Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Vinblastine Through the Holidays

Angry Karin on first day back in chemo chair.

I did start the Prednisone the day after my PET Scan and overnight NYC visit. I didn’t get much effect from the 50mg of steroid. The goal was to reduce the inflammation in my body, but I didn’t feel much of anything except a harsh blow when I came off of it. I did however get an effect from the next treatment step. That Friday, December 16, I had my first infusion of a traditional chemotherapy of my treatment past – Vinblastine. I had received it as part of my frontline ABVD treatment – the very standard frontline treatment against Hodgkin Lymphoma.

The idea of a variation of the R-CHOP chemotherapy regimen had been being tossed around for a while by my transplant doc, lymphoma doc, and the lymphoma board at Sloan. It was what was suggested as an alternative to the Revlimid but one that would be a sledgehammer at me. My doctors and I were hesitant to use it as it would be a very toxic blow to me and we are all on the same page that my biggest concern is quality of life. I do not want any more toxicity than I need and I want to be able to enjoy and live my life as much as possible.

We decided to start with a single agent from that regimen, Vinblastine, in order to see if just that one drug would do the trick to melt the current disease activity. Taking just this one drug would also allow me to travel to California with Craig – What? I know! (More on that glorious trip in the next blog – it wasn’t just artistic allusion in those Counting Crow lyrics, we really did go.) My Sloan doctors were more than supportive of us taking this vacation and wanted to do everything possible to ensure that I’d be able to enjoy it.

I received two doses of Vinblastine, one each Friday before we left on our trip the morning after Christmas. I got to skip a week while we were in Cali. The upside to taking a more traditional chemotherapy drug is that I can receive it close to home. I’ve gotten the IV injection right close by, back in the familiar haunt of Hartford Hospital’s cancer center. I’m back under the care of my beloved Dr. Dailey who is working beautifully in tandem with Drs. Moskowitz and Sauter at Sloan-Kettering. I truly have the dream team of doctors. They are kind, wicked smart, understanding, accommodating, thoughtful, and 100 percent in sync with who I am, what my health goals are, and what is important to me.

It’s difficult being back at the treatment center where I started with all of the nurses, lab technicians and secretaries that have seen me from the beginning. It’s as painful for them as it is for me to see me back in the chemo recliner. But at the same time, it’s comforting. They all know my long treatment story, my family, and so much about my life. There is a high level of familiarity there and it takes away the fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. In that regard, I feel fortunate to have forged such close relationships with the team there. We laugh a lot together and I get a lot of hugs and ushered into special rooms on the fast track – the privileges of being a longstanding “client.”

At the first treatment, I was pretty angry and tired. I didn’t want to be there. Craig and I were hosting our big annual holiday bash the following day where nearly 60 people would be at our house and I was much more focused on the fun of that, not this chemo crap, and the unknowns of how it would affect me. But I did it – with the escorting of my mom to make sure that I did it. The infusion is a push IV infusion so the drug administration itself takes about two minutes. I receive Alloxi anti-nausea and Decadron steroid beforehand then a bag of fluid after the IV push. In all, the whole process takes about 90 minutes, including doctor visit. It’s doable, though certainly not as convenient as swallowing a pill at home.

The biggest side effect was constipation – oh, very bad constipation. I was blocked up all through Christmas. This is caused in some part by the drug and a big part by the nausea blocker, as it doesn’t just block one exit, but both. Trying to get things moving was not fun. I felt the normal wooziness the day of the infusion, but was pretty good after that.

The biggest reward is that the pain is ceasing. After just two infusions of Vinblastine, I haven’t felt any pain in my hips and my back pain is highly reduced. A few days after the second infusion (the day before Christmas Eve) I didn’t have to take any more pain pills. This was fantastic as neither the treatment nor the Hodgkin symptoms held me back through all of our holiday events nor our vacation. I was very tired and again, very constipated, through the holidays but things really eased up for me that last week of December.

I went to Sloan-Kettering yesterday and Dr. Moskowitz was thrilled that my pain was reduced and saw this as a good sign that the Vinblastine is working. She told me that she could cry she was so happy. We decided not to add in the other drugs of the R-CHOP or CHLVPP regimens that we had discussed and stuck with what seems to be working with as minimal toxicity as possible. She is fully behind this plan knowing that it allows me to keep my active lifestyle and it was wonderful to rejoice in that with her. It’s not to say that I feel like a million bucks ­ – far from that. But when you’re in a position like mine, the “feeling good” scale is pretty skewed. For me, this is fantastic compared to what early December was.

