After completing the third and final palliative radiation therapy (RT) session this week, I was finally able to return home from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) after being admitted on March 8, 2019. The severe pain that plagued me during this period is due to the progression of cancer in my spine, which is managed through a combination of steroids and oral/IV narcotics. Hopefully, the RT will also provide pain relief in the coming days/weeks and reduce my dependence on the other medications.
Hospice arrangements were coordinated with MSKCC, so I was sent home connected to a patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) pump allowing me to administer my own IV pain relief. With the press of a button, I can activate the fentanyl pump when/if the pain manages to break through the relief being provided by methadone, acetaminophen, gabapentin, and other oral analgesic drugs.
A hospital-style bed was waiting for me in our family room when I arrived home. Later that afternoon, members of the hospice team arrived to answer questions and ensure that I had all of my medications. It was a very smooth transition.
Lying in bed this morning, I could hear birds chirping outside as the first light of day crept over the horizon. Why was I awake so early? Perhaps it’s from the stimulative effects of the steroid medication. Maybe it’s just too hard to go back to sleep after finding myself once again tangled up in IV tubes connecting me to the fentanyl PCA.
My mind drifts to the principle of Occam’s razor: that the easiest explanation tends to be the right one. My mind is reeling over the fact that today marks another beautiful milestone. One that I didn’t think I would live to see, but am so blessed to witness. Today, Lorie and I celebrate our 27th wedding anniversary (Figure 1).
Many people are thankful to witness the dawn of a new day. My father-in-law used to say that any day he could wake up and tie his own shoelaces was a good day. I couldn’t relate to the sentiment at the time, but now as a terminal cancer patient on hospice—it makes perfect sense.
I have been irritable as of late, which is likely a side-effect of stress, steroids, and other medications more so than disease progression. But most of my cognitive impairment is mild and relegated to simply forgetting something I said or did. Fortunately, it would take much, much more to impact my ability to recall that for the past 27 years I’ve been the luckiest man alive. Happy Anniversary, Lorie!
Before Saturday, I was familiar with the potential magnetic field concerns of an MRI but unaware of the bio-effects of radiofrequency fields (RF) that can cause tissue heating in the human body. All of my prior MRI imaging took place on the tried-and-true 1.5 Tesla (1.5T) machines versus the 3.0 Tesla (3.0T) used on Saturday (note: Tesla is the unit of measurement quantifying the strength of a magnetic field). A 3.0T MRI provides higher clarity and better detail because the magnetic field is twice as strong as 1.5T. Based on my recent experience, however, the stronger 3.0T MRI may have been just enough for me to sense the increased temperature in my chest and abdomen towards the end of the scan.
Regardless, given the differences between the 3.0T and 1.5T machines and not knowing what to expect in terms of a potential internal warming sensation likely resulted in my having a rather decent panic attack. Stuck in a tube and unexpectedly feeling like you could be boiled from the inside is a bit disconcerting. Technicians already inform patients about what to expect once a contrast agent is injected as part of the MRI procedure. Going forward, additional disclosure to patients about other differences between T3.0 versus T1.5 might help patients avoid unnecessary anxiety.
While there wasn’t a dramatic progression of my cancer based on Saturday’s CT scan of my abdomen/pelvis, the overall picture looked different when combined with the results from the MRI of my spine and the increasing level of pain. Bottom line: a relatively rapid advancement of cancer in the bone occurred. Taxol alone isn’t cutting it; a change in course is recommended.
Accordingly, we are forgoing the last dose of Taxol this week (should have been dosed today…) and moving forward with plans for radiation therapy (RT) to the new tumors next to my T8 and L3 vertebrae. The goal of this round of RT is to alleviate my pain and potentially reduce dependence on steroids, opioids, gabapentin, etc.
In the background, arrangements are being made for me to be seen in the Early Drug Development clinic at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) to discuss clinical trial options after I’m discharged from the hospital. Hopefully, this occurs on Friday, which represents the one week mark for my current hospital stay.
