Tag Archives: depression

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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

 

 

 

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

Ain’t nothing but more bad news.

The post I had intended to write around the 7 months post transplant mark was going to be a slightly celebratory post about being able to enjoy “dirty” food having adhered to a clean diet for the first 6 months after my transplant. Following a clean diet means nothing unpasteurised, nothing live, no raw protein sources, superfastidious washing and peeling of fruit and vegetables, no open deli or bakery stuff and lots of other things. I didn’t majorly miss anything as my appetite was quite poor anyway. After 6 months I bought some of my favourite blue cheese, some unpeeled red grapes and was hoping to enjoy with a glass of red wine. The cheese was delicious but the grapes and the wine not so because of the GVHD in my mouth resulting in very altered taste. The taste is proportionately worse as the nutritional benefit of the food increases and I mostly enjoy extremely salty and/or sugary foods!

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Around the 6 month mark and except for the gruelling Cidofovir treatment I mentioned in my last post I felt I was getting stronger and less tired. I barely had time to enjoy my progress and recovery. So much has happened since that post 3 months ago I can do no more than briefly outline it otherwise I will continually be playing catch up which really isn’t what I wanted this blog to be about.

26 October

I got the devastating news that my light chains were rising from the test on 13 October, not just creeping up a little as they had been but going up sharply from 127mg to 634mg.  The plan to be off Cyclosporin (the immune suppression/anti rejection drug) and hopefully stimulate some more GVHD and graft v disease effect hadn’t worked  and wouldn’t work now that the myeloma burden was too high for my new immune system to have any control over it.

2 November

I started myeloma treatment which consists of Revlimid, an oral chemotherapy  which I take daily 3 weeks on and one week off and my old adversary dexamethasone, 40 mg once a week. I have had Revlimid before as part of VDR Pace but only for one cycle and I didn’t have any response to the regime. The hope is that now I have a fledgling new immune system, the myeloma may be resensitised to  Revlimid and/or it might provoke some GVHD.

5-7 November

A good weekend in London visiting a dear old friend taking in the excellent Weiwei exhibition, and the lovely Eltham Palace. I was tired but we managed to achieve a good mix of relaxing and doing.

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23-28 November

A shortish break to Gran Canaria with my lovely oldest friend (old as in length of friendship, not age). A bit of a mixed bag as I was not really well enough to enjoy it but felt pressure to do so because I had gone and thought it was an opportunity to get away whilst I was able to.  It was good to get some sun on my skin (through the factor 50 sunblock of course) and swim in the sea but I couldn’t enjoy the cuisine or the drink because of my altered taste apart from the divinely salty pimentos padron.

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30 November

I found out that at my last light chain test 0n 16 November, two weeks into the treatment my light chains had risen to 990mg. The plan remains the same which is to have 4 cycles of treatment, each cycle being 28 days. I was told to ignore this test, logically I know this is right for various reasons but emotionally I couldn’t. Given the depression I have been feeling combined with the treatment being so hard on me, it would have been some consolation to know that I was responding.  I wasn’t to be tested again to the end of the second cycle on 29 December and will shortly find out the results. Started my second cycle, no GVHD or major reactions so far, the boss thinks if GVHD hasn’t happened by now, it probably won’t. More bad news in a weird way.

21 December

Suspected urine infection with associated high temperature. Was reviewed in the Haematology day unit and discharged with antibiotics rather than being kept in. Phew! Some good news, the Adenovirus test was negative and the CT scan of my chest was clear in the sense that the persistent cough I have had for the past 4/5 months wasn’t caused by GVHD or anything else however it did show myeloma deposits in the cervical skeleton but they may have been there for a while and I’ve still got rhinovirus.

29 December

Started my third cycle and will find out the results of my light chain test probably tomorrow if they are back from the lab in time. I have been anxiously waiting the last 6 weeks for this result but today I feel strangely calm about it.

31 December

Clinic appointment………………………………..??????????????????????????

This is the post I have been too fatigued, depressed and anxious to write as I struggle to come to terms with this relapse less than 7 months after my allogeneic transplant and all that I have been through. I knew that myeloma would come back but hoped for longer. I can only write this today because I’ve got a little more energy and inclination from the dexamethasone. I am also aware that this makes painful reading, another reason for putting it off and that I don’t know what to say to people about how I’m feeling and I suspect most people don’t know how to respond. I think I just want to be able to express my feelings in their entirety, the good, bad and the silly and be listened to. More of this maybe another time.

My fears now are not that I will die of transplant related mortality although there is still a 15 to 20% chance that I could in the 12 months post transplant but more that I will die from disease progression, that the treatment will not work as the myeloma becomes more aggressive and I will run out of treatment options quite soon. I don’t think I am afraid of actually dying though as Woody Allen says “I don’t want to be there when it happens!”  What I fear more is what my quality of life is going to be like in the interim and whether I will be able to do the things that matter to me. I fear having regrets. So far I have found the treatment so gruelling both on my body and mind (especially the dexamethasone crash for 3/4 days), I am barely able to find the energy to do or concentrate on anything due to the overwhelming fatigue, low level infections and insomnia. My mind swirls with crap and I can’t do living in the present very well. I am neither feeling positive about my future or strong, more a sense of failure. I certainly do not want to be told to cheer up, stay strong or be positive. I think my views on being positive are already known to most of my readers!

