A Glass Half Full

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

Good Luck Charm?

It was July 18, 2017 when I started my third line of treatment (carboplatin/paclitaxel) for Stage IV squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck. Things weren’t exactly going great at the time and I remember thinking that I wouldn’t make it until my 49th birthday in November.

For example, I had two chest tubes to manage a pleural effusion (buildup of fluid in the pleural lining of the lung). My tumors were slowly growing with each CT scan. Additionally, I had an IVC filter put in to manage clots since blood thinners had caused bleeding issues. I was a mess and in-and-out of the hospital constantly.

Earlier today, however, I received my third consecutive CT scan report since starting chemo again that showed further decreases in my lung, spleen, and pleural metastases (where the cancer had spread). It looks as though the cancer continues to respond to the treatment, which is great news.

It just goes to show the perils of trying to answer the question every cancer patient wants to know: How much more time do I have left? It doesn’t stop us from asking physicians, but as a dear friend consistently points out to me – you just have to live in the moment and enjoy every day. Much easier said than done, but sage advice nonetheless.

Our pup Humphrey

I can’t help but wonder if our 8-month old golden retriever puppy, Humphrey, is perhaps some kind of good luck charm? We got him about a month before I started treatment and things have been going relatively well since then. Not that we need another reason to love him! He’s such a clown, always making us laugh and smile. We love all of our other pets too, but there’s just something about Humphrey that makes him special. At the very least, he’s a great therapy dog for me.

In any event, today is a very good day. It will be nice to bask in the warmth of some good news as the colder weather of the season approaches.

Two Years Gone

You’ll know from the opening pages of my memoir A Walk with Purpose that it was the day before Thanksgiving in 2015 when I first discovered a large lump on the right side of my neck. The discovery catapulted me on a journey that I never could have imagined, full of twists and turns and changing the very fiber of my being—physically, emotionally and spiritually.

A lot has changed in the past two years—some good, some bad, some perhaps downright ugly. But Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays—a time of reflection and giving thanks for the goodness of the season past instead of complaining about what we don’t have.

Throughout the process of writing my memoir, I was constantly amazed to see how all the gifts and experiences of this world came together like tiny puzzle pieces to reveal the bigger purpose of my life. In particular, how an unlikely career path to the biotechnology industry would help forge key relationships, open new doors, and help me navigate a cancer diagnosis and treatment through the knowledge gained over decades of service and leadership. Most importantly, how I could use all of the aforementioned to help others facing head and neck cancer caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).

In some ways, my revelation was reminiscent of the first time I saw the movie Signs written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. In the movie, a father and former priest lives with his asthmatic son, his daughter who constantly leaves glasses of water sitting out around the house, and his younger brother, a failed minor league baseball player, on an isolated farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (coincidentally where we have lived for more than 15-years…). The father lost his faith and gave up his priesthood after his wife died in a local traffic accident. Towards the end of the movie, a crucial scene reveals the unlikely connection between asthma, glasses of water, and the mother’s final words to her husband instructing his brother to “swing away.” At the end of the movie, the father is shown returning to his priestly duties, apparently having regained his faith.

During 2017, I was fortunate to write and publish (then rewrite and republish…) my memoir. Since my diagnosis, I’ve also published a total of 70 posts (gulp!) on my patient blog. Supporting these efforts, I’ve worked with a publicist and conducted numerous interviews and penned guest editorials for various media outlets. All of these actions designed to: 1) help increase awareness of HPV and its link to six cancers in men and women; 2) underscore the need for additional prevention efforts for HPV-associated cancers, including efforts to increase vaccination coverage; 3) correct the misperception that HPV is mainly a disease affecting women; and, 4) highlight how HPV can be spread in the fluids of the mucosal membranes, which line the mouth, throat and genital tracts. Looking back at my efforts, I hope you’ll agree it has been a productive year.

I’m currently going through my third treatment regimen (chemotherapy) with the simple hope of buying more time. My body is weary from repeated assault with toxic chemicals aimed to keep the cancer at bay—hoping to see the day when a better treatment option becomes available. Fortunately, my current quality of life allows me to continue my walk with purpose. In fact, today I am doing a couple of media interviews and meeting with a head and neck cancer patient support group in Princeton, New Jersey.

My next CT scan has been scheduled for the last week of November. The results of which will inform whether or not my cancer continues to shrink, stays stable, or is progressing. Regardless of the outcome, I strive to simply live in the moment and take advantage of the Thanksgiving period to consider how we can spread more happiness around, to look back at all the great memories and good people who came into our lives.

May the good things of life be yours in abundance not only during November but throughout the coming year. Thank you to everyone with an interest in my story for your continued support and for keeping in touch!

