Tag Archives: remission

At last some good news..

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

Lets start with a (fairly) brief recap…

Late December 2015

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

January 2016

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

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

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

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

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

February

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

March

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

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

April

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

May

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

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

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

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

― Robert Louis Stevenson

 

 

 

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

Baby Talk Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

2014 in review

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

Click here to see the complete report.

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

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

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SKOL!

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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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The best laid plans……

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley.
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

(To A Mouse)”
― Robert Burns, The Works of Robert Burns

I was feeling quite elated following my last clinic appointment because after months of uncertainty about how long I would continue on treatment my consultant and I came up with a plan. The plan was to continue with this low dose treatment regime until around August, that would be 12 months since I started treatment, and then have my second stem cell transplant (which would be three years since my first one).  The reason being that I am tolerating it well with good quality of life.  I have learnt that spinning out something that is working for you for as long as possible is a good strategy when it comes to treating Myeloma. Living with Myeloma is a marathon not a sprint and as there isn’t a cure there is no hurry to get to the finish line. Come to think of it, there isn’t really a finish line. Of course the plan is subject to my light chains staying in normal range which they have been since November. If they started rising out of normal range then I would have the stem cell transplant as soon as possible.

So finally I had something to tell people, I had a plan, I could make plans, I could reach that bit further into the future, I could say yes to this or that invitation if it was before September. I started to lay tracks across my mental calendar for the next few months.  My mind was racing with delight. I would have a glorious summer. The next few months would be my myeloma salad days before the gruelling stem cell transplant process.

Then on Monday when I went to the Haematology Day Unit in for my weekly shot of  Velcade, I was given a print out of the most recent blood test result which was out of normal range and confirmed an upward trend over the last 3 tests. I felt instantly slumped, all my hopes and plans were shattered by an A4 sheet of paper. I have had many set backs and disappointments along this journey and this was another one (not even a particularly significant one) but for some reason it has hit me hard.

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Now the plan is to have another test on Monday and if that confirms the rise, I will be coming off treatment since we must assume that it is no longer holding me in remission. I will then have a stem cell transplant in the next 4 to 8 weeks.  If my light chains return to normal range then I suppose I am back on track but whatever the result I have already reigned in my plans. hopes and dreams. To avoid disappointment I can only plan around a month ahead at a time. I know plans can be cancelled or put on hold and perhaps it is better to make them than not but for me it was not necessarily the plans themselves that were the attraction but the freedom to be able to make them.

 

 

 

 

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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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And on the sixth cycle …..

Velcade gave me complete remission!

I’m half way through my seventh cycle of Velcade and Dexamathasone and the time from the start of treatment in August seems to have whizzed by. In some ways I am surprised by how normal life has been. I have had an excellent response to treatment, my kappa light chains are now in normal range and I am in complete remission.  The plan is to strengthen that response with another couple of cycles followed by a stem cell transplant (from my own stem cells) and then possibly a donor stem cell transplant a few months later. I try not to think too far ahead to these procedures, as the latter especially is not without considerable risks.

I am fortunate that apart from the awful dex, (see my post, Dexamethasone, the good the bad and the ugly) the side effects of the treatment have been fairly minimal and I’ve tolerated it well without all the numerous infections and issues I had on my initial chemotherapy. Managing to work, rest and play including trips to Palma, Cornwall, London to see the ATP world tour mens tennis finals. I also went to Barcelona and Girona a couple of weeks ago where I took these photos of the sparkly Christmas decorations and the stunning Sagrada Familia by Gaudi. I was disappointed to see that it still hasn’t been finished though!  I’ve also started playing tennis again after recovering from a painful  and debilitating nerve compression problem in my neck (which I am pleased to say turned out to be nothing to do with myeloma). Oh and I’ve also started running again mostly on dex days! In fact the outward appearance of my life is so “normal” that I think people forget I am on chemotherapy!

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For the past few years this time of year has been associated with bad things happening in my life.  It was just before Christmas in December 2010 that I was diagnosed with myeloma, I described how that was in my post The Nightmare before Christmas.  And this time last year I found out that my light chains had risen out of normal range which turned out to be the start of an upward trend signifying relapse and a turbulent and stressful 2013 at times. I’m hoping this Christmas on my 7th cycle will be completely uneventful, with the only thing hanging over me caused by over indulgence!

It is three years today since I was diagnosed with myeloma  so today is a milestone of sorts. According to the most recent UK stats for survival  from Cancer Research UK  (http://www.cancerresearch.uk.org/cancer-info/cancerstats/types/myeloma/survival/multiple-myeloma-survival-statistics)

I am one of the 72.3% of women with myeloma that have survived more than a year. Will I be one of the 37.1% who survive 5 years (the five-year relative survival rates for myeloma are among the lowest of the 21 most common cancers in England) or the 14.9% that survive 10 years? Who knows?  I hope so and I know there have been further improvements in overall survival rates since this study due to the newer and better treatments but realistically there is a very strong possibility that I won’t make my 60th birthday or even my 55th.  Of course I feel sad about that but on the upside, at least I won’t have the stress of planning how to celebrate it!  However there will be the pressure of trying to make the most of the birthdays I am around for as as well as the dilemma of how to live a significantly shortened life.

