Tag Archives: holidays

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

Baby Talk Part One

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I haven’t updated my blog for a while as I dont know where to begin as usual. So much has happened since my post about my second stem cell transplant that I’ve not been able to step off the emotional (more so than the physical at the moment) roller coaster that is living with myeloma for a break.  I had hoped for a few months of not having to think so much about myeloma and the course of my disease, just a bit of time off for good behaviour!  Four months on and I have pretty much recovered from the physical effects of the transplant. I have a spotty face, dry eyes, occasional bouts of diarrhoea and usually wake up feeling like I have a hangover from hell!  I’ve been on two fantastic and completely opposite holidays, the first in Egypt exploring the underwater wonders of the Red Sea and then a few days later to Iceland exploring the land of ice and fire.

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The reason why I crammed these holidays in to such a short space of time will become apparent later on in this post.  That is the good news, the bad news is that a couple of months ago I found out that my stem cell transplant hasn’t had much effect on my light chains so it is unlikely that I’ll have much more time free of treatment.

The  further blow is that the boss here at the Manchester Royal Infirmary thinks I will be resistant to the next line of treatment, Revlimid, as it was one of several drugs in the VDR Pace regime that I had before my transplant to which I also didn’t respond. After Revlimid there is only one further new line of treatment currently available on the NHS called Pomalidamide and the boss didn’t seem to have a good view of that either. I asked her how long she thought I’d got, the answer was one to one and half years. I was completely shocked on two levels…….that my stem cell transplant hadn’t worked and that my disease may be resistant/refractory to Revlimid which I was saving for a rainy day. The timescale for living was sharply brought into focus and my awareness of my mortality became very real again in a flash. I am probably more conscious of this than most people I know because of living with an incurable life shortening disease where the chances of surviving more than 5 years from diagnosis are only 45% but even knowing this I have sometimes felt or even assumed somehow that I am going to live much longer. The failing aggressive treatments and multiple relapses have now provided a much needed reality check! Hence the holidays to Egypt and Iceland.

The purpose of the meeting with the boss whom I don’t normally see was to discuss a donor transplant, technically called an allogeneic transplant. This has been lurking in the background to my first and second transplants ie an auto followed by a donor transplant, usually within 4 to 6 months of the auto. Because it is tandem to the auto, it is called a reduced intensity allogeneic transplant (a RIC allo for short). The idea is that you get the high dose of Melphalan that I described in my post on the auto transplant and then your own stem cells back to rescue your bone marrow. This hopefully keeps the myeloma at bay whilst you have the donor transplant a few months later where the chemo given is generally less intense and designed to dampen down your immune system so the new donor cells can engraft and hopefully recognise the myeloma cells as foreign and attack them.

A RIC allo was suggested by the boss after my first transplant in 2011, it being offered to younger high risk patients like me as it may give a longer remission and in a small number of cases be potentially curative. Maybe about 10% of patients live for 10 years or more after an allogeneic transplant. At present in the myeloma field there is no other treatment that can be potentially curative in this way. Sounds great, why wouldn’t I have it? Because on the downside it carries a significant risk of transplant related mortality and chronic graft versus host disease which could severely affect my quality of life. The generally quoted figures for transplant related mortality for an auto are around 2/3 %, for a RIC allo it is more like 20% depending on exactly what type are having.  I agonised over the decision the first time around, should I take my chances and see how long I got from my auto, some people get years, or should I take the risk and go for it as it is best performed upon first response?  I bravely or foolishly decided to go for it only to later find out that there was only a 7/10 matched unrelated donor (my brother and sister weren’t a match either) so the RIC allo couldn’t go ahead and the plan was shelved until, if and when I had my second stem cell transplant in the hope that a suitable donor might have come on the register by then.

When I relapsed, the prospects seemed slightly better as I was told that there was a 9/10 match which might be a possibility.  My approach was to take it one step at a time, get through my treatment and my second stem cell transplant and then have another discussion with the boss. I did have a preliminary discussion with her before I started VDR Pace and she told me that upon further analysis the 9/10 match wasn’t ideal as there was a weight issue ie the donor weighed a lot less than me so I might not get enough stem cells for my body weight from her. I suggested I go on a diet but the boss didn’t think that was a good idea when recovering from my transplant! In any event there was a mismatch at an important level which meant there was a much greater risk of mortality from the transplant.  She suggested I might have a cord blood transplant as an alternative.

