Back on Track

Bacterial cultures from the tips of two chest tubes that were recently removed revealed growth of a pseudomonas organism on one of them. These are fairly common pathogens involved in infections acquired in a hospital setting. Whether or not this was the source of my fevers, I was prescribed an antibiotic (levofloxacin, 500mg daily) since pseudomonas can lead to other nasty conditions.

I continued running fevers for a few days after starting the antibiotic, but was free of fever for the 48-hours leading up to my next scheduled chemotherapy round. Aside from the mystery fever, my blood counts have been good throughout the three weeks of chemotherapy that I received thus far. Accordingly, my medical oncologist (Dr. Pfister) supported resuming treatment.

Michael Becker receiving chemotherapy at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

On Tuesday, August 15, 2017, Lorie and I took the early morning train to NY so I could receive an intravenous infusion of paclitaxel and then carboplatin as planned. I was quite anxious to resume treatment after a one week break – especially after seeing the decrease in tumor size from the recent CT scan.

I looked at my blood test results from that morning and noticed my magnesium level was again low. Knowing that this “could” have played a role in the recent cardiac event, and that my daily oral magnesium isn’t keeping up, I requested an additional intravenous course of magnesium just to be safe and the medical staff agreed.

Michael Becker asleep on the Amtrak train home. Although my blood counts are okay, Lorie is appropriately cautious and likes me to wear a mask when on the train or in other public spaces.

The chemotherapy infusions went well and we were able to take an afternoon Amtrak train back home. Benedryl® is one of the pre-medications they give me, so I slept a good portion of the trip home. Lorie was kind enough to capture me asleep with her phone.

After postponing their prior trip due to my hospitalization, my sister and her family are planning to visit us this weekend. Hopefully life is uneventful and we all get to spend some time together.

It was surreal that exactly one week after being in the intensive care unit (ICU) at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), I felt good enough to participate in a scheduled radio interview conducted in Philadelphia on August 10, 2017. Just goes to show there are good days and there are bad days. NPR member radio station WHYY host Dave Heller knew an awful lot about my book “A Walk with Purpose: Memoir of a Bioentrepreneur” and it was so great working with him during my first experience in a radio recording studio. Please take a moment to listen to a replay of this 20-minute segment and other events, along with reading newspaper and other media reprints, under the “In the News” menu tab at my memoir website by clicking here.

Michael Becker with WHYY’s Dave Heller. (WHYY photo)

Hopefully I continue to feel okay the next couple of days and look forward to seeing family while in town. It should take a week or so for the latest treatment effects to materialize. If not, however, I’m sure Humphrey will provide them with endless hours of amusement!

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention in closing that the start of the new school season is a great time to schedule an appointment with your pediatrician to talk about an important immunization that could prevent 6 cancers in boys/girls. You can learn more about this vaccine in an earlier blog post by clicking here. Had this vaccine been available when I was a child, it could have prevented the cancer that’s killing me. Start the discussion with your doctor – today! And help spread the word by using the #DiscussHPV hashtag in your social media posts.

Roller Coaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Becker having two chest tubes removed at bedside.

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Ending Up in the ICU

On Tuesday, August 1, 2017, I received my third dose of chemotherapy. Everything went well and the next day I was feeling excellent, although some of that can be contributed to the steroid pre-medication. As an added plus, I was looking forward to having family in town for the weekend. Life seemed pretty good.

In the back of my mind, I knew that I likely hadn’t reached the nadir, or lowest point, in my blood counts from the prior chemotherapy. As such, there was a possibility that I might not be feeling 100% for my visitors.

Sure enough, by Wednesday evening I started running a mild temperature. No big deal – it was below the 38 degrees Celsius (°C) cutoff for an “official” temperature. On Thursday I wasn’t feeling energetic and napped most of the day. Then the real fun started.

My temperature rose Thursday evening and the physician-on-call at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) recommended that I come to urgent care to get things checked out. So, Lorie and I made the drive from Bucks County, PA to New York City for the third visit to urgent care within the past three weeks! We debated taking the train as opposed to driving, which would have been faster.

By the time we arrived at MSKCC, my temperature was above 39 °C and I felt the familiar muscle aches and general fatigue that I associated with influenza. Coincidentally, it was the diagnosis of influenza during my first week of chemoradiation in early 2016 that resulted in my first trip to MSKCC’s urgent care facility.

