While I wasn’t particularly concerned about the earth being ravaged by earthquakes yesterday as part of the widely publicized rapture, I did find myself relieved that nothing of earth shaking significance happened anywhere. I also find myself pitying the thousands of Rapture believers for whom reality contrasted sharply with their fervent beliefs and expectations in what was going to happen to them. It’s a lesson that those of us who have been diagnosed with cancer can learn from as well. And before you suggest I’m being negative, let me point out there’s a difference between hope and expectation. I hope and wish that I will live a long time. However I limit my expectations to the near-term, as that is all I can judge and evaluate.

Part of the reason for limiting expectations is that cancer in general is the result of a mutation, and this cellular mutation exists and adapts in a very Darwinian fashion. Much as we try to kill the cancer cells, the cancer cells are trying to survive. So, while surgery and treatments may eliminate virtually all of the cancer cells in a body, there’s no proven, consistent way across all patients, to completely eradicate all residual cancer cells in a patient. In some cases, it works out, but the statistics and probability of complete “cure” vs. almost guaranteed relapse vary based on the type of cancer involved. According to “The Biology and Treatment of Cancer”, there are around 200 different kinds of cancer cells identified so far, with most unique enough to require targeted treatment. And it’s not uncommon for cancer cells to mutate further during some chemotherapy treatments and become resistant or immune to those treatments, requiring a new one to be applied or even developed (from “The Emperor of All Maladies”).

I understand from friends who have and have had cancer, as well as from my readings, that the stress and anxiety that surrounds the regular scans they have to see if their cancer has returned is high, because, of course, it could signal having to go through a whole new round of procedures with an uncertain outcome. And for better or worse, after my upcoming treatments are complete, I too will be victim to a (hopefully long) life of uncertainty, especially as my form of melanoma, which I’ve been told is “nodular melanoma” – a very aggressive form, evidenced by the progression from nothing to multiple tumors as large as 2.2cm in my lymph nodes in just four months, is known for a not-insignificant rate of recurrence. Statistically, because I also had cancer cells appear outside the capsule of a lymph node (i.e. extracapsular extension), that also increases the likelihood that I will be revisited by melanoma at some point in the future.

A new friend, who was diagnosed with melanoma about five years ago, but has recently had a relapse with complications, explained to me that he and his wife found that the best way to cope with the impact of the disease on the mind, soul, and body was to live in the moment, and live one’s life – something which he says is not always easy when you are dealing with your own mortality. My piece on priorities a week ago kind of brushed on this idea, but I’m still coming to grips with the idea that I perhaps should not be making substantial long term (multi-year) commitments, which is causing me to reevaluate whether or not I want to continue pursuing my Master of Fine Arts in Photography degree (which will take another 3-4 years of time, nearly full time), or simply charge forth and spend that time in a more intensely productively fashion.

So, my future is a perpetual work in progress, taken a day or a week at a time.

The Fog of Cancer Therapy

In order to be true to the title of this post, namely the various “Fogs” I am experiencing, I would like to share both updates and current perspectives.

Last week I had my first meeting with the clinical oncologist under whose guidance I will be receiving my post-surgical cancer therapy. As I discussed previously, the purpose of the surgical lymphadenectomy (also referred to as a “complete lymph node dissection”) I had two weeks ago was to try and surgically remove the cancer from my lymphatic system before it could spread further, or more realistically, as much of it as possible. Cancer is insidious because it is a cellular mutation, meaning that if even one cancer cell (which is a very tiny, microscopic entity indeed) is left behind, over time it can multiply and spread. Using a macro-level procedure like surgery, while potentially good at removing larger aggregations of cancer cells (usually in the form of tumors), is not great at the cellular level for the simple reason that a surgeon can’t see and distinguish such cells.

That’s where adjuvant therapy comes into play. After surgery is over, additional steps are taking to try and destroy any vestiges of cancer that may still be present. There are two type of post-surgical treatment to be considered – localized and systemic.

In the case of my melanoma, the clinical oncologist suggested that both localized and systemic treatment be applied. The localized treatment would be via radiation, specifically in the area where my lymphadenectomy took place, namely my right groin region. The systemic treatment involves drugs which would be applied regularly to fight any cancer cells that might be left anywhere in my body – in the whole system (hence “systemic”).

