My mom and I took an early train into NYC to be able to enjoy some exploring surrounding what would surely be a comparatively short Sloan appointment. I had a lot of energy (and a huge appetite) due to the daily 100mg of Prednisone I had been taking to calm the Hodgkin's symptoms until SGN-35 could be secured. We meandered uptown from Grand Central and stumbled upon the New York Public Library – an institution neither of us had ever explored. We ducked in and I was immediately in love with the ornate arch detailing, the marble columns and stairs, the intricate and stunning paintings that canvased the rotunda ceilings.
We explored a few floors taking in the massive ceiling to floor windows encased in deep mahogany trim, which shed a cool winter light onto the dozens of people that lined the long library tables with their noses in books and study materials. I ran my fingers along the worn cloth spines of Lord Tennyson, Dickens and Tolstoy – faded jewel colors of scarlet and emerald, the titles calling out in delicate gold lettering. I opened a couple to finger the years-worn pages and ingest the deliciously musty smell that only an old book can emit.
Stunning was the holiday tree in the library's entranceway, a towering figure decorated with artificial birds of all colors peeking out from behind Victorian bows and lights. Behind that we stumbled upon a fascinating special exhibition, "Three Faiths," which compares and contrasts the traditions and beliefs of Islam, Christianity and Judaism by looking at the religion's ancient texts, materials and art. It was remarkable to admire these historic printings from the tiniest of Korans to Hebrew texts complete with engrossing hand painted illustrations. From behind the glass encasements, each told a story about the many sets of hands that wore their covers thin, and whose pockets they traveled the world in.
As much as I desired to park it there for the rest of the day, it was time for us to travel to Sloan, back to reality. After bloodwork and vitals checks, we were quickly ushered in to see Dr. Moskowitz. She was proud and impressed and eager to tell us that everything went through without a hitch and that I was the "perfect" candidate to receive the still investigational chemotherapy drug SGN-35 (brentuximab vedotin) on a compassionate use basis.
The drug is manufactured by Seattle Genetics, Inc. This is the company that is putting it into my doctor's hands, agreeing to provide the drug to me outside of a clinical trial setting. Though SGN-35 is currently being studied in clinical trials at leading cancer centers across the nation (including a very small double-blind placebo study at Sloan), the trials are closed to enrollment or I am not eligible for them. Because of this, my team of doctors had to write an individual research study for me, which was approved by Sloan-Kettering's Institutional Review Board (IRB) and the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA).
My progress will be watched closely by all parties. My response and side effects will be watched extremely closely by the lymphoma team at Sloan as I am in fact the first patient that the institution has secured the drug for on a compassionate use basis. The first patient at the leading cancer hospital in the nation. To further emphasize what a small pool I am in now, all of the nationwide clinical trials that have taken place as the drug has been developed total just over 200 patients that have been treated with SGN-35.
This "distinction" obviously comes as a double-edge sword. I feel incredibly fortunate that this science has advanced to the point that it can potentially put a stop to these rapidly multiplying Hodgkin's cells, but wish I wasn't in such a dire situation. I am immensely grateful for the scientists and researchers who have devoted the research time and dollars to an oft forgotten type of cancer, which is still treated with the same front line drugs that it has been for 30 years. There are not many options out there for those that experience a Hodgkin's lymphoma (HL) relapse as I have and it is about time that a drug of this potential will soon be on the market.
About 8,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed annually with HL and 1,300 of them die, according to the National Cancer Institute. While the disease can be cured in about 70 percent of patients, that leaves 30 percent uncured. This is not okay and this is why more cancer research and more clinical trial participation is needed.
As fascinating as this all is, I would have been perfectly content living in remission after just six months of ABVD chemo. Every single morning I wake up and run back through the entire journey, still not understanding why cancer chose me and why not just any cancer, but an aggressive subset experienced by only very few in the world – the vast majority of us being young adults with the mean age of 31. Should I feel special or shafted?
As I've been repeating to myself often lately: "You can't change the cards you're dealt, only how you play the game." I am playing my hardest and I will come out on top. There are just many, many, many more rounds than I expected.
This next "round" starts Thursday, the second-to-last day of 2010. Craig and I will drive down to Sloan where I'll receive the first infusion of SGN-35. It will drip into my port for about an hour. I'll then receive it again three weeks later. The chemo has a 21-day cycle. After this second cycle, we will check a PET Scan in hopes that it has blasted out all remaining cancer activity. If not, then more cycles will come.