This time of year also has so many disturbing memories for me too, being 5 years since I was diagnosed, the kidney failure leading up to that and my first relapse around December 2012. This year was the toughest yet, got to say that was mostly to do with dex withdrawal but taking them on 23rd December gave me the energy to bomb down the motorway to Somerset where I spent Christmas with my sister and family. I had pre warned them that I would be tired, grumpy, withdrawn and irritable. I think it went ok and I managed to retreat to my bedroom when I needed to without feeling under pressure to be merry but finding enjoyment in being with my family, especially my lovely 8 year old niece who outclassed me at Mastermind (the old code cracker game, not the TV quiz).

Anyway I am feeling tired now but pleased and relieved that I have finally got round to doing this post. There is a whole lot more that I want to write and explore but that will hopefully have to be for another time.

In the meantime I wish you a happy new year.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

TS Elliott

 

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

Ain’t nothing but bad news

I started this post over a month ago but have never been well enough to finish it before something else happens that I want to write about so I am continually playing catch up or editing the post. Rather than completely revamp this one I just want to get it out there and hopefully do a further post quite quickly this time.

It seems as if the holy grail that is remission is slipping beyond my reach unfortunately. I ended my last post, Baby steps to Day 100 on a bit of a cliff hanger as I was awaiting my bone marrow biopsy results. The results were that I had 5 to 10% abnormal plasma cells in my bone marrow. The doctor that gave me the results seemed to think this was good until I pointed out that it was the same result as before the transplant. He then described my disease as stable and said the transplant was probably working and it was early days and I was still on immune suppressant drugs blah blah blah.

I was very gloomy but slightly cheered by the light chain results which showed a reduction from 44 to 29 the second downward result. Not normal range which is up to 19 but not far away. At least that was some good news……until I got the next result a couple of weeks later which was they had shot up to 99 and then the next results two weeks later that they had increased again to 147.  It looks to me like my transplant has failed but my medical team are not using the R word yet.  The boss’s plan is to get me off the immunosuppressant drugs that I have been on before and since the transplant as soon as possible. I am just on cyclosporine now.

Immunosuppressants (anti-rejection drugs), are intended to suppress the function of the donor’s immune system for a long time after the transplant to help reduce graft versus host disease and the risk of graft rejection. I probably would have been tapering down earlier had I not had acute skin GVHD and been on steroids for 4 months. The hope is that as I gradually come off the immunosuppressants I will get some GVHD and also some graft versus disease effect. If that doesn’t work over the next two or three months and my light chains continue to rise quite then I will have to start chemotherapy treatment. Not even 6 months from my transplant and the possibility of being back on treatment looms.

Even though I no longer count the number of relapses any more as I’ve not actually been in remission for sometime now, this news comes with huge disappointment after all I have been through with the transplant and continue to go through.  I’ve not told many people about my latest light chain results as I can’t bear the weight of their disappointment resounding my own. I would like to be able to convey some good news but there seems to have been little of that since my last post especially in the last couple of months.

On a better note, prior to finding out my light chain results, I had enjoyable weekends away visiting friends in Otley and Nottingham and family in Whitley Bay. I felt I was getting stronger and whilst in Nottingham managed a longish walk in Lambley through fields of ripe golden wheat just ready for harvesting on a lovely sunny day with huge puffy cumulus clouds floating around the big blue sky. And the next day,  a gentle cycle ride around Attenborough Nature Reserve alongside the languid river Trent. The first time back in the saddle for quite some time, it has given me the confidence to want to do more. I was feeling good. Now I really need to hold on to that feeling.

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Then a week or so later I got sick and all those good feelings combined with the news of the rise in light chains set off my anxieties and fears. I started getting temperature spikes every evening and some sort of urinary tract problem which was immensely painful. I was given broad spectrum antibiotics and numerous tests were carried out but the actual type of infection or infections could not be identified which is quite common other than that I had adenovirus ( a common respiratory infection with cough and cold like symptoms but which can be life threatening in post allo patients) yet again. I was told to call the out of hours helpline if my temperature went to 38″ or above. I knew if it did I would end up having to go to A&E and so every evening became a tense game of waiting and watching. The recent loss of yet another friend with Myeloma to sudden pneumonia after his second stem cell transplant played on my mind as did the fact that the last time I had temperature spikes like this was after I relapsed the first time and myeloma was becoming active again. Fortunately I have not had the temperature spikes for the last few weeks and the urinary problem has gone.

I am so bored and tired of it all, there seems to be no end point in sight other than the most feared one. I’m bored of telling everyone my bad results, bored of having infections and being tired all the time and no doubt everyone is bored of hearing about it. People move on with their lives and their daily business  and I feel like I am stuck in a no man’s land with no way out.

