Tag Archives: Post stem cell transplant

I’ve gone viral!

Since my cord blood transplant I have been beset by one viral infection after another and sometimes two at the same time.  Apparently it is more common with cord blood transplants because the stem cells are immunologically naive, more so than their adult counterparts they have no antibodies or immunity imprint.

The main culprits have been parainfluenza type 3, adenovirus and rhinovirus (click on the links if you want to know more). Whilst my symptoms have not been much worse than a cough and a cold, these viruses, particularly adenovirus can be life threatening in immune suppressed patients after an allo transplant. This virus has been with me more or less since my transplant, sometimes when I am tested it has gone but then it comes back again. It means that when I attend clinic appointments or the day unit, I have to wear a mask as an infection control measure and sit in a separate waiting area on my own or with other patients with masks on too which is annoying as I can’t catch up with my transplant mates and my glasses get steamed up. It feels a bit lonely and isolating.

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Initially I regarded having these viruses as a nuisance which they still are but I have come to realise that they could have serious consequences for me. I almost scared myself to death reading the following about adenovirus:-

“Viral infections may be associated with high morbidity and mortality in patients undergoing allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (allo-HCT)1–3. Common viral infections after allo-HCT include those due to cytomegalovirus (CMV), Epstein-Barr virus, herpes simplex virus and varicella zoster virus. Other viruses, such as adenovirus, parainfluenza, respiratory syncytial virus, influenza, coxsackievirus, and rotavirus, are less common among allo-HCT recipients. However, adenoviral infection (AI) has been reported to be associated with significant morbidity and mortality in these severely immunocompromised patients.

Adenovirus is a double-stranded DNA virus that was first isolated in 1953 in a human adenoid tissue-derived cell culture. It has approximately 100 serotypes, at least 51 of which are known to infect humans 16. Infection occurs throughout the year but is most common from fall to spring. This virus can be transmitted by inhalation, inoculation into the conjunctival sacs, and probably the fecal-oral route. AI manifests as a number of clinical syndromes, including rhinitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, conjunctivitis, enteritis, hemorrhagic cystitis, and meningoencephalitis.”

(Extract from an article in the Bone Marrow Transplant Journal 2013 entitled “Adenoviral infections in adult allogeneic hematopoietic SCT recipients: a single centre experience” )

 

I’ve noticed now that persistent URTI’s (Upper Respiratory Tract Infections) as well as hypertension (high blood pressure) are listed as my co-morbidities in the letters from my consultant to my GP.

To try and boost my immune system to fight against these viral infections I have been having monthly infusions of immunoglobulins which having had 4 now don’t seem to be doing much good. I have also been on antibiotics most of the time which are really only of prophylactic effect since they don’t work on viral infections.

A few weeks ago on a Friday I was in the Haematology day unit for some reason I can’t now recall since I am there so often, when my lovely transplant nurse, Nijole, sprung on me the news that the boss wanted me to start a treatment called Cidofovir, to try and tackle the adenovirus. This was to start on Monday and would be administered 3 times a week taking around 4 hours to administer by infusion with fluids. I could feel tears start to well up and Nijole asked what was upsetting me. Between sobs I told her that on Monday I was starting the first lesson of the Spanish class that I had enrolled on so it meant I would have to miss it. What a baby! But what it represented to me was a step into the normal world, doing something other than being ill, recovering from my transplant and going to hospital. Nijole said we would work round it and I could have the treatment after the class had finished so I did go but the level was a bit too advanced for me so I have been bumped down to a another class on a Thursday afternoon after all that fuss!

And so I started this gruelling regime of antiviral treatment the following Monday which has been hard going. Early starts to get to the hospital in the morning following nights disturbed by coughing fits, my body wanted to lie in. On the days in between the treatment, I felt wiped out and nauseous. I had wrongly assumed it would just be for a week but then found out it would continue for 3/4 weeks.  It felt like going to work which incidentally it is just over a year since I gave up. No regrets about that, but on the other hand there’s not been much opportunity to actually miss it as pretty much since then I have had VDR pace, my second autologous transplant and my cord blood transplant. In all probability I would have been on the sick for the last year and there has barely been a day when I would have been capable of going to work. I don’t miss it but do miss my colleagues.

