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…

Biopsy Done

Very long day, so I’ll keep this post brief. Lorie and I stayed overnight in NY yesterday due to the early procedure scheduled this morning at MSKCC. My appointment was at 9:15am and I was scheduled for the operation to start around 10:40am. However, my slot got delayed and I didn’t head into surgery until around 2pm!

Michael D. Becker in the recovery room after a bronchoscopy

The good news, if there is any, is that thoracic surgeon Dr. Park was able to get sufficient tissue from the suspicious lymph node via the bronchoscopy approach and he didn’t need to do the surgical resection to go after the other nodules in my lungs.

The biopsy results will take a few days, but it is clear from the surgeon that the node they biopsied didn’t look “healthy.” Given that disease progression to the lungs is relatively common in advanced head and neck cancer, in my opinion the biopsy will most likely confirm spread of the original cancer to the lungs. Or, it could just be an unrelated new lung cancer just showing up now.

I hope to have more to report in the New Year but for now am relaxing in the passenger seat as Lorie drives us home. She’s such a trooper and I know my cancer returning isn’t easy for her.

Biopsy Consultation

Early this morning, I had my biopsy consultation with surgeon Dr. Bernard Park, deputy chief of clinical affairs, thoracic service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in NYC. During the meeting, he presented the pros and cons for a couple of scenarios.

The first and most attractive option is a bronchoscopy, which is an outpatient procedure that allows a doctor to look at my airway through a thin viewing instrument called a bronchoscope. During the bronchoscopy, the doctor will remove tissue from a suspicious lymph node near my airway. If they can determine the presence of cancer during the procedure, then we are done with the biopsy portion.

The second option is a wedge resection, during which the doctor will remove a portion of my lung around one of the suspicious nodules that showed up on the PET scan. This is an inpatient procedure and may include several days in the hospital.

Dr. Park offered to combine the two options, where he will begin with the bronchoscopy and only do the wedge resection if necessary during the same procedure. This spares me from having to schedule two separate procedures and potentially delay results.

The biopsy procedure is scheduled with Dr. Park on Thursday, December 29th. Assuming the results are as expected, the next step is to meet with my oncologist Dr. David Pfister at MSKCC on Tuesday, January 10th, 2017.

As you can tell in the accompanying photo taken by my lovely wife, I’m so glad to be traveling back home on New Jersey Transit on the Friday before Christmas.

becker_train

Michael Becker

Thankful

 

It’s that time of year again; where we get together with family and friends to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. It is also a time for reflection and appreciation, which has even greater meaning for me this year.

It was the day before the Thanksgiving holiday in 2015 when I first discovered a suspicious lump protruding from the right side of my neck. The formal diagnosis of Stage IV oropharyngeal cancer would occur several weeks later, but I knew at the time that the palpable growth just below my jaw line was anything but benign.

As a senior executive working in the field of biotechnology, and in particular the area of oncology, being diagnosed with cancer was difficult – but hearing “Stage 4” was especially disheartening. While staging systems are specific for each type of cancer, in general the cancer stage refers to the size and extent of the disease and is assigned a number from 1 to 4. If my cancer was confined to the right tonsil (where it started…) and hadn’t spread elsewhere, I would have been diagnosed with Stage 1 disease. Localized spreading would have been Stage 2 and depending on the extent of involvement of nearby lymph nodes – progress to Stage 3. When cancer has metastasized, or spread to other organs or throughout the body, it can be classified as Stage 4 and may also be called advanced or metastatic cancer. Stage 4 usually carries a grim prognosis compared to earlier stages of the disease.

Accordingly, when one is diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, the immediate concern is whether or not the individual will be able to survive the disease. For me, however, the bigger concern was surviving the treatments and their side effects. In particular, my experience licensing and launching a product to treat oral mucositis made me very familiar with this debilitating side effect from both radiation and chemotherapy.

When reviewing treatment options with Dr. David Pfister, my medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), I was really hoping that I would be a candidate for recent advances, such as biologic agents and immunotherapies. This was due to my familiarity with their targeted and less toxic profiles, especially when compared with chemotherapy and radiation. In fact, back in early April 2010 I published a 150-page industry report titled “Cancer Vaccine Therapies: Failures and Future Opportunities” and later that year held the inaugural “Cancer Immunotherapy: A Long-Awaited Reality” conference that took place at the New York Academy of Medicine in New York. For more information and background on immunotherapy, read “Insight: Training immune system to fight cancer comes of age” by Bill Berkrot of Reuters.

Unfortunately, approved targeted agents like Erbitux® (cetuximab) still require combination with radiation therapy and its associated side effects. Immunotherapies, such as Opdivo® (nivolumab) and Keytruda® (pembrolizumab) were only recently approved by the FDA to treat head and neck cancer, but their initial indications are limited to patients with disease progression during or after chemotherapy. I remain hopeful that use of these and other new agents will expand to newly-diagnosed patients going forward and that ultimately we no longer rely upon chemotherapy or radiation to treat this disease.

Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see two new drugs approved to treat head and neck cancer this year and know that there are options for me in the unfortunate event that my disease returns. In this regard, I was glad to help ring the Nasdaq Stock Market Opening Bell last month to celebrate cancer immunotherapy advances and the one-year listing anniversary of the Loncar Cancer Immunotherapy ETF (Ticker: CNCR). I first met Brad Loncar (@bradloncar on Twitter), Chief Executive Officer of Loncar Investments, at my inaugural cancer immunotherapy conference and he was kind enough to extend me an invitation to the Nasdaq event.

Photograph by Christopher Galluzzo / @NASDAQ

Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, Ph.D., CEO and Director of Scientific Affairs of the Cancer Research Institute, Brad Loncar, Chief Executive Officer of Loncar Investments, and Michael Becker. Photograph by Christopher Galluzzo / NASDAQ

Ultimately, I went through seven weeks of daily radiation and three cycles of chemotherapy at the start of this year, which as actor Michael Douglas was quoted “somehow seemed very accurately mapped to the seven circles of hell.” In 2010, Michael Douglas was also diagnosed with Stage 4 oropharyngeal cancer and went through the same treatment regimen at MSKCC in New York.

So, while this year started off rough (understatement), I am extremely lucky and thankful to have no evidence of cancer following treatment and to finally be free of “most” of the debilitating side effects from therapy. For example, in recent months I have noticed a dramatic improvement in both energy level and saliva output and have started to reverse a 40-pound decline in weight I experienced during and after treatment.

Aside from eternal gratitude for my wife and daughters’ love and support throughout the process, I would like to extend a special thanks to all of the healthcare providers at MSKCC for their superb care. From my “dream team” consisting of medical oncologist Dr. David Pfister, radiation oncologist Dr. Nancy Lee, and surgeon Dr. Benjamin Roman to amazing nurse practitioner Nicole Leonhart and all of the others who cared for me. I wouldn’t be here today without you!

Photo of Michael Becker and Dr. Nancy Lee

Photograph of Michael Becker with radiation oncologist Dr. Nancy Lee of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) taken November 18, 2016

For my family, friends, and colleagues – too numerous to name – thank you again to EVERYONE that helped in some way…the thoughts, emails, prayer chains, food deliveries, financial support, hospital visits, etc. were all greatly appreciated.

My next PET scan is scheduled for early February 2017 and I hope to report that all remains clear around that time.

PS – as a native of Chicago and loyal fan, I am also thankful to have witnessed the Cubs baseball team winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years in 2016! Go Cubs Go!

Complete Response

Cancer - Three Arrows Hit in Red Target Hanging on the Sack on Green Background.

In my prior post, I referenced seeing my head and neck surgeon to investigate recent changes to my voice and swelling in my neck. Although there was nothing suspicious upon visual examination, he wanted to confer with both my medical oncologist and radiation oncologist to determine whether or not an imaging study was warranted. Much to my surprise, I received a call back after the Memorial Day holiday stating that they wanted to move up the date for my first post-therapy PET scan, which was originally scheduled for July 19.

For head and neck cancer, this first PET scan following chemoradiation therapy is a big deal. A “complete response” to therapy based on PET assessment is associated with a high probability of regional control (only 2.3% regional failure rate) and a five year overall survival rate of 79.8% based on long-term follow-up in a large uniform cohort at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC, see reference below). With a suspected incomplete response on the first PET scan, the 5-year overall survival rate dropped to 57.0% in the same study.

My PET scan was rescheduled for late in the day last Friday (June 3), which meant that I wouldn’t receive a phone call with the results until today (Monday). It was worth the wait, however, as the report from my PET scan couldn’t have been better. There was no accumulation of the radio tracer in my tonsil, the previously enlarged lymph node, vocal cords or any other area of concern. Sometimes there is inflammation and other artifacts from treatment that radiologists can’t rule out as residual disease and therefore cautious language can be used in the radiology report, which wasn’t the case for me. Additionally, there was a marked decrease in the size of the infected lymph node.

Personally, I’m not a fan of the terms “cure” or “cancer free” – since right now there’s no way for doctors to know with certainty that all of the cancer cells in my body are gone. In fact, some cancer cells can remain unnoticed in the body for years after treatment. So for now I prefer to embrace the phrase “complete response,” which references the disappearance of all signs of cancer in response to treatment.