When someone asks how are you, how I answer depends on who is asking, the doctors and transplant nurses want to know the gory details of my bodily functions, fine, they like detail and need to know, but when I say I am really tired or my legs ache all the time, they don’t have an answer.  When family and friends ask, I feel it sometimes crosses too many boundaries to go into detail and there are many responses I could give and sometimes I just don’t know how I am. I am told by my medical team that I am doing really well but it certainly doesn’t feel like that. I think my best and most honest answer at the moment is I’m surviving.

“Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.”

― May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

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

Baby Steps to Day 100

Picking up from my last post, Hard Graft, I was discharged from what I hoped would be my final stay in hospital on May 7th, day 41 post transplant. I had started an extremely high dose of IV prednisolone, (a corticosteroid similar to Dexamethasone) and was sent home with tablets of 175 mg to try and get my acute skin graft versus host disease under control. Those who have read my post on Dexamethasone, will know that I don’t get on with steroids, having very little of the highs and all of the lows. Although Prednisolone is less harsh than Dex, I soon started experiencing some of the side effects of these steroids such as insomnia which combined with the fatigue I was already experiencing made me feel very wiped out.

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This was me, Day 43 + transplant when I managed a steroid assisted 20 min walk, baby steps!

Still I did get some of the manic energy that steroids can give you, for me it was being slightly hyper, careless, rushing around, thinking that I’m capable of doing anything, being implusive. I’ve certainly had some incidents which I attribute to being on steroids such as:-

– Breaking my favorite bowls when I was rushing to put them in the cupboard

– Rushing to get back to the car as the time limit for parking was up and falling over just before I get there spilling my shopping.  A kind young woman cyclist stopped and helped me up, gathering my shopping together. no harm done just grazes and bruises.

– Making impulsive purchases without doing sufficient research such as an expensive swing seat for the garden which I saw online which turned out to be totally unsuitable.

– Slicing a banana to put into my porridge but putting it into the cup of tea I was making and the teabag into the porridge!

– Putting my newly acquired electric kettle on the gas hob to heat up.

– More seriously, a fall when I hit my face on the edge of a wheelbarrow when I was rushing up a step from the garden. Fortunately I had no more than cuts and grazes and a bruised upper lip.

– Scraping my car along the metal gate when I was parking it in the driveway, again rushing, an error of judgement, trying to cut corners.

After a couple of weeks of being on steroids, I developed the usual side effects, such as a puffy round face and a double chin, steroid induced diabetes, redistribution of body fat to the stomach and back. After another couple of weeks muscle wasting began to occur in my arms, legs and buttocks. I was also extremely shaky especially my hands, legs and my voice. I looked, sounded and felt like a nervous wreck. A couple of weeks after that, the shaking combined with the progressive muscle wasting and lack of strength in my legs meant I was also having difficulty walking. I started using a walking stick for stability but could not go far, getting up the stairs and moving from standing to sitting was hard.

Mood wise, I was irritable, short tempered and depressed, not really wanting to see anyone. I was also extremely anxious, worrying about everything from whether the transplant would work, whether I would die, whether the infections I had would turn into something more life threatening.

What I described in my post on dexamethasone is exactly the same as my experience on prednisolone.

I am depressed, tired and shaky, mentally and physically, I am easily irritated by myself and others, restless and edgy. Nothing I do or say feels right but I don’t know what would feel right. I find it difficult to be with people because I feel socially inept and lacking in confidence. My voice is gruff (another side effect) and my hearing slightly dulled so there is a real sense of being disconnected. I note I referred to feeling disconnected in my last post as well, Nothing to say and wonder if that was the dex effect too without me realising it?

As my skin rash was clearing up the prednislone dose started reducing by 25mg weekly and a little more slowly when I got to below 50mg. By Day 97 the 2nd July, I was on 15mg but was still suffering from shakiness and walking problems however I was sleeping better at night which was a big relief

For someone meant to be resting and in recovery my days were busy with applying numerous creams for the skin rashes, taking the medication, attending clinic twice weekly to start with and then weekly, having visitors.  The days shortened and  the health chores or a hospital appointment would be a full days activity with the rest of the day for resting. I had a day and night on call rota of friends in May to help with shopping, lifts and anything else I needed which was great. But in June started the walking difficulties as well.  After the initial flurry of calls,  visitors and offers of help when I came out of hospital died down, I felt quite lonely and forgotten about. People think if y0u’re out of hospital you must be better but all it means after a stem cell transplant is that your neutrophils are above 1 and are stable so you are no longer neutropenic. The hard slog of recovering from an allogeneic transplant  goes on for 6 to 12 months. I was also fairly incommnicado as well due to the steroid effect. I watched a lot of tennis lying on the couch in the afternoon, the French Open, Queens and Wimbledon, what a godsend!

In early July I took my first trip away from the safety net of my own home and went by train to visit my parents for a few days. The train journey from Manchester to Hereford is a pleasant one and for the first time in a good few months I saw proper countryside from the train window, fields of yellow and green, big skies and the rolling Shropshire hills. I felt happy and a little lighter in my heart.

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The trip was a good one and miraculously the shakiness disappeared as did the anxiety. Maybe they fuelled each other? I was able to write, type, do up buttons, use a knife and fork properly, hold a glass or a cup and lots of other useful things that we take for granted . It was day 100 post transplant on Sunday 5th July and we celebrated this milestone with a bottle of prosecco although I couldn’t drink any because it tasted disgusting as my sense of taste has been affected by the chemotherapy.