This is where umbilical cord blood is used as a source of donor stem cells taken from babies whose mothers who have kindly agreed to donate their baby’s umbilical cord. It is then typed, stored in a cord bank and registered with the Anthony Nolan Trust. There is less chance of a mismatch because the stem cells are immunologically naive. As an adult I would need two cords.

It has rarely been done in myeloma patients and there is very little to go on in terms of its effect on disease control in myeloma patients. The further disadvantage is that there is no possibility of a donor lymphocyte top up which is possible in the usual type of donor transplant to try and stimulate graft versus myeloma effect if a patient is showing signs of disease progression. At one point the boss said it would be experimental and she wasn’t sure that she would be willing to do it. We left it that I would get through my autologous stem cell transplant and decide after that and she would contact a Haematology boss at the City Hospital, Nottingham, a renowned transplant centre, whom she thought might have done some for myeloma. I also asked her to find out more about my tissue type as I was thinking about starting a more personalised Anthony Nolan campaign to try and find a match with the aim of getting more recruits to the register and wondered what my genetic background might be.

She found out that there had been two cord blood transplants carried out by the boss in Nottingham for myeloma patients, one was doing very well and the other not so well, so not very helpful but both were still alive! I did a trawl of the internet and found a study from France on the use of cord blood transplants in 17 relapsed myeloma patients which seemed to demonstrate a graft v myeloma effect and similar survival stats to RIC allo studies which she found encouraging. On that basis she said she would be prepared to do it. She also had a response from the tissue typing people at Anthony Nolan about my tissue type :-

“For Wendy’s HLA type, she has one half of her type which has been seen quite a lot in European populations – mainly from Eastern Europe, but it’s most common in Croatia, Poland& France (about 6-11%).

The other half of her type has never been reported in any known populations. There is something very similar (A antigen mismatched) in a few European populations (especially Germany/Netherlands).

New haplotypes arise by genetic crossing over, and it isn’t too unusual for HLA-A to be crossed over when a new embryo is created. My best guess is that somewhere in Wendy’s ancestry (and it’s not possible to know at which point) a new haplotype was created in this way, and that the descendents with this haplotype have not spread far enough yet to make it common. This is why it’s fairly easy for us to find a 9/10 match, but not a 10/10. Wendy’s HLA antigens are not desperately uncommon in themselves, it’s just that because the genes in the HLA complex are very tightly linked together, this particular combination aren’t usually found together.

Hope its not too confusing”

Wow, I’m annoyingly rare, a new haplotype, is half of me alien? A lot of this is way over my head but I finally knew there was no point in clinging on to the hope that if I waited a bit longer I might get a 10/10 match or even a suitable 9/10 match as there would always be a mismatch at a major level. So before I had my autologous transplant I knew my options afterwards were either going to be the experimental cord blood transplant or see how long I got from my second transplant and maybe have Revlimid maintenance. I tried to put this out of my head until I had the further meeting with the boss about two months after the transplant and concentrated on getting through it and living day to day.  If I thought about it too much it would spoil my determination to live in the present. And that is what I have to do. That is enough to take in in one post, Part 2 coming soon!

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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!

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SKOL!

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

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The Party’s Over

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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.

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Upping the ante

I haven’t posted a medical update for a while partly because there hasn’t been much to report and partly because I’ve been enjoying life and this fabulous hot summer we are having in the UK seems to find a way of taking up most of my free time. I have been away a lot, trips include to Somerset to visit family, Orgiva in Andalucia to visit a friend  and a visit to Otley to see the Tour de France Grand Depart and more recently a short break in the Manchester Royal Infirmary!

Some photo’s below although not of the MRI!

 

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So here goes. I have nearly completed the 14th cycle which is now a 5 weekly cycle with Velcade once a week for the first 4 weeks plus of course the dreaded Dex (steroids) which is a fairly low dose now and I have remained on the Onyx Endeavour trial (see my post Urine saves the Day) My last Velcade injection was yesterday. It is usually on Mondays but on Sunday night after a fun weekend in Nottingham visiting friends I had to go to A&E with a high temperature (39,2*), anything 38* or over is considered reportable plus I’d had diarrhoea and was feeling shivery. Damn nuisance. I arrived 10pm and eventually was given IV antibiotics and told I would be admitted. I lay on a hospital trolley in a hot room with bright lights and the sounds of other patients groaning and kicking off which wasn’t conducive to sleep.  At 4am I was admitted to a bed in a side room on the Acute Medical Unit, slightly better but not a minute’s peace with interruptions for observations, forms to be gone through,drips to be attended to and no pillow! Managed to doze till around 8.30am when I was brought some welcome tea and soggy toast. And then the usual wait to see the ward doctor and much later on a doctor from haematology. I persuaded the haematology doctor to discharge me with oral antibiotics  as my temperature was stable and I hadn’t had any diarrhoea for a while. He agreed on the basis that I said I would have some one with me that evening and would call haematology if my temperature went up again. Yes of course I said to both although a little vague on the former so I was eventually discharged early evening, phew!  An initial diagnosis was viral gastroenteritis.