The clinical oncologist discussed a number of options with me, including the stock treatment for stage III melanoma patients, namely Interferon-α, a new form of Interferon-α recently approved by the FDA called Sylatron, a late stage drug also recently FDA approved called Yervoy (ipilimumab), and some other experimental options via clinical trials.

Yervoy has the issue that it has not had any studies done yet for Stage III melanoma patients – only late state, Stage IV (for which it was successful as these things go). That meant that, considering the roughly $130,000 price tag for a four-course treatment of Yervoy, insurance would not cover the cost, nor was there necessarily any reason to believe it would even have any effect on Stage III melanoma – it might, but it also might not. The doctor mentioned that there was a clinical trial under way now for Yervoy in Stage III melanoma patients, but that it was a placebo-based trial (meaning that some participants would receive Yervoy, and the others placebos), and the results wouldn’t be known for years (since in Stage III there are no tumors to measure to determine effectiveness – it would be solely based on relapse timelines). Furthermore, Yervoy has potentially serious side effects, including liver disease and even (in very rare cases), death.

My wife Linda and I had discussed the possibility of clinical trials previously – which are basically where someone volunteers to be a subject in an experiment in the hopes the experiment is successful in producing a positive result, as compared to some sort of baseline. That baseline can either be a group of patients in the trial using an established treatment, or alternately, being given a placebo but being told it is the experimental drug. I have a tough enough time leaving things to chance, so the idea of being part of a clinical trial where there was a chance I would get a placebo and no treatment just was not for me (never mind that Linda would have vetoed any such participation as well because of the uncertainty).

Seeing as the Yervoy and other clinical trials currently available were placebo referenced, that ruled those out as options.

I had already known from my research that Interferon, which has been a standard Stage III melanoma treatment for over a decade, would be the most likely option for me, even though its side effects, while not generally harmful, are pretty miserable. Interferon works by boosting the immune system, with the hopes the immune system will then be better able to eradicate melanoma cancer cells on its own.

For many Interferon patients, the primary side effects are fatigue and flu-like symptoms – worse during the initial month of daily 90 minute long IV infusions of the drug, and a bit better during the subsequent 11 months of thrice-weekly self-injections. I’ve learned that it’s not uncommon, due to the impact of these symptoms for people to end their treatment early because they just cannot stand the physical burden any longer. Regular Interferon, because it is in effect a naturally produced protein, is rapidly absorbed in the body, with all traces gone shortly after infusion. So the body has this big spike of Interferon at the time of injection or infusion, and then spends time trying to get back into equilibrium until the next application – so large peaks and troughs.

The recent approval and release of Sylatron appears to provide a more manageable solution to Interferon side effects. Sylatron is still the same type of Interferon as the traditional treatment, but encapsulated in such a way that it hangs out in the body for a much longer time. In very simple terms, you could look at it as similar to getting your aspirin or acetaminophen in a time-release form. This means that the extreme peaks and troughs are no longer present, and the body can better adjust to the sustained use of the Interferon. The flu-like symptoms and fatigue are still there, but not as intense in most people.

Also, because of the persistence of the pegylated Interferon, the dosage and application is less intense as well. Sylatron is applied weekly, and during the first two months, a higher dose is used, after which a lower stable dose is switched to. All of these can also be self administered. The trial in Europe in which Sylatron was used was intended to be a five year treatment, but the average time patients continued with the Sylatron injections was around 14-16 months apparently, but with long term relapse rates which appear to be better (lower) that traditional Interferon, with the added benefit that people were not as sick and, in fact, were able to live mostly normal lives during treatment.

The end result of the first consultation with the doctor was to confirm (as I had previously hoped) that my best course of treatment would be to go with Sylatron as my systemic treatment.

Assuming my insurance company doesn’t set up any roadblocks, I should be able to start my adjuvant therapy in early June after my (damn) drain has been removed, and all my healing from surgery looks good. My next appointment is at the end of the month to try and narrow things down further.

The Fog of Radiation

So, with Sylatron as my systemic treatment determined, the next thing to deal with was my radiation therapy. There has been some literature which has suggested that radiation therapy is not particularly effective for melanoma, but on the flip side, it has also not been shown to be ineffective. What I was advised was that in situations where there was a fair chance of residual cancer cells, such as my extracapsular extension and activity, radiation therapy’s benefits outweighed the risks.

