Category Archives: Travel

The kingdom of the sick

“Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
― Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor

Not being a big fan of New Years Eve I am not bothered to make an occasion out of it. I went to bed as usual around 10pm but got up to watch the multi coloured fire works fizzing and exploding into the dark smokey sky from my bedroom window.  I prefer New Years Day and the grey quiet days that follow, the seasonal frenzy is over and there are no diaries to be found anywhere in the shops!  It is a good opportunity to take stock of what has passed and what the new year might hold for me, 2016 was an annus horriblis for the world and for me health wise.  My last post was in May 2016 At last some good news and I am not even going to attempt to catch up in any detail.

Treatment wise, I continue on Revlimid, the much hated Dexamethasone and for the last few cycles a traditional chemo agent called Cyclophosphamide to try and strengthen the Revlimid and avoid the need for a double dose of Dex which I found unbearable. The boss describes my disease as stable but I feel like I am on the usual rollercoaster, my light chains varying each cycle between 100 to 800, bobbing up and down, currently 404mg/litre at the end of the 15th cycle. Although I find this treatment regime a real struggle and the toughest yet, I know I need to keep on it for as long as it is holding my disease stable before switching to a new treatment otherwise my options will start to run out fast. I have come to terms with the fact that I will most likely be on treatment for the rest of my life, that there will never be a period of drug free remission or my light chains getting into normal range, the best I can hope for is that any new treatment regime I start isn’t as hard as this one, perhaps more effective and gives me better quality of life.

I saw an excellent musical last year called  A Pacifists Guide to the War on Cancer. A funny and moving examination of life with cancer with a great song about entering the kingdom of the sick and hoping at some point to return to the kingdom of the well or maybe not. I was interested by the idea which I thought the writer of the play had come up with but later discovered that Susan Sontag wrote about in her essay, Illness as Metaphor.  Last year, more so than at any other time since my diagnosis I feel I have taken up permanent residence in this metaphoric kingdom which unless you have stayed there is I imagine hard to understand. I mean I look well don’t I?  It is a world where every day I am aware of my health, managing my health is a full time job. The hospital appointments and stays (four emergency admissions to hospital last year), countless blood tests, copious amounts of medication, persistent and continual viral infections, self administered daily injections, infusions, chronic gut issues, fatigue, insomnia, low mood and anxiety and so much waiting. Waiting to feel better, waiting for results, waiting for appointments, waiting in pharmacy, waiting for a bad moment to pass, waiting can be exhausting. I’m not saying it’s all grim, it is just different. I’ve got friends here, family too, I don’t have to pretend to be upbeat and I feel safe. We can share our experiences, our illnesses and our fears and disappointments without boring anyone except ourselves. I can be authentic.

I am increasingly disconnected from the well world. Fatigue, chemo brain,  loss of confidence and not being able to do the things I used to do in it contribute to this. I am happy for my friends currently in good health who are enjoying their lives, their work, pursuing their interests and passions but I’ll admit to a touch of envy and self pity too. I wouldn’t want them to not talk about stuff that they are doing or planning to do but it reminds me that I am not able plan anything like “normal “people do, much more than a few days in advance or arranging something then having to cancel it or not go, because of infection, steroid crashing or simply being too tired.

I am frequently asked where I’m off to next on my travels, anything planned? Answer is that it has become more difficult, more trouble than pleasure whilst on this treatment. Travel insurance is expensive, flying increases the risk of infection, I need to consider access to medical centres if I get ill and then there is the fatigue, steroid mood swings and gut issues that get in the way of enjoying the holiday and spoiling it for the people I am with.The desire is outweighed by the obstacles. Having said that I did have a lovely time in Cornwall in the summer last year, a road trip of sorts in my fancy new (to me) convertible and then the ferry over to the beautiful Scilly Isles. Swimming, walking, cycling and lots of boat trips to the remote off islands.  Because I was away for nearly three weeks, some of the time on my own, I didn’t matter if I had a bad day because there was time for me to have a good day.  In early September, a spontaneous break 0n my own to Copenhagen, the cheap flight which spurred me proving to be a false economy! I got to see some of the locations where my favourite Nordic noir dramas were filmed and ate lots of pickled herrings.

img_1965

img_2010_srgb-2img_1903

Since Copenhagen I have not been anywhere, apart from a spell in hospital with a high temperature when I got back. After several years of thinking about getting a dog or a cat, I finally decided on a older rescue cat and set aside October and November to settle her in. I was looking for a grey, minimalist, sleek, shorthaired cat and ended up with a very pretty fluffy white and ginger furry toy but I couldn’t be happier despite a rocky start when she nearly had as many health issues as me! She has transformed my life and I feel less lonely because of her presence. Stroking her and listening to her soft guttural purring is a great stress reliever. So here is me and Meg and just Meg.

img_2621

In spite of all the moaning about the world I now inhabit, there are, have been and will be times of enjoyment and pleasure, things to appreciate and be grateful for. It is better if I try not to think of the future or the past and concentrate on living in the present. My focus must be on what I can do, not what I can’t do anymore and also not to give myself a hard time if I don’t “do” anything at all! In the words of Alan Bennett I’m keeping on keeping on.

14 Comments

Filed under Cancer, chemotherapy treatment, fatigue, Health, Multiple Myeloma, Myeloma, Remission, Travel

At last some good news..

Yet again it has been so long since I last posted that I am having to play catch up.  Time has passed so quickly, the exceptionally mild winter moved as swiftly as the swallows and swifts arrived into an early warm and sometimes very wet Spring, fruit trees laden with pink and white blossom and new green foliage eagerly bursting through the soil. I was in hospital the latter part of March and half way though April last year having my cord blood transplant and more or less missed out on Spring so it has been a real delight to witness it this time. However it has been extremely hard to find the energy, concentration and inclination over the last few months to update my blog. I have tried and done the odd bit at a time but now I’m just going to get an update out there whilst I’m having a steroid day!  It isn’t all I wanted it to be but if I put it off any longer, it may never happen. It is somewhat a technical update about treatment which hopefully you will get through in order to understand the backdrop to my world the last few months.  Life with myeloma and on treatment has been even more of a rollercoaster ride than usual. Coping with the side effects of the treatment, fatigue, chemo brain, depression and infections has taken its toll. Although it has been about 5 months since my last post, time has a different dimension for me with little to distinguish one day to the next, yet although I am doing less, it doesn’t feel like it is passing more slowly. An average day for me might consist of a hospital appointment, going shopping or an hour in the garden or a meet up with a friend or watching TV and that is all I can manage except on steroid days.