I am much better for being at home and resting and the diarrhoea is on the way out!! These things happen when on treatment and any infections have to be taken seriously because of my lowered immune system but fortunately this is the first admission I’ve had in the 12 months since I started treatment and apart from the flu I’ve got off fairly lightly. However the love affair with velcade may be coming to an end soon as my kappa light chains have risen again out of normal range even on our lab tests (see my post not good not bad ). At my last clinic appointment on 27 June, it was agreed that I would have another 5 week cycle at an increased dose (from 1.0 to 1.3 so about 30%) but if that didn’t either keep my light chains in check or even better to decrease then I would proceed to an autologous stem cell transplant either without further treatment or with a more intensive cycle of chemotherapy depending on how high my numbers have risen and/or the results of a further bone marrow biopsy.

My next clinic appointment is tomorrow and I will find out the results of the light chain test I had done on Monday (this was after my 3rd Velcade injection). I feel surprisingly calm about finding out the results tomorrow which will determine the next stage of my journey. I realise that I may be leaving my readers on tenterhooks, a little taster of how I feel most of the time but the  waiting is nearly over and I promise to do another update shortly on the outcome!

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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!)

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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!

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

Viva Las Velcade!

This post is about the wonderful Velcade, the chemotherapy that I am on. If you want to know more about it you can click on the link.  I have started my 10th cycle of Velcade and Dexamathasone on the Endeavor trial, (very aptly named as it certainly feels like an endeavor!). My disease is stable and my kappa light chains in normal range since the end of the 5th cycle (see my post And on the sixth cycle). So good news, I’m still in remission!.

Hey, this warrants the inclusion of the dancing cat from an old post! I love the dancing cat but have some reluctance about putting him on again because  the post that I used it on to celebrate the fact that a previous test result that was sky high was erroneous but later on I learnt that it was right, the test that was wrong etc. I do hope that the dancing cat isn’t a bad omen.

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What the heck, lets throw in the ballerinas as well!

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I’ve been on continuous treatment for over 6 months now. I have become so used to this extraordinary way of living that it is not extraordinary to me anymore. I have attended the haematology day unit Mondays and Thursdays for the first two weeks of every cycle to receive a subcutaneous injection of Velcade (that makes 36 times). I leave work around lunchtime then go the day unit.  I sometimes have blood tests first and observations are always done. The Velcade comes out of the fridge having been ordered from pharmacy especially for me. The curtains are drawn around my chemo chair to give some privacy and I expose my bruised and battered stomach for the nurse to find a new site in which to inject the Velcade. She pinches some fat (of which fortunately there is plenty) between her fingers and injects the velcade over a period of around 10 seconds. It stings whilst it is going in and after I have had my observations done 15 minutes later I am free to go. The whole process generally takes around an hour but sometimes longer depending on how busy the day unit is.

I have never felt any immediate side effects and quite often go food shopping on my way home and or go for a run. I may feel tired later but that is counteracted by the steroids that I take on the day of and the day after treatment. A couple of days after the injection, the site starts to redden and bruise and gets extremely itchy and sore. I’ve been experimenting with different lotions and potions, aloe vera gel provides some relief. Other than fatigue which has lessened over time, I suffer from constipation and more recently aching calves. My legs feel like I have walked 10 miles but I have done nothing at all. This could be due to nerve damage caused by the Velcade, one of the main side effects of Velcade is peripheral neuorpathy but this is usually in the hands and feet. My consultant is keeping an eye on it.  The other side effects I experience are more to do with the steroids but as the dose has been reduced these have lessened.