Flu season doesn’t usually begin until October, so this time concern focused on bacterial infection. With my white blood cell counts negatively impacted by chemotherapy, it was possible that my body couldn’t fight off an infection in one of my chest tubes or another location.

I was triaged with the usual battery of blood tests and a chest x-ray before being placed in an exam room. Urgent care was very crowded and I was just happy to have a bed and looked forward to resting horizontally for a while.

I sat on the bed, preparing to relax when I clutched my chest from a sudden, stabbing pain. Lorie could tell from the expression on my face this was no ordinary situation and called for the nurse who arrived immediately to assess the situation. As various cables were connected, I felt my heart racing and Lorie was shocked to see my pulse was 225 on the computer monitor.

Normally, the heart beats about 60 to 100 times per a minute at rest. But in tachycardia, the heart beats faster than normal in the upper or lower chambers of the heart or both while at rest. The episode ended within a minute or so, but tachycardia can disrupt normal heart function and lead to serious complications, including heart failure, stroke, and sudden cardiac arrest or death. Patches were promptly applied outside of my chest wall, which could be used if needed to provide a brief electric shock to the heart to reset the heart rhythm back to its normal, regular pattern.

My heart wasn’t the only one racing as the medical team placed a crash cart outside my door and a sense of urgency filled the room. The contents of a crash cart vary, but typically contain the tools and drugs needed to treat a person in or near cardiac arrest. I was sure that the end was near.

Michael Becker in MSKCC’s ICU

Fortunately, no further cardiac events occurred and I was admitted to MSKCC’s intensive care unit (ICU), where seriously ill patients are cared for by specially trained staff. While I have never had the misfortune to be admitted to an ICU in the past, I was amazed by the both the medical staff and technology used to monitor my condition and knew I was in good hands.

I was placed on an antibiotic and medication to stabilize my heart rate while the team worked to determine the source of the tachycardia and whether or not my episode had caused any damage to my heart. Preliminary assessments ranged from one of my tumors or chest tubes rubbing up against the sensitive tissue surrounding the heart to low electrolyte levels, which are important minerals in your body that have an electric charge. Maintaining the right balance of electrolytes is key for your body’s blood chemistry, muscle action and other processes.

On Friday, my temperature returned to normal and there were no further cardiac events. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps it was time to contact hospice and let the cancer take its course. I had faced my share of obstacles since being diagnosed with cancer in late 2015 and three recent trips to the hospital resulted in further erosion of my quality of life with two chest tubes, being back on chemotherapy and its side effects, and now the prospect of potential cardiac issues. Lorie and I discussed the topic of hospice and she rightfully pointed out that such a decision shouldn’t be made while sitting in the ICU.

I shared my thoughts about hospice with one of nurses while he assisted me with walking a few laps around the floor. Much to my surprise, he shared with me that it was about 11-years ago that he underwent a bone marrow transplant at MSKCC and how it caused him to pursue a career in medicine. He discounted my outlook on hospice, stating that I was young, up-and-walking, and seemed otherwise quite capable of enjoying further quality time with my wife and daughters. When my quality of life truly diminishes, that would be the time to consider hospice.

Our daughters, Rosie and Megan, traveled by train to NYC and were able to visit me briefly in the ICU. However, they all stayed overnight in a nearby hotel thanks to my father and step-mother. Being in the ICU wasn’t conducive for the planned family visit, which unfortunately got cancelled.

I was released from the ICU to a regular room very late Friday evening. I’ll be here for at least another day or two because the source of the fever still hasn’t been identified. With the fever gone, it appears the antibiotics were successful in treating the infection, but without knowing the source or strain – treatment can be challenging.

Viewing my Twitter feed briefly from the ICU on Friday, I was delighted to learn that Adam Feuerstein, Senior Writer at STAT News (statnews.com), Tweeted that he was dedicating his Pan-Mass Challenge ride to me.

Adam Feuerstein’s Tweet

Each year the Pan-Mass Challenge brings together thousands of impassioned cyclists, committed volunteers, generous donors and dedicated corporate sponsors. Together, they strive to provide Dana-Farber’s doctors and researchers the necessary resources to discover cures for all types of cancer.

“Michael, we love you, support you. Your strength will inspire me tomorrow.,” Tweeted Adam. Well, Adam, your Tweet and the many acknowledgements on Twitter helped brighten my day and I’m still here giving cancer everything that I’ve got. Godspeed on your ride and thank you for an amazing gesture!

