Saturday, May 28, 2011

Being One for the Records

If you have to deal with not so good news, is it better to find out about it and take action when things are  "back to normal" or when things are kind of better but not so great? I didn't have much of a choice this week. I received some not so great news on Thursday when I had a PET/CT scan at Johns Hopkins. I learned that I have a new tumor in my right lung. I was surprised and disappointed, but as I've been telling people, one new tumor is better than twelve. I know this sounds strange, but in the grand scheme of things, one metastatic lung tumor, for me, is not really that big of a deal. I know what it is and what to do.

As you may remember (it seems so long ago), 10 tumors were discovered in my lungs in October of 2006. Three were removed surgically, and when the pathology confirmed metastatic disease from Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma of the Breast (ACCB) --  the first cancer diagnoses in 2000 -- the remaining seven were killed with radiofrequency ablation (RFA) at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore by Dr. Georgiades.  (See November 2008 posts.)

When I got my first negative PET/CT report showing "no detectable cancer" in September 2009, you may also remember that I threw myself a Negative PET Scan Party in October to celebrate. Two days after the party I became very ill and drove myself to the ER. The next morning I was told that I had an aggressive form of leukemia (AML) and was given a very grim prognosis. And the games began for cancer #2.  (See 10/22/09 post, Nothing Like a Good Party Before a Storm.)

When Dr. Georgiades showed me an image of the tumor from the scan on Thursday, I asked him why this happened. It was a stupid question. He could have said, "because it's cancer, dummy." But he knew what I meant. If cancer were to show up again, I thought it would be the 2 or 3 little tiny spots that he calls ditzels that we've been watching for the past 3 years and are too small to ablate. Where did this new one come from? He suspects that if I had a cancer seed, which otherwise may have just sat there forever, that seed may have grown into a tumor because I trashed my immune system. It popped up before my new immune system kicked in. It makes sense given the last 1 1/2 years (minus the 5 months I was in remission before the relapse) of being treated with an alarming amount of toxic medicines and chemotherapy, the last of which destroyed my bone marrow permanently.

Here's the positive spin on this new tumor situation: When I asked about the ditzels, Dr. Georgiades told me that they've actually gotten smaller. If I grew a new lung tumor, wouldn't you think that a weak immune system would have allowed the ditzels to grow too? Maybe that means that the ditzels aren't cancer after all. As I've said before, we all have spots on our lungs because our world has become filthy and our lungs are filters, like sponges. A lot of different kinds of junk gets stored up in a sponge over time. Only the spots that light up on a PET scan and grow over time are likely to be cancer.

Plus, I only have one tumor. If I had lots of dormant seeds it stands to reason, like the ditzels, that they would have grown too. Yes, I was pretty bummed out driving home from Baltimore. But mainly, I was upset about having to go through another procedure to deal with cancer, especially now. But knowing what's going on is better than not knowing what's going on. And the tumor isn't going away. Let's just kill the killer and get on with it.

Needing to exert as much control as possible, I called one of Dr. Gerogiades' nurses from the hospital lobby and tentatively scheduled the RFA for June 15th. It's a same day procedure, which I've had four times before, so I don't expect much drama. I'll stay with my cousin, Karen, who graciously puts me up every time I make the trek to Hopkins. A week after the RFA I probably won't have a single physical sign that anything was done -- not even a band-aid at the site. It's a pretty amazing procedure (see 11/2/08 post, Radiofrequency Ablation - RFA).  Anyone new to this blog who is curious about this 10 minute treatment can click here to watch a short video, filmed for the documentary that led me to Dr. Georgiades in the first place.

After all my pre-transplant tests were completed last October, I met with Dr. Rowley, my transplant doctor. He said, "the only thing I'm slightly concerned about is the cancer that was found to have spread to your lungs." "Oh, that" I said, dismissing him with a wave of my hand. "That's completely under control. It grows very slowly, can remain dormant for decades, and everything that's been identified as cancer has been killed. Because ACCB is so rare, you won't find much about it. It only occurs in <.1% of all breast cancer patients and of those it metastasizes in about 6% of the cases. There's only a few of us, maybe a couple of dozen at most since the 1940s." "Yes," he said. "And of those few, how many have had transplants?" "Oh, right. Probably none," I realized, feeling again, like the only one on the planet with my ridiculously rare medical circumstances.  Oh wait.  I probably am the only one on the planet....

Several people have suggested that I write a book.  Who would believe it?  I have a hard time believing it myself.  Being "one for the records" can be a scary thing.  But at a certain point, it also becomes humorous -- one of those "oh, paleez" situations.  I'm determined to win this prolonged battle and use my unique misfortune to contribute somehow to the landscape of knowledge on two very different diseases.  But before I can do that, I need to get off this rickety and dangerous roller coaster once and for all.  On June 15th, I'll be one step closer.


Monday, May 16, 2011

How long does this mini series last?

Oh, the ongoing episodes of this exciting mini series: The Life of a Transplant Patient. I feel like I'm living my own reality TV show. Just to clarify how disturbing that thought is to me, I'll go on record as stating that I watch absolutely no reality TV shows. None. Maybe my punishment for this lack of participation in what I think is a rather peculiar aspect of American culture is to never see a final episode.

I officially have chronic Graft vs. Host Disease (GVHD), an extended version of acute GVHD, which occurs within the first three months after transplant.  At my stage in the game (over 6 months), flare ups are labeled as chronic and the treatment schedule is longer.  Instead of tapering off the steroids every five days I'll be cutting back every two or three months.  This news did not make me a happy camper.  Because of this latest skin rash, I'm back on higher doses of Prednisone, causing me to be more susceptible to infections and viruses.  Consequently, adding insult to injury, I found out last week that the dreaded CMV virus is back.  This took away all camp happiness completely.  The tremors aren't going away anytime soon either.  Only after I stop the Prednisone will I be able to, again slowly, taper off the anti-rejection medicine that is causing them.  Might as well take away my last S'More!