Lets start with a (fairly) brief recap…

Late December 2015

I ended the last post on a bit of a cliff hanger as I was waiting for my clinic appointment on 31 December to find out the result of the light chain test from the end of the second cycle. It was very bad news, they had risen sharply to 3600mg/l. The hope that Revlimid might have kickstarted some graft versus host disease and with that some graft versus myeloma effect or that my new cells would be resensitised to treatment were dashed. I was desperate to switch to a different treatment but there wasn’t anything left on the NHS that was available to me apart from Bendamustine, an old chemotherapy drug from the sixties which seems to have had a bit of a renaissance recently for treatment of relapsed myeloma but really is the last resort. Rather than that, the boss suggested I have a third cycle of the same treatment but increase the amount of Dexamethasone (the steroid) to 4omg x 4 days each fortnight over the 28 day cycle, an enormous dose and add Clarithromicin to the treatment regime. Clarithromicin is an antibiotic which has been shown in a recent study to overcome resistance to Revlimid, incidentally a study that I came across and informed my consultant about!  In part the reason for the high dose of Dex was to try and help bring down my creatinine levels as they were elevated which was a sign that my kidney function was not good. The high dose dex might also help to keep a lid on the rising light chains as by now I was starting to feel the effects of active myeloma such as raised calcium levels, anaemia, fatigue and the reduction in kidney function. I seriously thought that I was approaching the end of my myeloma journey and that I might have about 6 to 12 months left. Note the word “left” rather than “live”. The psychotherapist on the Haematology ward whom I had been seeing didn’t try to dissuade me from my view but suggested I try and prioritise what was truely important to me if I did only have that amount of time left. What would I pack in my suitcase for 6 months, what would I leave out? What for 12 months?  I found that analogy helped me put in place some plans for life rather than be waiting to die. I still haven’t packed my suitcase though!

January 2016

I started my third cycle of Revlimid, high dose dex (interestingly sex, always comes up on my predictive spelling instead of dex but I certainly wasn’t prescribed that!) and added daily Clarithromicin. A rather depressing and anxious start to 2016.

I got a high temperature about 10 days later and had to go to A&E, which is standard advice when you are a haematology patient on treatment or recovering from a transplant. After about 10 hours on a trolley in a side room there, I was transferred to a haematology ward and pumped full of IV antibiotics and fluids.  I ended up staying in just under a week as I was still getting temperature spikes and the medical team were waiting for the results of swabs and blood cultures. I was given two units of blood as I was extremely anaemic and I had stage 2 acute kidney disease which used to to be called acute renal failure which is what led to my diagnosis. There is only one more stage! I had a very frank conversation with the boss on the ward round and she agreed with me that as no cause of infection could be identified and in view of my other symptoms it was more likely that it was active myeloma which was causing these problems. I was taken off Revlimid whilst in hospital as having chemo when poorly isn’t a good idea and it didn’t seem to be working anyway.

Lack of sleep, dex withdrawal, stress, anxiety and fear all played on my mind and I did think I was heading to a position where I was too ill to have any more treatment and the light chains would rise rapidly out of control ultimately in my case clogging up my kidneys and causing end stage kidney failure. After a lot of patient advocacy, I was released on parole 5 days later, the condition being I had to attend the day unit for the next few days for IV fluids, antibiotics and top ups of  magnesium, phosphates and potassium. They were long tiring days but better than being stuck in hospital and my kidney function improved.

At my clinic appointment on 18 January I  found out the good news that my light chains had gone down to 1300.  Praise the Dexamethasone! I felt a huge sense of relief and the fear that I was approaching the “end” subsided.  I started a 4th cycle of the same high dose dex regime on 26th January.

I have already described in previous posts, particularly in Dexamethasone the good the bad and the ugly just how badly I am affected by it, more the withdrawal or the crash than the actual days of taking it which just causes me to be a bit hyper and gives me some energy.  It is the depression, irritability with myself and others, low mood, lack of sleep, shakiness in my voice and hands and lack of mobility due to muscle wasting that affect me so much. My physical appearance changes too, weight gain and redistribution of weight to the torso, the red moon face and hamster cheeks, humped neck, bloated stomach and hair thinning that when I see myself in the mirror I hardly recognise myself.

February

Half way through the 4th cycle when I was tested again my light chains were down to 500mg and by the end of the 4th cycle they were 344. Everyone was happy. It helped me cope with the side effects of the treatment, knowing that it was working.

March

In early March I went for a short break to Sicily with my friend and travelling companion, Jet. It was a bit of a mixed bag health wise as I had sickness and diarrhoea for some of the time and the usual fatigue. It was unseasonably cold and wet too at times but it was a change of scene and I really liked the vibrant folk art paintings of a local painter, Fiore, some of whose paintings were in our B&B but we also saw him at work in his studio. I loved the painted plastic table and chairs outside it. What a transformation of boring white plastic outdoor furniture enhanced by the bowl of Sicilian lemons!

FullSizeRender FullSizeRender 2 FullSizeRender 3 FullSizeRender 4 IMG_1207

On 26 March it was the one year anniversary of my cord blood transplant. There was nothing to celebrate about it apart from the fact of survival which is good of course, given I was given a 20% risk of mortality in the first 12 months. It was more a time to note and grieve the fact that it didn’t have the desired effect of my new immune system attacking the myeloma. I’m still not over the disappointment, but don’t know how to reach closure and let it go. Hopefully more about this in another post.  I didn’t have much time to dwell on this as on 28 March I was back in hospital again for a week with a high temperature, this time with parainfluenza 3 which in immune compromised patients can develop into pneumonia. I was given the usual IV antibiotics and fluids but had to stay in until my temperature was stable and they got results back from swabs and cultures so they could see what to treat any infection with. I hate being in hospital and didn’t feel ill enough to be there which I said to the doctors on more than one occasion but other than discharge myself and risk having to go back in again with a temp spike and lose my room, I didn’t have much choice. I was taken off Revlimid again and as my light chains had gone up to 440 at the end of the 5th cycle that caused me some anxiety.

