Tag Archives: steroids

The kingdom of the sick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ain’t nothing but more bad news.

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

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

26 October

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

2 November

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

5-7 November

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

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23-28 November

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

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30 November

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

21 December

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

29 December

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

31 December

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

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

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

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

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

In the meantime I wish you a happy new year.

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

TS Elliott

 

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

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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Viva Las Velcade!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viva Las Velcade!

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Taken in El Golfo, Lanzarote

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

Keep your chin up!

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

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

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

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

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