I am now into the third month of my clinical trial for poziotinib. After the first two months, I had to take two weeks off for recovery from the rash it gave me. I am, however, glad to be back on the drug for the very simple reason that it was effectively killing the cancer within me. That is not a claim I make lightly, or, sadly, have had reason to make much at all over the past year.
When I was first put on chemotherapy back at the end of 2014, it was because there were no targeted therapies or immunotherapies available, either on the market or through clinical trials, that were likely to work for me. Chemo seemed to be the only option and, in some ways, it felt like a last-ditch effort. My tumor was considered inoperable, the metastasis had spread too far and wide, and radiation was not even being presented as an option.
While I was primed for a limited response and the possibility that I might only get a few months extension from the process, it turned out that chemo kind of worked for me. It worked well enough, in fact, that I would stay on it for over two and a half years — most of that time, simply keeping the cancer growth in stasis. There was talk of the possibility of being on that drug for five or more years at one point, but not long after the two-year mark I began to notice small changes in my scans. Very small, but changes, nonetheless. Continue reading Week One: The Oozing Begins→
Crouched over the kitchen sink, I surged with a repressed groan, stifling the convulsive impulse as tears broke free; I cried, uncontained, momentarily unaware why. I was so used to keeping it in, I had become disconnected from what I was actually feeling — ironic, because what I was feeling right then was disconnected.
I did not recognize my body. This vessel in which I was contained made no sense to me at all. It responded to my thoughts and commands, but it felt completely foreign. Looking down at my arms, my hands, my fingers, I recognized nothing. They could hold the dishes I was washing, turn the knob on the faucet, even scrub with the brush. But there was a clumsiness about them, an awkwardness that was hard to explain or rationalize, except to know immediately that none of that was part of my body. None of it was Me.
Such is the effect of bodily changes that occur under cancer treatment. I was experiencing a slight case of dysmorphia, that feeling of certainty that you are not in the right body. It passed, but the emotional impact lingered. Continue reading This Is Not My Body→
I have friends who are long distance runners and I have watched them struggle through their pain to achieve their goals. Although I used to train for both cross country and track way back in middle-school, I can no longer run. But I do understand a thing or two about the process. And I appreciate what it means to endure hardships in search of a personal reward.
Beginning a Clinical Trial
At the end of May, I began participating in a clinical trial for Poziotinib, a new targeted therapy that works on mutations in the EGFR and HER categories. Naturally, within days of my May 23rd start, I had already begun exhibiting side-effects from the new medication. The resulting rash has persisted and spread, morphing into a completely new experience for me. I thought at the time that the minor ordeal I had in preparing for the clinical trial would have been the biggest challenge of the trial itself: first I went in for a “simple” needle biopsy procedure, then I had to stay to deal with the effects when things did not go exactly according to plan. The experience even inspired an opinion piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer. But I passed over that (still relatively minor) road bump and ran headlong into the clinical trial and resulting crash back into Rashville.
Having a rash does not sound all that bad in the grand scope of things. A little salve, a dollop of willpower, and it should be easy to weather. Itching too much? Slip on some gloves or spray it with lidocaine. Rashes pass. At least it is not nausea or debilitating pain or sleeplessness. Well, at least it is not nausea. Continue reading Endurance and Payoff→
Before I get into the details of this new leg of my journey, I’m taking a moment to reflect on the side-effects of the past. In August of last year (2017), I stopped taking chemotherapy due to signs of progression. After about a month of cleaning out my system, I noticed a serious boost in both my mental and physical energy levels. My body began shaping up. I felt really good. And I started my first “targeted” therapy, the drug Gilotrif (generic name, afatinib).
Gilotrif was highly promising at the time. It had shown some level of effectiveness on the HER2 mutation in cancer studies but was still off-label for my use because it was designed to target a very closely related mutation. I loved it at first, however, because I kept feeling better and — in comparison to my 2 years and 8 months on Alimta (generic name, pemetrexed) — there was just an amazing lack of initial side-effects. Alimta had been fairly easy to tolerate overall and I had no real complaints considering how well it had worked. But I did have some skin and digestive issues, as well as persistent fatigue, that plagued me every month. Toward the end, the skin issues were particularly bothersome, and I was beyond thrilled when they cleared up. Continue reading The Rash Is Back→
Well, it’s time for another needle. I’d been successfully avoiding a lot of these for the past six-ish months, but the afatinib pill I had been taking simply wasn’t working the way we needed it to. (Which is to say, it did not stop the cancer from spreading, much less reduce its presence.) So, on this uncharacteristically rainy Southern California day, I commuted through a maze of side streets to avoid morning rush hour traffic on my way downtown to the university hospital where I am to receive today’s infusion. It’s a far cry from the cozy satellite clinic I had been accustomed to up in Pasadena. I’ve spent the better part of 90 minutes waiting for things to be prepared since I checked in; I’ve wandered the maze of the hospital, searching out a paltry offering of snacks in the lower-level cafeteria and the free coffee in the main waiting room, sitting in various rooms and surfing the free Wi-Fi (but unable to stream Flint Town on Netflix, much to my chagrin).