The milestones like birthdays, number of years post diagnosis, stem cell transplant anniversaries etc are great but counting the milestones as simply the passage of time is meaningless. It is about how we spend the time between each milestone that matters.  I can’t very well live every day as if it is my last but want to make sure that I spend as much of my precious time as possible doing things I enjoy, being with people I love and care about and having fun.  So no pressure then! The counter balance to this is accepting the times when I am  feeling down, fatigued, ill, horrible, anti social etc etc are not a waste of my precious time and that I don’t have to do anything for the sake of “making the most of whatever life I have left”.

I love the lyrics to this song by Leonard Cohen, (A Thousand Kisses Deep). I don’t know what they mean to him but to me they sum up my experience of living with myeloma, the periods of remission, relapse and dealing with a reduced like expectancy.

The ponies run, the girls are young,
The odds are there to beat.
You win a while, and then it’s done –
Your little winning streak.
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat,
You live your life as if it’s real,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.

I’m turning tricks, I’m getting fixed,
I’m back on Boogie Street.
You lose your grip, and then you slip
Into the Masterpiece.
And maybe I had miles to drive,
And promises to keep:
You ditch it all to stay alive,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.

Felices fiestas

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Nothing to say?

I have been struggling to write a new post since Butterfly on a Bush written just after I started treatment. I knew that I would find it difficult whilst on treatment but I am trying to figure out why that is. I don’t want to stress about it but all the same I would like to post an update.

So far I have had a really good response to the treatment which has brought my kappa light chains down from nearly 3000 to 188 at the end of the third cycle. They did actually go down to 50 but went back up to 180 at my last test result.  Of course, I am hugely relieved that the treatment is working to bring the myeloma under control and I am physically much better than I was before I started treatment, as the symptoms I was having caused by myeloma being active have disappeared. However the rise concerns me, is it just a blip, a response to a viral infection or an indication that my disease has already become resistant to velcade? The answer will be determined by the next test result, as usual, it is wait and see.

I started my blog a few months after my stem cell transplant. My blog was intended to be about my reaction to living with a life shortening and incurable blood cancer and how I deal with that rather than the nitty gritty of treatment, side effects and the technical aspects of my disease although you all know about my kappa light chains and frothy urine! I lacked the composure and ability to reflect on my emotional journey during my initial treatment leading to the stem cell transplant. I was just dealing with it the shock and trauma of it all and was very depressed.

Since starting treatment for relapse, I find I am more composed but with little to say about how I feel about this period. From January to August, I have been relapsing and to use a cliche, it has been a roller coaster of a journey, the inaccurate test results, whether I could go to India, whether I could do the triathlon, what treatment, waiting for the trial, my light chains rapidly rising making me unwell with myeloma. I was in a highly charged emotional state during this period, it was exciting in a perverse way but also draining and stressful. Now that I have actually started treatment I have settled into a rather dull routine of  Monday and Thursday  visits to the Haematology day unit for the first two weeks of each cycle to receive an injection of velcade into my stomach and the third week off steroids and velcade with a clinic appointment at the end of each cycle to review my progress and side effects. I fit in going to work in between these appointments if I feel up to it.

Now that I have a treatment schedule and have entered the myeloma world again, I am less stressed than I was, flatter and calmer  but am struggling to to accept the way my life is right now and so gloomy about the future, feeling increasingly disconnected from the “normal” world that I was able to be part of during my remission. I have lost confidence, feel edgy and slightly uncomfortable in the normal world, different to everyone else. I think I am suffering from post traumatic relapse disorder, if there is such a condition, there is now I have just invented it! I have almost reverted to the mental state I was in when first diagnosed, like why me, it’s not fair, my life is over etc etc. I thought I had come to terms with all of that. Added to that pot of misery is the disappointment of relapsing relatively soon after my stem cell transplant (some people get years, why not me?) and the question of how long I can survive has lead me to becoming increasingly obsessed with researching the net on latest treatments for myeloma, studies and statistics as if knowledge is power. I am not sure it is helping me as I have no control over my disease progression, only over how I cope with it emotionally.

I am as always trying to live in the moment, and there have been some good ones, I went to the beautiful island of Majorca for a few days to visit some friends and swam and sunbathed, went to the Yorkshire Dales to see some friends, walked along the lovely river and watched a local inter village cricket tournament, a now en route to Cornwall for a few days. I feel a certain degree of pressure to plan nice things in my week off treatment but just because I am off treatment doesn’t mean that all the side effects magically disappear, the fatigue stays and the effects of steroid withdrawal such as mood swings, irritability, paranoia, depression and shakiness kick in.  Sometimes I prefer just to be home alone watching the blackbirds eat the little grapes off my vine!