April

On the weekend after I got out of hospital  I had just about recovered from the paraflu and felt well enough to travel to my parents to  celebrate my Mum’s 80th birthday, then I spent the following weekend in London with a friend taking in an exhibition about Monet and the modern garden and lots of good food. It felt good to be able to do these kind of “normal” things but when I got back I felt poorly and I came down with yet another viral infection with cough and cold symptoms, this time my old foe Adenovirus. I am only just getting over this nearly 2 months later and it has really wiped me out.  On 21 April I started a 7th cycle of Revlimid, Dex and Clarithromicin. Light chains were 98 at the end of the sixth cycle. That was a really spectactular drop especially as that cycle was messed up as I wasn’t on treatment for a week and a half.  I was delighted and relieved but slightly anxious that it could be a lab error. Also the boss pointed out recently that I did take a double dose of dexamethasone during that cycle.

May

Despite the fatigue and the virus, May has been a quite a busy month so far. In early May, I ventured out in the evening, a rare event, to a couple of dance performances. As a birthday present from my parents, I tried out my flying skills on a flight simulator which was surprisingly realistic and fun. I landed in Hong Kong and St Maarten in the Caribbean fairly successfully without taking off too many roofs!. Then over my birthday I celebrated with friends and family with lots of meals out and cake. I also did a lovely 5 mile walk in Dovedale in the Peak District. It was all quite exhausting especially as I was steroid crashing but I’m glad I did it. I really didn’t think when I was first diagnosed at 49 in 2010 that I would make it to 55. At that time there was a 40% chance of survival for 5 years.

I started an 8th cycle of treatment on 19 May. The dex dose has been reduced from 40 to 30mg for the first 4 days of the cycle to see how that goes. The boss thought my fatigue was due to the cumulative effects of the treatment and the viral infections.  I also found out the results from the 7th cycle, my light chains were up to 160 from 98. Although up a bit, I was relieved that the previous months result wasn’t likely to be a lab error as they were not far apart.

Ok that is the update done at last! I included some of the things I have managed to do as a reminder to myself that there have been some good times and productive enjoyable days, but mostly I feel like life has passing me by as the last couple of months have been really tough going, both emotionally and physically. There have been so many arrangements I have had to cancel or events that I wasn’t able to go too because I’ve been either been too tired, unwell, or just not the right mind to attend or all three. Then I berate myself for not going. I have learnt that fatigue is not about whether I sleep well or not, which I generally don’t, verging on insomnia at the moment, but like an insidious relentless brain fog. On steroid days I make all sorts of plans, have more energy and feel quite good. But in the crash period that follows all those plans go out of the window and I just try to get through the day. It means that going to weekly classes or getting involved in anything on a regular basis is really difficult to manage as I never know how I am going to be from one day to the next. My quality of life is fairly poor at the moment and that may not change as I will be on treatment for the rest of my life now. When the current treatment combo stops working as my myeloma develops resistance to it, I will switch to something else. There will be no periods of drug free remission, no more transplants, another donor transplant would be too toxic and unheard of. So my challenge remains as always to live in the moment and live as well as possible, accept my limitations, get the balance right and not give myself a hard time if I don’t always achieve it. As I like to think of myself as a pretty good card player, I find this quote very apt!

“Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well.”

― Robert Louis Stevenson

 

 

 

15 Comments

Filed under Cancer, chemotherapy treatment, Cord Blood Transplant, Health, Life and death, Multiple Myeloma, Myeloma, Relapse, Remission, Travel, Uncategorized

Baby Talk Part Two

umbilical_cord_blood

Firstly please ignore the post from last week, I was spewing out a quick draft whilst waiting to be seen at the hospital, clicked on what I thought was the button to save it but it turned out to be the one to publish it! Damn, those that follow my blog by email will have seen all my spelling mistakes and poor use of the English language!

Anyway back to Part 2 of Baby Talk. Just to refresh your memory from my last post, Baby Talk Part One, I’m at the post auto transplant meeting with the transplant boss. She’s told me the bad news that it looks like my stem cell transplant hasn’t worked, then she dropped the bombshell that I am unlikely to respond to Revlimid as the next line of treatment and then that the donor transplant as an option is a no goer as there will never be an adequate match for me. Can it get any worse?  For those reasons she suggested a cord blood transplant which she has never done for myeloma before but would be willing to give it a go.

She explained what is involved and the risks and benefits of the procedure. The risks are numerous from failure to engraft, meaning that the cord blood stem cells don’t take in my bone marrow so I could die because my bone marrow has been wiped out by the conditioning chemo I will receive prior to the transplant. Then there is high risk of infection whilst I am neutropenic and waiting for the new stem cells to engraft and also for the next year or so. A clean diet must be followed for 6 months and travelling abroad is not possible for 6 to 12 months. Hence all the holidays! And finally I am highly likely to develop some graft versus host disease which in the first 3 months or so is called acute and after that it would be considered chronic which could be a long term issue. GVHD is where the new stem cells don’t like being put into my environment (me being the host) and attack it causing skin, gut, mouth, liver or other organ problems which can be life threatening or “not compatible with life” as another doctor recently said to me.

And of course while all this is happening there is the possibility that the myeloma is coming back. The only good thing about getting GVHD is that hopefully it means that the new stem cells don’t like my myeloma cells either and attack them too, as long as the myeloma burden is not too high. And that in essence is how a donor transplant works whatever the source of the stem cells ie adult or cord blood. It is a form of immunotherapy, the aim of which is to replace my defective immune system with a new healthy one.

