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.
My story begins this way, elliptically, perhaps by design or perhaps because this is two days into my cycle… 48 hours ago, I was sitting in a comfortable chair at my chemo spa, settling back for a needle while a warm massage pulsed against my back. This was my 38th or 39th infusion since I began chemotherapy in December of 2014, almost exactly 2.5 years ago as I write this, on consistent three-week cycles with only one or two exceptions made for travel. As a Stage IV NSCLC patient, I suppose this makes me a “lucky” fellow because I tolerate my treatment well and seem to be holding steady through each of my scans. Life isn’t what I used to expect it to be, but that isn’t all bad. I’ve learned a few new tricks, I’ve changed my focus, I’ve accepted some limitations and tried to defy others.
In June of 2014, I was, as they say, the “picture of health.” I was working out again, moderately at least, for the first time in years; I was excited about starting a new phase in my career and had begun actively interviewing for positions that would give my life new structure and alleviate a huge amount of the stress I was under financially and emotionally. It had been a complicated few years leading up to this point and I had been paying for a few poor decisions, some unforeseen misfortune in the housing market, a few stumbling blocks in my home life, and regrets that I should never have allowed to affect me (but I had). Before this, I had a relatively successful career in film and video production, mostly in commercials but with a few independent movies under my belt and forays into other mediums, but the work itself was costing me a connection with my new daughter and domestic strain that was simply not worth exacerbating. So I decided to phase that work out and focus on what I loved, which was writing.
And I had some early success. A few inroads were made with some of my work, but ultimately it wasn’t enough and I tried a number of options to keep myself going for a year, then another, then one more… By the time my daughter was 8, I realized that I needed to alleviate the burdens that had been increasingly placed upon my wife so that I could make my writing pay off, and I began pursuing work in media production again, but this time as a staff member with an established company rather than as the freelancer I had always been. I wanted something that could be counted on, with a salary and a 401K and regularity — things I had not had at my disposal in many years. I had health insurance through my wife’s work, which was actually very good, and for which I would soon be grateful. Continue reading My Story: Lung Cancer and Chemo and a Changed Life→
There are reasons that I enjoy going in for my chemo infusions. It’s nice to get pampered a little with the hot towels and the heated massage chair. (I’m still dropping hints about getting a proper foot masseuse on staff, especially after hearing that there is a massage therapist who works at the main hospital associated with my clinic.) Fresh coffee is always welcome. And the friendly staff is ever-ready with a smile, which I am always amazed that each of them can muster, surrounded by all these cancer patients each day. It cannot be easy, emotionally, being so intimately tied to such an array of physical struggles. And yet, that is one of the aspects that I find so warm and welcoming about my infusion center: from the receptionist to the scheduling department to the pharmacists and nursing staff, I feel like I’m dealing with a warm collection of family and friends who are happy to see me and enjoy the time we have together.
And I love my alone time, though it goes more quickly than I’d like. A couple of years ago, I had time for a brief nap or some quality writing, though these days it seems there is barely enough time to peruse Facebook or catch up on email. I suppose that is a good thing, in and of itself, but I like my time there for another reason, too.
It’s the last bit of escape I have before my “difficult week” takes over. Likea last hurrah after feeling my normal self (or as close to it as I ever get these days), I know it will be at least a few hours before the effects of the chemo start kicking in, a day or two more until I begin to feel really crappy, and so I make the most of it with light-hearted banter and making myself, well, as comfy as possible.Continue reading Not Dead, Just Cozy→
I’ve mentioned the blog, Every Breath I Take, before, and spoken highly of its author, Lisa Goldman. Like myself, she was in her 40s when she was diagnosed with Stage IV Lung Cancer — although she was in her very early 40s, compared to my “mid-ish” — and, also like myself, she was a non-smoker. Her most recent post is an impassioned response to a special issue of Cure magazine, dedicated to lung cancer, that resonated as a major fail from the publication.
She also set up a petition to encourage the media to stop promoting the lung cancer stigma.
It is in the best interest of all patients to re-write the cancer narrative away from being a smoker’s disease, and away from being an automatic death sentence. While rates of the disease continue to climb and it remains the world’s most deadly cancer, clearly it is not the cancer that we have been sold on for so many years. Smoking is a stupid habit and greatly increases risk, and it was a useful tool to make lung cancer the whipping post for awareness. But the resulting stigma facing lung cancer patients is unwarranted.