect storm consisting of a high fever, low electrolytes, and possible bacterial infection. So, my job is to help make sure not to repeat these circumstances by keeping hydrated and getting plenty of electrolytes.

In terms of chemotherapy, my blood counts are doing well – especially after last week’s doublet of carboplatin and paclitaxel. While I only get carboplatin every three weeks, it does seem to hit me much harder than the paclitaxel alone – especially with regard to appetite. In any event, yesterday’s chemo session went as planned with just the paclitaxel and various premedication.

Michael and Lorie Becker dining on a rooftop in NYC

We finished everything by early evening and planned on staying in NYC overnight rather than rushing to get home. Since I was hungry for a change, Lorie and I went to the hotel’s rooftop bar and enjoyed dinner outside under the stars. It’s moments like those that make everything worth it – and I savor every one.

Michael with sister Brandy and her family visiting from Chicago

The rescheduled visit by my sister and her family went well this past weekend. I haven’t made it back to Chicago to see them in a while and I was amazed by how much their two boys had grown since I last saw them. It meant a lot to be able to spend some quality time with all of them and I appreciate their long drive back-and-forth from Illinois to Pennsylvania just to see me (okay, perhaps they really came to see Humphrey…).

The plan for now is continued weekly chemotherapy with a possible break during Labor Day week. Treatment would then resume with an eye towards imaging in early October to see how things are progressing – or perhaps more optimistically “regressing.”

Knock on wood, things will remain calm for a bit as Lorie goes back to work and our girls return to school. It’s always a stressful time for them, so it would be nice for my disease to behave for at least a little while.

Lastly, I recently gave my book website a makeover, so please take a look and let me know what you think at www.awalkwithpurpose.com

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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.

Roller Coaster

My recent hospitalization was the longest and most volatile, resembling that of a roller coaster ride at an amusement park. What started with a fever prompting our arrival at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s (MSKCC’s) urgent care facility in New York last Thursday evening ended up escalating to a brief visit to the intensive care unit (ICU) as detailed in my prior post.

The isolated cardiac event appears managed by medication (metoprolol) and hasn’t reappeared. However, despite numerous blood cultures, chest x-rays, CT scans, and other diagnostics, the cause of my fever – the original reason for my hospital visit – remains a mystery.

After an infectious disease consult, bacterial infection was ruled out as the likely source of the fever and I was taken off the broad-spectrum antibiotics that were being delivered via intravenous infusion. Some of the cultures take time to process, so there is always a chance that something will materialize in the coming days.

One silver lining amidst the tight turns, steep slopes, and inversions on my roller coaster ride was the fact that my left lung appeared much improved in terms of fluid accumulation. This coincided with almost zero drainage from my two chest tubes over the past week or so and it was determined that removing both of them was in my best interest since they weren’t serving any functional purpose and there is always a risk of infection in having two foreign objects in the body.

Insertion of the two chest tubes (one while at the National Institutes of Health and the other at MSKCC) was done under twilight anesthesia, where I was awake but sedated. This is accomplished via administration of a concoction of agents including a benzodiazepine (midazolam) and the narcotic fentanyl. For both procedures, I had little if any discomfort.

Naturally, I expected that removal of the chest tubes would also be done under twilight anesthesia. Much to my chagrin, I was informed that the extraction procedure is normally done bedside and without anesthesia. Two medical professionals arrived at my room at MSKCC and provided a reasonable explanation for the lack of lidocaine or other local anesthesia (the injections would hurt more than the extraction, several would be needed to cover the entire area, and risk that the tubes could be punctured via the needles).

Ever since their initial placement, I’ve been anxious when cleaning or touching the plastic tubes that protruded from the front of my left chest. There was just something unnerving about seeing the foreign tubes that looked like they would be better suited on a Borg, a fictional alien group that appeared in the Star Trek franchise.

Michael Becker having two chest tubes removed at bedside.

As such, you can imagine my surprise as one of the medical professionals from interventional radiology wrapped the first tube around her hand and proceeded to yank it with the same intensity as trying to start a lawn mower by pulling the cord. To be fair, the pain wasn’t terrible and this was one of those situations where speed was definitely better than dragging it out. Nonetheless, I was shocked by the experience and now had an idea what extraction of the second tube would be like.

 

The first tube was easy by comparison, as it was only placed a short while ago. The second extraction was more difficult as that tube was in place for 4-months and had grown quite attached to me. The first attempt yielded little, if any, movement from the tube. Fortunately, the second try was successful and I am now “tube free.” The tips of both tubes were cut and sent to be cultured in case either was the source of infection that was causing my fevers.

There are plenty of other possibilities to explain my fevers, including the tumors, blood clots, and others. For now, the plan is to carefully monitor my temperature and hope that it continues to respond to Tylenol®. If not, we’ll be back at the hospital.

In view of the current situation, my medical oncologist (Dr. Pfister) appropriately held back on this week’s cycle of chemotherapy to be safe. Encouragingly, the CT scan used to look for pneumonia and other potential reasons for the fever provided a sneak peek of how the tumors responded to the first three weeks of chemotherapy and almost all of them showed decreases in size. This is definitely better than having the tumors grow or stay the same size, but likely doesn’t change the “terminal” nature of my disease. It does, however, hopefully buy me some more time.