So the benefit is that it could give me a new immune system that deals with the myeloma cells and kills them in a way that my own fails to do. That is if I survive the procedure and don’t get any life threatening infections or GVHD. This graft versus myeloma benefit could last a long time, as I said before, a small proportion of patients may be considered “cured” and die of something else.  Or more likely according to the boss, I could get a year or two out of it before I relapse. I have to view it as extending my treatment options rather than being a cure. When I relapse I can be retreated with previous drugs that I may have been resistant to as my immune system will be different as well as being able to try any newer treatments that have come on to the market so it gives me more options (with the remote possibility of being curative) than I seem to have if I don’t have it.

If the autologous stem cell transplant had been effective then the decision would have been more difficult as I could perhaps count on 6 months or so remission, then a slow relapse before I needed to start treatment again. But the way it looks now is that my light chains are slowly creeping up and I would need to start treatment quite soon and that treatment might not work, if the boss’s fears prove to be correct. I’ve been quite heavily treated and the more treatment you have the harder and stronger a different myeloma clone comes back.

I left that meeting feeling overwhelmed and upset but more or less deciding to go ahead with the cord blood transplant assuming there were cords available and my light chains had not risen significantly higher. I would have a 3 month post transplant bone marrow biopsy to find out. Then I thought of more questions to ask after I left and had a second chat with the boss to talk it over again the next day. The talk was of having the transplant as quickly as possible and I needed to make a decision so that the cord blood tissue typing process which takes a few weeks and costs thousands of pounds could be commenced.

This was probably the most difficult decision that I would ever have to make. How do you decide? Toss a coin, ip dip, set up a poll on my blog and ask readers to vote, weigh up the evidence (there is hardly any), ask my friends what they would do (they don’t know), ask others I know with myeloma?  I was on the horns of a dilemma. The boss said there was no right or wrong choice, just the one that I felt sat right with me. Am I a risk taker in life, no not really, but maybe this was the right time to be one?  I am also very indecisive about the simplest of decisions which coupled with my cautious nature and resistance to change does not equip me very well to make decisions. Yes I had previously decided to have a donor transplant before but the risks were fewer, I was 3 years younger, in very good remission following my transplant and assuming I would have a fully matched adult donor available. At the second meeting I thought about asking the boss the question what would you do if you were advising your sister or if it was you, not sure whether to ask it or not as I thought most doctors would duck out of answering that question, but she volunteered the information saying that if she were me she would do it. I asked her if she was recommending that I have it with all the inherent risks and she said yes she thought it was my best option, not that there were many.

It was that strong expression of opinion which is quite unusual from doctors that helped me make my mind up to go ahead with it and she said she would initiate the cord blood matching process and arrange a bone marrow biopsy. I asked about going on holiday as it was only two months or so after my transplant and a little early for travel abroad and she said go for it, life is too short and so I did!

Between coming back from Egypt and going to Iceland I had a bone marrow biopsy and when I got back I got the results which were that I had 5 to 10% abnormal cells in my bone marrow. If it was much higher than this than the cord blood transplant wouldn’t go ahead and the doctors seemed to be pleased with the results and I was given an estimate of mid to late March for admission for my transplant which involves a stay in hospital of 4 to 6 weeks.  I have 10 cords that match and the absolute best two have been selected, one from within the UK and the other all the way from Australia! NO expense spared! I have passed the various pre transplant heart and lung tests, am feeling pretty fit and good to go.

I now have a date of the 20th March for admission and the start of the conditioning chemotherapy which will go on for 5 days, followed by total body irradiation on the 6th day and the cord blood stem cells infused in the same way as my own cells were last time on the 7th day. Then I have to wait for the new cells to engraft whilst becoming neutropenic. If they do engraft and my neutrophils pick up I’ll be allowed to leave, if they don’t then as a last resort I could be given my own stem cells back to rescue me as I still have some left. Then I will be closely monitored and on powerful immunosuppressant drugs for around 100 days afterwards.

The last month or so I have spent lovely precious time with my family and friends. I have been happy but also highly emotional in a good way,  everything and everyone seems better and brighter, like I am seeing the world through rose coloured glasses or maybe I truly have been living in the moment (or maybe I have taken drugs of a non medical nature).

I am nervous, scared and anxious and despite my views on positive thinking (see a previous post, hello relapse, goodbye remission)  feel that this is the time to take a risk and be positive as long as no one is telling me to be positive!

I intend to blog about my experience in hospital to try and while away those 4 to 6 weeks in an isolation room but in the meantime wish me luck!

 

33 Comments

Filed under Cancer, chemotherapy treatment, Cord Blood Transplant, Health, Life and death, Multiple Myeloma, Myeloma, Relapse, Remission, Stem cell transplant, Travel

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 19,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Just before a very cold and white Christmas in 2010 I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. I literally collapsed into a heap in the corridor of the Manchester Royal Infirmary when I found out what that meant. I thought my life was over and I would be dead within months.  I was right about  life being over as I had experienced it before myeloma but thankfully wrong about my demise being imminent. Since then life has been different, far more challenging both physically and emotionally, but bizarrely more rewarding and dynamic. Four years on, 2 autologous stem cell transplants, several different types of treatment, multiple relapses, hundreds of blood tests, hospital visits, 9 bone marrow biopsies and numerous holidays later, I am still here! That I am celebrating that is good but bittersweet as it serves to remind me of the loss of my previous healthy life and the passing of others with myeloma who didn’t make it to 2015.

Thanks to all those who have followed and commented on my blog in 2014. That my blog has been looked at 19,000 times is amazing albeit that the most popular post is still frothy urine, as it was in 2013! And I still have it!

P1020558

SKOL!

5 Comments

Filed under Cancer, chemotherapy treatment, Health, Life and death, Multiple Myeloma, Myeloma, Relapse, Remission, Stem cell transplant, Travel, Uncategorized

VDR Pace Chemotherapy – the Zombie of cocktails

A further quick medical update as promised following on from my last post, The end of an era.  At an appointment on on 10 September that had been arranged with the lead transplant Consultant to talk about the possibility of a donor transplant after my auto transplant I was given the bad news that the percentage of abnormal plasma cells in the bone marrow was around 5 to 15 % and ideally it should be under 10% prior to transplant.  In consequence, much of that meeting was taken up with what to do about this.