During the three weeks of Cidofovir stuck to a drip in the day unit, I inevitably encountered other patients with blood cancer also having treatment and chatted to some of them.  Sometimes it was a good way of passing the time but sometimes it was just depressing and I wished I’d kept my head down reading a book. There were post allo patients being treated for severe and various forms of GVHD  a couple of years or more on from their transplants which was scary. Some were very poorly.  I had to remind myself that the well ones wouldn’t be in the day unit requiring treatment. I felt quite wretched during this period especially when I found out afterwards that I still had adenovirus so the treatment had no effect and also had rhinovirus again. To add to the grimness, I also attended the funeral of a fellow myeloma patient at the MRI whom I had come to know quite well during the last couple of years. Of similar age and diagnosed at around the same time as me Jane had a donor transplant in 2012, enjoyed some remission and made the most of it but upon relapse her myeloma eventually stopped responding to treatment and took over. Her funeral was inevitably sad but a moving celebration of her life and what came across to me was that she didn’t let her illness stand in the way of doing the things she felt strongly about.  It drove home to me that I must do the same. I have a tendency to say to myself I’ll do this or that when I am better but I may never be better than I am now so I want to do what I can do now as far as possible and not put anything off until I’m recovered or in remission or not so tired. This GIF is quite apt, I need a new wall clock, maybe I should try and find one like this!

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Clearly I need to strike a balance between looking after myself, not overdoing it, avoiding risk of infection and doing the things I want to do. Travel abroad is probably still out whilst I am tapering off the immune suppressants and have infections but there are other things I can do and have done. During this sweet gentle autumn we have been enjoying I have played tennis, been on cycle rides and even an anti austerity demo! Oh and of course, learning Spanish!

Vivir el momento que puede!

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Filed under Cancer, chemotherapy treatment, Cord Blood Transplant, 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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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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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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Not Good Not Bad

Since my last post The Best Laid Plans I had a further light chain test, the results of which were pretty similar to the previous ones.  So not good not bad, just the same. Strangely, the last few hospital lab test results are in normal range but the trial test results are slightly out of normal range and in both sets of tests there has been little movement which my consultant finds reassuring. Perhaps the blood samples don’t travel well to where they are tested in France for the trial!

So the plan now is that there isn’t one! The situation remains the same. I have started my 12th cycle of treatment today and if my test results show any further rises the chances are I will have my second stem cell transplant sooner rather than later. If not I’ll continue with treatment hopefully until around August and then I will have a transplant. I feel much calmer about this now than I did when I wrote my last post. Right now I don’t have the energy to spend on being disappointed about not being able to plan etc because I have flu and am feeling pretty drained. It is not the way I would have liked to have come to terms with my situation but there it is (ideally I would have liked to come to accept the uncertainty of my situation through the path of spiritual enlightenment but we can’t have everything we want!).

I woke up in the early hours of Tuesday morning feeling shivery and with a temperature of 38.5. Oh dear, time to read the Haematology card I carry with me. it operates as a sort of get out of jail free card if I need to go to A&E. It means I should be seen sooner as someone with a compromised immune system and preferably in a isolation room.  Even so being in A&E is a hellish experience to be avoided.

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Although I am meant to contact the 24 hour haematology helpline with a temp of 37.5 and over, I knew they would tell me to go to A&E and I couldn’t face that so I piled on the duvets until I felt warmer and slept intermittently. Having survived the night, I then rang the trial nurse, Pippa at 9am. She arranged for me to go to the Haematology day unit and said I would be reviewed by a doctor.  Five hours later I was sent home with antibiotics after being tested, swabbed, examined and X rayed. My temperature had at least gone down but I felt exhausted. Nothing conclusive but the next day, the Italian doctor I saw rang me and said I had influenza and that he would arrange for me to be prescribed Tamiflu.  Flu?  Now I felt seriously ill!  So I have been resting but not bed resting, I am not very good at that, coughing a lot and producing copious amounts of snot. The worst thing though has been the combined effect of self pity, a lot of time spent alone and severe tiredness resulting in very negative flights of fancy about flu becoming pneumonia, treatment stopping, myeloma returning with a vengeance etc etc,  you know where this is going! I must admit too feeling a little like the cat below at times!

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As I am recovering, fortunately I am regaining my sense of perspective.  I hope that as my energy returns I don’t start getting frustrated and anxious about my situation and can retain that feeling of detachment that having the flu has given me.

Ps in case you are wondering, I have had the flu jab!

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

The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner

Alan Sillitoe 's novel

I am obviously not a long distance runner, not even a short distance runner at the moment but the solitary nature of running is used as a metaphor in this excellent short story as the main character turns to long distance running as a way of escaping both emotionally and physically from his desperate situation.