Note:I finished this post and went to walk a lap or two around the hospital floor. Turning one of the corners and who do I literally bump into? My wife came to visit me by surprise! I’m just SO darn lucky and blessed to have her by my side now.
On Friday, I had an appointment with Dr. Nancy Lee, my radiation oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering-Cancer Center (MSKCC). Upon arrival in the exam room, we discussed the area of increasing, severe pain in my lower left chest/abdomen region.
Dr. Lee noticed the distension in my abdomen, which had slightly increased in size following my earlier appointment with medical oncology on Tuesday. This gave rise to concerns about a potential gastrointestinal blockage and the desire for more diagnostic imaging. Accordingly, I was sent to MSKCC’s urgent care facility. A short elevator ride, as it is conveniently located in the same building.
During my urgent care visit, I received stronger pain medications via IV infusion, including Dilaudid® (hydromorphone) and fentanyl. The fentanyl seemed to work better, but the amount of relief was still minimal. I was given a patient-controlled analgesia pump that allowed me to dose as needed (Figure 1).
By early evening, a preliminary review of the abdominal CT scan didn’t reveal any significant issues—at least none that would explain the severe pain. For example, there was some moderate growth in the lesion on my spleen, but nothing that seemed to support the level of discomfort I experienced. I was admitted to the hospital by early Saturday morning for more testing.
I made it through the majority of the MRI imaging procedure—before the point where the contrast agent would typically be administered (after approximately 20-minutes). At this point, my chest and abdomen started to feel increasingly warm. It was different from any prior MRI procedure and caused me to alert the medical staff to stop.
My heart and mind raced as I tried to calm down after being removed from the MRI tube. Unfortunately, anxiety got the best of me (as I feared being boiled alive…) and I couldn’t bring myself to finish the procedure. I deeply regretted not requesting a dose of Ativan® (lorazepam) before the MRI.
In the past, I’ve experienced an overall warm, flushed sensation with iodine-based contrast agents during a CT imaging procedure. The feeling is short-lived and not as severe as what I experienced in the MRI. Besides, gadolinium-based contrast agents are used during an MRI procedure, not iodine-based agents. And again, my MRI was halted before the contrast infusion.
Without additional diagnostic information from the MRI, it is difficult to pinpoint the source of my pain. The best option is to complete the remaining ~15-minutes of the MRI with the contrast agent, which hopefully I’ll be able to manage today (Sunday) without issue.
In the meantime, I continue pushing away on my fentanyl pump between getting a few hours of sleep in the hospital. While still in varying amounts of pain, at least it isn’t “constant” as it has been over the past few days. Small progress, but I’ll take it.
The proverb that March comes “in like a lion, out like a lamb” implies that the month is a bridge between seasons, beginning with wild, bitter and blusterous winds and rough weather until winding up with mild breezes and gentler weather by April. So, as we turn the calendar to March, I’m hoping that my recent bouts of severe pain due to cancer progression in my spine diminish and go out like a lamb as the month progresses.
My situation is far from unique. Unfortunately, despite significant advances in oncology, cancer patients still often suffer pain. Also, pain in cancer is not one single entity and often doesn’t respond to one drug (or any drug). Interventional pain management techniques, such as a nerve block, are alternative options that can provide effective pain relief when conventional drugs fail or aren’t well-tolerated.
In addition to my weekly chemotherapy infusion, I had an appointment with Amitabh Gulati, M.D., a board-certified anesthesiologist and chronic pain specialist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) this past Tuesday. Following a physical exam, and based on the suspicion that the new tumor located to the left of my T8 vertebrae is responsible for the referred pain in my left lower chest wall area, Dr. Gulati recommended an ultrasound-guided, paravertebral nerve block. Dealing with severe pain for weeks, I was ecstatic to learn that he could perform the nerve block immediately.