The doctors were suggesting that rather than go ahead with the transplant on 17 September, I have one cycle of VDT Pace which is very heavy duty combination of 7 different drugs involving 4 days of a continuous cocktail of four different drugs given intravenously as an inpatient. The purpose of that would be to try and reduce my myeloma levels to be in the best possible position prior to transplant. I didn’t know much about it other than it was usually given to patients when all else had failed so it was a shock to me to be considered in this category.

I questioned whether this was really necessary as the one round of PAD I had just completed reduced my light chains to 49 from 100 so why not have another cycle of that but the consultants seemed to think that this regime should blast it, the equivalent to a Zombie cocktail in terms of strength.  I am partial to a cocktail or two but would probably never have one of these as it just contains too much alcohol!

Zombiecocktail

Rather than questioning this further which would be my usual inclination I accepted it. I note this is more of a trend with me now, not that I have stopped keeping myself informed about Myeloma and treatments, just that I have given up thinking that there is a solution out there that is available to me and might be better.

For more detailed information about this treatment and the protocol, click on the this link, LNRCNDC001409_DTPACE1 . I didn’t have the T part (thalidomide) because I am intolerant to that so I had Revlimd instead. I also had Velcade added which technically makes it VDR Pace.

I started it on Thursday 18th September and I was allowed home the following Tuesday having tolerated the side effects fairly well apart from the main side effect of complete boredom whilst being attached to a drip! I think my facial expression says it all!

IMG_1051

The rest of the treatment was oral Revlimid for 21 days and one further Velcade injection. I felt nausea, fatigue and had mucositis (a sore ulcerated mouth caused by the chemo). I can no longer remember the experience distinctly as so much has happened since then, save to say it was extremely grim.

A bone marrow biopsy was arranged for 23 October and I got permission from the Doctor to go away on a short trip to Europe, a week after the cycle ended subject to my blood test results being reasonably ok.  I decided on Menorca and had a lovely time. The only limitation being I couldn’t swim because of the PICC line in my arm but I was very happy and surprisingly active considering what I had been through being able to cycle along lovely country lanes and walk along some of the ancient Cami De Cavells.  I fell in love with Mr Boatsman, a rather handsome French Shepherd Dog belonging to my B&B host. Hard to believe my cycle had only finished the week before. This felt a world away and helped take my mind off what was coming next, my stem cell tranplant scheduled for 5th November. More on that in my next post.

IMG_1364 IMG_1389 IMG_1508IMG_1432  IMG_1435

IMG_1484

 

4 Comments

Filed under Cancer, chemotherapy treatment, Multiple Myeloma, Myeloma, Stem cell transplant, Travel, Uncategorized

The end of an era

I am sitting tentatively in front of my lap top opened at my blog not knowing quite where to start with a new post.   Much has happened since my last post that if I don’t make a start, my blog will be as adrift as I am!  So as in the lyrics of Do Re Mi from the Sound of Music:-

“Let’s start at the very beginning
A very good place to start”

The beginning for me is my last post, The Party’s Over.  To recap, I had just started a new more intensive treatment regime called PAD to try and reduce my light chains before having a second autologous stem cell transplant. That treatment finished on 31 August and a stem cell transplant was scheduled for 10th September.  I had pre transplant tests such as a blood tests, swabs for infection, ECG, lung function test and 24 hour urine collection (my favourite!) on 26 August and signed the consent forms. A bone marrow biopsy was arranged for the 2nd September. A couple of days after the tests, the hospital rang to say I had an infection, Parainfluenza 3 virus which had started to manifest itself that day with a sore throat and runny nose which I thought was probably just a cold.  A drug to prevent the virus from multiplying (Ritavarin) and preventative antibiotics were prescribed and for the first week I really was quite poorly.

This coincided with my last day at work on 27 August 2014.  I made the huge decision to stop working a couple of months prior having been considering it for some time. I have been fortunate to be well enough to work since my diagnosis, with a couple of months off initially and some further time off to recover from my first transplant.  My employer has been supportive enough to accommodate my time off for treatment and allow me to work flexible hours. Working has given me a decent income as well as a routine and structure to my life which is outside of the world of cancer. A connection to the “normal world”.  What it hasn’t given me, especially since relapse, is much job satisfaction, as I couldn’t manage a case load anymore for operational reasons and was assisting other colleagues with their work. There was an understanding with my employer that when I was in remission again I would have my own caseload.  However I came to realise that wouldn’t be possible because there would always be uncertainty about how long I would be in remission.  There would be periods of remission and periods of treatment or even periods of remission whilst on treatment and/or periods of no treatment or remission. It’s complicated!  I would always be struggling about whether to drag myself into work when feeling lousy, not to mention being exposed in the open plan air conditioned offices to infections. Not being a productive employee was also affecting my self esteem.

I always had in mind that I would give up work after my second transplant to spend my time doing other things or even nothing, but as that transplant has been shelved for so long whilst in remission from low dose Velcade, it dawned on me that I didn’t know if and when I would get to that point and the time was now, Carpe Diem, as they say!

“Happiness, not in another place but this place…not for another hour, but this hour.”
― Walt Whitman

I want to do things that I enjoy even though I am not sure what those things might be! Some cautioned me that I shouldn’t shut doors that didn’t need to be shut and that work gave a purpose to life other than living with myeloma. Others were concerned about whether I would be able to afford to stop working. The former rather than the latter concerned me more but I decided that working to give purpose to life was a rather conventional view of what may constitute a purpose and there were other things I could do to give meaning to my life.  Although I don’t discount the value of work as a link to the normal world, it has become increasingly difficult to be part of that. As for purpose, what does that mean? I love the quote below:-

“Cat: Where are you going?
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I had a break from writing this post to do some work in the garden. Sometimes I go into the garden purposively to do a specific job whether it be pruning a bush, weeding a border etc. Sometimes I go as on this occasion not knowing what I will do until I do it. I cut down some dead flower stems and tidied up a border so was this my purpose without me consciously realising it? Does there have to be a purpose or as Cat says “then it doesn’t matter which way you go”.  There you are, philosophy in action!