And special thanks to all of Lorie’s friends who have helped our daughters get to NYC and/or babysit our small petting zoo while we’re away. It’s a lot to ask, and we’re so grateful for the help since it is one less thing to worry about. Humphrey appears to have made new puppy friends, as evidenced by the photos and videos that I love seeing.

It’s Saturday afternoon as I finish writing this blog update. Lorie, Rosie, and Megan are able to visit longer since I’m in a regular room now. Seeing people in the hospital isn’t tops on most teen’s lists of favorite activities, but it means so much to me having them here.

Day Number Four in the Hospital

Life has been hectic since this past Sunday when Lorie and I drove to New York City for another visit to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s (MSKCCs) urgent care facility. Drainage from my chest tube once again changed from amber fluid to the color of a fine Cabernet wine, which signaled that bleeding resumed. More alarming was the accompanying shortness of breath and increased coughing. I was out of breath even from walking a short distance to go to the bathroom.

We arrived at MSKCC around 10am and, following a brief review of recent events, had a chest x-ray taken to get a quick read on the situation. The resulting images showed a complete “white-out” in the left lung, which indicated that fluid had essentially filled the entire space. Normally, the lungs look transparent or black on an x-ray due to air in the lungs.

The fact that I had only one viable lung explained the shortness of breath and coughing. What the x-ray couldn’t reveal was the composition of the fluid (serous fluid, blood, tumor) or its source. For more information, a CT scan was required and scheduled. Unfortunately, weekends at any hospital can be hectic and my CT scan didn’t take place until close to midnight and I was admitted.

Monday morning, we had the pleasure of meeting again with surgeon Dr. Bernard Park, deputy chief of clinical affairs, thoracic service at MSKCC. In December 2016, Dr. Park had successfully performed a bronchoscopy procedure to biopsy a suspicious lymph node near my airway. We knew that we were in good hands.

Dr. Park explained the situation and the requisite next-steps were abundantly clear. For whatever reason, the Aspira Pleural Drainage Catheter in my left lung wasn’t fully draining the fluid – especially towards the top section of my lung. That fluid needed to be drained in order to alleviate shortness of breath and coughing. How to best accomplish this was a source of significant discussion.

One short-term solution was to temporarily insert a plastic tube straight through the front of my chest into the top section of the lung to manually extract the fluid. This would require a brief stay in the hospital while the tube was present and it would be removed prior to going home. A longer-term solution was to place a second PleurX catheter that could be accessed whenever needed at home to extract fluid from the top section of the lung.

In either case, a potential pitfall was that the fluid in the upper section of the lung may actually be fibrotic scar tissue (called loculation) or tumor, preventing effective drainage. Dr. George Getrajdman, an interventional radiologist at MSKCC, proposed a step-wise procedure. First, he would try to extract the fluid near the top of the left lung using a syringe to see “if” anything could be extracted. If so, he could confidently proceed with placement of a second catheter (Option A) or the fluid could simply be drained with the syringe to see if that provided symptomatic relief before proceeding with more permanent catheter placement (Option B). Placing a temporary plastic tube was also a consideration (Option C), with the downside being that fluid accumulates again in the future – requiring another procedure. If no fluid could be extracted with a syringe, then the space was being occupied by something more solid (fibrotic scar tissue and/or tumor mass) and a catheter would be pointless. Ultimately, I decided to proceed with Option A.

Requiring more urgent resolution, however, was the recently discovered blood clot in my iliac vein near the pelvis and its potential to detach and cause a pulmonary embolism (PE) – a condition in which one or more arteries in the lungs become blocked by a blood clot, which could stop blood flow to the lung. With essentially only one lung functioning, a PE in my remaining viable lung would likely be fatal. Hence the sense of urgency.

Due to the recurrence of blood in the drainage from my original chest tube, we reached the point where taking anticoagulant medication (Lovenox®/ enoxaparin sodium) to treat and prevent deep vein thrombosis (DVT) was no longer viable and was discontinued. The only alternative was placement of an inferior vena cava (IVC) filter device designed to trap/prevent my blot clot from traveling from the largest vein in the body, the inferior vena cava, to the lungs or heart.

To insert an IVC filter, I was given medication to help relax and a local anesthetic to numb the area of insertion. Implanting the IVC filter was Dr. Getrajdman, who inserted a catheter through a small incision in my neck. Using X-rays images to guide the procedure, he advanced the IVC filter through the catheter and into the inferior vena cava. Once the IVC filter was in place, he removed the catheter and put a small bandage on the insertion site.