Day 100 is a small milestone in the life of a post allogeneic transplant patient because its the day when symptoms of  GHVD are no longer considered to be acute and any symptoms that start after that are considered chronic. I also had a bone marrow biopsy to determine the level of abnormal cells in my bone marrow on day 97 to see how the transplant was working on the myeloma. I think that the first 100 days have the highest risk of transplant related mortality so I was relieved to have passed that point. By Day 100 I’d had two chimerism tests which showed I was 100% the donor’s blood cells.

This means that I have 100% bone marrow and consequently blood cells of one of the cord bloods. It turned out to be the Australian male cord blood that won over the UK female one. So am I an aussie! Not exactly as whilst my blood is, the rest of my body is still me so I would have different DNA results depending on whether the DNA test was taken from my blood or say my hair (if I had any!). This is good, the other outcomes could be no chimerism or mixed chimerism. Whilst it is a good sign, it does not necessarily mean that the my new new blood cells are recognising my myeloma as foreign and so attacking them and so with some apprehension I awaited the results of the bone marrow biopsy.

More on that in my next update to follow shortly, sorry about the cliffhanger!

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Hard Graft

It has been a long time since my last post, Baby Talk Part Two,, 4 months in fact which was just before I was about to go into hospital for my cord blood transplant. Since then, I have not really felt like writing a post due to a combination of depression and fatigue, nor at times have I been physically able to do so. So much has happened in these 4 months that if I wrote about it in one post it would be far too long and boring, even I will concede that! So I will break down the updates into mile stones starting with my time in hospital and then do some further updates very shortly, except to say I’m still here and doing reasonably well day 111 post transplant!

My time in hospital was extremely tough going both mentally and physically, far tougher than I had anticipated.  When I signed the consent forms and was told that I would spend 4 to 6 weeks in hospital, what the side effects were and complications that might arise, it didn’t really sink in what the reality would be, how could it? I was admitted on Friday 20 March as planned and started my chemotherapy conditioning regime the same day, that was day -6, more chemo days -5 to -2 and then off to Christie’s by taxi on day -1 for total body irradiation. During that short trip I had my only glimpse of the outside world, the sky, the fruiting trees in Whitworth Park and Platt Fields park brimming with pink and white blossom in their full frothy glory. And that was really all I saw of the lovely spring we had as my room did not have an outside view, as you can see. I had those self pitying thoughts that creep up on me occasionally about why me, life’s not fair, why can’t I be like those people walking in the park, enjoying the sunshine, NORMAL HEALTHY PEOPLE!

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The purpose of the chemo and the radiation I had was to wipe out my bone marrow so it wouldn’t reject the new cord blood stem cells. On the 26th March I received cord blood stem cells from an Australian male and the other from a UK female by two simple injections into my Hickman line, one of them would hopefully eventually replace my immune system. No big deal in terms of the actual procedure but a huge deal in terms of the consequences.

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Now it was a question of waiting for my neutrophils to go to zero which would mean my bone marrow had been wiped out and the cord blood stem cells to engraft which I was told could take around 3 weeks during which time I would need to remain in hospital because I would be neutropenic and at high risk of infection. The first week passed fairly quickly as there was a lot going on and I wasn’t feeling any side effects from the chemo yet. I had quite a few visitors, tried to stay active within the confines of my room and was given antibiotics for a low temperature which the docs said could be a sign of infection as much as a high temperature. No infection was identified which is quite usual but antibiotics are given at the slightest whiff of infection as a precautionary measure.

The next 10 to 11 days  the side effects kicked in, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, fatigue, boredom, lack of appetite (especially with the disgusting hospital food on offer). I couldn’t concentrate on anything due to fatigue but I couldn’t sleep during the day due to the constant interruptions of nursing and support staff entering the room.  I also got a skin rash on my body which the docs seemed to think might be graft versus host disease (when the donor’s immune system attacks the recipients body). I was on drips all the time for this or that and occasionally oxygen because of low saturation levels. It was much harder than I imagined and harder than the two previous transplants I had using my own stem cells. I felt extremely low and started to question whether I had made the right decision although it was clearly too late to change my mind. I wondered how I was going to cope mentally with another couple of weeks in hospital. I couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed most of the time or watch all those TV box sets I had brought in with me or have visitors.  Looking back now it all seems like a horrible blur. My concept of time altered and time as I knew it didn’t exist. The days were long and passed slowly blending into the nights but the weeks were short. Time to me was defined by the daily routine of being in hospital, the regular observations, my bloods being taken, the cleaning staff coming in to their jobs, the tea trolley rounds, meal times, doctors visits, medication times and visiting times.