When you’re faced with the potential of relapse at some point down the road, you definitely find yourself more inclined to do anything you can which has a decent chance of postponing when that point will be, and thus I found myself quite willing to go ahead with the treatment.

After a consultation on Friday with the radiologist (who specializes in oncological treatment via radiation), I feel pretty good about the process.

First, let me detail the side effects of localized radiation in my right groin region:

  • It will likely cause sterility, preventing me from fathering any more children. Not a worry – I’m quite happy with the two I have fathered naturally (Krystyana and Sebastian), and my two “adopted” children, Aisha and Chip.
  • During treatment it will cause a light burn and sensitivity on the skin’s surface in the irradiated region. This can be treated with creams.
  • I may permanently lose some pubic hair. May look strange, but other than nurses, doctors, and my wife, and myself, no one is likely to see that, and if they do, it would create an interesting point of discussion.
  • I may end up with darker skin in the same area as treatment. Hmm. Let me think – skin discoloration or leaving cancer cells behind in my body to grow and wreak more havoc? Yeah. I’ll go with skin discoloration.
  • May increase incidence of lymphedema – swelling in my leg due to excess accrual of lymphatic liquids. This can be a real hassle, but the doctor pointed out that there are trained massage therapists who specialized in lymphedema therapy, and the use of compression stockings (I’m wearing one now) can mitigate the problem somewhat. I can certainly work with regular massages (although Linda had to ruin the warm and fuzziness of massages by pointing out that they could be painful, like a deep tissue massage can be).
  • Could undue any healing that is still going on. This is a real potential problem, but with a practical solution, namely not starting my radiation therapy until later in the summer.

Ultimately, the decision that both doctors seemed to agree on (with my concurrence) was to have me start on the Sylatron treatment for the initial two months of high dose injections, then get baseline and diagnostic scans performed, dry out from Sylatron for a couple of weeks, and then start my radiation therapy. The therapy will involve 4-6 weeks of daily (weekday) 20 minute radiation treatments at Mass General Hospital, meaning I would be tied to being in Boston during that time – no travel possible so that I wouldn’t miss any treatments.

During the initial set up in preparation for my treatments, the radiology department would create a special mold for me to lie on for best exposure to the radiation source and then create a 3-D mapping of the region to be irradiated. And I get some tattoos on my body as an added bonus. The tattoos will be used as orientation and reference points for the radiation treatment to ensure that radiation positioning is exact.

The radiation treatment would be performed via Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT), which is a very modern computer-controlled radiation delivery system which can control the intensity and angle of the radiation in a way to ensure the target area is getting all that it is supposed to while minimizing the amount of radiation in surrounding tissues and organs. I was also amazed to learn that the IMRT mapping involves Voxels – volumetric pixels (something some of my fellow graphics geeks may be familiar with), as a way to represent the radiation values and accumulation in a three dimensional space (a little more on this can be found here). Very cool technology.

The Fog of Frustration and Pain Medication

So now, here I sit, under a fog of frustration and pain medicine as I wait for my body to heal. I’ve figured out that I’ve been something of an invalid in terms of mobility for most of the last seven weeks, and I am sick and tired of it.

I’m used to doing things for myself, and it’s difficult for me to ask others to do otherwise simple things for me because I can’t without hurting myself in the process. Stupid things, like putting on socks, for example.

I also hate not being able to go out without causing myself grief. I had to miss a recently departed friend’s Celebration of Life yesterday, and would have loved to have gone out for dim sum in Boston’s Chinatown this morning. But no go with my current infirmity. I had hopes to get to New York City next weekend to see a friend perform at Carnegie Hall, but I’m guessing that’s not going to happen for me either. Very frustrating! It’s like being in a virtual jail – no tangible bars, but restrictive nonetheless.

The healing of my surgical area and graft site are progressing well enough, but I have a lot of pain and discomfort from swelling and from the area where the drain tube exits my body, and as a result have been on doctor-prescribed rest and pain medication. Add to that that I have to sleep on my back (because of the drain) on a bed that feels too soft, and the result is back pain (goes away when I get up) and not more than about six hours of fitful sleep during the night. I may well start having to nap during the day to catch up, a practice I never really adopted. Now may be the time.