Happier Karin Week 2 - maybe because carolers
came around to sing for the patients at the cancer center.
Another big development is I have mild Graft vs. Host Disease of the mouth. It is likely a chronic condition, something that develops in 60 percent of allo transplant patients. This is wildly uncomfortable at times, but so thrilling! I can’t believe I’m rejoicing about it, but when I learned yesterday that the weird growths in my mouth are GVHD I wanted to do a happy dance. Dr. Moskowitz sent me over to Dr. Sauter’s clinic, where he came down from the hospital making special accommodations to see me because he was so eager to look in my mouth. All three of us were pretty psyched that because if my sister’s immune system is going after the cells of my inner cheeks and lips, it means they may also be going after the lymphoma. We’ve got some immunotherapy action happening!

My mouth had been very dry, tingly and tight for weeks. The night of my first infusion of Vinblastine, big raised white bumps rose on the inside of my upper lip and along the inside of my cheeks at my gumline. There were lines of white raised trails all along my cheeks that were scraping up against my teeth and gums. The first two nights were pretty painful and I couldn’t eat or drink much without enflaming it.

At that point, we weren’t sure what was going on. It didn’t make sense that the sores were from the Vinblastine. Customarily, it takes at least a week after chemo for it to drop blood counts enough to cause mouth sores. And these mouth sores weren’t open and seething like ones in the past. They were more actual raised growths in my mouth, kind of like under-the-skin pimples on the inside. It felt like there wasn’t enough room in my mouth for my cheek tissues as the skin was so taunt and overgrown. The growths remained for a week though reduced in severity with each day. Prescription “Miracle Mouthwash” helped to numb and soothe the areas as it’s basically like swishing Novocain around your mouth.

Before my second infusion, Dr. Dailey took a look at the mouth growths and found the whole thing so curious. By phone, my Sloan doctors did as well. There were murmurs that this could be GVHD. Of course, I had done my research as well and was convinced by the photos I found online on medical sites that this was in fact what I had.

After the second chemo infusion, the mouth irritation is all but gone. My cheek tissues are scarred and swollen and my mouth is still incredibly dry, but by day 2 in California it was no longer bothersome and didn’t affect my eating or drinking at all. This further solidifies that it is GVHD of the mouth mucus membranes – a common manifestation.

Dr. Sauter explained that the sores were going to come whenever they came. It was likely just coincidence that they flared the day I started the Vinblastine, but that the chemo is actually what is making my mouth better. In his words, the chemo is like “taking a bazooka to my immune system” and is stopping my sister’s cells from attacking my mouth because it is suppressing it. Aha! Makes perfect sense. The hope is that the chemo is working in tandem with my sister’s immune system to go after the lymphoma. He still likes the idea of doing a Donor Lymphocyte Infusion with more of my sister’s cells after a few more hits of the Vinblastine to really get the lymphoma under control. I’m considering this option and will see where my body and head are at in February after four more doses of this.

To help control the mouth irritation, I have now started a steroid mouth rinse. I have to swish it around my mouth for five minutes twice a day. It brings targeted steroid therapy right to those mouth mucus membranes where the auto-immune action is happening and will reduce the inflammation there. If all I have to deal with regarding GVHD is doing a mouth rinse for the rest of my life, I’ll take it.

I’m at the Avon Cancer Center right now getting my third infusion of Vinblastine. Hopefully it continues to do the trick. I’m currently neutropenic again so I received a shot of bone marrow-stimulating Neupogen yesterday at Sloan. Seems that it worked: my neutrophils are up to 3,000 and my bones have the aches to prove that progress. Bring on the poison; continue the healing.


  1. We are ALL with you...every step of the way through this next hurdle. You are just incredible- strong, beautiful and truly an inspiration to all who know you... in person or in BLOG!

    With love- your bloggers!!!!!!

  2. Continue the healing, continue the healing ....rid the body of insidious cancer, rid the body of insidious gone thy nasty invader, be gone thy nasty invader....breathe it gone, eat it gone, sleep it gone, pray it gone, ahhhhhh it gone, seep it gone....yes let it be gone, gone, gone.....forever...let it go, rage it gone....nevermore to be seen in you...growl,roar,growl,roar it gone.....all together let it be done and gone - now lets friggin champion this.

  3. I like the way you think.. anonymous blogger!!!!!!!!!!!! Time to KA!

  4. I hope you are feeling better. Stay the course, holding you in my thoughts and prayers!

  5. Thinking of you today- hoping you are all warm and cozy on the couch... good day for snuggles with Sammy Dog!!!!!!!!

  6. We wish you all the best and our prayers are with you.