My last day at work was quite emotional, marking the end of over 20 years of being a solicitor, and the end of that part of my life and connection with that world.  Now I just want to be! I didn’t particularly want to celebrate what was being called my  “retirement on ill health grounds”. I would not have been able to chose to give up work at the age of 53 if I didn’t have myeloma as I would like everyone else be waiting until my pension pot was big enough for me to retire. Now I don’t care about that! The next day I started feeling poorly with para influenza virus and was quite concerned as to whether I would be able to go on the trip to Verona that was planned for 4 September. I had my bone marrow biopsy on 2 September and discussed whether I was fit enough to go, coincidentally with an Italian doctor from Turin. He said I should see how I felt and that hopefully the drugs would work to contain the virus. I did turn a bit of a corner and so went with the intention of taking it easy but this is more or less impossible when in a beautiful town like Verona where there is so much to see and do. I was stressed and anxious about flying back on the 9th September and my stem cell transplant being on 10th September. I felt I had little time to prepare or pack for a possible three week spell in hospital or to recover from the virus.

Anyway I went and was glad I did despite coughing and spluttering my way round Verona and Bologna. I even went to see Aida at the famous outdoor arena which was fantastic.

IMG_1041                  IMG_0932                    IMG_0832

IMG_0907    IMG_1020 IMG_0971

Prior to going away I had asked the transplant co-ordinator if my transplant might be put off until the 17th September to allow me more time to recover from the virus. She said they were already full for that week but that might change. When I got back on Tuesday, I went straight from the airport to the hospital for more swabs and was told that they had decided to put it off the transplant until the following week as I had tested positive for the virus before I went to Verona and they did not want me to be admitted with an infection. I was much relieved to have a little more time to recover and prepare. The next day I had my PICC line fitted and a pre arranged appointment with the transplant lead consultant to discuss the possibility of having a donor transplant after my auto transplant. What was discussed at that appointment has altered the plan once again!  I will deal with this in my next post but to give you a clue, I still haven’t had my transplant!

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Cancer, chemotherapy treatment, Health, Life and death, Multiple Myeloma, Myeloma, Relapse, Remission, Stem cell transplant, Travel

The Party’s Over

IMG_0052

At my clinic appointment on the 1st August, I found out that my kappa light chains had risen quite considerably from 54 to 195mg/litre (up to 19 is normal). So it seems that the increased dose of  Velcade that I referred to in my last post Upping the Ante had no effect.

The new,  young and pleasant doctor I saw who has replaced the lead myeloma specialist, Dr Gibbs, who sadly (probably not for him!) went back to Australia wasn’t quite sure what to do next although it was clear that I would coming off trial. He asked me to attend clinic the following Wednesday to allow him time to speak with his colleagues about the best way forward. I appreciated the fact that he did not try to hide his inexperience.

I spent a rather wet weekend staying near Penrith in Cumbria with some friends. I was pretty anxious and gloomy about what is effectively a second relapse, my anxiety and fears exacerbated by steroid withdrawal. However the gentle beauty of the Eden Valley, the moody majestic peaks of the Lakes, even in the pouring rain,  combined with the company of good friends helped take my mind off my situation.

On Wednesday I saw the same Doctor again. He suggested that I had one cycle of PAD which is a more intensive treatment regime and lasts 21 days, the aim of which would be to knock the light chains down to closer to normal range. After completion of the cycle I will have a bone marrow biopsy to assess the percentage of abnormal plasma cells in my bone marrow and if less than 10%, I will be having my second autologous stem cell transplant probably around mid to late September. The party is over!

I have had the PAD regime before, two cycles in fact during my induction treatment prior to my first transplant. It includes Velcade, a very high pulse of Dexamethasone each week and a standard chemotherapy agent called Doxurubicin.   There is the possibility that my disease has already become resistant to Velcade but it is at a much higher dose on the PAD regime and works synergistically with Doxurubicin so fingers crossed, it is a tough regime but bearable if only for one cycle.

I am now on Day 15 of the cycle and have finished the treatments in the day unit but what is left this last week is the worst for me, the dreaded steroids.   I’ve already described in my post Dexamathasone just how awful I find them.  I have been on a very low dose over the last 6 months (just 16mg a week) and found the effects minimal . The first week of this new regime I was on 160mg!!  Not so bad the days on, apart from sleepless nights, but the crash from Friday to Sunday is unbearable.

It’s not going to be a pleasant or easy next few months but at least it is a plan, the absence of which I have struggled with over the last 6 months or so.  I knew that Velcade wouldn’t last forever and that I would be having a second stem cell transplant, it was just a question of when.  I would have liked more control over the timing and to have avoided the need for further chemotherapy but it is virtually impossible to have any control over the course of this disease. I suppose I could have chosen to have had the transplant when I had reached complete remission after 5 cycles at the end of November but I decided with my consultant to continue on the trial on a lower dose and extend the cycle to a five weekly one. I guess this was a bit of an experiment for him as velcade as maintenance therapy is quite new and untested. My quality of life was pretty good and as I have learnt there is no rush to proceed to the next treatment/procedure as none of them are curative. If something is working with minimal side effects then why stop it?  The downside is living with a very stressful level of uncertainty, having to waiting for results at end of each cycle to determine if I should start another cycle but I was learning to live with it.

I started this new regime exactly 12 months to the day after starting treatment following relapse when my light chains were 6000mg/litre and I  was becoming quite ill with myeloma again. I’m in a different place now, both mentally and physically. It will also be just over three years since my first transplant on 1 September 2011. There seem to be numerous coincidences date wise in my journey with myeloma, I think they exist for all of us but perhaps they are more firmly implanted in my memory. There are significant ones that I will probably never forget such as the date of diagnosis, date of transplant, date of starting a new treatment, date of relapse as well as anniversaries of the same. And of course I have had to become fanatical about writing down on my calendar, dates and appointments for clinic and treatment, having attended hospital over 100 times this past 12 months for treatment!

