Salvage treatment has started. I had my first infusion of Gemcitabine (Gemzar) chemotherapy this past Friday. It is not a drug that is new to me: I once received it as part of the regimen GND, one of the first regimens we tried to get me into remission after I relapsed from my autologous stem cell transplant in 2010. Now, we’re hoping it’s the lone ranger that will be my “get out of jail free card,” as Dr. O puts it. I don’t think it’s going to be a “free” ride by any means, but more of a “guaranteed” ride, as it’s well proven to work against HL. The side effects are supposedly small compared to other chemos, but chemo is chemo and it still makes me feel like shit. And for me, after being through so much of it, unfortunately, I’m more sensitive to those side effects.
This plan hatched after a long conversation at Columbia with Dr. O, my mom, and myself after he and his team had poured over my treatment history and attempted to find creative ways to get me out of this current situation.
A positive takeaway was that Dr. O said the amount of disease I have in my body is really unremarkable. He says that normally looking at my PET Scan and CT Scan results, doctors would give a shrug and give a “eh.” Unlike other patients, I am not contending with a 9cm mass pressing in my chest. For this I am grateful. What I am contending with is disease that – though scattered and therefore not causing any immediate danger – is in annoying places that causes it to be symptomatic. Annoying places like my bones and along my vertebrae, which leave me with pain syndromes. Because of this, we must treat a little harder so as to not allow those places to get worse.
We are dose escalating this drug, not using the normal protocol, but a special “Karin protocol” because we know how compromised my bone marrow is from all the treatment I’ve received – most especially my two stem cell transplants. With each treatment it gets harder for my body to muster the strength to create new cells after the chemo wipes them out. My body is tired. Therefore, we’ll watch my blood counts closely, as Gemzar can especially take a hit on my platelets. If things look good, we may add in another drug to the mix. I’ll be riding out this plan for a few months and we’ll depend on my symptoms to reveal improvement and will put off imaging until necessary. Another thing to remember: all of these PET and CT Scans expose me to more radiation, which means more cancer risk.
We had a lot of laughs with the doc and his amazing nurses. Dr. O and I hugged it out solidly. I know he wants the best for me and that I’m in good hands. I love the connections that I have with the team through e-mail and how I never feel like I’m floating out on my own. Though we have these really serious conversations, we can follow them up talking about our favorite candies and how my hot flashes were causing me to strip on the train and how the Decadron he gave me would have me pushing the damn train back home. It feels good to feel like you’re in a human environment.
Fortunately, I am able to receive the chemo locally at Hartford Hospital so as to avoid weekly trips to the city. I feel even more at home here, having been treated at the Helen & Harry Gray Cancer Center on and off for almost four years now. Secretaries, lab techs, nurses and doctors aren’t just my medical team, but truly friends. Not much changes there which is comforting, but also sickening as it brings back a lot of tough memories. I do my best to focus on the sweet moments and not break down at the saddened faces of those around me in the other chemo La-Z-Boys. This chemo drips over only a half-hour, making it about a 90-minute trip with pre- and post-meds, port insertion and removal and rigamarol. Not too bad. Then it’s just a 20-minute vs. 3-hour ride home to my couch where I can sleep it off. So far Dr. D and Dr. O are working together seamlessly and I’ll take the trek into the city once a month to check in and get checked out.
Though the infusion process was just another infusion process, it’s been a chemoey few days. I wanted to see no one over the weekend, and I was in quite an emotional downturn. The fatigue was – and still is – pretty tremendous. If I put my head down, I am asleep. My body also has that familiar swollen feeling both from the chemo drugs and the extra super Decadron steroids I get with the infusion. We are again trying to get me off of steroids of any kind since we can now rely on the chemo to hopefully be holding back the cancer. My eyes are bulged and my muscles and lungs even feel very tight. I went on a walk around my neighborhood yesterday and it was very hard: hard to breathe and even hard on my muscles.
|Gotta have goals. I will be strong again. photo courtesy|
I’m realizing that I am very out of shape as I’ve had to “lay low” so much after the pneumonia debacle, long hospitalization, pain syndromes then biopsy procedure. Finally this week, I get the go-ahead to start using my arm again and my plan is to ramp things up again – gently, but consistently. I have this incredible urge to get strong again. I hate the feelings of weakness and lethargy and I don’t want to bow down to the chemo. Today was a much easier walk with Craig and Sam and this week I’m going to take my first dive into water aerobics – gentle, supportive, non-impact and a certain way to make some senior citizen friends at the Y.
Soon – hopefully only a few months of this – and fingers crossed, we’ll be able to decide the next step as this is not a sustainable treatment. I already got all choked up in the doctor’s office anticipating what that next step will be. It will be a massive life decision, as if I have not made enough of those already.
If/when the Gemzar does what it is expected to do, I will ideally be left in a state that is real close to remission. Now, what to do with that remission will be the big question. I’ll immediately jump to a clinical trial with the hopes of it holding that remission in place as much as possible. Then I have to decide: stick with the clinical trial route and hope that science keeps moving fast enough that I can jump from one to the next for the rest of my life – keeping things in a potential state of constant flux. Or, strike while the iron is hot and take advantage of the only short remission I may ever get and attempt a second allogeneic stem cell transplant, this time with a matched, unrelated donor.
This second option scares the shit out of me, but it is an option, probably the only option besides some miracle or huge scientific advance that could guarantee me the highly coveted long-term, cancer-free remission (after a long recovery process and most certain bouts with risky graft vs. host disease along the way.)
No matter what, I do want to know if this option is even a viable option for me. I like to pour over options. Could my body handle it? Is it advisable? Is there even an unrelated donor out there on the Be the Match registry that is a close enough match to me?
Time is of the essence, as I learned with my first transplant. If I do reach remission from the Gemzar, I need to be able to jump immediately when that happens. Therefore, we need to start tapping resources now. I’m being connected with transplant doctors at City of Hope in Los Angeles and with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle: the two leading transplant centers in the nation with regard to second transplants/haplo transplants/mis-matched transplants – all the fancy stuff I’d be getting into. It’ll be good to find a team and a pseudo-plan now so we’re not scrambling. The Columbia transplant doctor will also begin searching the marrow registry for a match for me, and I’ll be in touch with my Sloan team as well.
Deep breath. As much as I want to say that is all months away and I don’t need to worry about it, I do need to lay a foundation and that takes time, fortitude, and along with that comes, confusion and anxiety. At the same time, I need to focus on getting myself through this immediate step, incorporating the weekly infusions into my life, getting my strength back and highly refocusing on my healthcare plan. I need to do whatever I can do to complement/combat what this chemo is doing in my body so that I’m ready for the next step.
And not just the treatment steps. I’m also gearing up for another beautiful summer of paddle boarding and kayaking, weekend beach travels, more writing opportunities and volunteering. More living my life out loud rather than on the couch. The end of winter was rough in many ways and I’m ready to break out. Right now I’m sick of recovering from this chemo and it’s only been three days. I need to get over that, take a gut check and be grateful I even have this option. I need to be gentle with myself and also kick my own ass. Easy f’in peasy, right?