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So in summary, it seems for someone with nothing to say, I have found quite a lot to say.

“These are the days that must happen to you.”
― Walt Whitman

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Trials and Tribulations

Life is rather strange at the moment. I have relapsed but I am not on any treatment. I am quite well physically yet my kappa light chains were approaching 2000mg/litre at the last test on 21 June.  Another sharp rise then by about 850mg, I wish I was IT adequate so I could put graphs on my blog posts. Normal is up to 19mg per litre. However much as I might like to be normal, I am not!  I am adjusting to these figures each time and they now really mean very little.  I found myself saying to a friend who also has myeloma ” they’re only 2000″!! I remember when I first found out I was relapsing I was devastated that they had risen over 100 but at that point I was dealing with the trauma of relapse. Now I have got used to the fact that I have relapsed, that the light chains are not going to go back down of their own accord and I need to start treatment at some point probably quite soon.

I have the same physical well being as I did when I was properly in remission and my light chains were in normal range.  I am told that my relapse is biochemical rather than clinical as I have normal range blood results and kidney function and am showing no signs of bone damage ie pain! Therefore the only way it is detected is by the free light chain test of my blood serum. The last few weeks since my stay in hospital with a high temperature (see my last post, A Room with a View )  I have  seen my own consultant twice and went to St James Hospital in Leeds for a second opinion from Professor Gordon Cook which was extremely helpful. The purpose of the second opinion was to discuss treatment strategies, both immediate and long term.  We have discussed trials. One excellent trial c0-ordinated by Myeloma UK has been ruled out (the MUK5 trial) as my exit strategy isn’t compatible with the trial objectives. However another very similar trial aptly called the Endeavor Trial looks suitable for me as it compares a new drug which is not available off trial (Carfilzomib) against an older version of a similar drug (Bortezomib). There is a 50/50 chance of getting the new drug but it is not open at the Manchester Royal Infirmary yet. I keep being told shortly or two to three weeks but that has turned into a few months now as the trial sponsors seem to be prevaricating. Which is why I am waiting and waiting and waiting.

To hold the myeloma at bay, I was given a 4 day course of high dose dexamethasone  a couple of weeks ago ( a steroid commonly used as part of treatment of myeloma). I experienced a very bad reaction to dexamethasone whilst on treatment before. During the  days of the cycle I took it  I suffered from insomnia, carb/junk food cravings and shakiness.  The plus side is energy surges. Long term use resulted in  blurred vision, muscle wasting, heavy aching legs and tinnitus. During the intervals I wasn’t taking it I suffered withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, severe low mood and lack of concentration. I thought that as the recent dose was just a one off 4 day course,  I wouldn’t get these effects but guess what I did!  Not the long term ones but the short term ones. The good part of it was having energy for a works night out and drinking rather too many mojitos, then going to a friend’s house gathering that lovely first weekend of the start of summer in the Cotswolds and being able to do some rather energetic disco dancing for quite a long time! No photos of that I am afraid.

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The downside was that for 2 to 3 days after taking the course I felt extremely low and irritable to the point where I had decided that I wasn’t going to take any treatment for my relapse if it was going to make me feel like this and I would rather let my disease take its course! I can find that laughable now but I really did feel like that at the time. It doesn’t bode well for the commencement of the suggested 6 to 8 cycles of treatment which will include dexamethasone and one of the drugs mentioned above. Will I be able to tolerate it both mentally and physically?

But whilst I am waiting to start treatment either on a trial or off trial, I feel like I inhabit two alternate worlds at the moment

The Normal World

Where myeloma is not mentioned. Work is extremely demanding right now as I am busy dealing with another kind of fast approaching trial, the highest value  claim and most interesting case I have ever handled. I want to see it through to conclusion.  I am making arrangements for conferences, meetings and court hearings to take place over the next few weeks without knowing whether I’ll be able to attend them. I am continuing with all my other usual activities including training for the Salford Triathlon on the 18th August which involves 6 training sessions a week. More about the triathlon in a post to follow soon but if you want to sponsor me or find out more just click on the just giving link on my blog.  Then there is of course much to enjoy about this glorious spell of  Mediterranean  style weather we are experiencing in the UK at the moment.

The Myeloma World

In this world I am a relapsed cancer patient not yet on treatment, being clinically managed by Haematologists, with very little control over what happens. Spending a lot of time thinking and talking about my chromosome abnormalities, clinical trials, drugs, treatment combinations, stem cell transplants, kidney function, kappa light chains, treatment strategies and having endless blood tests. This world consists of mostly waiting for results and at the moment a trial to open and uncertainty. Different friends came with me to my last two appointments and both were amazed by the level of knowledge I had about myeloma and the treatment of it. When I start treatment this will mostly become my world again.