The Role of Social Media in Cancer Care

Possibly due to my early days of computer programming and/or work creating one of the first brokerage firm websites, I recognized very early on the power of the Internet to connect people. When I first started my cancer patient blog in December 2015, it was mainly an efficient tool for me to keep family and friends updated on my health. However, I quickly realized that social media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, blogging) also afforded me the opportunity to provide unprecedented access to my personal experience as a terminal cancer patient. In doing so, I felt that my insight could be beneficial to others dealing with a head/neck cancer diagnosis and the effects of treatment. Importantly, I hoped that sharing my story could also help create awareness for the cause of my cancer (human papillomavirus, or HPV) and how today’s vaccines can prevent it.

Writing about my cancer experience is cathartic and that alone made all of the blog posts, Tweets, Instagram images, and Facebook entries seem worthwhile. What I didn’t expect was how my social media activities actually helped me deal with my own cancer diagnosis. Accordingly, the purpose of this blog post is to highlight some of these interactions with the hope that other cancer survivors find similar ways to derive benefits from social media.

For example, some people have a talent for making new friends. Unfortunately, not everyone is born with the gift—including me (yes, it’s true). Some side-effects associated with cancer and its treatment make this situation even more difficult. Being fatigued and depressed can lead to a lot of time being secluded in one’s own home—not working and feeling isolated and alone. The ability to meet new people and establish relationships can be enhanced through social media and other Internet activities.

In this regard, I’ve been fortunate to have met several Twitter acquaintances during their visits to the East Coast from as far as Buenos Aires, Argentina (@BursatilBiotech), the Pacific Northwest (@SheffStation), and Lenexa, Kansas (@bradloncar). Meeting individuals in person was an unexpected yet pleasant surprise in view of today’s digital communication era. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that our family’s latest animal addition, a golden retriever puppy named Humphrey, has attracted his own cult following on social media.

Lorie and Michael Becker – click to enlarge (photograph by Paul Reitano)

In late September 2017, I received an unsolicited email from fellow head/neck cancer survivor Paul Reitano. His surgical oncologist had posted a story about me on Facebook that led him to both my book and blog. Beyond our shared cancer background, we both enjoy photography and Paul wanted to include me in his personal project regarding portraits of cancer survivors. We set a date for early October when he was in town and spent the better part of a beautiful autumn day talking about common interests as he clicked the shutter on his camera. By late afternoon, we were like old friends even though we had just met. Among many excellent captures, Paul took a beautiful photo of me and my wife, Lorie, that we treasure. Aside from an array of gorgeous photos, Paul and I keep in touch and it has been great to have another head/neck cancer survivor in my life.

More recently, I had the pleasure of connecting with another head/neck cancer survivor, Jason Mendelsohn, through social media. Jason was recently the subject of a NBC news segment reporting on the silent epidemic of HPV-related cancers among men. Like me, Jason is determined to help others by sharing his story and experience through his blog.

Another unexpected benefit from social media is the support from reporters and related contacts I’ve developed throughout my career or who have recently covered my cancer story. One of the more memorable experiences was when @adamfeuerstein dedicated his 2017 Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC) ride to me as a token of his support over the summer. PMC raises money for life-saving cancer research and treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute through an annual bike-a-thon that crosses the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Through social media, I’ve also been fortunate to make several new media connections, such as @BiotechSusan, editor of BioCentury, and @JohnCendpts, co-founder of Endpoints News, among many others.

Social media can also be a means for health education and public messaging. Through Tweets and sharing articles, I’ve enjoyed being able to help correct the popular misconception that HPV vaccination is only for girls and cervical cancer. Creating awareness about HPV’s link to six different cancers and the proven safety/benefits of HPV vaccination for both boys and girls is one of my personal goals, which has been enhanced through my participation in social media.

The role for social media in cancer care is embryonic and evolving, but my experience thus far suggests that there are many potential benefits. There are, of course, certain challenges, not the least of which includes the potential for sharing inaccurate medical information and the lack of privacy and confidentiality when discussing deeply personal situations.

As an example of both, one need look no further than Michael Douglas’ revelation in 2013 that his cancer may have been caused by performing oral sex has and the resulting embarrassment caused to his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones. In fact, only a few studies have looked at how people get oral HPV, and some show conflicting results. Some studies suggest that oral HPV may be passed on during oral sex (from mouth-to-genital or mouth-to-anus contact) or open-mouthed kissing; others do not. The likelihood of getting HPV from kissing or having oral sex with someone who has HPV is not known. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more research is needed to understand exactly how people get and give oral HPV infections.

Perhaps the world just wasn’t ready to hear about the links between oral sex, HPV and head/neck cancer at the time, but fast forward to today and Michael Douglas’ story may have helped create greater awareness and a sense of urgency to better treat and prevent what is becoming the one type of oral cancer whose numbers are climbing, especially among men in the prime of their lives. The world could use more support from celebrities affected by HPV and cancer to further increase awareness and/or raise research funds for new treatments and diagnostics.