The spinal cord nerves branch out through openings between your 24 vertebrae and connect to internal organs, muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons and other areas and parts of the body (see Figure 1). For example, the nerves emanating from the T8 vertebrae map to the spleen, which is located near my painful left lower chest wall area. Accordingly, it makes sense that a tumor at T8 could send referred pain to that area.
During the nerve block procedure, the numbing effects of the local anesthetic can be felt almost immediately. This is diagnostic, as it helps the physician determine whether or not they are targeting the right nerves in “real time”. Being in the prone position for the entire procedure; however, it was difficult to reach under my body and confirm exactly which areas of my chest were numb.
Due to the immediate numbing effects of the local anesthetic, I was relatively pain-free after the nerve block procedure. Unfortunately, the impact of the local anesthetic can wear off after 24-hours. It can also take up to two weeks to feel the full results of the steroid. Sure enough, I started experiencing episodes of break-through pain by later the next day. Towards bedtime, I was in severe discomfort again despite taking pain medications.
While monitoring the effects of the nerve block, I am also scheduling an appointment with Dr. Nancy Lee, my radiation oncologist at MSKCC. Recall that back in October 2018, I finished the fifth and final session of radiation therapy to both my L5 and T7 vertebrae. I received a total dose of about 30 gray (Gy) to each site, which has provided significant pain relief in my affected hip/buttock area. Shortly, I’m meeting with Dr. Lee to determine whether or not the tumor near T8 could also be a candidate for radiation therapy—especially in the event that the nerve block fails to provide adequate relief.
Aside from managing my pain, I have two more weekly chemotherapy infusions before the next CT scan around mid-March. Depending on the outcome, I can consider continuing with the paclitaxel monotherapy or getting more aggressive by adding a second agent, such as carboplatin. There are also clinical trials to evaluate.
As always, I hope that taking the time to tell my story will help raise awareness about HPV-related cancers and the importance of vaccinating both young women and men to prevent certain cancers. You can learn more about HPV from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) by clicking here and join the conversation this Monday, March 4th for the second annual International Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Awareness Day by using hashtags like #HPV and #HPVaware on Twitter.
An MRI of my spine was taken earlier this week. This was scheduled to gain more insight into the “triangle of pain” that has been causing me severe discomfort for weeks. Compared with prior imaging studies from September/October 2018, the latest MRI showed additional metastases (the spread of cancer) along with both increased and new bone lesions, including a left rib lesion and bilateral iliac bone lesions. Disappointing, but not overly surprising in view of the fact that it has been over four months between spine scans.
Of particular note, there is a new T8 left paravertebral lesion. This could be causing referred pain in my left lower rib area as well as the changes in skin sensation (numbness, pain, etc.). Similar to how the hip/buttock pain I’m experiencing is referred from cancer invasion of the L5 vertebrae and resulting moderate fracture.
Next week, we will meet with a physician at the Spine Clinic at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) to review the MRI scans and pain management options. They are apparently not in any rush to do surgery but want to evaluate my symptoms directly.
With regard to treatment, I’m continuing on the paclitaxel (Taxol®) schedule of three weeks on, one week off. I’m looking forward to next week, which is my “off” week. I still need to commute to NYC for the neurologist appointment, but at least no chemo.
Of course, the highlight of this week was celebrating Lorie’s birthday and Valentine’s Day as a family. Lately, it has been increasingly difficult finding reasons to smile—but as you can see in the photo below, everyone was grinning that day while celebrating a very special woman.
No one has mastered the art of happiness quite like Humphrey, our Golden Retriever. If only we could bottle his positive energy and the laughter he brings our family. You can see him being a goof after a bath and grooming session in the video clip below.
In the weeks and months following my initial cancer diagnosis in December 2015, the disease status occupied my every thought. Did the initial chemoradiation treatment work? Or had cancer already spread below my collar bone, which would change my prognosis from curative to palliative? If so, where did it spread and how fast was it growing? It was all I could think about (rightfully so, as it turned out).