The other frustration is that until my drain is removed, I cannot start my Sylatron treatment, and my drain won’t get removed until the amount coming out is less than 30cc per day (I’m at around 200cc right now, down from close to 500cc a week ago, so some progress is being made). And until I start my Sylatron treatment, I won’t have a clear idea of when my radiation treatments might start (although the best guess is mid-August or so).

Fortunately, while not being mobile, I am able to sit in my comfy office chair for decent periods of time, and work on my computer and some consulting client commitments as well.

And I can slowly shuffle around my kitchen for short periods of time, which resulted in a suitable substitute for my dim sum cravings this morning, crispy pork belly with compote of cranberries and cherries, depicted below:

Crispy pork belly with a cherry and cranberry compote

Crispy pork belly with a cherry and cranberry compote

The one thing, however, above all others that helps me overcome my frustration with being infirm is the support of my family, especially Linda, without whom I would not be able to manage at all, and without whom I would be an absolutely nut job now (or, as my kids might suggest, more of a nut job).

The Fog of Future Treatments

Okay, so may this isn’t a fog, really, but one of the things that has become known about cancers is that they occur because of gene mutations in the chromosomes of damaged cells. The most successful cancer treatments so far, across all cancers, have been ones that target specific mutations that exist in the cancer cells but no other normal cells in the body.

In melanoma treatment, there’s been a pretty amazing amount of work in such mutation specific research in just the least half-decade or so, the result being that there are a number of new treatments under development to address the various mutations (a great, but highly technical paper on this subject by several authors, including my own oncologist, can be found here).

What this means is that if the genetic mutation of the cancer is known, and that mutation is one for which a treatment is being developed (and tested), the greater the likelihood of effective treatment. And such targeted treatments are also potentially likely to have fewer side effects because they don’t have a systemic impact on anything other than affected cells.

In my case, just over a week ago, I had requested that cancer cells from my recent lymphadenectomy be genetically typed by the hospital’s lab. That process will take up to a month. The results won’t make a difference in my current treatment plan as the only clinical trials being done on mutation-specific drugs are only for late stage melanoma patients.

However, the really good thing about getting my cancer classified now is that if I do have a relapse some years down the road, it will vastly speed the decision on how to treat the relapse. With the speed and breadth of melanoma research at present, the likelihood is very high that there will be a number of targeted treatments available – even three or four years from now – that would help me fight a relapse, should that occur (although the hope is that won’t be the case).

In Conclusion: The Fog of Boston

Keeping with my fog theme, I would like to close by saying that the fog we have witnessed from our 37th floor apartment (36th actually, as there is no numbered 13th floor in the building) here in Boston has been spectacular this last week, with visibility so low at times that we could not see the street below us or the lights of the nearby Zakim bridge outside our windows. Back on Bonaire, the weather is never really cool enough to create fog, so this has been a remarkable climate contrast for us.

Not sure when my next post will be, but I’m guessing it will be after my doctors appointments on May 31st with an update on what’s going on with healing, drains, and treatment. Until then, please hang in there – that’s what I’ll be doing too.

 

It is now the fifth day since my lymphadenectomy surgery this past Monday, and I am back, sitting at my desk, in front of my computer, spending time on my typical breadth of activities. However, the activities I am performing are not all the same that I would have been involved in prior to my malignant melanoma diagnosis nearly eight weeks ago.

I find that when faced with a situation like the one I am presently in – namely a serious threat to my mortality, certain things have become more important, and others have almost dropped off the radar entirely.

For example, I have developed a sophisticated server-based e-mail filtering system, which, based on a blend of destination e-mail address (I have a virtually unlimited number of e-mail addresses that route to me), subjects, and sender information, will sort incoming e-mail to one or more of several e-mail queues. One of those queues or mailboxes – the low-priority one consisting mainly of newsletters, corporate mail blasts, and e-mails from people who still use older degraded addresses to reach me – has over 100,000 e-mails waiting in it at present. And while I’ve been planning for weeks to try to plow through all that mail, I simply can’t get myself to spend the time to clear the several months’ worth of messages which have accumulated there, as if the messages were truly important, the senders would find other ways to contact me. It no longer seems important to spend my now much more precious time dealing with things like those low priority e-mail messages.