If cancer cells do come back, it often happens within the 5 years following the first diagnosis and treatment. In this regard, I’m optimistic about the expected 80% 5-year survival rate  – especially when compared to some other aggressive cancers, such as pancreatic cancer, which is associated with a 5-year survival rate of only 8% (American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2016. Atlanta: American Cancer Society; 2016).

I meet with my radiation oncologist in a few weeks and will learn more about how frequently I will need to have follow-up PET scans and other visits. Until then, I’m trying to digest the positive news, looking forward to slowly regaining some control over my life, and appreciating the coincidence that yesterday cancer survivors and supporters in communities around the world gathered to celebrate the 29th annual National Cancer Survivors Day® (June has been designated National Cancer Survivors Month).

Thank you to everyone (far too many to name…) who supported me during this difficult period – but especially my wife Lorie who has been absolutely amazing through all the ups and downs (luvya!).

References:

Int J Cancer. 2013 Sep 1;133(5):1214-21. doi: 10.1002/ijc.28120. Epub 2013 Mar 29.
Long-term regional control in the observed neck following definitive chemoradiation for node-positive oropharyngeal squamous cell cancer.
Goenka A, Morris LG, Rao SS, Wolden SL, Wong RJ, Kraus DH, Ohri N, Setton J, Lok BH, Riaz N, Mychalczak BR, Schoder H, Ganly I, Shah JP, Pfister DG, Zelefsky MJ, Lee NY.

Home Sweet Home

This week I was able to move out of my temporary apartment in New York and return home to Bucks County, PA. I don’t know whether it was being away from the loud traffic noises or just finally sleeping in my own bed, but the first night home was the best night’s sleep I’ve had in weeks.

As predicted by my physicians and nurses, the weeks following chemoradiation were the most difficult in terms of toxicities due to the delayed effects of therapy. For me, week #8 was the worst and I required additional hydration pretty much every other day during that week. This was due to the fact that my electrolyte levels, in particular magnesium, were low. Fatigue was probably the greatest side effect, but in general I just felt like I had a really bad case of the flu.

By week #9 the physicians indicated that my electrolyte levels had stabilized and/or improved, meaning that I didn’t require as frequent hydration. That gave me the freedom to return home since I didn’t need to be near MSKCC.

My salivary output and taste buds are still off as a lingering effect from the chemoradiation therapy, although I understand they should return over time. This makes it difficult to eat – or at least find food that is appealing. I’ve lost more than 20 pounds since the start of treatment, which doesn’t disappoint me as much as my doctors.

I’m hoping to return to my daily commute to NY for work later this week and get back to a relatively normal life. The radiation burn marks on my neck are nearly gone and you’d hardly know by looking at me that I just went through seven weeks of pure hell.

My post-treatment visit with Dr. Nancy Lee has been scheduled for mid-May 2016 which is when I’ll get my first update on the treatment efficacy. She did order a PET scan on my last day of treatment, which looked encouraging although you cannot draw any definitive conclusions at this early stage. Nonetheless, there was decreased fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG) uptake in the right tonsil and in the rim corresponding with the neck nodal mass. Interestingly, the neck nodal mass also originally measured 4.0 x 2.6 centimeters and now measures 2.3 x 1.6 centimeters, which is a dramatic decrease in size.

Week #7 – Done and Done

Friday marked the last day of my seven week chemoradiation therapy journey. Aside from some routine follow-up appointments and recovering from lingering toxicities, I will now wait several months for the repeat PET scan that will provide some insight as to whether or not the treatment was a success. Of course, I’m trying to stay optimistic that the combination of radiation and chemotherapy treatments that I endured over the past seven weeks successfully eliminated all of the cancer – but there is always that nagging thought that it did not and that leaves a pit in my stomach.

Michael Becker's Radiation Mask

Michael Becker’s Radiation Mask

Fortunately, on Friday I was able to take home with me the dreaded radiation mask (see enclosed image). No longer will I need to wear this mask for daily radiation therapy, which makes me VERY happy. The nuclear technicians offered humorous insight as to what other patients do with their masks after radiation treatment is done.  Some make decorative items, such as flower pots. Others simply burn them in a sadistic revenge ceremony, which I must admit holds a certain type of appeal. Although it somehow conjures up thoughts of Darth Vader’s helmet, last seen burning in a funeral pyre in ‘The Return of the Jedi,’ winding up in the hands of Kylo Ren in the ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ movie…

Regardless of what I do with my mask, I am enjoying a certain freedom knowing that I’m no longer beholden to a daily treatment schedule and that I have received the very best treatment possible for my disease by the entire team at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). It is amazing how quickly the seven week treatment cycle passed and it all seems like a blur right now. While I did not look forward to the daily radiation treatment, the appointments were at least a reminder that I was doing something to treat the disease. Now I have that same empty feeling that plagued me when I was first diagnosed and searching for the best treatment – the feeling that I should be doing something but cannot.