Continuing with Chemotherapy (and Blogging)

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

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

But maintaining open and honest communication with your health professionals is an important 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 important that patients avoid blogging or posting anything on social media that could jeopardize this relationship. When in doubt, discuss material and/or 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 information may exist.

Michael Becker and David G. Pfister, MD

So far, healthcare professionals have generally 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 been largely 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 good – 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 existing tumors and/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 (four-week cycles 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) for 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/or 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 uncomfortable 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 very bad shape (two chest tubes, progressive disease, blood clot and bleeding issues, rapid heart rate requiring 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, the 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 celebrate 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 chronic fatigue, shortness of breath, anxiety, depression and other issues that negatively impact my quality of life. Knowing my prognosis, however, is helpful for guiding important personal plans and life decisions.

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

References:

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

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

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.

It Could Always Be Worse

After a full day of activities yesterday, Lorie and I decided to grab an early dinner in Bethesda, MD at a restaurant recommended to us. We really haven’t explored much of the local establishments, so it was nice to venture out and try something new.

We sat down and I immediately focused on the cheese appetizer selection and ordered three different types. Half way through the appetizer, however, my cell phone rang. It was Dr. Strauss from the NIH.

I could tell from the initial line of questioning (are you still at NIH, where are you now, are you alone, etc.) that bad news would shortly follow. Sure enough, yesterday’s CT scan revealed a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) on the left side of my pelvis and Dr. Strauss requested that we promptly return to NIH to start treatment with Lovenox (enoxaparin). With that, we paid our restaurant bill and left our dinners behind to take an Uber back to NIH.

VIDEO CAPTION: 3D CT image from NIH showing tumor locations highlighted in green. The largest mass (lower right) is from my spleen.

Both Dr. Gulley and Dr. Strauss met us back at NIH in the day hospital and we went to an empty treatment room to talk in private. Unfortunately, the blood clot was merely a sideshow for the bigger news, which was that several tumors increased in size from the prior scan taken 6-weeks ago. For the first time, my outlook was black & white: the cancer was winning the tug-of-war with my body’s immune system. Receiving further treatment with the experimental agent M7824 would be hard to justify and more aggressive treatment, such as chemotherapy, appeared to be the favored next step.

After a brief tutorial on self-injecting Lovenox twice daily, we returned to the hotel and planned on meeting early the next morning to review the CT scans and have further discussion. The mood was somber and neither one of us slept very well.

Michael and Lorie Becker reviewing CT images with Drs. James Gulley and Les Folio of NIH. Photo credit: Daniel Sone of NCI

The NIH is only one of two places to have advanced imaging technology that was truly fascinating and dramatically improves the ability to visualize and follow specific tumors over time. Personally, I was amazed by the progress radiology has made since I last reviewed such images. We were engrossed in discussion about the various images displayed on the three monitor screens when Lorie’s phone rang. It was our oldest daughter Rosie.

The first few calls were easy to dismiss since we were in an important meeting, but then came a text – “emergency.” Driving home from class, Rosie apparently veered into the lane of oncoming traffic and hit another car going 30-40 MPH. All of the airbags deployed and the car is totaled. She was taken to the local hospital for x-rays, but nothing was broken and she was released. We understand the driver of the other car is okay as well.

Immediately, my mind wandered from my own mortality being visualized on the computer screens to how Rosie’s accident could have been far, far worse – perhaps even fatal. I’m not sure exactly how I would have reacted to that news on top of my disease update, but I do know it would pale by comparison to my own situation.

On more than one occasion, Lorie and I have uttered the words “it could always be worse.” Lately, it has been harder and harder to make that statement. However, with Rosie largely unharmed in what could have been disastrous, today definitely could have been worse.

I will blog more about my condition and treatment options in future posts after digesting all of the information from the past 48-hours. In the meantime, with no infusion of M7824 today, we are on the train home to be with Rosie.

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Watching the Calendar

Earlier this week, Lorie and I made our biweekly visit to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for my infusion of the experimental agent M7824. The two day trip was uneventful and included a variety of imaging and other diagnostic tests, including an ultrasound of my spleen and a chest x-ray to monitor the pleural effusion in my left lung.

Fortunately, all of the tests came back fine and I was cleared to receive my regular infusion of M7824. As with all the previous treatments, there were no adverse reactions and we returned home later that evening.