Here, in the Day Hospital, as it is called, the vibe is wholly different than the spa-like atmosphere of my old chemo haunt. While this is certainly clean and bright, it feels like a hospital. There is nothing aesthetically pleasing about the large room cordoned off by sliding curtains. A few windows along one wall allow a tiny amount of natural light in, but they may be closed off by curtains at any time. Yet the reception staff seems bright and friendly.
The drug I am getting today — ado-trastuzumab emtansine, or Kadcyla — is not a traditional chemotherapy, and there have been some weird holdups in getting it properly scheduled. In part, this is because my use will be slightly off-label. My insurance company refused to approve it — but they also would not deny it, leaving me in a strange limbo where other plans were difficult to make. The hospital pharmacy has been working with the drug manufacturer to cover the costs in case insurance ultimately denied coverage, and we are moving forward with the understanding that, somehow, the medication will get paid for. These concoctions are so expensive that it is unreasonable to expect that patients could actually afford to pay out of pocket, but somehow the system works to cover these costs most of the time. The trick is figuring out how. I am three weeks delayed getting in for this new treatment, which hopefully will be drastically more effective than the pill I had been taking. At least the bar there isn’t very high.
If you are anxious to get an update on my Gilotrif / afatinib treatment, you can listen to me talk about it for approximately ten minutes on my podcast, but this is a fairly busy day for me and I’ve got something far more interesting started… It isn’t every day that a person is asked to participate in a research project that could have direct ramifications for the future of cancer care across the board, much less my family or my own body.
Because I get my treatment through a major research institution, of which my oncologist is a key player, I’m fortunate to be considered for (or at least kept up to date on) new trials and the latest in treatment options. But today, as my session with my oncologist was concluding, he brought in a representative of a research project to ask if I was willing to participate in their study. The immediate benefit for me is that I will get a complete genomic sequencing done on my tumor. That is pretty impressive.
Sharing Data Matters
The ORIEN Total Cancer Care Protocol requires relatively low patient commitment — they have access to my existing tissue samples, which hopefully will afford enough material for them to work with, and in less than five minutes I was in and out of a quick blood draw. Now I get to sit back and see if they find anything interesting. ORIEN stands for The Oncology Research Information Exchange Network. It is all about data sharing and matching patients to precision medicine for treatment. Of course, there is no knowing whether it will turn up anything new or unique for me to try in the near future. I am looking at this more as an opportunity to be a part of something greater, that will positively affect future generations.
The research part of this study, technically under the umbrella of clinical trials, is very ambitious. It isn’t expected to reach completion until after 2036, however; I’m hoping that I’ll be around to read about their conclusions.
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It has been over two weeks since I began taking my new drug, afatinib. Over two weeks of feeling good, feeling like the chemo has been thoroughly flushed from my system even as I have diligently taken these new pills, feeling the best that I have in three years. I have been keeping a journal this time, chronicling how my body is responding each day, trying to pave the way for a better understanding of how to live with this new treatment. For the first week, anyway, it almost seemed like it was going to be too easy.
There are two weeks of video updates on my Patreon feed, talking about how great I feel and wondering how bad the side effects will be once they really kick in. I had been prepped by my oncologist that it was very likely that I would experience worse side effects than I had with the chemo I had been taking. This was based on how well I tolerated pemetrexed, the chemotherapy drug that had kept my cancer at bay for so long, but not so much on patients in general having a particularly tough time on afatinib. Which is not to suggest that I expected a walk in the proverbial park with this new drug.