Taking part in a triathlon this year and doing the 10k last year has become something similar to me, a way of escaping the world of myeloma both mentally and physically. It signifies that I can do normal things (though some would say that it is mad not normal) and reach a level of fitness which has no place in the world of myeloma. I truly appreciate having been able to be fit and active since my stem cell transplant if not fitter than before diagnosis without bone pain or in fact any pain that some of my fellow myeloma suffers have as a legacy of myeloma even when in remission.  As for the loneliness, living with myeloma can be lonely and scary. I appreciate the acknowledgement of this by a long distance friend who doesn’t have myeloma in a comment made by Prue about my last post, the Myeloma Trilogy  “I reckon it must be quite a lonely place at times…so this is a hello!!!

However I am pleased to say that I won’t be on my own doing the Salford Triathlon next Sunday. My individual place has been substituted for a team place and I am grateful to two friends for doing the swim section and the run section at the end. I still intend to do the middle 20k bike section but have someone on standby if I cant.  I have had to accept that I am not in a position health wise to do all of it and stopped the intensive training a good few weeks ago, finding myself breathless and exhausted. Anyone that knows me will know that I hate to admit defeat and don’t like giving up but now I have accepted it I am pleased and excited to be doing it as part of a team and hugely relieved that the pressure (all of which was self inflicted) is off.  The photos below were taken at a open water swim in a lake in Cheshire on a lovely sunny day and yes that is me gliding through the water with a Myeloma UK swim cap on! Just to prove I had been doing the training!

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P1020548

So neither lonely nor a runner but I will be taking part in the Salford Triathlon on Sunday 18th August and I hope you will support me. You should be able to click on the Just Giving Link on my blog to take you to our  Just Giving Page.  Needless to say I am raising money for Myeloma UK.

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Falling off the plateau

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

Plateau

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

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

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

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

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

Humpty_falls

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

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

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

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

Those marked P indicate done whilst plateauing

Those marked R indicate doing whilst relapsed!

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

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Hello relapse, goodbye remission

The inevitable has happened, I am relapsing.  I knew it would happen but had hoped it wouldnt be so soon.  After I posted last month the good news that my hip pain wasn’t caused by myeloma (see my last post The Nightmare before Christmas) the bad news this month was that it is coming back. I wish my life wasn’t quite such a rollercoaster. I won’t bore you with the technical details, suffice to say that I have had 3 successive rises in my kappa light chains which have doubled each time and are now considerably out of normal range but not perhaps high enough to start treatment yet, all else being well. And that is the irony, I am feeling really well.

Being so well and strong this past year I had dared to hope for a long remission, maybe 5 years plus, I had already booked three holidays for this year (unusually for me as I always used to leave this to the last minute), started training for a triathlon in June, had a work plan for the future and hopes of perhaps finding a partner too, thinking that my life would be long and healthy enough for all that to happen. I was almost complacent about my remission.  I thought I was invincible. How the mighty have fallen! Now the future seems as bleak as it did when I was diagnosed in December 2010.

I have talked the talk in my blog about living in the moment and banged on about the merits of living day to day but now I can only see a gloomy future, a life on treatment until the options run out and myeloma becomes resistant to the drugs. I am categorising myself as one of the unlucky ones, reading grim statistics about survival rates after relapse. I am unlikely to get a donor match to have an allogeneic transplant, see more on this in a previous post (Clinic appointment on Friday the 13th )  which relates in part to the Anthony Nolan Trust and my search for a donor last time around.

And oddly enough I feel anger too, not an emotion I am usually inclined to, being of a fairly calm and cool disposition. I feel non directed anger about how my life has panned out, , the unfairness of it all, anger with myself for not always making the right choices, anger with the NHS for not funding Revlimid maintenance therapy which might have doubled my remission, anger with my haematology medical team for not supporting me enough and angry that I have to live like this, with uncertainty, illness and death.

I also confess to feeling envy, yes envy of my fit and healthy peers planning their gentle third age, envy of people who are just getting on with their lives, envy of people out walking their dog in the park, happy families, joggers, couch potatoes…. the list is endless, in other words, NORMAL PEOPLE who don’t have to live with a life limiting illness. I’m not saying that they are “normal” or that I cant do the things that normal people do, (except plan for old age and worry about pensions which is actually quite liberating!), I’m saying that I always carry with me that consciousness of my own mortality, it is ever present, even permeating my unconscious mind now (in a lot of my dreams I have cancer). I no longer have the luxury of being able to take things for granted even though that is not necessarily a good way to live, just now and then it would be nice.

I even feel jealous of fellow myeloma sufferers who are enjoying longer remissions than I had. How awful is that? I mean I wish them well and a very long remission of course but I just wish I was one of them.