It’s great to be back home and I cannot wait to see my daughters and the petting zoo…especially Humphrey! And words cannot begin to express our family’s gratitude for all of the many people that helped out while we were at MSKCC the past 5-days.

 

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…

Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t

As discussed in my prior blog post, the recent CT scan at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) didn’t turn out as we had hoped. Not only did the cancer show signs of progressing, but a blot clot was also found in my left iliac artery near my pelvis.

Blood clot illustration

I had been on Lovenox (enoxaparin) for just under one week, when I noticed that the daily drainage from my chest tube looked much more like blood than the usual straw color. Equally disconcerting, the volume of drainage was greater than usual.

At the suggestion of my treating physicians, we stopped at the emergency room at a local hospital in Bucks County (which will remain nameless) on Sunday morning around 10am simply to have a complete set of blood work done. The concern being that the loss of so much blood via the chest tube could necessitate a transfusion.

Fortunately, my hemoglobin levels were okay (low hemoglobin count may indicate you have anemia) and a transfusion wasn’t needed. However, a big problem remained – finding the cause of bleeding coming from my pleural effusion and how to stop it.

One thing was almost certain – the anticoagulant Lovenox likely played a role. Discontinuing Lovenox could help reverse the bleeding, but I would be left with an untreated blood clot that could cause major problems if it moved from its current location. Damned if i do, damned if i don’t.

Quite the conundrum and not one to take lightly. As such, after waiting around the local hospital until early evening with no solutions, nurses, or physicians in sight, Lorie took control and requested that I be immediately discharged. Shortly thereafter she drove us to New York City to visit Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). I already had an appointment scheduled with my medical oncologist (Dr. David Pfister) for Tuesday to discuss possible next-steps for treatment, such as chemotherapy, and the drive to NYC is shorter than going to the NIH in Bethesda, MD.

We arrived after midnight, but the urgent care team at MSKCC promptly assessed my condition. More blood work was drawn along with a chest x-ray and CT scan. Simply looking at the chest x-ray, I could tell that the pleural effusion was quite large. This shouldn’t be the case, as I drain it daily.

For now, stopping the internal bleeding is more important than addressing the blood clot – although both issues require immediate attention. I’ve already discontinued the Lovenox and the MSKCC team will assess various options to access and drain the large amount of fluid still trapped in my left lung. The impact of the fluid is not insignificant, as I am short of breath walking short distances or up/down stairs. Coughing also has gotten worse and leads to feeling light-headed or dizzy.

Assuming the pleural effusion can be controlled, the next step would be to deal with the blood clot. One solution is to place a filtering device in the Inferior Vena Cava (IVC, a large vein in the abdomen that returns blood from the lower body to the heart) that could help prevent a pulmonary embolism, which is fatal in one-third of patients who suffer from it. The filter essentially traps blood clots and prevents them from reaching the lungs or heart.

Of course, aside from the aforementioned, I am interested in exploring potential new treatment options and look forward to upcoming physician appointments. Until then, I’ve been admitted to MSKCC for at least a day or two and will provide any meaningful updates via Twitter, etc.

Cancer is Back

2017 isn’t off to a stellar start.

During today’s appointment with my oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), we received disappointing news that the biopsy of my chest lymph node contained the same cancer cells (squamous cell carcinoma) as the original tumor in my tonsil. This means that the cancer has spread to distant sites and, unfortunately, cure is now no longer an option.

I enrolled in a clinical trial with Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo© (nivolumab), a type of immunotherapy called a checkpoint inhibitor, and should start treatment next week assuming I meet the study criteria. While the drug was already approved by the FDA for recurrent head and neck cancer, the study will evaluate whether or not adding targeted radiation directed at one single lung node can improve outcomes.Opdivo

I was already familiar with the synergy between radiation and other forms of therapy, especially immunotherapy. Coincidentally, we were exploring such synergies back at Cytogen Corp with the company’s skeletal targeted radiotherapy being combined with a poxvirus vaccine being developed by Dr. James Gulley at the NIH at the time. Small world.

As the trial is randomized, I may or may not be one of the patients to receive the added radiation therapy. However, both arms of the trial receive Opdivo – so I get an active drug in recurrent head and neck cancer in either case.

There has been a great deal of enthusiasm for checkpoint inhibitor products, such as Opdivo. However, in the recurrent head and neck cancer study by Bristol-Myers Squibb, the median overall survival was 7.5 months for patients that got Opdivo. The other patients that received standard therapy options (cetuximab, methotrexate, or docetaxel) had a median overall survival of 5.1 months. True, there were some ~20% patients that had durable responses with Opdivo, but the vast majority (80%) did not have a durable response.

The good news is that Opdivo is a form of immunotherapy and doesn’t have many of the severe side effects associated with both chemotherapy and radiation. Accordingly, it is expected that I will be able to continue working and not have any major issues throughout treatment, as they are rare. However, Opdivo can cause your immune system to attack normal organs and tissues in many areas of your body, and can affect the way these organs work.

I’ll be posting more updates in the coming week or so…