X-ray image following drainage of 1.5 liters of fluid from left lung showing air returning to the top portion (red circle).

Fortunately, Dr. Getrajdman was also able to deal with the left lung issue during the same procedure. Approximately 1.5 liters of fluid were successfully acquired from the top portion of the lung, so he proceeded with placement of a second catheter as planned/hoped. Both procedures took about 1.5 hours in total to complete. Afterwards, an x-ray confirmed that the top portion of the lung was free of fluid as shown in the accompanying image.

My breathing improved immediately following the procedure and I felt fine with all of the pain medication. However, waking up the next day (Tuesday) I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. There was a fair amount of pain at both the incision on my neck from the IVC filter insertion and the newly placed catheter site. As the day progressed, the pain diminished and I started feeling much better.

By late afternoon, tissue plasminogen activator (TPA) was injected through my original Aspira chest tube to help clear the line by breaking down blood clots. Afterwards, we were trained on using the “new” PleurX catheter and then proceeded with draining fluid from both the top and bottom catheters. The top PleurX catheter rapidly drained 500cc of fluid, which looked far less bloody than what had previously been extracted from the bottom. We were only able to drain 200cc of fluid from the bottom Aspira catheter, which was still bloody and thicker. It’s speculated that the fluid from the bottom was left over from before and there was no active bleeding, which will be confirmed by monitoring hemoglobin levels.

With the IVC filter in place and the ability to drain both top/bottom fluid from my left lung, I was able to proceed with my second dose of chemotherapy while in the hospital. This consisted solely of paclitaxel and then next week should be my initial loading dose with cetuximab.

We’re planning to try draining both chest tube sites today (Wednesday) and looking for further improvement in subsequent chest x-rays. Assuming all goes well, I should be released from the hospital but need to stay in NYC overnight and see my oncologist tomorrow. I’m feeling much better now, but the coming days should be when the effects of my first week of chemotherapy (paclitaxel/carboplatin) start materializing. In any event, I’ll be happy to get home hopefully tomorrow and see how big our new puppy Humphrey has grown in the short time we’ve been away.

Never Thought I’d Do It Again

Despite the hectic backdrop of late, I’ve been busy researching treatment options for patients like me with incurable squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN). My first inclination was to pursue another immunotherapy, as there are a lot of clinical trials with novel immunotherapies and combinations currently recruiting. With my disease progressing, however, I felt that perhaps a more aggressive approach backed by data was warranted.

For example, one viable option is the chemotherapy-based “EXTREME” regimen with 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), cisplatin or carboplatin, and the monoclonal antibody Erbitux® (cetuximab). Initially, I discounted this option because 5-FU-based regimens can be associated with significant toxicities. Nonetheless, a multicenter phase III trial in SCCHN demonstrated a 36% longer median overall survival using the EXTREME regimen versus chemotherapy alone (10.1 months vs. 7.4 months, respectively). It was the kind of data-based treatment I was seeking, but I was really against receiving 5-FU.

One of the many nasty side effects from 5-FU is palmar-plantar erythrodysesthesia (PPE), also known as hand-foot syndrome (HFS). There are currently no treatments or preventions for HFS, which is characterized by tingling in the palms, fingers and soles of feet and by erythema, which may progress to burning pain with dryness, cracking, desquamation, ulceration and oedema.

I learned a lot about HFS while serving as CEO of VioQuest Pharmaceuticals. The company was developing a 1% uracil topical formulation to prevent HFS. Uracil is a naturally occurring substrate that directly competes with 5-FU for the enzymes that metabolize 5-FU to its toxic metabolites. When applied topically, the concentration of uracil in the skin greatly exceeds the concentrations of 5-FU, thus blocking the formation of 5-FU’s toxic metabolites. Unfortunately, there haven’t been any updates on the product’s development status since April 2010 according to ClinicalTrials.gov.

When we arrived at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) late Sunday evening, I had already decided that if it came down to the EXTREME regimen as my best option – I would simply forgo further treatment, contact hospice, and let things progress naturally.

Fortunately, my medical oncologist at MSKCC, Dr. David Pfister, suggested replacing 5-FU with weekly paclitaxel, resulting in a chemotherapy regimen known as PCC (paclitaxel, carboplatin, and cetuximab), that has been found to be efficacious and well-tolerated in patients with SCCHN when used as induction chemotherapy. As a result, 5-FU and paclitaxel can be viewed as somewhat interchangeable, but paclitaxel offers a more favorable toxicity profile.