Lately, however, my focus has shifted to managing various debilitating side effects of cancer and its treatment. It started with hip/buttock/leg pain that ultimately was diagnosed as originating from cancer progression to my spine. That pain was primarily managed with a combination of radiation, steroids, and OxyContin®, along with the use of a walking cane. Next came breathing difficulty and coughing from radiation pneumonitis and fibrosis. Those effects are being managed by increasing existing steroids and adding a nebulizer.
As mentioned in my prior blog post, the latest issue is a sharp, stabbing pain near the inferior border of my left lung (see Figure 1). This has been accompanied by mild swelling and numbness near the skin surface. Coincidentally, this is also where three permanent radiation tattoos used to guide my prior spleen therapy can be seen (tiny blue dots seen within small, solid red circles in Figure 1). The pain, swelling, and numbness are all located within the red dashed lines—what I reference as a “triangle of pain.”
Recent CT and X-ray imaging of the area hasn’t revealed any anomalies, such as a rib fracture. I was already taking 10mg of OxyContin and 20mg of prednisone daily to help manage the spinal metastases and radiation pneumonitis/fibrosis, the latter of which was increased to 30mg to potentially help with the new rib pain. On chemotherapy treatment day, I also receive an additional dose of steroids via IV as part of the premedication course. Additionally, I have recently been prescribed 300mg gabapentin twice daily, as it can help treat neuropathic pain.
When I got out of bed the day after my first dose of paclitaxel last week, I noticed that the rib area pain was completely gone for the first time. The relief must have been due to the added dose of steroids, as the rib pain returned in full force the following day. I had a similar experience this week following my second treatment with paclitaxel yesterday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC).
While steroids can be very effective, the list of side effects they can cause is extensive. Of particular concern are osteoporosis (bone weakness) and osteonecrosis (bone death). Accordingly, my medical team has put me back down to 20mg of prednisone daily with the goal of finding alternatives for pain management, such as gabapentin.
Another option is to locate the source of pain and treat it instead. For example, it’s possible that the rib area pain that I’m experiencing is referred pain from further cancer progression to my spine. Similar to how the hip/buttock/leg pain I’m experiencing is referred from cancer invasion of the L5 vertebrae. To gain more insight, I will be scheduled for another MRI of the spine in the near future.
With spring around the corner, it would be nice to get these issues addressed so that I can feel comfortable doing normal activities again, such as simply taking the dogs for a walk. Currently, this is difficult to manage with a walking cane and breathing difficulties that are exacerbated by cold weather.
Closing the post on a positive note, like Lester Holt’s signature sign-off segments that help end his NBC evening broadcasts with a reason for optimism, we were fortunate to celebrate Rosie’s 21st birthday as a family this week. It was a beautiful day that started with a trip down memory lane—cooking her pancakes for breakfast. An important reminder that there are still beautiful moments scattered all along the cancer journey and reasons to continue the walk. In fact, up next…Lorie’s birthday and Megan’s high school graduation!
After completing two cycles of chemotherapy with Taxol® (paclitaxel) monotherapy, I had my periodic CT scan last week to determine the outcome. Recall that one full cycle of this therapy is defined as once-weekly infusions of paclitaxel for three consecutive weeks followed by a one week break typically reserved for imaging and/or rest and recovery.
The CT scan results were a mixed bag. On the positive side, the image showed minor decreases in the size of my lung metastases, mediastinal lymph nodes (the mediastinum contains the heart, thymus gland, portions of the esophagus and trachea, and other structures), and the tumor on my spleen since my prior CT scan on November 6, 2018. One lesion in my right kidney increased in size, while others remained stable or decreased.