I thought when I started treatment a year ago that my life would be curtailed by the effects of the treatment but after a tough first few cycles I have enjoyed pretty good quality of life. I’ve been able to carry on working, play tennis, take part in a triathlon, go on hikes and of course holidays of which there have been many!  In essence I’ve had the outward veneer of a “normal” life but beneath the surface is my cancer world, with its endless hospital appointments, tests, fatigue, stress and infections. I find it hard to integrate the two worlds, part of me doesn’t want to (and hasn’t really had to) but as I move closer towards a second transplant I don’t think I will have much choice.

I went for a lovely walk yesterday below Kinder in the Peak District, the heather on the moors was abundant and beautiful with a fragrant aroma of honey, the leaves have started to fall and the sun was mellow and low. The school holidays are coming to an end and autumn is almost here. Approaching my transplant and the next stage of my journey feels like going back to school after the summer holidays.  New uniform, new classes, teachers, a little more grown up, apprehension mingled with curiosity about what lies ahead.

10505280_10152345398741365_4173810181405267563_n

17 Comments

Filed under Cancer, chemotherapy treatment, Health, Life and death, Multiple Myeloma, Myeloma, Remission, Travel

Urine saves the day!

Since I started showing signs of relapse in January 2013, I have been living with a huge amount of uncertainty as anyone does with an incurable cancer, there are hopefully periods of remission and stable disease as well as time of treatment and recovery, but through all that time, my light chain results are a constant source of anxiety and stress.  I am still trying to cope with that feeling of always being on a knife edge. At the  clinic appointment at the end of each cycle the focus is on my latest results. Are they in normal range,  what happens if they are not, what happens if they are, will I have another stem cell transplant, when will that be? Am I normal (they can’t answer that!)? The last few months my kappa light chains have been teetering on the upper edge of normal range. What does FLC Kappa 3.3-19.4 mean to you? Nothing hopefully!

What does it mean to me?  Everything, it is the holy grail. It defines the normal range for kappa free light chains which we all have but which are elevated in the type of Myeloma I have. Being in normal range generally signifies complete remission. Before I started treatment after relapsing last year they went up to 6000. At diagnosis they were estimated to be over 10,000. Now they have been creeping up and are 44..3 according to the latest trial test results and 23.4 according to our lab results so since my last post Not Good Not Bad, they have become less good and not normal. Also as there have been 3 trial results consistently out of normal range I am considered to have relapsed according to the trial criteria. There was some concern at my last clinic appointment that I would be kicked off the trial. Plan A was to apply to the trial sponsors for approval to remain on the trial. It would take a few days to find out if I could. However it wasn’t clear what Plan B was going to be if we didn’t. I came away from my appointment feeling abandoned and confused as my consultant (whose last day it was) was returning to Australia and seemed very uncertain as to the alternatives. I guess it wasn’t going to be his problem anymore but I left with no follow up appointment, no Plan B and no start date for another cycle.

Just prior to my appointment I had booked a week’s holiday at a yoga retreat in Ibiza. Because I was in such an anxious state I nearly decided not to go, my anxiety compounded by coming off the steroid dose I had taken early in the week. But I did go and doing 3 hours of yoga a day in beautiful surroundings proved to be a great distraction.  I found the yoga both physically and mentally challenging and it was good for taking my mind off my situation. And yes I really was there for the yoga and not out clubbing every night! I have always wanted to go to Ibiza and it lived up to my expectations and is a beautiful island with a nice vibe (now does that sound a bit like I’ve been clubbing!).  Apart from doing yoga, I went to the nearby beach to watch the sunset most evenings, read and rested quite a lot, swam, sunbathed, took some walks and explored the island. I think the photos show just how chilled it was (it’s not me in the yoga poses!)

IMG_0658 IMG_0659 IMG_0643 IMG_0608 IMG_0647

I found out towards the end of the week in Ibiza that the trial people had said I could remain on the trial because my urine results were stable and that is what they look at in conjunction with the light chain blood tests I have been having. Yippee but unexpected reasoning. Every 28 days as part of the trial disease assessment tests I have to do a 24 hour urine collection which involves peeing into a large container over a 24 hour period and bringing it in to the hospital the next day. I initially thought they sent off the whole container to the trial lab in Paris but it turns out that they mix it and mix it and reduce it to a small pot to be sent off! Anyway I have never paid attention nor has my medical team to the results of those samples as the SFLC (serum free light chain test) is considered to be more accurate and obviously much more convenient. Prior to the trial the only other time I did a 24 hour urine collection was when being diagnosed. Quite why they place more reliance on this rather outdated urine test rather than the SFLC test I don’t know, it also seems odd that my medical team didn’t know that. Had they known that we could have avoided all the stress and uncertainty at my last clinic appointment.

So I get to stay on the trial and started a 13th cycle a week ago, thanks to my urine which remains frothy, see my post Frothy Urine for an explanation of why. I have stopped being concerned about that but really it is the only symptom I have that has been caused by myeloma and reminds me on a daily basis that I have myeloma at the moment. I feel fortunate compared to others I know who are dealing with bone pain and lots of other issues caused by Myeloma.

As to what the plan is, there isn’t one, it is really just a case of waiting for the results at the end of each 5 week cycle and then deciding whether I start another or go off trial and proceed to second autologous stem cell transplant.

In the meantime, here’s to my urine!

P1020559

 

 

7 Comments

Filed under Cancer, chemotherapy treatment, Health, Multiple Myeloma, Myeloma, Relapse, Remission, Stem cell transplant, Travel

Keep your chin up!