However, with the month of July rapidly approaching, I can’t help but start to feel quite anxious. This is due to the published results from Bristol-Myers Squibb’s “CheckMate 141” phase 3 trial with Opdivo® (nivolumab), an anti-programmed death 1 (PD-1) monoclonal antibody also known as a checkpoint inhibitor. In that study, 361 patients with recurrent squamous-cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN) whose disease had progressed within 6 months after platinum-based chemotherapy were assigned, in a 2:1 ratio, to receive Opdivo every 2 weeks or standard, single-agent systemic therapy (methotrexate, docetaxel, or cetuximab). The primary end point was overall survival.

Treatment with Opdivo resulted in longer overall survival than treatment with standard, single-agent therapy. The median overall survival was 7.5 months (95% confidence interval [CI], range 5.5 months to 9.1 months) in the Opdivo group versus 5.1 months (95% CI, 4.0 months to 6.0 months) in the group that received standard therapy.

Recall from prior posts that M7824 is a completely novel, first-in-class, bispecific fusion protein of an avelumab-like, anti-PD-L1 antibody linked to two molecules of TGF-beta trap. Therefore, I always viewed M7824 as a “potentially” superior alternative to Opdivo given its added mechanism of action, hence my strong interest in participating in the M7824 clinical trial.

Assuming for a moment that M7824’s treatment effect is at least comparable to Opdivo, and considering that my disease recurred around December 2016, an expected survival of 7.5 months would translate to the July/August 2017 timeframe.

To be fair, an apples-to-apples comparison of Opdivo and M7824 isn’t possible. However, the results of Bristol-Myers Squibb’s “CheckMate 141” trial serve as a contemporary data set for checkpoint inhibitors in the treatment of recurrent SCCHN and are definitely something that I keep my eye on.

Lorie and Michael Becker enjoying ice cream in Bethesda, MD

Barring any surprises, I’ll continue biweekly treatment with M7824 and then repeat imaging in July to see whether or not my disease has progressed. In the meantime, I’ll continue to savor simple moments like enjoying ice cream on a warm summer evening with my wife (see photo).

Roller Coaster

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last clinical post, so I wanted to provide an update following this week’s NIH appointments.

Michael Becker pleural effusion

Xray images of Michael Becker’s chest showing pleural effusion both before and after drainage

First, surgical insertion of my Aspira® drainage system has dramatically improved the pleural effusion in my left lung. It’s essentially a chest tube/catheter that allows me to drain the fluid buildup on an as-needed basis into drainage bags at home. The image to the right shows before and after chest x-ray images that demonstrate just how blocked my left lung was before being drained (nearly 2/3 blocked). It also shows how my left lung is now “close” to normal following drainage.

Second, I’ve been on prednisone (steroid) to help “sculpt” the inflammatory response, which is also helping keep the fluid from building up so quickly in my left lung. Whereas I was emptying 100 mL or more on a daily basis previously, I am now only draining 15-20 mL every other day or so.

Now that the pleural effusion can be managed, attention returned to whether or not to resume treatment with M7824, a completely novel, first-in-class, bispecific fusion protein (see prior posts for more details). My last infusion of M7824 was several weeks ago.

Following another CT scan and constructive discussion with the NIH team, we came to the conclusion that there is essentially a tug-of-war occurring between the cancer in my lungs and my body’s immune system, the latter of which appears to be benefiting from M7824. The hope is that eventually M7824 will tip the scale in favor of my body’s immune system and control the cancer.

Michael D. Becker receiving IV infusion with M7824 – a novel, first-in-class, bispecific fusion protein on May 16, 2017

Accordingly, the decision was made to keep moving forward with M7824 and I received an infusion on Tuesday, May 16, 2017. As with past administrations, there were no issues and I returned home to Pennsylvania with Lorie later that evening.

The pleural effusion will be monitored closely and managed via the catheter and steroids. As long as there are no major issues in terms of fluid in my lung, I will continue to receive an infusion of M7824 every other week. A repeat CT scan will be done in a month or so to reassess the situation.

Honestly, Not Such a Good Friday

This past Wednesday, I had a thoracentesis procedure in which a needle was inserted into the pleural space between my lungs and chest wall. This procedure was done to remove excess fluid, known as a pleural effusion, from the pleural space to help me breathe easier.

Michael Becker blogging from his laptop at NIH on April 15, 2017

During the procedure, Dr. Elliot Levy, an interventional radiologists at NIH trained in radiology and minimally invasive procedures, drained 1.5 liters from the pleural space. Almost immediately, I felt better and even while I was being wheeled back to my recovery room, I asked my wife Lorie to grab me a turkey sandwich from the cafeteria as I was quite hungry. It’s possible the large amount of fluid on my left side was putting some pressure on my stomach, which could help explain why I haven’t had much of an appetite lately.