Since my light chains went into normal range, the dose of Velcade and Dex has gradually been reduced to minimise the side effects. The previous 9 cycles involved 4 doses of velcade over a 21 day period, the 10th cycle is less dose intensive and involves 4 doses of velcade over a 35 day period. This is the lowest dose possible on the trial and the idea is for it to be more of a maintenance dose. I will have another stem cell transplant this year but I don’t know when. It rather depends on whether and how long my remission is maintained on the maintenance dose as at some point my disease will become resistant to it.  I never know what will happen from cycle to cycle or how many more cycles I will have and neither does my consultant, we just review matters at my clinic appointment at the end of each cycle. I have got used to living with uncertainty like this but it is tiresome to explain to others in the normal world.

When I finally started chemotherapy last August I assumed that my life would be on hold, that the side effects would be too great to really do much and that I would wait until after treatment to recommence my life but although the first couple of cycles were a bit rough, things have got better.  I suppose my body has got used to Velcade and the reduced dose of steroids has really eased the low mood I talked of in dexamethasone the good the bad and the ugly. Life is too precious to ever be on hold, even on bad days, it is for living now to the best of my ability, whether on chemotherapy, in remission (or both) or even when relapsing.  It is almost impossible to make any plans but in my week off treatment at the end of each cycle, I have taken trips to Majorca, Cornwall, Barcelona, Somerset, London and Lanzarote (yes that was where the photographs were taken in my last post, Keep your chin up).  I’ve also been working (to pay for all these breaks!), playing tennis, walking, getting back into running,  and in a couple of weeks time I’ll be dog sledding in Finnish Lapland!

And so I have my extraordinary routine which I have incorporated into my fairly ordinary life.

Viva Las Velcade!

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Taken in El Golfo, Lanzarote

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

Why I won’t be getting run over by a bus any time soon!

How many times have I heard that I could get run over by a bus any time or other such platitudes about how none of us know when our number is up when I talk about my life shortening diagnosis.  I know it is partly because people don’t know what to say and yes it is true there is a very remote chance I could get run over by a bus…………..

About 2 in 1000000000 to be precise

I think it is far far more likely that I will die of a Myeloma related cause, in fact I would gamble my life on it!

I love this video, I don’t know why it makes me laugh so much, Jesus is being so positive and upbeat singing I will survive and then what happens…I won’t spoil the ending!

I know of 5 people between the age of 35 and 60 with Myeloma who have died recently. Three through the online myeloma community and two others in the public eye, Felix Dexter who was on the comedy show, The Real McCoy a while back and a biochemist, Professor Michael Neuberger who ironically was involved in life saving work on the immune system.

Over time I have become less affected by hearing of deaths of people I know of caused by Myeloma than I used to be.  In an oldish post In a Clod  I expressed how I felt about the death of “Outdoor Paul”. Such untimely deaths always serve to remind me that this is likely to be my fate too at some point sooner than most people of my age and whilst some will say in an attempt to blunt this fact that any of us could get run over by a bus any time, I find that cliche very annoying. I know it is meant to convey the point that although death is a certainty none of us know when it is going to happen or how but saying that takes away from the most profound effect that the knowledge of my likely early death has on my life. It degrades my experience.

Having a life shortening illness is something I have to deal with but for those don’t have their awareness of their demise in quite as much focus as I do, it is hard to talk about.  I nearly got caught out myself when I was having lunch with a myeloma mate recently and he referred to an event that would happen when he was 58 (6 years time) and then remarked that he would probably be dead by then so he wouldn’t see it happen.  I was initially shocked and the words “oh you won’t be” were nearly out of my mouth before I shut it and changed it to something like I hope you won’t be.

And I hope I won’t be too but I’ve had to adjust and accept that this might be the case. In some ways there is a liberating element to having a life shortening illness.  For example, I have

– cancelled payments into the pathetic personal pension I had

– ceased caring about how I am going to support myself financially in old age

– stopped fearing death and that I might be extremely old, out of my mind, lonely and a burden on others

– stopped shelving plans and dreams of what I am going to do when I retire, and am DOING THEM NOW, as far as possible.

Oh yes, I am living the dream (said with more than a touch of irony and a little bitterness if I am honest)!

I am pretty sure of what I am going to die of and roughly how long I have got but for those that don’t, here is another classic song from the old maestro Leonard Cohen to give you some food for thought. This post is really just an excuse to play another song by him. I am a just a little obsessed at the moment!

And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
And who by avalanche, who by powder,
Who for his greed, who for his hunger,
And who shall I say is calling?And who by brave assent, who by accident,
Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
Who in mortal chains, who in power,
And who shall I say is calling?

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Filed under Cancer, Health, Life and death, Multiple Myeloma, Myeloma, Uncategorized