Then on day 15 post transplant after three weeks in hospital, a ward doctor told me I could go home as my neutrophils were more than one so I wasn’t neutropenic and the cord blood stem cells had engrafted. I was somewhat surprised as my consultant who was on holiday that week had said I would take around 3 weeks for engraftment and she would see me next week. Anyway I wasn’t going to argue and  feeling pleased to be going home off I eventually went with my mum and my sister. The next day following a high temperature during the night I was admitted via the day unit to a different general medical ward having lost my room on the haematology ward and pumped full of antibiotics for a suspected infection which was never identified. I was also neutropenic again. I felt frustrated that I had clearly been discharged too soon and was back in unprepared for a further stay in hospital. After a night or maybe two a room was found for me on Ward 44 where I remained  for a further week and two days until my temperature stabilised and I was no longer neutropenic. During this time I received a platelet top up and suffered anaphylactic shock, a severe reaction to the platelets which caused a rapid swelling of the throat and puffy itchy face and eyes. I pressed the buzzer and the young nurse that was looking after me eventually came and didn’t seem to know what to do when I told her what was going on. She told the support assistant to take my blood pressure, saying she would have to get my drug chart which was downstairs. I told her to get the doctor urgently as I could hardly breathe due to the swelling in my throat and a couple of minutes later the doctor came along with several other nurses.  I can’t remember what I was given other than oxygen but I gradually improved. I found this very scary as I could see from the look on the doctor’s face that she was worried. Ironic that my life threatening experience was not caused by the transplant procedure but by a routine platelets top up!

Finally home on 19 April I began the routine of twice weekly clinic appointments to check my bloods etc. I had another allergic reaction to platelets in the day unit even though I had been given what is called cover as a prophylactic to prevent this though it was dealt with much more quickly this time. Fortunately I have not needed anymore since then. I was weak and tired during this time, slept a lot and struggled to eat due to lack of appetite and feeling sick all the time. I felt depressed and anxious, and didn’t feel ready to have any visitors other than my parents who were staying to look after me.

Two weeks later I was off to hospital again in the middle of the night via A&E with a high temperature, diarrhoea and pain in my kidneys. I was pumped full of IV antibiotics, put on a saline drip and admitted to the acute medical unit. The temperature settled but then my consultant became quite concerned about the skin rash over my legs, arms and torso which was getting worse. She said it was definitely acute skin GVHD. I had to stay in another couple of days to have high dose IV Prednisolone, a corticosteroid similar to Dexamethasone which I have mentioned many times on this blog and not in a good way!

I was discharged 6 days later on May 7th, general election day in the UK, got home about 9pm and then went straight to the polling station to vote, not that it made any difference to the outcome.  After a total of 5 weeks in hospital began the long process of recovery. I was told that the new stem cells had engrafted and I had 30% donor cells which was an excellent start so soon after the transplant, but it was a bloody hard graft!

 

 

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And finally, my second stem cell transplant….

My second autologous stem cell transplant happened at last on Friday 7 November. This procedure has been looming like a pirate ship bobbing up and down on the horizon since my light chains started increasing in January 2013. It was there in the distance but I suppose it was only when Velcade stopped working in around July this year that the pirate ship came closer to shore. It was cancelled in September because my bone marrow biopsy showed the presence of around 10 to 15% abnormal cells so I had one round of VDR Pace which I described in my last post. It was re-scheduled for 12 November, about three weeks after the VDR Pace finished but was brought forward when it was found out that my light chains hadn’t gone down after the VDR Pace but had in fact gone up a bit, much to my disappointment.  The aim was to admit me on 3 November but then as there was no bed available I ended up having the chemotherapy as an outpatient on Thursday 6th November and was treated as an outpatient for the first 5 days. I found the chopping and changing about very frustrating but somehow seemed to remain fairly calm about it, accepting that there wasn’t much I could do that would have any effect on the situation.

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Anyway I’ve had “it” now and am day 44 post transplant so long is it since my last post! As I didn’t start my blog until after my first transplant, I want to explain in a bit more hopefully non technical detail about what is involved. To call it a transplant is slightly misleading as really it is a massive dose of a chemotherapy agent called Melphalan which is a form of mustard gas coincidentally. I had this on what is called “Day – 1” as an outpatient. It was administered as an infusion over 20 minutes or so into my PICC line but prior to this and afterwards I was given lots of fluids through a drip as well. I started around 2pm and was finished by 9pm. I was tired but otherwise ok.

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The selfie is of me having the Melphalan whilst sucking an ice lolly. It is thought that sucking ice so the mouth is numb whilst you are having the chemo can help avoid reduce or avoid mucositis (a sore ulcerated month caused by chemotherapy). I had about 5 ice lollys and don’t want another ice lolly in my life again! I compared VDR Pace as being equivalent to a Zombie Cocktail in my last post because it is a mixture of a number of different cytotoxic agents. I would say Melphalan is the equivalent  of absinthe, the strongest alcohol that can be legally bought. The dose administered was enough to destroy my bone marrow so it can’t make any blood cells and I would die!

This is where the transplant part comes into play. Stem cells to the rescue! The day after the melphalan, called Day Zero, I was given back my own stem cells via an infusion over about 10 to 15 minutes, no big deal and certainly not an operation as some people understandably think I had. My stem cells were collected in July 2011 prior to my first transplant via my peripheral bloodstream. There was enough for 3 or more transplants collected and the cells have been stored at some ridiculously low temperature.  The newly transplanted cells are there to replace my body’s source of blood cells after the bone marrow and its stem cells are destroyed by the melphalan.  More like a rescue operation assisted by daily injections which promote the growth of white blood cells given around day 7.  Waiting for the new stem cells to engraft is the worst phase of the procedure and I was neutropenic, meaning I had no white blood cells or neutrophils which are the cells that fight infection.