Still, the first week was amazing. It was almost like I was taking nothing at all. Sure, there was some digestive stuff going on, but nothing outside of the realm of what I would have been used to in a previous life if I decided to live off of bean burritos for a few weeks. And I love a good burrito, so it would be worth it. But by day eight, I realized that the side-effects of the drug were presenting themselves quite visibly. Continue reading Spoiler Alert: Side-Effects Show Up→
Before I concluded my chemotherapy, I sat down with the pharmacist who had mixed my drugs for nearly three years and recorded our conversation for my erstwhile podcast, The Deep Breath. It offered a revealing look inside the process of administering chemo, as well as other drugs used to treat cancer patients.
I did not realize that I was one of the longest consistent patients currently receiving treatment at this facility. Although I was preparing to call chemo quits after slightly more than 2.5 years, I knew of at least one patient who had been on the same basic regimen as me for around seven years. But that had been before my time. As I settled in to interview my pharmacist, he revealed that he was not aware of any patient at the clinic who had been receiving chemotherapy as long as I had been since he started the job. I appreciated the special distinction, even though I had mixed feelings about it. Continue reading Inside a Chemo Clinic Phamacy→
I knew that I would not stay on chemotherapy forever. So getting to the point where I ended my “chemo journey” was not completely surprising. In fact, I had anticipated that a change would be good for some time — after over 2 1/2 years of the same routine, not only had it begun to gnaw at me each time I faced another infusion and ensuing side effects, but there was something of a “gut feeling” that the chemotherapy drug I had been on for so long had done about all it could do. I was probably influenced a lot by the promise of Immunotherapy drugs that had become the media darlings of the cancer world. When my oncologist said it was a good time to consider another approach, I was eager to do it.
Besides immunotherapy, for which I had hoped to join a clinical trial, there was the possibility that I might harbor an actionable gene mutation for my adenocarcinoma. My initial genetic analysis from a biopsy prior to starting chemo had shown none of the mutations that were being directly treated at that time. But a couple of years makes a big difference in the cancer world, especially with the increasing rate of progress science has been making over the past few decades. A re-analysis of that old biopsy showed nothing new, but a quick, painless liquid biopsy — two simple tubes of blood and fifteen minutes of my time — revealed that I harbor a fairly rare mutation, one that affects roughly two percent of the adenocarcinoma subset of lung cancer patients: ErbB2, also known as HER2.
This shifted gears for me regarding the drive down my treatment path. It also made me shift perspective. There is the question, now, of whether finding myself in such a cancer minority is a sign of good fortune. On one hand, it means that my genetic demographic is not highly studied — the downside to minority group patients is simply that there are fewer of us to put into clinical trials. Flip that over, however, and it makes the trials that have been done highly specific — and it makes the case studies on patients with this mutation also highly specific. Which in turn suggests that this might be a very positive development after all. Continue reading Frying Pan, Meet Fire – Leaping from One Therapy to Another→
My recent post on dealing with change and adversity was inspired in no small part by a change I am facing in my own life, one rife with uncertainty and heavy with anticipation. The last CT scan I had showed that my primary tumor, the one by which we gauge progression or lack thereof, was still within the technical boundaries of business as usual. That is to say, its lateral dimensions had not changed significantly since the previous scan, and overall had not grown enough over the similar measurements from a year or two years ago to precipitate anxiety. But CT scans are, for lack of a better term, a bit fuzzy. The images are fairly clear, but the data is difficult to measure with absolute precision.
Because CT scans are essentially three-dimensional, but are viewed on two-dimensional screens, comparisons between scans are inherently imprecise. The angle of a subject’s body, how inflated the lungs were, the position of the subject within the imagining chamber, all figure into subtle differences between the final scans. On top of that, because the images are basically multitudes of cross-sectional snapshots, a comparison must be made by selecting the closest approximation to the “same” image between scans from different times. I’ve looked at lots of these — in fact, I keep digital copies of all my scans for reference or posterity — and I’ve used the tools to line up and measure my tumor as best I can.
And in two dimensions, at the standard viewing cross-sectional approximation, my mass looks very similar from scan to scan, every three or so months since this process began. My chemotherapy was clearly doing what it was intended to do, which was to prevent progression of the disease. Progression is generally defined in terms of the length of the tumor, but we all know that tumors are bundles of cells that grow and change along more than just one axis.
I was never under any illusion that the chemo would cure me — there is no official cure for Stage 4 Lung Cancer. Any time that the chemotherapy could afford me by maintaining stasis has been considered a luxury and at over two and a half years on this particular regimen, I have been the longest continuous success case that many on my medical team have known. So the next time I see most of them will be a special, bitter-sweet occasion.