Unlike the two chemotherapeutics, cetuximab is a chimeric human-murine monoclonal antibody (mAb). MAb therapy, the most widely used form of cancer immunotherapy today, is a form of “passive” immunotherapy that often does not require the patient’s immune system to take an active role in fighting the cancer.

Cetuximab targets and binds to epidermal growth factor receptors (EGFR) that are found on the surface of many normal cells and cancer cells. Doing so stops the cell from continuing the signaling pathway that promotes cell division and growth, effectively stopping the cancer by stopping the cancerous cells from growing and multiplying.

I’m a big believer in the power of immunotherapy and believe that my recent treatment with the experimental M7824 (first-in-class, bispecific fusion protein of an avelumab-like antibody linked to two molecules of TGF-beta trap) had a positive effect on my disease. More importantly, there may even be synergy between what M7824 has done so far in combination with the PCC regimen. Even if the PCC regimen only shrinks my lung tumors, the reduction in disease burden could help future immunotherapy treatments be more efficacious.

Starting treatment with the two chemotherapeutics (paclitaxel and carboplatin) on 7/18/17 at MSKCC

Having plenty of time to weigh the future treatment options while the bleeding issue with my chest tube was being addressed, I decided that Dr. Pfister’s proposed PCC regimen made a lot of sense. Much to my surprise, I was able to start treatment with the two chemotherapeutics (paclitaxel and carboplatin) on Tuesday and return home that evening. Next Tuesday I will receive my first loading dose of cetuximab.

Regarding the bloody drainage from my chest tube referenced in my prior post, I had a liter of fluid drained using a vacuum-like device connected to my catheter and the drainage returned to a healthier apple juice color. I was started on Lovenox again while continually monitoring the fluid output through the tube looking for the color to change back to bloody. Fortunately, the color remained the same and it looks like Lovenox wasn’t the likely culprit. I’m back on Lovenox and so far, so good.

I never thought I’d say the phrase “I’m back on chemotherapy.” But here I am, continuing the fight. Why? Because Lorie slept at a hotel on our second night in NYC to get some much-needed rest and my mind went drifting down memory lane as I sat alone in the patient room at MSKCC. I thought about all the good times we shared, the family we raised, and how much we love each other. I cried and cried. Suddenly, I knew that if chemotherapy could give me even just one more day with her, it would be worth the drug’s side effects.

And yes, there is still the hope of doing better and living longer than expected. The chances are remote, but not zero. More updates soon…

Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t

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

Blood clot illustration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cancer is Back

2017 isn’t off to a stellar start.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Final Day of Chemotherapy

Today was my last chemotherapy appointment. It was bittersweet watching the final drops of cisplatin fall from the bag, stream down the winding tubes, and finally enter the intravenous line into my vein.

On the positive side, I was able to complete all of the three cycles of chemotherapy that are associated with the encouraging survival rates published by the physicians at MSKCC. Some patients don’t make it through all three cycles due to side effects, and I was nervous earlier this week when I started running a fever that they may skip the last cycle.

On the negative side, the week following chemotherapy has been difficult for me in terms of nausea and a general sense of feeling crappy. On top of that, the doctors keep reminding me that the coming few weeks will be the toughest. This is due to the cumulative effects of both radiation and chemotherapy, as the two therapies continue to exert their toxic effects even after they are discontinued.

Michael Becker and Daughter Megan in the Chemotherapy Suite at MSKCC

Michael Becker and Daughter Megan in the Chemotherapy Suite at MSKCC

Fortunately, I was joined not only by Lorie but also my youngest daughter Megan. Megan was able to come to NYC thanks to Lorie’s best friend since 3rd grade of elementary school – Debby Novack. She came into town to help out after Lorie’s sister went back to Illinois after her three week tour of duty. Not an overly exciting day for Megan sitting around the chemotherapy suite and shuffling between various appointments, but it was great having her there.

The following two days (Thursday and Friday) are also my final days of radiation therapy. It will be so nice to have at least part of my life back next week – not having to be a slave to the daily treatments and the three chemotherapy cycles. Any remaining doctor appointments will simply be routine checkups leading up to a PET scan in approximately 3-4 months to determine in part whether or not the treatment was successful or if further intervention is needed.