I of course received the list of "Likely" and "Rare but Serious" risks and side effects per usual for any chemo I've been on. The biggest concern that has come up with this drug is peripheral neuropathy, or losing feeling and function in the arms or legs because of nerve damage. Otherwise, the side effects are not expected to be too bad as the amazing part of this drug is its honing capabilities. Instead of blasting every fast growing cell in the body as old fashioned chemotherapy does, leaving the patient ravaged, SGN-35 goes right for the CD30 cells present in HL, inserts itself there and drops a little chemo bomb right inside the cell. The premise is that it leaves the surrounding cells essentially unaffected (only about 15% of non-cancer cells are hit).
The "Patient Informed Consent for Clinical Research: Treatment with SGN-35 for single-patient use for a patient with relapsed/refractory Hodgkin Lymphoma (HL)" protocol I was given by Sloan to review describes the process well:
"While most patients with Hodgkin's lymphoma respond to treatment that includes high-dose chemotherapy with or without radiation, followed by an autologous stem cell transplant, some patients do not. Some patients with a progressive or recurrent disease after standard treatment respond to salvage chemotherapy (a second chemotherapy treatment). However, relapse remains a major problem, particularly in patients with poor risk disease.
SGN-35 is a type of drug called an antibody drug conjugate or ADC. ADCs usually have two parts: a part that targets cancer cells (the antibody, which is a protein that is part of the immune system) and a cell killing part (the chemotherapy). ADCs can stick to and attack specific targets on cells. The antibody part of SGN-35 sticks to a target called CD30 (a molecule on some cancer cells, including Hodgkin lymphoma and some normal cells of the immune system). The cell killing part of SGN-35 is a chemotherapy called monomethyl auristatin E (MMAE). It can kill cells to which the antibody part of SGN-35 sticks. More than 200 people with cancer have already been given SGN-35 in research studies. These research studies were done to test the safety and efficacy of different doses of SGN-35."
It's the last question on the informed consent packet that really is the kicker and made me chuckle a bit:
"Are there benefits to being treated with SGN-35?
Treatment may or may not make your health better. We do know that the information from this treatment will help doctors learn more about SGN-35 as a treatment for cancer. This information could help future cancer patients."
No one is making any promises, but the potential really is immense. According to a Bloomberg Businessweek article from Dec. 6, SGN-35 wiped out tumors in one-third of patients with hard-to-treat Hodgkin lymphoma and reduced the cancer by half in another 40 percent, a study found.
Here are a couple more helpful links about the inner workings and efficacy of the drug:
To take a break from all the technical jargon and to celebrate the news that I qualified for this drug, my mom and I indulged in some NYC eats and another dose of culture. We cannot remember the name of the Italian restaurant we found on 57th and 11th, but will never forget the food. We stepped in from the bitter cold December wind to enjoy a three-course prix fixe menu, eating such decadence as gorganzola cheese bread, flaky salmon swimming in lemon and butter with the perfect carmelized crust, and classic liqueur soaked Tiramisu for dessert. It was a ladies' lunch to remember. We clanked our water glasses a few times as we enjoyed the perfect people watching perch at our window side table.
Then we lost ourselves in some mind-bending exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art. We had acquired some free passes, so the fact that we only had a short time to explore didn't elicit admission fee guilt. Days and days could be spent traversing the place. We only saw a very small fraction, but it was awe inspiring nonetheless. We saw Dalis, Picassos, Seurats, Van Goghs, Monets, Chagalls, and works by many, many burgeoning photographers, painters, and sculptors ... even an exhibition of Andy Warhol film clips and a musician playing the piano from the inside out and backwards while walking it through the performance space. The museum was swarming with visitors taking photographs, leaning in to and stepping back from works, speaking languages of every dialect. It was a regular world melting pot of art lovers and my mom and I couldn't have been more thrilled to be there.
We took a brisk walk back from MoMA to Grand Central navigating through the slews of holiday tourists that packed the mid-town stretch. After sipping our coffees and nibbling our baked goods, my mom fell asleep and I delved into my book as the train rumbled us back to the station where my Dad's warm car waited to take us home. We were content, tired, and exhilarated all at the same time. It was almost Christmas after all ... .