Closer to Free (to steal a phrase)

Everything keeps moving in the right direction. The last time I needed a transfusion was March 19th. So when I went to Dana Farber two weeks ago on March 25th I had my central line removed! This was huge for my day-to-day. The three lumens on the line had to be flushed daily (by me, if I didn’t have an appointment at Smilow). I had to wrap it up to take a shower and never stand full on in the front in the shower. An inconvenience for sure.

With my hemoglobin and platelets continuing to rise it was just my ANC that was lagging and needing a boost from time to time (shots of filgrastim that I administer). The last time I needed a boost was March 29th and yesterday I asked Dana Farber if I could go to once a week blood draws instead of twice a week – and they agreed!

And most importantly my multiple myeloma numbers continue to go down. I go back to Dana Farber on April 22nd for another check in. When I went in March I had three questions all ending in -ine:

  • Central line ✓ (removed)
  • Vaccine ✓ (I can get it at 3 months, however they don’t know if I will develop an immune response or not)
  • Wine ✓ (in moderation)

And I am back to doing toe lifts and squats when I diffuse my hair. Full workouts coming soon. I feel better and better every day. (The new puppy is definitely contributing to my activity and fitness!)

Update on What’s Flowing Through My Veins

I have been going to Smilow every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday since I came home from Boston on February 12th. I started off needing blood (low hemoglobin) and platelet transfusions almost every single time and have always needed something and often both.

In the last week and a half or so things have been looking up:

  • March 5th: only blood
  • March 8: only platelets
  • March 10: only blood
  • March 12: only platelets
  • March 15: NOTHING!
  • March 17: NOTHING!

So, today Alfredo at Smilow and Liz at Dana Farber decided that I only need to get my blood checked two days a week. I will go in every Tuesday (because I need my central line bandage changed weekly) and I will get my blood tested locally on Thursday and only go in on Friday if I need anything!

There is light at the end of the tunnel!

My ANC with the assistance of the Neupogen shots had gotten all the way up to 2.8! So they took me off of the injections. But, Monday it was 0.8 (which means I am at high risk for contracting infections) and today it was 0.7. Alfredo and Liz decided that I wold give myself the Neupogen injections on days that my count falls below 1.0 (and that should hold “for a bit”).

The next goal: my platelets and hemoglobin continue to improve so I can have the central line removed!

Cutting Edge

“Cutting edge”, it sounds so hip, so cool, so in the know. And on the cutting edge is where I now find myself.

My current treatment of Krypolis (carfilzomib), Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide), and dexamethasone has stalled, a small uptick, an inch downward, but staying right about where it has been. To the layperson (aka me) this doesn’t seem so bad, especially considering where the numbers were. But to an oncologist, this is a failure of the treatment and a need to move on to something else.

I met with Dr. Seropian on November 11th, a little more than a week before I was already scheduled to see Dr. Munshi at Dana Farber. Seropian mentioned some clinical trials at Smilow, I wrote them down to take to Munshi. I told him I knew that Dana Farber had put me on a list for a CAR-T cell therapy trials at Dana Farber.

And then that Friday night (November 13), at almost 6 p.m., I got a call from a Dana Farber (DF) research nurse. There was an opening in a CAR-T cell clinical trial for December 8th. They had reviewed all the candidates and I was the perfect one (apparently the right combination of enough cancer, and enough health). She gave me a quick rundown and I agreed to participate. I was hoping that this would be coming up soon, so I wasn’t that surprised. December 8th sounded sort of far away, but it really isn’t.

The DF research team managed to schedule all of my screening appointments for Monday, the 23rd:

  • Vein check (to see if I need a port/line for the leukapheresis
  • “Consenting” with Dr. Munshi
  • “Teaching” with the research nurse
  • Pulmonary function test
  • Transthoracic echocardiogram
  • Bloodwork
  • Electrocardiogram
  • And then back home that night.

    It sounds like I might get a 2 week chemotherapy break between now and December 8th.