Most important, my lower back pain has greatly subsided and I can get up and down much better than even a few days ago. Either the muscle spasm went away on its own or the myriad of pain medicines and muscle relaxers finally started working. Regardless, I’m happy and better positioned to deal with the coming weeks with one less ailment to worry about.

Second Round of Chemotherapy

Today was the start of week #4 for my chemoradiation treatment. It was also the second time that I was scheduled to receive chemotherapy (cisplatin) in addition to my daily radiation treatment. I receive a total of three chemotherapy treatments – one at the beginning, one in the middle, and then one at the end of my therapy.

Fortunately, I felt well enough last Friday to come home to Pennsylvania for the weekend. It was great to see my wife and kids, pets, and sleep in my own bed for the second weekend in a row. I was really glad I could make it, since I missed being with Rosie for her 18th birthday during the week while I was in NYC. I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t with her to celebrate her birthday in person, although I was able to FaceTime and sing happy birthday.

This morning, my wife and I took the morning train from Bucks County, PA into NYC for my chemotherapy appointment. I was feeling a lot of pain this morning from the mouth sores and for the first time in my throat as well. I was miserable the entire train ride, but made it to New York and we headed to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) for treatment.

The day started with radiation therapy and then an appointment for blood work and then a meeting with Nicole – the nurse practitioner before starting chemotherapy. Last week when I met with her, she prescribed gabapentin and a lidocaine gel to help manage the pain. Today when I communicated my current pain level to her, she also prescribed Oxycodone. After about 30-minutes, the pain was improving and continued to do so throughout the next few hours with the Oxycodone. Nicole also mentioned that the steroids administered as part of the chemotherapy could also help with inflammation and might help alleviate the mouth and throat pain.

Chemotherapy (cisplatin) infusion pump

My chemotherapy was scheduled for 1pm, but the routine blood test came back with some bizarre readings in the metabolic panel. In fact, had the results been correct – the nurse said my heart would likely have stopped! Needless to say, they also couldn’t proceed with chemotherapy if the results were accurate. They needed to take another blood test to determine whether or not the readings were true. Not surprisingly, the first results were wrong and the second set was perfectly normal. As a result, the chemotherapy treatment proceeded – but not until around 2:30pm.

I finally finished chemotherapy at 7:45pm and Lorie and I went to a nearby restaurant for a late dinner before heading to the apartment. The second dose of Oxycodone left me feeling little pain and I actually had an appetite. It was the first time I felt comfortable going out to eat in more than three weeks. The French toast sounded like a good bet for some much needed calories and I ate the entire portion except for some of the crust. It was a fantastic end to a day that started off a little rough.

Tomorrow is the second day of chemotherapy and then I’m back to just daily radiation for the next few weeks. It will be interesting to see how I handle this round of chemotherapy as opposed to the first round when I came down with the flu.

Progress Report

Yesterday marked the beginning of Week #3 for my chemoradiation treatment. By now, the cummulative effects of daily radiation have started to appear.  This includes oral mucositis (where the mucosal lining of the mouth breaks down forming ulcers) and xerostomia (dry mouth). The World Health Organization (WHO) Oral Toxicity Scale measures anatomical, symptomatic, and functional components of oral mucositis¹. The scale ranges from Grade 0 (no oral mucositis) to Grade 4 (unable to eat solid food or liquids). The majority of head and neck cancer patients (83%) who are receiving radiation therapy develop oral mucositis and 29% develop severe oral mucositis².

IMG_7111

Oral mucositis ulcer on side of my tongue

My current assessment would be WHO Grade 2, which means that I can still eat solid foods despite the presence of ulcers (see photo of the single ulcer on the side of my tongue). Recall that I started taking Caphosol® at the start of my chemoradiation treatment. This oral rinse has been shown to reduce the severity and duration of oral mucositis in a clinical study. The study design used a different oral mucositis scale devised by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), which ranks oral mucositis on a 0-5 scale where I would presently be at Grade 2 (single ulcer <1 cm). Results from the study demonstrated a peak Grade 1.38 for patients using Caphosol compared to Grade 2.41 for the placebo group. Accordingly, it will be interesting to see whether or not I develop additional ulcers or more severe oral mucositis to help determine the benefit of using Caphosol.