With regard to cancer that has spread to my spine/bone, it is difficult to distinguish between cancer progression (bad) or treatment effect/healing from prior radiation treatment (good) on a CT image. Cancer that spreads to the bone is often characterized as osteolytic (causing the breakdown of bone), osteoblastic (causing increased bone production), or in some cases a mix of both. My latest scan showed increased bone formation activity with several new sites visualized, which could either reflect a healing response from radiation therapy or cancer progression. On a positive note, the compression fracture at my L5 vertebrae looks unchanged/stable from the prior scan.
Based on the latest CT scan, my medical oncologist, Dr. David Pfister, and Nicole Leonhart, ANP, RN, with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) feel that there is a very real component of my disease that remains sensitive to paclitaxel. As such, they are not inclined to add carboplatin back into the mix not knowing if it will contribute anything other than more side effects. And they certainly don’t want to abandon paclitaxel now, since I am still objectively responding. For example, having me switch to a clinical trial with a lot of unknowns and potential negative impact on quality of life.
So, I’m currently scheduled for two more cycles of paclitaxel monotherapy (3 weeks on, 1 week off x 2) and then reimage. My first dose was infused during yesterday’s appointment without issue (Figure 1).
As mentioned in my prior post, bone pain and radiation pneumonitis that emerged in late 2018 remain my biggest challenge. The bone pain is manageable with a combination of steroids and oxycodone, each with their own side effects. It’s no wonder that skeletal metastases remain one of the more debilitating problems for cancer patients. After experimenting with different treatments, my radiation pneumonitis is currently manageable through a combination of steroids and levalbuterol inhalation solution via a nebulizer.
The latest new issue to surface is a sharp, stabbing pain near the inferior border of my left lung (Figure 2). This has been accompanied by mild swelling and numbness near the skin surface, which is coincidentally where radiation tattoos used to guide my prior spleen therapy can be seen. The pain started just over a week ago and has been getting progressively worse.
Diagnosing the source of this strange new pain occupied the majority of my time at MSKCC during yesterday’s appointment. Normally I would have jumped to the conclusion that cancer had simply spread to that rib area, but my prior CT scan from a mere week ago didn’t show any anomalies. Nonetheless, an X-ray of my chest was taken to rule out a possible rib fracture that could have been caused by any one of my severe coughing attacks associated with the radiation pneumonitis. However, the X-ray came back clean with no sign of fracture.
In the absence of a fracture or cancer progression, other conditions could explain this new pain. One example is costochondritis, an inflammation of the junctions where the upper ribs join with the cartilage that holds them to the breastbone. Or the pain, numbness, and swelling could be late effects from prior radiation to the spleen.
To further support that the new pain is related to an inflammatory condition, we monitored the response to increased steroids (anti-inflammatory agents). I’m already taking 20mg of prednisone daily to help with the spinal metastases and radiation pneumonitis, but I always receive an additional dose of steroids via IV as part of the premedication course for chemotherapy. Additionally, I was prescribed 300mg gabapentin twice daily, as it can help treat neuropathic pain. I took my first pill last night.
When I got out of bed today, I noticed that the rib pain was gone. The big question remains—what caused the pain in the first place? And did the double steroid dose eliminate the pain, or did the gabapentin play a role? As the additional steroids wear off over the coming days, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.
Lastly, I addressed the increased depression referenced in my prior post. Following an appointment with my psychiatrist at MSKCC, Dr. Jeffrey B. Freedman, my daily dose of Zoloft® (sertraline HCl) was increased and already seems to be helping. PSA—more cancer patients, especially men, should seek professional help for treating depression.
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.
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).
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:
X-ray at urgent care suggesting pneumonia
Shortness of breath
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.
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.
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!
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!
“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.
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).
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!
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!
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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. 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.
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!
 Targeting CD8+ T-cell tolerance for cancer immunotherapy. Stephanie R Jackson, Jinyun Yuan, and Ryan M Teague. Immunotherapy. 2014 Jul; 6(7): 833–852.
 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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