In view of growing use, researching and defining the role for social media in cancer care represents an important area of unmet need. Certainly, this is a subject that merits further investigation and could be an interesting workshop at an upcoming major medical conference, such as the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting. In the meantime, thank you to ALL of my social media connections who help make the world seem a bit smaller and a whole lot brighter!

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.

Week Nine Just Fine

This is week #9 on clinical study, as I received my infusion of M7824 yesterday as planned. All of my pre-therapy vitals and bloodwork came back fine, which meant the treatment was a go. As with previous infusions, there were no issues during or after. Everything went just fine.

It was unfortunately a later night than expected, as Lorie and I just missed our 7:30pm train and had to catch one leaving the next hour. So, we ended up walking in the door at home around midnight. Could always be worse!

Following the discussion in my past few blog posts, I’ve been learning more about the concept of “pseudoprogression,” or the apparent growth of a tumor followed by sustained regression, which is common following treatment with checkpoint inhibitors. For example, I came across the video clip below by OncLiveTV that contains a discussion of “Pseudoprogression With Checkpoint Inhibitors in Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer,” where panelists explore the implications of this phenomenon for patients with NSCLC. While I do not have NSCLC, the overall concept of pseudoprogression with checkpoint inhibitors is relevant to my treatment and latest scan results – whereby the tumor growth exhibited could be from inflammation due to an ongoing positive immune response, or from an actual increase in the tumor that continues until the body’s immune system overpowers the cancer. It could also be a combination of the aforementioned. In any event, I think that pseudoprogression is an important concept for patients receiving some immunotherapies to better understand – especially when getting imaging results following treatment.

 

PS – anyone who knows me, knows that I’m a big Chicago Cubs baseball fan (having grown up in Chicago)…so I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you to keep voting for retired catcher David Ross on this season’s ‘Dancing with the Stars’. In case you missed his debut performance, here’s a clip where he danced to Steve Goodman’s “Go Cubs Go” – while wearing Cubs gear.

Keeping the Faith with M7824

As evidenced by the extensive discussions following my biopsy from last Friday, a tumor is indeed a very complex structure. It comprises cancer cells and stromal cells, tumor infiltrating cells—both cells of the immune system and cells not by convention being of the immune system, as well as an extracellular matrix mainly of proteins and carbohydrates.

Following my recent CT scan, the hope from obtaining core biopsies from one of my lung nodules was to get a better sense of the cancer at a cellular level, which may help shed some light on whether or not treatment with M7824, a completely novel, first-in-class, bispecific fusion protein is working (see prior posts for more details).

In particular, the presence of immune system cells (T cells, or T lymphocytes) in tumor biopsies and their potential impact on prognosis have been studied for decades. T cells are a type of white blood cell that circulate around our bodies, scanning for cellular abnormalities and infections. Broadly speaking they can be divided into two different types, “killer” CD8-positive T-cells and “helper” CD4-positive T-cells. CD8-positive T cells are critical mediators of adaptive immunity. They include cytotoxic T cells, which are important for killing cancerous or virally infected cells, and CD8-positive suppressor T cells, which restrain certain types of immune response.

Despite contributions by other immune cell subsets, CD8-positive T cells have emerged as the predominant effector in most cancer immunotherapy settings¹. Accordingly, many immunotherapeutic strategies (including checkpoint inhibitors, such as anti-CTLA4, PD1, and PD-L1 antibodies) are dedicated to stimulating, enhancing and maintaining responses by tumor-reactive CD8-positive T-cells.

Favorable outcomes have been demonstrated in patients where high numbers of CD8-positive cells were found at the tumor site in patients with head and neck cancer, breast, colorectal cancer and also for others solid cancers. In one study, head and neck cancer patients whose tumors were densely infiltrated by CD3-positive and CD8-positive T cells had a significantly longer overall survival (OS) and progression-free survival (PFS) compared with patients whose tumors were poorly infiltrated².

While there seems to be a consensus that CD8 infiltration is a good prognostic marker in most malignancies analyzed, however, the impact of CD8-positive T cells on clinical outcome may differ and is difficult to quantify. Not only is the type of T cell important, but also its location, and moreover the specific phenotype and function of those cells in the particular environment.

Nonetheless, based on the preliminary results from my recent tumor biopsy and other factors, it appears that there is sufficient evidence of immune system activation in the vicinity of the tumor to indicate that the experimental agent M7824 may indeed be performing as we hoped. Accordingly, I am in 100% agreement with my doctor’s recommendation to continue on the therapy and will receive my next infusion this coming Tuesday at NIH. After a few more cycles of therapy, another CT scan will be taken in the future with the hope of demonstrating that the recent tumor growth was from treatment effect “pseudo-progression” rather than true disease progression, which has been previously described with immune checkpoint inhibitors like M7824.

References:

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

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