I received a progress report during my appointment with Dr. Nancy Lee, my radiation oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). The results are encouraging, as the tumor has markedly decreased in size over the first two weeks of therapy – characteristic for my type of cancer. The better news was that the PET imaging study looking at levels of oxygen deficiency (hypoxia) in the tumor tissue showed dramatic improvement. In particular, the pre-treatment scan showed “mild” radiotracer uptake in the primary tumor (right tonsil) and “intense” radiotracer uptake in the neck lymph node, indicating a significant amount of hypoxic tumor cells that are generally more resistant to radiation and many anticancer drugs. However, the most recent PET scan showed “no” radiotracer uptake in the primary tumor and only “mild” persistent uptake in the neck lymph node. Unfortunately, the fact that there is still some hypoxia means that they won’t be able to reduce the amount of radiation to the neck node, which could have reduced some of the side effects.

This morning I had my follow-up hearing test, which showed no change from pre-treatment.  This is also good news, as the chemotherapy (cisplatin) can sometimes cause hearing loss. Next week will be my second round of chemotherapy on both Monday and Tuesday. I’m hoping that this cycle will be less eventful than the first and that I don’t contract the flu or have any other surprises.

¹ World Health Organization. WHO Handbook for Reporting Results of Cancer Treatment. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization; 1979:15-22.

² Vera-Llonch M, Oster G, Hagiwara M, Sonis S. Oral mucositis in patients undergoing radiation treatment for head and neck carcinoma. Cancer. 2006;106:329–36.

Crossroads

It’s coincidental that after spending so many years leading a few small, oncology-focused biotechnology companies developing immunotherapies, radiopharmaceutical agents, and supportive care oncology products, I am now utilizing that experience, knowledge and network to make informed treatment decisions following my cancer diagnosis. Like driving down a familiar road, I am constantly seeing landmarks and signs that I know quite well from my time in the industry.

For example, some of the common side effects from chemotherapy and radiation therapy include oral mucositis (painful ulcers in the mucosa) and xerostomia (dry mouth). I studied these two side effects extensively as part of the due diligence process when I licensed and launched an advanced electrolyte solution called Caphosol® back in 2006. Based on this experience, I know what to expect from my chemoradiation treatment and hope to incorporate Caphosol into my arsenal against these debilitating side effects.

295077-smallWhile the streets may be familiar at times, I am still faced with difficult decisions at some of the crossroads. The latest example arose during yesterday’s follow-up visit with Dr. David Pfister, my medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). Separate from my upcoming daily radiation treatments, the appointment largely focused on scheduling my three chemotherapy infusions and discussing what to expect in terms of side effects from the treatment. The chemotherapy I will receive is called cisplatin, which was first approved for use in testicular and ovarian cancers back in 1978.  The list of potential toxicities includes nausea, constipation, kidney issues, hearing issues, and others.  The conversation shifted to potential clinical trials and Dr. Pfister mentioned one that is exploring an alternative to chemotherapy that may have less side effects. In the study, the chemotherapy agent (cisplatin) is replaced by Erbitux® (cetuximab) – another FDA approved agent for treating head and neck cancer. Erbitux is an inhibitor of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR), a receptor found on both normal and tumor cells that is important for cell growth. But the study also adds an investigational agent BYL719, which is an inhibitor of PI3K, an enzyme which fuels the growth of several types of cancer. Having worked at several companies developing inhibitors of the PI3K pathway, this was more familiar territory. However, trading the proven results with cisplatin for “potentially” similar efficacy with lower side effects from the investigational combination is a difficult crossroad.

On the one hand, the aforementioned clinical trial includes an approved agent for treating head and neck cancer (Erbitux).  This is different from some other clinical trial designs that include a placebo arm or an arm with only an investigational agent. However, Erbitux has its own side effects and there are unanswered questions in the medical community regarding whether or not Erbitux is “as good” as cisplatin. As a result some physicians only use Erbitux as a replacement for cisplatin when the patient cannot tolerate cisplatin’s toxicities. In my mind, forgoing cisplatin and its proven efficacy could jeopardize the potential for cure. Partially offsetting this risk is the inclusion of a promising new investigational agent – the PI3K inhibitor BYL719 being developed by Novartis. The PI3K pathway is widely known in the oncology community as a potential target for cancer therapy – and in particular head and neck cancer. Preclinical data suggest that simultaneous inhibition of PI3K and EGFR leads to synergistic antitumor activity in head and neck cancer, but future randomized trials are required to answer the question of whether or not the combination is equal to (or better than) cisplatin. Lastly, BYL719 is an investigational agent and although it appears well-tolerated in studies to date, side effects may arise as more and more patients are exposed to the drug.