    After December 8th things are a bit up in the air, this is what I know:

    • I will receive some sort of bridge therapy after the 8th and before I am admitted.
    • It takes 4-6 weeks for them to modify my blood cells.
    • About 2 weeks before they are ready to start the process of returning them to me I go back to DF for more tests including a bone marrow biopsy (boo!)
    • 5 days before they return the cells I will get 3 days in a row of lymphodepleting chemotherapy (fludarabine and cyclophosphamide), the first 2 days are 8 hour days, and the third is a 4 hour day). This is followed by one day off, the following day I am admitted, and the next day I get the cells, Day 0.
    • From Day 0 I will have a minimum hospital stay of 7 days, depending upon the severity of the side effects.
    • For 21 days from Day 0 I need to be within one hour of Dana Farber.
    • For 30 days from Day 0 I need to have a caregiver with me 24/7.

    When I ask the nurse how I will feel after this part or that part (I never ask about the week in the hospital, I should do that) she always says it’s not that bad, I can drive myself, etc.

    Speaking of driving myself, this pandemic and no visitors and quarantining, etc. is really throwing a wrench into my planning. No visitors at all at DF for outpatient visits. One visitor for inpatient. But with travel restrictions it is complicated.

    The possible risks/side effects of the treatment sound pretty horrific, but they have found that myeloma patients are faring better than the lymphoma patients (CAR-T is already approved for lymphoma). In the studies (there are multiple companies vying coproduce this therapy for myeloma), myeloma patients have not reached the highest degree/level (3) of side effects. That said they are: cytokine-release syndrome (CRS), neurological events and brain swelling, and tumor lysis syndrome (TLS). So fingers crossed!

    How many times can one say, “it’s always something?”

    Roger T. Conway, Jr. October 1968 – July 29, 2020

    So much has happened since early July, I was waiting to blog until I felt I could write about my brother’s passing. But, as it turns out, I just can’t. You can read Roger’s obituary.

    The Rest

    Kyle

    On July 26th my son, Kyle, had a serious leg injury from a “tubing” accident. A boat sped by them too fast and too close which caused a large wake as they were nearing the boat they were tubing from, flipping my (large) son, his girlfriend and her two younger siblings into the air. Only Kyle was injured, catching his calf on a cleat on the side of the boat. It was a deep, wide, ugly, nasty, gash. I will not post photos here (they are not for the faint of heart). They rushed him to a nearby hospital where they decided to sew him up – only for him to get an infection two days later, sending him to the hospital for emergency surgery, where they thought he might have flesh eating bacteria.

    It is very long story with a total of 3 surgeries, lengthy hospital stays, a skin graft, tremendous care from his girlfriend, Andreah, and many, many ups and downs. But 7 weeks later he was able to go back to work. He has no limp, it looks “pretty good” considering, and he hopes to get back to the gym soon.

    Not the 2nd Inning Anymore (the continuation of my relapse)

    I started the daratumumab/pomalyst/dexamethasone (although the first cycle on pomalyst, Smilow wasn’t sure about it because of my low blood counts – not “cancer counts” but CBC etc.) on June 18.

    On July 1, my “cancer numbers” had increased 24 fold (24 times what they had been) – boom! Followed by a 37% increase, etc., etc. One evening, a week after my brother died, leaving my son in the hospital after one of his surgeries, I received a call from my Smilow oncologist, Dr. Stuart Seropian. He said we needed to start thinking about other therapies. He had lots of suggestions that I listened to walking through the parking garage and driving home, but not really able to take any of them. He wanted to know what Dana Farber thought, I did too.

    For the first time, I had a hard time reaching anyone at Dana Farber, or getting a return call back. It felt like a long time, but as I look back at my online patient portal it was less than two weeks. I finally spoke to Tina (APRN) on August 10th while on vacation with my family in Maine. She said all of the symptoms I was experiencing (oh yeah, I wasn’t feeling really terrific, out of breath, headaches, tired, some low grade fevers) was because of the myeloma. She said she would confirm with Dr. Munshi but thought we would switch to Krypolis (carfilzomib), Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide), and dexamethasone, which is indeed what I started on August 17th. She also told me how sorry she was “that it came back”.