In the meantime, I had an upper GI endoscopy to see if there's a concrete reason I've been nauseous and unable to eat well for the last six months.  Nope.  No concrete reason.  Everything came back negative.  It's good that I don't have GVHD or CMV or other viruses in my stomach, but it's not good that there's no clear course of action as to how to treat my symptoms.  The best guess is that my tummy troubles are caused by all the medications I'm taking.  My docs aren't likely to cut back on any of them for awhile since I have chronic GVHD and active CMV. 
In one of my "Why is this so hard?" moments, I called my friend Keith (I mentioned him in my last post), who is a two-time transplant patient.  He said, "Think of it as re-booting. Sometimes you need new software (medications) to keep the screen from going blue...."  There's no way I could have said it better.  It was exactly what I needed to hear.  He took my microscopic vision and gave me back the big picture.

I am confident that this mini series will come to an end, my screen will not go blue, and I will be a happy camper again soon (not to mix too many metaphors in one post).  There's just no other acceptable outcome. I have too much to do and my legs will only go in one direction:  forward....



Saturday, May 14, 2011

How does this work again?

I still don't get it.  I had heard of stem cell and bone marrow transplants, but I never stopped to think about how they actually work.  It doesn't help that the media never really tells the whole story.  They portray people as being sick one day and better the next.  To watch Kitty on Brothers and Sisters undergo a stem cell transplant from her half brother, you would have thought she was having her tonsils out (where were the consultants on this one?)  

It was only when my friend and colleague, Keith, had a stem cell transplant with his own stem cells (autologous), and when that failed, a second transplant with his brother's stem cells (allogeneic), that I gained an appreciation of the complexity of the process.  [Keith is doing great, by the way, two years post transplant.]  But I still didn't really get it.  Not only didn't I get how dangerous, precarious and slow the recovery process would be, but I also didn't get the science of it all.  I knew that the stem cells from my 33 year old male donor would cause my type A blood to convert to his type O.  It makes sense that if the bone marrow factory that makes all my blood is making type O, then the type A blood "still on the shelves," as Dr. Goldberg put it, will eventually be replaced.  It's still pretty weird, but it makes sense.

I recently learned that, in addition to my bone marrow being 100% converted to a male donor, the actual DNA is male.  Wait, what?  My bone marrow DNA is now male but the DNA for the rest of me is female?  Yes, indeed.  How does that work again? Seriously.  This goes beyond science fiction:  Too much science, not enough fiction.  I know it's real because I keep staring at the test results.  Yet I still can't wrap my head around it.  I could leave my blood on a crime scene, and when the cops show up to swab the inside of my cheek, I'm innocent!  I'm sure CSI has done at least one episode with this twist. 

It really is amazing how far the science of medicine has come.  I find myself cursing all the medications I have to take because of all the side effects that keep me from feeling well.  But they are literally keeping me alive, after this incredibly violent and bizarre transformation at the core of my physical being.

Imagine this screenplay:  Under medical guidance based on decades of research, a person's bone marrow is destroyed completely, leaving the patient on the brink of death.  In swoops a bag of magic stem cells from God knows where, and somehow the patient doesn't die.  The stem cells take hold, make new bone marrow, which produces new blood, and an internal war breaks out.  As the stem cells fight both cancer and the patient (host), immunosuppressants, antibiotics, anti-virals, and a bunch of other preventative medications work to anticipate the next battle.  In the meantime, the patient's DNA for part of the body may switch genders, but this storyline trails off because it doesn't make sense.  If the patient makes it through the first year, chances are the new stem cells will stop fighting the host but keep fighting the cancer and everyone will live together in harmony.  Fade to black.

Honestly, if you read a screenplay like this, how likely are you to invest in this script?  Not me.  It's too unrealistic.

With all these thoughts swirling around in my head, I started thinking again about my donor. I wrote him a second letter last week, hoping he will write me back. My letters are screened by the National Marrow Donor Program, as his identity is confidential unless he agrees to disclose it after a year.  Until then, we can correspond in general terms, without giving away personal information about ourselves.  Here is part of the letter I wrote to him.
When I think of you, I’m reminded of a story I’d like to share.  I was getting blood work done last October, before the transplant, as you probably were too.  There was a man in a chair across from me who was donating his stem cells.  I could tell from the questions he asked his nurse that he was donating to a stranger.  When I finished my tests, I walked up to him and said, “I’d like to thank you for what you are doing.”  He looked at me like I was totally crazy, and asked, “Why?”  I said, “Because you are saving someone’s life.”  He then said, “But this is easy,” gesturing to the IV in each arm.  Then I told him, “You may see it as easy, but it means everything to the person you are helping.  It literally means the world to them.  And someone like you somewhere will be doing that for me in about two weeks.”  I think it was at that moment he realized, as he looked at me standing in front of him, the importance of his donation.

It made me feel good to thank that man, because I couldn’t thank you.  You are that man for me, and I hope you know that you have saved my life.
I wish there was more publicity, knowledge, encouragement, incentives to donate stem cells and bone marrow in this country.  Several of my friends and family members registered to be donors after learning of my illness.  But most people don't know about the registry or its importance.  I know I didn't.  The vast majority of people of color who need transplants will not find a donor because matches are based on race and ethnicity, and there are not enough people of color in the registry.  This is nothing short of tragic.  The fight is hard enough, even when a perfect match is found, as in my case.  My donor is as much a mystery to me as the science of this journey.  To answer my original question, I don't know how this works.  I'm just glad it does.