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In the photo above kindly taken by the lab technician that brought the stem cells over to the ward, the bag of reddish coloured fluid is my stem cells, they went in over about 10 to 15 mins, no big deal. I felt fine. Afterwards I went to the cinema! I was told to come back for a planned admission 4 days later. Over the weekend I felt reasonably ok with my parents staying to keep an eye on me, but by Tuesday, Day 4, I was feeling quite weak and nauseous and was ready to go into hospital. I then spent the next 9 nights in hospital in an isolation room whilst my neutrophils went to zero and was allowed home on Day 13 when they had risen above 1. I got off fairly lightly as some people are in hospital for 3 to 4 weeks.

The incarceration was unpleasant but bearable and actually the time passed reasonably quickly. I watched a lot of TV, listened to the radio, went online and managed some light reading in between trying to sleep and spending time on the phone! I had a few visitors too. I was lucky enough not to get any infections. Coming out was great but in some ways felt scary because the recovery process was only just beginning and I was on my own now without the medical attention and care that I had in hospital. I didn’t miss the constant stream of staff coming into my room though!

The chart below is a really good description of the different phases to the stem cell transplant for those of you who don’t know. At Day 44 I am now in phase 4 or early convalescence. I have had nothing but a common cold in terms of infection which is still the greatest risk I face and my energy levels are returning with me able to do more and rest less as time goes on and my blood counts gradually return to normal.

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What the medics don’t really talk about is the emotional effect of having a stem cell transplant. It is quite common to feel depressed as I did after my first stem cell transplant. After diagnosis, the whole emphasis of the treatment was focused on undergoing a stem cell transplant so everything that happens is a build up to that point. After it happened, it was like now what? I had a sense of anti climax combined with physical weakness. I felt abandoned by my medical team as appointments become less frequent and suffered a loss of confidence which took a while to come back. On top of that I suffered from anxiety about when my myeloma would come back as it does.

But so far after my second transplant I don’t feel depressed, maybe because I know, having experienced relapse,  that this is not the end goal, the holy grail that I was hoping for the first time around and I have less expectations about remission and my light chains being in normal range. I’d like to think that maybe I have learnt the importance of living in the present. I have made a substantial recovery much more quickly than the first time around as well and have already realised that I don’t want to defer doing things until after I have recovered if I feel well enough to do them now. Although I am aware that I need to be careful not to overdo it, avoid crowded places, follow a clean diet, blah,blah blah!

This was going to be a fairly jubilant post about how well I feel so soon after the transplant but it is tempered by the fact that I found out recently that a friend with myeloma died a few months ago whilst having his second stem cell transplant in hospital. He had a wealth of knowledge about myeloma which he was happy to share with me along with a mutual love of tennis.  Another online friend with whom I was in regular contact died shortly after her second stem cell transplant, her body just couldn’t take anymore. She was an artist, photographer and a teacher. A third online friend and fellow blogger who relapsed around the same time as me also died a couple of months ago. They were of a similar age to me and were diagnosed around the same time. This is the sad reality of our situation, I hang out with people for whom death is circling around, not knowing when it will close in, until it does we must try to live with death and to live as well as we can. I am not just talking about people like myself living with a substantial life shortening illness although we have a greater sense of awareness of our own mortality, I am talking about all of us.

So farewell Martin, Eva and Carole.

“While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die”. ~Leonardo Da Vinci

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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!

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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!

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Dexamethasone: the good, the bad and the ugly

I have a hate/hate relationship with Dexamethasone, but I have to acknowledge that it has knocked my light chains down all on its own prior to starting treatment  and whether I like it or not, it is part of my treatment and I have to get on with it. This is about my relationship with Dex.

The Good Stuff

Dexamethasone is a corticosteroid seemingly used in all treatment combinations for myeloma and sometimes on its own, in fact Dexamethasone, given in high doses, is the most active single agent for the treatment of myeloma.  I find this quite astonishing given the development of the many new drugs over recent years.  Dex also increases the ability of chemotherapeutic agents to destroy myeloma cells as well as helping reduce inflammation and allergic reactions to chemotherapy. Quite why or how it is so effective in the treatment of myeloma nobody seems to know.  It appears to cause programmed cell death, also known as apoptosis and can trigger the destruction of myeloma cells.  So that is really good.  I know this absolutely as before I started treatment waiting for the trial to start I was given two 4 day courses of Dex with about a month in between to try and keep the myeloma under control. Before I started the second course my light chains had gone sky high to 6400 but a couple of weeks later they had dropped to 2900.

However it does come with many strings attached in the form of side effects. The good ones for me are:-

1. More energy on the days I take them. I don’t take them everyday but on days 1,2,4,5,8,9,11 and 12 of my 21 day cycle, I take them on the day I have Velcade and the day after. Thanks to Dex, I have danced, stayed up later than usual, played tennis,  tidied up the garden for the winter and cooked dinner for friends.  Dex has helped overcome the fatigue caused by the chemotherapy. I am usually more upbeat and confident on dex days.