I am also a big fan of the comic strips in newspapers – something unavailable to me in the few newspapers we get on Bonaire. One of the hidden blessings of moving to an apartment in the U.S. for my treatments was the daily newspaper delivery I could arrange (with the Boston Globe), primarily for the comic strip (and for some local news and events information). But even so, I can no longer justify the time to read comic strips that I never quite enjoyed with in the hopes they get better or more intelligible (with apologies to the fans of the Zippy and Sylvia comic strips). The reality is they won’t get more interesting no matter how many of them I read, so I really don’t need to waste my time bothering with those particular strips.

I also no longer spend a lot of time on random web surfing. When I do track stories or topics they tend to be more focused (keywords like “melanoma”, “extracapsular activity”, “cloquet”, “metastasis”, “yervoy”, “ipilimumab”, and “interferon” have been recent top search terms for me).

On the flip side, writing has always been a passion of mine, as has photography, so I am devoting more time to writing (as evidenced in this blog at present) and the continued evolution of my daily photo blog at http://www.BitsAreCheap.com.

While my home life has always been unusual in that both I and my wife work at home and our kids are home schooled, I am also trying to be more adaptable to the requests my children and wife have of me, as other than my health, they are my top priority. For example, yesterday Bas (my son) and I finished Portal II on the Xbox 360 in co-op mode, something he has wanted to do for a while. And we’ve also been playing a bit more World of Warcraft together (with my daughter Krystyana as well) in the last few weeks.

Modesty

Among the shifting priorities I have been facing and have adjusted to is “modesty”. While I have never been a truly shy person, this past week has shown me that modesty is no longer important in the grand scheme of things. I’ve lost count of how many people I have stripped down to nothing for this week (or flipped up my gown for while at the hospital – including the young and serious female intern who inquired about testicular swelling and wanted to perform a visual inspection). In addition to “show”, there has also been “tell”, where I have discussed my most personal physical details and issues with whichever nurse, doctor, or doctor-in-training who asked.

In fact, with nurses from the Visiting Nurses Association now coming by the apartment to check on me and my post-operative recovery, I find myself “dropping trou” (which, according to the Urban Dictionary means “To lower one’s pants (trousers) down to one’s ankles, often in a sudden, impulsive manner, thus exposing one’s nether regions”) almost without being asked. I think this is a subconscious move on my part to seek vindication that my surgery was worth the effort and that I am recovering properly. And frankly, with mortality on the line, showing one’s dangly bits to a medical professional is hardly a matter of huge import anymore. From a sociological perspective, it is fascinating to see how quickly our attitudes change when our situations change. My wife Linda tells me that this is a point that women determine and arrive at a lot earlier than men, since things like childbirth result in broad exposure of one’s nether regions, never mind excruciating pain – pain which could expose one’s soul to the world.

That said, I would not be surprised if misplaced modesty among others might result in delayed diagnosis and treatment solely because the patient was too embarrassed to explain or show a personal problem to a medical professional. My advice for any of you in a potentially embarrassing situation is to bare all – literally and figuratively. When it’s your health (and future) on the line, embarrassment is inconsequential and unimportant. Survival is what counts.

A corollary to this is that it’s okay to be emotional and cry, even as a male in our society. And yes, it’s also okay to tell another male that you love him (or to tell another woman who is not your spouse or other relative that you love her too). And let’s not forget hugs – we all need to get hugs, and give hugs. Sharing our emotions is what binds us together as human beings. That’s something I am relearning right now, and it has been both a freeing and grounding experience at the same time.

Don’t Use Illness as an Excuse for Inaction

As human beings, we also procrastinate and try to avoid things which are unpleasant, and we may confuse such actions with the cognitive setting of priorities. I would suggest that just because one is dealing with heavy issues, it’s not a reason to just blow off everything you don’t want to do. Maintaining a decent level dedication to your commitments, and making your time count towards things that have meaning are both good priorities. It’s too easy to simply wave off everything and do nothing, and I would suspect that would only lead to a downward slide toward depression because in the process you lose things that give you self-worth as well.

Mind you, it may not be easy to stay focused on what needs to get done, but I believe it’s vital to have goals at all times, and to pursue them, because in turn that keeps one’s spirit strong.

In Other Words…

I realize in re-reading the above that I am probably not really doing as good a job explaining myself as I should, but let me try to summarize this way: When faced with dramatic challenges in life, focus on the things that are most important to your mental and physical well-being, and never forget your loved ones – family and friends (and pets). Make the time you spend on anything you do mean something, at least to yourself. And don’t dwell on only the negative – that can never end well.