By Thursday, however, the fluid was returning, prompting yet another thoracentesis procedure on Friday to remove 1.5 liters of fluid. The rapid nature of the fluid buildup means that I will most likely have an Aspira® drainage system surgically installed to conveniently let me drain the fluid buildup at home via a small catheter and drainage bags. That procedure is planned for Monday, so I have been staying at NIH since Wednesday and will be here over the weekend.

More importantly, however, a CT scan was also done on Friday morning with disappointing results. The cancer nodules grew since the last CT scan on March 7, 2017. This reflects true disease progression as opposed to “pseudo-progression” as discussed in a prior post. I have been taken off the clinical study with M7824.

My individual results do not reflect poorly on the future of M7824, but rather underscore that we still have a lot to learn about immunotherapy and cancer. While I may not have benefited from the drug, the resulting knowledge and clinical data may help guide future development and I am proud to play a part in that process.

At this point, if I received no further treatment and went on hospice, my likely survival would be about two months – although every patient is different. I have scheduled an appointment with my oncologist at MSKCC to discuss the pros and cons of chemotherapy at this stage, but the balance between quality of life and quantity of life is not trivial and I haven’t made a firm decision to go in this direction. Chemotherapy may only add a month or two of survival with a negative impact on my quality of life.

While I have been very open about my disease since originally being diagnosed in December 2015 and enjoy blogging, I will now be focusing much more time with my wife and daughters and finishing up my memoir, which I hope to have published. This will unfortunately mean less time for updating this blog and responding to emails.

Thank you to everyone who has offered their best wishes, thoughts, and prayers during my cancer journey. Having such an amazing support network of family, friends, and social media contacts has been a great source of strength and inspiration. Special thanks to my wife, Lorie, who has been by my side the entire time.

If you’ll indulge me, I would like to end this post with three requests:

  1. If you have a son or daughter, please talk to your doctor about the HPV vaccine, which protects against cancer of the cervix, vagina, and vulva in women; penis in men; and cancers of the anus and head/neck (including the base of the tongue and tonsils) in both men and women. HPV is a very common virus; nearly 80 million people are currently infected in the United States. About 14 million people, including teens, become infected with HPV each year, resulting in 30,700 cancers in men and women. HPV vaccination can prevent most of the cancers (about 28,000) from occurring.
  2. Help preserve federal funding levels by communicating with lawmakers about the critical importance of investing in medical research. There are far too many people suffering from cancer and this is not the time to cut the budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by 18.3 percent, about $5.8 billion, as has been proposed. In an Op Ed by Harold Varmus appearing in the New York Times on March 22, 2017, he states that  only about 10 percent of the NIH’s budget supports the work of government scientists and that “over 80 percent of its resources are devoted to competitively reviewed biomedical research projects, training programs and science centers, affecting nearly every district in the country.” Harold Varmus, a professor at Weill Cornell Medicine and a co-recipient of the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, was the director of the National Institutes of Health from 1993 to 1999 and of the National Cancer Institute from 2010 to 2015.
  3. If you or someone you know is battling cancer or another disease, please talk to a physician about available clinical trial options. Clinical trials are a key research tool for advancing medical knowledge and patient care. Such trials are important to learn whether or not a new approach works well in people and is safe and which treatments or strategies work best for certain illnesses or groups of people.

Time to Drain the Swamp

Draining the swamp is a metaphor used by American politicians, referencing actions to clean up government corruption. In my case, however, I’m referring to a treatment that involves draining the fluid from my chest cavity, either with a needle or a small tube inserted into the chest. This will treat my pleural effusion, also called “water on the lung,” which is an excessive buildup of fluid in the space between my lungs and chest cavity (see diagram).

Diagram showing a pleural effusion

The pleural effusion is likely the source of my coughing, shortness of breath, and other recent symptoms. I haven’t been feeling well at all lately, but once it is drained – I should feel much better.

Thin membranes, called pleura, cover the outside of the lungs and the inside of the chest cavity. There’s always a small amount of liquid within this lining to help lubricate the lungs as they expand within the chest during breathing. Certain medical conditions, such as malignancy, can cause a pleural effusion, which is likely my situation. The excess fluid prevents the lung from expanding normally.

Sometime this morning I will have the procedure and hope to provide updates when I am awake later on.

I may need this treatment more than once if fluid re-collects, but we’ll cross that bridge another time.