I have told a few friends and family, they don’t know what to say.  A common response is can you do anything to stop it coming back…. what like eating more fruit and vegetables, drinking green tea or taking a vitamin supplement??? Are they kidding, it’s cancer for fucks sake! It comes back of its own accord regardless of my lifestyle choices. If anything I should have plenty of brownie points stored up for the active and healthy lifestyle (apart from the odd cake and mojito now and again!) I have led in remission and prior to diagnosis. It makes not one jot of difference with myeloma. I could have slobbed out, smoked, drank and eaten fry ups everyday and still be where I am now. In fact it strikes me from the various forums I am on just how many people prior to diagnosis seem to be fit, health conscious and active people. As one friend said to me when I was diagnosed, we all try to live a healthy lifestyle, don’t smoke or drink too much and the shit happens anyway so why bother!

That brings me on to the subject of fighting talk, the people who would say ok its happened but you’re a fighter right? You’re going to fight this, beat it and win, yes? Well actually I am not going into battle with abnormal plasma cells in my bone marrow, I’m not going to obliterate my excess of Kappa Light chains (sounds like Star Wars!). When the time comes for treatment again, the chemotherapy will create a chemical reaction that I don’t understand (and that my doctors understand hopefully some more of than I do, that being their job) that may help on a temporary basis to stop the abnormal cells from producing, that’s it, that’s all there is to it. It is not a contest, a battle of endurance like Andy Murray v Roger Federer, smashing the cancer like a ball over the net, giving it my all. Cancer cells exist in my body whether I fight them or not. As a fellow myeloma blogger put it very well in his recent excellent post on the certainty of uncertainty…

“Disease biology is destiny. I am no match for the pathology of cancer. Nor should I expect to be. It is going to do what it is going to do.”

(pmdello- goodblood,badblood)

http://goodbloodbadblood.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/the-certainty-of-uncertainty/

I cant beat my abnormal cells into submission and dont want to feel beaten by cancer now it is returning, like it is my fault for not putting up a good fight or not living the right way or come to think of it, another bugbear of mine, not being POSITIVE enough.

I have been told “you have got to stay positive”. Why, because that makes no difference either. I remember not long after diagnosis when I was in a very big black hole, I read a cancer supplement in the Times that had an article on whether there is a link between positive thinking and survival prospects in cancer patients. I didn’t keep the supplement unfortunately and now I cant find the link but there are plenty of studies out there which show that being positive has no effect on cancer and neither did being stressed or depressed mean a worse outcome. I was immensely relieved to read that at the time and still find it reassuring. Whilst being positive may make it easier to deal with the diagnosis and the treatment and certainly makes life easier for your medical team than a tearful and anxious patient as I was, it doesn’t affect the outcome.

For anyone interested in the pitfalls and politics of positive thinking, I recommend a book called Smile or Die by Barbara Ehrenreich, an American political writer and activist.

For Amber @ The Daily Mail smile-or-die

Cancer is not a problem or an illness – it’s a gift. Or so Barbara Ehrenreich was told repeatedly after her diagnosis. But the positive thinkers are wrong, she says: sugar-coating illnesses can exact a dreadful cost. She was told when diagnosed with breast cancer that having a positive attitude would help. That was like waving a red flag to a bull and she and others have thankfully debunked the myth of positive thinking.

Thank god I don’t have feel positive and maintain an upbeat demeanour or practice daily visualisation exercises of my good cells killing my bad nasty cells!

I am sorry if I have offended anyone with my anti positive talk, if it works for you then that is great. I also apologise for my rant. I won’t always feel this way, I just need time to get my head round it and to adjust. In fact I am already feeling more accepting and fatalistic. As my favourite fictional mobster and anti hero Tony Soprano often said…, rolling his eyes and shrugging his shoulders.

Whattaya gonna do?
Tony_soprano.jpg-3269<

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

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Nightmare_Before_Christmas_by_Perry666[1]

I’m not keen on this time of year, approaching Christmas, things seem to have a habit of going wrong for me, especially 2 years ago.

On 14 December 2010 at around 11.30pm I was admitted via A&E to the renal ward of Manchester Royal Infirmary with acute kidney failure. I had not been well for a week or too, and had to cancel flights booked to India departing on December 15th on my GP’s advice due to a urine infection. I was suffering with nausea, breathlessness, fatigue and general weakness but went into work in the morning as usual. I sat at my desk but was unable to concentrate on anything, my secretary noticed, had a word with the office manager and I was sent home. When I got home I went to bed, it was a cold winter’s day, it might have been snowing. I was sleeping when my doctor rang late in the afternoon to tell me that my recent blood tests showed that my kidney function had deteriotated to 10 to 15% of what it should be in the last 7 days between blood tests and that I should go to A&E straightaway. I asked him would I be there long, ridiculous question really!! He said I should pack a bag.