I’m intending to write a series of posts exploring some of the classic cliches and phrases that I have come across since my diagnosis with cancer. My last post Why I won’t be getting run over by a bus any time soon was the first of these and is about the chances of getting run over by a bus and the reality of living with a life shortening diagnosis. This post is about the phrase “keep your chin up” which has been said to me on more than a few occasions. Now if it is said to me on the basis that keeping my chin up will help to mask the double chin I currently have (I blame that on the steroids!) then fine, it may be a little blunt but yes it is good advice for minimising a double chin! Hey I might even get one of these!

newscan978

However I think it is generally said to encourage me to stay strong and positive in the face of adversity, not to cry with my chin down.  More on positivity in a future post as part of this series but the phrase grates on me and I have been trying to figure out why.  I think it is because it takes away from my right to feel down or upset and places the onus on me to alter my mood rather than perhaps empathising with me, for example, by saying yes you’re in a pretty shitty situation and I’m here for you.  I know people mean well when they say it but there are times when I don’t want to or can’t keep my chin up. I may just want to express my grief, depression or fears or whatever and be a blubbering wreck without being told to keep my chin up, stay positive etc etc.  I have a sneaking suspicion that this is more for the benefit of other people than me. Its my party and I’ll cry if I want to comes to mind.

I really like this RSA short animation below on the power of empathy and it helped me understand the difference between sympathy and empathy.

And I’m not saying that I am the perfect empathiser, far from it, I’m just saying!! You will be relieved to hear that I am mostly “keeping my chin up” these days, being on a much reduced dose of steroids has helped with my low mood and paranoia when withdrawing from them in my week off treatment. I am maintaining remission but still on treatment ( a medical update will follow shortly).  Life is pretty good in spite of the endless visits to hospital for treatment and review, I’ve just come back from a few days break abroad in this place.  See if y0u can guess where? All will be revealed in my next post!

IMG_0226 IMG_0274

10 Comments

Filed under Cancer, chemotherapy treatment, Health, Multiple Myeloma, Myeloma, Remission, Travel

Falling off the plateau

It seems that I have fallen off the plateau that I had made my temporary home for the last few months before the descent into relapse.   Just as I was settling in and adjusting to my new territory,  I have yet again been reined in by my rising kappa light chains which have jumped rather dramatically from 77 mg/litre to 617 mg/litre in the space of a month.

Plateau

I didn’t stay at plateau point very long but it was great whilst it lasted!

Needless to say I was as disappointed and surprised as my consultant who arranged for me to have a retest last week to see if the jump is for real or some kind of freaky fluke.  There is an outside chance at most that there could have been a massive error in the lab testing but I am not holding my breath and I am not praying for a miracle or some such thing.

I mentioned in a previous post (Hello Relapse Goodbye Remission Part 2 The Calm after the Storm) that my consultant said as long as my light chains weren’t above 600mg/litre I could go to India. I feel so fortunate that I was able to go before the steep rise to 617 this last month.

So the plateau was short, January to April, to be precise, but I had adapted to the new phase of my disease and the fact that I was no longer in remission fairly quickly, once over the initial shock of relapse.  I was hoping that this phase might last until September, which would be two years post stem cell transplant, a respectable period of time.  I became comfortable with the new normal for me and was off again planning and booking trips, playing matches for the ladies team at my tennis club and starting a 16 week training plan for the Salford Triathlon in August.  This was on the premise that I would not be on treatment and my light chains would remain in the bracket of around 70 to 90.

And now I am back to not knowing what I can do when.  I feel like I get slapped down by my disease whenever I start taking things for granted.  Logically I know that my myeloma isn’t capable of such vindictive behaviour, it doesn’t have a personality, being just some cancer cells doing their thing, so if I get into slapping them back we are entering into battleground territory and you will see from a previous post (Hello Relapse Goodbye Remission) that I am not battling my disease.  However I do feel a little like Humpty Dumpty at the moment, getting to the top of the wall, balancing there a while, happy, and then falling off except that hopefully as I am not an egg, I can be put back together again!

Humpty_falls

I expect to be starting chemotherapy treatment soon after 20 months of being drug free since my stem cell transplant, apart from the monthly infusion of Zometa, a bone strengthening treatment. I am dreading it and my head is spinning with the various options that are on the cards. It is good that there are options, but options mean choices and I really don’t know how I am going to decide between them… but more of that another time!

This is likely to be my last post for some time with the blog subtitle “living in remission”.  Of course I am hoping to achieve remission or stable disease at some point in the future but I am conscious that the remission I have enjoyed may not be as long again. Unfortunately the law of diminishing returns usually applies to a second stem cell transplant if that is what I decide to have so that I may only get one half to two thirds of my first remission.

Whilst the past 20 months have not been easy, they have generally been good. I have been able to live life well with no health issues and no pain unlike some with Myeloma. I want to appreciate and celebrate what I have done whilst being at the top of the mountain so to speak since from my stem cell transplant on 1 September 2011 and then latterly on the plateau.  In more or less chronological order some of the highlights are:-

  • cycling along the Monsal trail in the Peak District one fine autumnal day
  • long weekends in London, Dublin and Alicante
  •  starting my blog
  • a holiday to Tenerife
  • seeing the Northern Lights and going dog sledding in Sweden
  • playing the piano again
  • a stay in Palma, Majorca
  • running the Manchester 10k
  •  a holiday to Lake Maggiore and Switzerland
  • a trip to Oxfordshire and Somerset
  • joining an outdoor fitness class
  • giving a patient experience talk at Myeloma UK info day
  • a tennis holiday in Corfu
  • a trip to Tromso, Norway to see the northern lights and go dog sledding (P)
  • seeing a wild tiger whilst on holiday in India (P)
  • playing (albeit badly )in a tennis tournament (P)
  • training for a triathlon (P) (R)
  • finally and hopefully going to Paris on Eurostar, to see Monet’s garden at Givernay (R)

Those marked P indicate done whilst plateauing

Those marked R indicate doing whilst relapsed!

Thanks to everyone that I shared some of these things with and those that supported me and encouraged me to do them.

4 Comments

Filed under Cancer, Health, Life and death, Multiple Myeloma, Myeloma, Relapse, Remission, Stem cell transplant, Travel, Uncategorized