Ultimately, I decided to stick with the more established cisplatin for a variety of reasons. First, it is my understanding that the radiation therapy, which would be included regardless of whether I opted for cisplatin or the investigational Erbitux/BYL719 combination, is the driving force for both cure AND debilitating side effects.  Most of cisplatin’s side effects, such as nausea, constipation, and other issues, can be partially offset with medication and hydration. Second, cisplatin has been around for decades and appears to be the gold standard in combination with radiation for Stage IV head and neck cancer and it is hard to argue with the clinical data supporting its use to date. Lastly, in the unfortunate event that my chemoradiation therapy isn’t effective – I can always explore investigational treatments as a next step.

 

Pointillism

One of my wife’s favorite artists is Georges Seurat, a French post-Impressionist painter known for his role in devising the painting technique called “pointillism.” This technique uses small, distinct dots of color that are applied in patterns to form an image. Looking at such a painting from afar, our eyes and brains blend all of the dots of color into a fuller range of tones that then form an image.

Yesterday’s meeting with the radiation oncology team at Memorial Sloan-Kettering reminded me of pointillism. Prior to the visit, I saw the complete picture from afar – it would be 6-7 weeks of treatment and the associated side effects, but there was the prospect of being cured by the end.  After the meeting, however, I started seeing the hundreds or thousands of individual dots of color that represented my treatment.

IMRT mask

Example of the type of mask used during radiation therapy for head & neck cancer

For example, during the day they created the “mask” that will be used to keep my head and shoulders in the exact same place for my daily (Mon-Fri) radiation treatment. The mask is secured where you lay and prevents any movement of the head and shoulders (see example image). Unlike the older masks, there is a cutout for your eyes, nose, and mouth but coverage of the jaw largely prevents you from speaking. Frankly, it is terrifying! They did three imaging procedures in the afternoon (MRI, CT, and PET) and each one involved the mask being worn for about 30-minutes. Each time I was rolled into the imaging tube, I couldn’t help but think – what happens if I start coughing or choking? With my jaw immobilized I wouldn’t be able to do much. Trying to get past that fear, I quickly realized – wearing the mask would become a daily routine for the next 6-7 weeks.

The side effects of radiation therapy were another one of the individual dots of color that came into focus as I looked more closely at my treatment “image.” I’ve lost count of how many physicians and nurses have told me to “bulk up” now before starting therapy. Gain 10 pounds or more they say. This is due to the fact that in a few weeks it will be difficult to chew, swallow, etc. as a result of oral mucositis and dry mouth from the radiation therapy. As a result, weight loss and fatigue are to be expected.

During the day, I enrolled in two clinical trials – one for imaging and another for blood tests.  The imaging study looks at levels of oxygen deficiency (hypoxia) in the tumor tissue. Hypoxic tumor cells are resistant to radiation and to many anticancer drugs and therefore tumor hypoxia influences the outcome of treatment with radiotherapy, chemotherapy and even surgery.  The hope is that ruling out hypoxia in the area of the tumor could reduce the amount of radiation therapy needed to cure the disease – and thus reduce side effects. The blood test can be viewed as a type of “liquid biopsy” that detects circulating tumor cells and fragments of tumor DNA that are shed into the blood from the primary tumor and from metastatic sites. Changes in these markers may be able to predict the likelihood of disease recurrence after therapy.

FullSizeRender

The doctor uses a flexible, lighted tube called an endoscope to examine areas of the head and neck that are less accessible. The tube is inserted through the nose after applying a topical anesthetic (lidocaine – applied directly to the nose and throat) to make the examination more comfortable.

It was a very long day with my first appointment starting at 9am and not finishing until around 6pm, but aside from the aforementioned and putting aside more poking and prodding (including my fourth endoscope procedure – see tiny camera getting stuck up my nose in the embedded image…), by the end of the day I felt somewhat better knowing the timeframe for starting radiation treatment, which looks like it will be Monday, January 18. In addition, I felt much better after meeting my radiation oncologist Dr. Nancy Lee (you can watch a video interview with her under the “Videos” menu tab at the top of my blog). She is fantastic! I have a follow-up appointment with my medical oncologist this Thursday, where I will learn more about the timing for starting chemotherapy.

Since I couldn’t eat all day due to potential interference with the imaging tests, the best part of the day was grabbing a quick dinner in NYC with my wife before taking the train back to Pennsylvania. It is so great having her by my side during this ordeal!