My partner at the time helped me pack a bag and both of us in shock, we set off first to the GP surgery to pick up a letter with the blood tests and my notes. Then to the hospital about 3 miles away. I remember clearly that it was snowing, the roads were covered in snow and the driving conditions, slow and difficult. That was the wintry beginning of my journey into unknown territory.

I was eventually admitted and then as those of you will know from reading this blog was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma on I think 23 December. I was discharged on Christmas Eve, relieved to be out but hardly in the mood for celebrating. Even so there were some poignant and happy moments.

DSC01196

That was the start of my new life. There was before and there was after and even though my life now in many respects has the outward appearance of my life before it just isnt. I am not saying it is worse, it is different and sometimes better. I also need to throw into the mix that shortly after diagnosis I split up with my partner of nearly 20 years standing so the before and after is very much interwoven with that traumatic event. In my mind that has been emotionally tougher than the cancer diagnosis to deal with. The loneliness of my journey has been acute at times and though I never really needed a “carer” for any physical needs, I have really missed and still do, having someone to share my journey with, the good and the bad.

The next few months of treatment combined with my relationship ending were the toughest times I have ever been through but get through it I did.

“At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can”

Frida Kahlo

kahlo painting

So last year at this time, nothing dramatic went wrong and I was recovering from my stem cell transplant. I had a bone marrow biopsy in early December and I was told that it was less than 5% abnormal plasma cells so that was good news, I was officially in remission! However the news was tempered with the not so good news that I had chromosomal abnormalities that could mean a poorer outcome and shorter remission so a donor transplant was being recommended within 6 months. Having agonised over whether to have a second donor transplant and deciding to have one, I was told that a donor couldnt be found when the search was initiated.

For more on the donor transplant read my post “clinic appointment on Friday 13th”

https://wendyduffield.wordpress.com/2012/04/06/clinic-appoint…on-friday-13th/

And this year, what could go wrong, well lots could go wrong, I’ve been having some strange hip pain which I thought could be bone pain caused by myeloma coming back but it turned out not to be much to my relief.

However there is just one tiny little thing …………..!

I had booked a holiday to India, going in March 2013, similar to the one that I had to cancel 2 years ago so I was looking forward to it but yesterday I was contacted by the tour company to say that as I was the only one on it, it had been cancelled. Strange coincidence but completely different circumstances and as I cant cancel the flights I will just look for another holiday so its not a big deal.

So no nightmares before Christmas this year and nothing hanging over me so I intend to enjoy the time with my family, two years on from diagnosis. Another milestone on my journey. It is something of a dichotomy as I am impatient to reach the milestones because they mark more and more time in remission but on the other hand I want the time to go slowly so that I can appreciate it more! I need to have in mind that..

“Life isn’t a matter of milestones, but of moments.”

― Rose Kennedy

Seasons Greetings to all

 

 

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Patient Experience Talk

I was asked by Myeloma UK to give a talk from a patient perspective at the Manchester Myeloma UK info day for patients and their families on September 22nd. I agreed as it would mean a free place and thought it would be easy enough however as time went on and the day got nearer I started feeling a little nervous and as power point was mentioned ( a way of presenting slides) I learnt how to use it and spent ages selecting slides to try and illustrate my feelings. I was really pleased with the slides, now I just had to deliver my talk. Why the nerves? It wasnt as if I had to impress anyone as we were all in the same boat. On the day I and another patient were the last item so there was plenty of time for the nerves to build! When it came to my turn I could hear my voice trembling and shaky as I started and my brain felt ok but it couldnt tell my mouth to relax and it got dryer and dryer but I got through it and people told me I didnt come across as nervous. Afterwards my consultant came up to me and gave me a big hug and told me how brilliant I was. Wow did that make it worthwhile! Preparing the talk made me realise just how far I have come on this journey since diagnosis nearly 2 years ago now and how hard it has been at times. As I said in my last post, One Year On, I find it difficult to accept that I have myeloma at the moment and that it will come back at some point. Someone asked my consultant at the conference whether she thought a cure would be found in the next 10 years and she said that she didnt think so. I really hope she is wrong.

Hopefully the link below will take you to the slides and the notes I used in the talk.

Patient experience talk on word with notes

 

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Filed under Cancer, Health, Multiple Myeloma, Myeloma