Which World?

Well I don’t have much choice. I know I have to start treatment and once I start it I will have a routine and some say feel better mentally for it.  The anxiety caused by waiting and worrying that I am going to get kidney failure, bone damage or a serious infection would be replaced by the anxiety  that I will no doubt feel about coping the side effects of the treatment and whether it will work but I am already feeling anxious about that now so I suppose starting treatment removes one layer of anxiety!.

On the other hand, I oscillate between wanting to get treatment underway and wanting to delay it further whilst I am feeling so well so I could enjoy the rest of the summer and do the triathlon and perhaps even approach the 2 year anniversary of my stem cell transplant on 1st September free of treatment? I guess the decision is out of my hands. To use my currently much overused phrase “I’ll keep you posted”

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”
―     Gilda Radner

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The test that was right that was wrong that was right

“Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final”
―     Rainer Maria Rilke

monet garden

When I got back from Paris a week last Friday on the Eurostar trip with my parents to see Monet’s garden, amongst my post was an odd letter from the Haematology department saying my appointment with the consultant had been cancelled and that an appointment had been arranged for Friday 17th May instead at 12pm. By the time I got the letter it was too late to ring them to say I had only just got back so it had to wait until Monday. I didn’t really worry about it but rang on Monday and spoke to the appointment secretary and explained that I had been away and unable to attend. I asked why it had been brought forward and was told something like the doctor was trying to clear down his list for 31 May when my appointment had been scheduled for.  It was rearranged for 24 May.

I duly attended, expecting to discuss the erroneous test result (see my last posts, falling off the plateau  and back on the plateau ) and perhaps to have another discussion about what treatment I might have when I do relapse bearing in mind that my kappa light chains were only 117 mg/litre, there was no immediate concerns.  I had the last appointment and when I arrived clinic was extremely busy but as I was having Zometa  (a bone strengthening treatment) as well, I went to the day unit for my bloods to be taken and my kidney function tested as usual. I had Zometa at about 3pm and still hadn’t seen my consultant but as I was leaving the day unit I bumped into him and the haematology specialist nurse as they were coming to find me. Seeing the nurse there as well made me feel slightly anxious as she doesn’t normally sit in on my appointments. We went into his consulting room and he then told me that unfortunately the first test showing the massive rise in my light chains to 617 mg/litre was in fact correct and it was the retest that was wrong. I was completely stunned. He said that both tests had been retested several times and that it was confirmed. The lab were unable to give any explanation as to how they got the retest result so wrong.

My consultant said on that basis I was now relapsing and we needed to sort out a treatment plan pretty quickly. We discussed different options but my head was in a complete spin and I couldn’t really concentrate on what he was saying. I am to ring up in a few days time to find out the result of the light chain test taken on Friday and if my kappa light chains are over 1000, I have to make an urgent appointment to see my consultant and have my kidney function tested which is a big concern and possibly start treatment straight away. If they are less than 1000 I will see him on 14 June by which time a trial may be available which might be a good option for me. So unless by some bizarre chance my light chain test this time shows a massive reduction in my light chains, I will be starting treatment very soon and all my plans of doing the triathlon in August and a couple of holidays in September will be out of the window.

After the appointment, I was in shock and disbelief.  It felt a little surreal. I debated whether to go to a friend’s 60th birthday meal that evening but I did and it was fine but that night I couldn’t sleep and the following morning I was low and tearful and was thinking of putting off my friends visit to me for the weekend that thinking that my mood would be so low I wouldn’t want to see them.  I went to my outdoor fitness session in the local park hoping that it would raise my serotonin levels but it didn’t really have that effect, instead I was worrying about whether too much exercise would be stressing my body!

My friends arrived, it was a lovely day, I told them the bad news and by the afternoon my mood had completely lifted and I was dancing to salsa music round the kitchen and the garden whilst making dinner. I am still feeling okay, after all I am in no worse position than I was when I found out that my light chains had risen to 617 on 19 April. I adjusted to that after the initial shock and disappointment, then had the elation of finding out that test was supposedly wrong, had cocktails on my birthday with friends, went to London and then Paris in a celebratory mood ( I probably wouldn’t have gone if I had known my light chains were over 600). Monet’s garden was truly beautiful (aside from the drama of my mother falling over and breaking her wrist) and Paris was well Paris, the city of light!

It is a cliché, but life at the moment is truly like being on a roller coaster!

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In fact dealing with the emotional effects of having myeloma is far more challenging than the physical effects at least for me so far. It has truly been a mind blowing experience. How I can go from feeling so desperately low and alone on Saturday morning to happy and elated by late afternoon is just as strange as the recent sequence of test results.

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