2. Erm, can’t think of anymore good things………

Although not a side effect, I quite like the fact that the tablets I take are supplied by Onyx (the trial sponsors) and the writing on the box is in German with a leaflet stuck  onto the box in many languages. The tablets are also quite pretty as they have a curvy criss cross pattern and they are 5mg per tablet whereas the UK standard ones are 2mg. My trial bloods are sent to a lab in France to be tested so I feel as if I am participating in some special stylish european project!

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The Bad

1. Insomnia and sleep disturbance. I am often wide awake at 3 or 4 in the morning, unable to get back to sleep but also unable to do anything useful with this time other than stressing about how I am going to get up for work in the morning.

2. Dex gives me an insatiable appetite for sugary junk food and this is precisely the kind of food that I shouldn’t be eating at the moment because I have steroid induced diabetes. Dex raises my blood sugar levels on the days I take it and I have to be careful what I eat ie cut out the sugary, refined foods which are what I crave.  I monitor my blood sugar levels with a testing kit although it has never been made clear to me what I should do if they are too high or what symptoms I might experience. The docs wanted to put me on Insulin but I said I would try and manage it through diet. However on the days I don’t take dex, I eat plenty of cake and anything else I can find in the cupboard or the fridge.

3. Following on from the above, not surprisingly is weight gain, can’t sleep, have something to eat, crave food, raid the fridge etc etc, I can still find plenty of non sugary junk food to eat. Weight gain is pretty common on steroids, unfortunately corticosteroids are not the type of steroids which can turn fat into muscle, I think those are anabolic steroids.

4. Muscle wasting,  I have gone from a fit triathlon competitor to a soggy shape in the space of a few months. Oh how the mighty have fallen!

5. On from the above, I wish I could channel the energy that dex gives into doing some exercise but unfortunately another side effect that I experience is heavy legs, they sometimes feel like they are filled with concrete which of course makes it difficult to run, walk or do anything much.

6. Slightly blurred vision, like my glasses always need cleaning.

7. Hirsutism and thinning of hair on the scalp.  I have more facial hair and a faint moustache but my hair is thinning on my scalp. Not very attractive!

8. Red round face, often called a moon face, the classic sign of taking steroids. People on steroids should have their own Moonies cult!

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Whilst googling images of a moon face, I came across this image below about Cushings Syndrome which is a hormonal disorder caused by prolonged exposure of the body’s tissues to high levels of the hormone cortisol. Long term use of dexamethasone can lead to Cushings Syndrome and it appears that I already have quite a few of the symptoms!

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What I experience above is awful but I can put up with having a moon face (with a moustache), being overweight and exhausted in the knowledge that Dex is helping my treatment work and when I stop taking it these symptoms will eventually disappear.  In the meantime I can work on my vanity issues!

The Ugly

This is much harder to deal with.  The ugly happens more when I am withdrawing from dex especially in week 3 of my cycle.  My consultant wrote on the consent form that I signed before starting treatment that it caused “emotional lability”, the medical definition of which is “a condition of excessive emotional reactions and frequent mood changes”.

I guess that sums up my experience in a clinical way although my mood doesn’t alter much between low and high, more like low and really low. I am depressed, tired and shaky, mentally and physically,  I am easily irritated by myself and others, restless and edgy.  Nothing I do or say feels right but I don’t know  what would feel right.  I find it difficult to be with people because I feel socially inept and lacking in confidence.  My voice is gruff (another side effect) and my hearing slightly dulled so there is a real sense of being disconnected.  I note I referred to feeling disconnected in my last post as well, Nothing to say and wonder if that was the dex effect too without me realising it?

I have to keep reminding myself that what I am experiencing is a purely chemical reaction in my body to the lack of the steroid it has become accustomed to and that once I stop taking it eventually I will return to my “normal” state of mind. Not sure what that is these days as this year so far has been full of emotional turbulence. Whatever it is, I look forward to finding out, who wants to be normal anyway!

“It may be normal, darling; but I’d rather be natural.”
― Truman CapoteBreakfast at Tiffany’s

 

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The Great Manchester 10k Run

I wanted to post about doing the Manchester 10k run on 20th May before now but a holiday to the Italian Lakes and Switzerland (yes another!) got in the way.

Well I did it, it was bloody hard going though and I felt a tremendous sense of achievement – I wrote an account for publication on the Myeloma UK website/newsletter which will no doubt be heavily edited but what follows is what I wrote

The Bupa Great Manchester 10k Run 2012

I first did the Great Manchester 10k Run in 2009 when I was fit and well. On that occasion I raised money for Mind, a mental health charity, after a close friend of mine took her own life after struggling with mental illness. I found that the training in the wind and rain helped me come to terms with my friend’s death and I ran it in 68 minutes and really enjoyed the day and the physical challenge. I decided to enter again in 2010 but a combination of an injury and lack of motivation caused me to pull out and defer my place to 2011.