    The new regimen is given 3 weeks on and one week off, the Krypolis and Cytoxan are given by infusion. The dexamethasone is a pill, and is every week. The Cytoxan is more like “real chemo” as opposed to the other regimens I have been on where there were basically no side effects. I am tired, a little nauseous (managed with a couple of anti-nausea meds), and my blood counts are taking a beating (ANC, so I am very immunocompromised and need Zarxio injections to get my neutrophils up; hemoglobin, so I am pretty anemic, headaches, tired, out of breath walking up the stairs, etc.; and platelets, so I bruise easily).

    After a little mix up I found out that Dana Farber only wants me to get the Cytoxan on week 1 and 2, which is what we are doing now, and I think it will give me two good weeks out of 4 which sounds really good at this point. And even better news is that my meloma numbers are dropping:

    DateKappa Free Light ChainsPercentage change from start of treatment
    Aug 17251.47
    Aug 2983.96– 67%
    Sept 929.89– 88%
    Sept 2328.03– 89%
    Sept 2920.91– 92%
    As a reference, the kappa free light chains should be around 1-2.

    Fevers

    The evening after my 3rd dose of Krypolis and Cytoxan I went to bed with chills. When you are getting chemotherapy that can lower your blood counts you are told to call if you get a temperature of 104° or greater. Around 9:00 pm I called as my fever rose above the limit and they wanted me to come in. Smilow has an Oncology Extended Care Clinic (ECC) so oncology patients don’t have to go to the Emergency Department and fortunately it was still open and had a bed for me.

    When you go to the hospital with a neutropenic fever (I have my own personal experience with these and the experience of my first husband, Ken’s, as well). They culture and test you for every possible type of infection. And during the pandemic, a COVID-19 test is also part of that. And typically they don’t find anything but treat you with broad spectrum antibiotics anyway. This was the case for me, I was admitted and treated with several IV antibiotics. They also managed some of my treatment side effects. I was in the hospital for 3 days, and eventually they did find a little bit of pneumonia in the lower right lung. I had no symptoms of pneumonia and finally got home (after working in the hospital for a couple of days).

    The next time I had treatment (2 weeks later as there was a week off in between) I again got a fever. I did not call Smilow. I was a bad girl. I just really, really didn’t want to be admitted to the hospital again. I monitored the fever, it went as high as 102.8°. But then it did come down and I was fever-free by morning. I “told on” myself at my next appointment and was advised that I really needed to call, which I agreed I would. That night (after treatment that day), again, I got chills, and again the fever went over 100.4°. I called right away. My APRN, Alfredo called me back. I told him I really didn’t want to be admitted, but I would come in for all the cultures, swabs, etc. He checked the ECC and they were full with no beds. He agreed that I could stay home and call him in the morning, and not take any Tylenol the following day so we could make sure the fever was gone. And it was. I continue to get a fever the night of the day of treatment, apparently it is just part of my body’s response to the Krypolis.

    The Future

    I’ll continue with this treatment. I’ll remain immunocompromised in the middle of a global pandemic. I closely watch our local state COVID-19 numbers, and the trend is not great. It is going to be a long winter. If I am playing the “pollyanna glad game”, quarantine during the pandemic does allow me to rest without pushing myself to engage in fun, active social activities, it’s the perfect excuse to lay on the couch after a long day of work.

    I don’t actually know what the “plan” is. I go to Dana Farber in person for the first time in a long time on November 19th. Dr. Munshi (who is the myeloma leader for the CAR-T Cell Therapy program at Dana Farber) has put me on the list for their CAR-T cell therapy, it is still a trial but he expects approval around the end of the year. If I relapse again, that seems to be the next step, possibly with DCEP therapy (had DCEP pre stem cell treatment) prior to the CAR-T cell therapy, because my myeloma is a tough mother-fucker. But you know what, so am I.