However in December 2010 I got diagnosed with multiple myeloma following emergency admission into hospital for kidney failure. Prior to that I had been feeling tired and had achey legs but my kidneys had deteriorated within a space of a week to 10 to 15% of normal function. I started treatment on 29 December 2010 on cyclosphamide, dexamethasone and thalidomide initially as part of the Myeloma X1 trial. After 1.5 cycles I had to stop taking thalidomide and come off the trial due to allergic reactions and too many side effects. I then started PAD and had two cycles of that which brought me into remission followed by a stem cell transplant on 1 September 2011.

The May 2011 10k had passed me by as I was in the midst of treatment and in no fit state to train for a run either mentally or physically but I did manage to celebrate my 50th birthday also in May.

I recovered fairly quickly after my stem cell transplant with about 14 days in hospital and then about 6 weeks of resting and walking a little more each day. A couple of months later I was sent the details of the Great Manchester run in May 2012 and thought, what the heck, I am going to enter this so I registered. My bone marrow biopsy after 3 months showed less than 5% abnormal cells and I was told I was in very good partial remission. I tramped around London, Dublin, Alicante on weekend breaks and got fitter and more active.

Training in earnest didnt really start till February 2012. I followed the same training plan as I did in 2009 starting with 20 minutes walk/run around 3 times a week and building up a little each week. I did find it a struggle at times and initially would come in from the run, go upstairs to shower and change and then find myself lying down for an hour as I felt so tired! But over the next couple of months my fitness levels improved and I didnt feel so tired afterwards.

After I was diagnosed with myeloma and during treatment which was tough going I got quite depressed and nearly threw out all my sports gear. Prior to being diagnosed I loved playing tennis, squash and did the odd run now and then. I thought that I would never do these things again even in remission as  these are high impact activities and as myeloma weakens the bones, I didnt think that it would  be possible. Instead I considered walking and more gentle activities such as yoga and tai chi. However my consultant told me that I could do what I liked providing I build up gently as my bones were as strong as anybody elses and my skeletal xrays had been normal.

As the day got nearer and I created my Justgiving page, received my Myeloma UK vest and fundraising pack and people started to sponsor me I realised it was actually going to happen and despite people telling me to take it easy my naturally competitive self wanted to do the best I could but I did find the training hard going. The final practice run was the Sunday before when I did 45 minutes but my pace was slow and laboured. I wondered whether I was taking on too much but was determined to do it even if I had to crawl round.

My parents were coming for the weekend to cheer me on and had also raised quite alot of money from their friends so the pressure was on! My wave started at 12.10 and as I walked through the crowds with my parents to find a suitable spot for them to cheer me on and then walked alone to the starting point and lined up with the other runners to warm up and then listen to an opera singer whose name I have forgotten singing You Raise Me Up, I felt very emotional thinking about what I had been through, what I was about to do and the fact that I never thought I would be able to do this again. I felt happy to be there and enjoyed and savoured the atmosphere of participating in a run involving 40,000 runners all running for charities that meant something to them.

Then the gun sounded and Bobby Charlton and other celebs waved us on from the podium and as I ran down Chepstow St I managed a smile and a wave to my parents and then began the hard slog round the course. When I got to the 4k mark I was surprised I had only done 4k and there was so much more to go but kept going. I got some advice from my boss last time I did it which was never stop and walk otherwise you wont be able to get going again. I stuck to that in 2009 and stuck to it in 2012 even though my jog was at a snails pace at times, it was a jog and not a walk. I kept going past the Old Trafford Football ground, home of my beloved football team and back down Chester Rd bolstered by the support from the crowd. I had my name above my race number and it was really good to hear people shouting come on Wendy!

On approaching the finish line back in the City centre on Deansgate, the crowds got denser and noisier which spurred me on and I managed a slight increase in pace and to feebly raise my arms as I got to the finish line!  Participants are told to keep moving so you dont clog up the runners coming in behind you and then I handed in the microchip which I had attached to one of my trainers so that my time could be recorded and then texted to me later.

I was delighted and relieved to have completed the run but my next task was finding my parents who werent at our agreed meeting place. I had given them my phone, purse and clothes to look after so had no means of contacting them, no money and no clothes to change into!

I had also arranged to meet some other runners who were raising money for Myeloma UK at a pub later.  It was good to see their Myeloma UK orange running vests as I hadnt seen anyone with a Myeloma UK vest along the way. Eventually I was reunited with my parents at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant for lunch and a celebratory drink after I had drank plenty of water of course. I dont know who was more exhausted, them from wandering around Manchester or me. When I got my phone back I found out from a text from BUPA that I had completed the run in 68 minutes, exactly the same time as in 2009. I was stunned and delighted as I didnt think that my pace had been as fast as 2009 and it was such a struggle getting round but it must have been all in my head!

By the time we got home we were all shattered and an early night was in order. Surprisingly although I was a little stiff I was able to walk the next day and set about the task of gathering in the sponsorship money. I was overwhelmed by the support I got from family and friends and their generosity. I was chuffed by my time and personal achievement and have raised £1000 for Myeloma UK. Would I do it again next year? Definitely!

Ps It is not too late to make a donation to Myeloma UK, check out my page at www.justgiving.com/wendyduffield

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