And Now, For Something Completely Different – My Status

So, with my day’s ration of philosophy and observation out of the way, let me share some updates in my health situation.

As I wrote a couple of days ago, my surgery went well. Although the swelling in my right thigh is still sizable, my overall pain level is slowly decreasing. And it made my heart glad this morning when the nurse who came to visit expressed amazement that I was up and about. She couldn’t believe I had only had surgery on Monday.

More troubling, however, have been two other things. The first was on Wednesday when my drain (pictured in the previous blog entry) had stopped showing any new liquid. Wednesday night I ended up experiencing significant swelling (including the aforementioned testicular swelling the intern had asked me about) and got a bit panicked. I ended up calling the nursing association as well as my doctor, with the result being a request that I come into the doctor’s office the following morning to have the situation looked at. I neglected to ask how such a problem would be resolved and had visions that they would have to cut me back open to unclog the part of the drain (about 8 inches worth) left inside me – this resulted in a pretty terrible stressful night of fitful sleep.

On Thursday morning, the doctor’s P.A. (physician’s assistant) was able, via a process called “milking” (of the plastic tube of the drain, in case your mind was in the gutter), get the drain working again, and I’ve now been happily draining hundreds of centiliters of lymph fluid again, with swelling in other areas vastly reduced (much to my relief!). At the same time I was also informed that there were several other ways to try to unclog drains, none of which required a brand new surgery. If only I had thought to ask I could have saved myself a lot of worry. Note to self: Ask all the questions up front whenever possible.

The second troubling item was that I also learned during the visit to the doctor’s office that my pathology report from Monday’s surgery had arrived. We were all surprised they were completed so soon.

I apparently had a total of 20 lymph nodes removed during my lymphadenectomy last week, according the excerpt shown above. Two of those nodes were “Cloquet’s”, meaning (as I understand it) that these were deep nodes, generally located closer to the organs in the abdomen. These were clear of cancer, which I took to be a mildly good sign, in that the cancer had not yet gotten closer to other organs, although my cursory literature search suggests that using Cloquet’s nodes as indicators of likely (or unlikely) metastasis of organs is not clearly established.

Of the other 18 lymph nodes removed from my body and analyzed, five (5) were found to contain metastatic melanoma, meaning the cancer has definitely been spreading. More worrisome was that the largest chunk of melanoma which had metastasized into the lymph nodes was 2.2 cm (nearly an inch) long in its largest dimension (the report provide no indication of the three dimensional measurements of the tumor), and that there was “extracapsular extension”. Extracapsular extension, as I understand it, refers to some of the cancer being located in tissue outside (external or “extra”) the lymph nodes. The member of the doctor’s staff we asked about this indicated that extracapsular extension was an indicator of an increased chance of reoccurrence of melanoma in people in whom the cancer had gone into remission.

The result of the pathology now changes my cancer staging from a Stage III B (it was borderline III A/B) to a Stage III C because of the additional lymph node metastasis. See http://www.aimatmelanoma.org/aim-for-answers/stages-of-melanoma/stage-iii-melanoma.html.

Another result of the pathology, one which I am willing to look at as a good thing, is that it has now resulted in an effort to discuss adjuvant treatment and clinical trials for new anti-melanoma drugs with me next early week instead of at the end of May as originally scheduled. I figure the sooner we can start on treatments, the better my long term prognosis.

While I had hoped for better news, I take solace in the fact that I have exchanged messages with and heard of a number of folks with similar staging who have been successfully treated for their melanoma. And getting my treatments started sooner rather than later only improves my chances, I think.

At this point I think my next update here in my blog will be the middle of next week, after my initial consultation and its ramifications have sunk in.

 

Foul Humors   May 11th, 2011

Maybe it’s no coincidence that the last fiction book I read was Ken Follett’s “World Without End”, which I started the day of my sentinel lymph node biopsy on April 1st. What now, in retrospect, seems poignant about the book was one of the main character’s struggles during medieval Britain with the common accepted wisdom of medical procedures. One of the procedures frequently advocated by the monks and men of knowledge in the book was bleeding the patient to drain the foul humors believed to be causing illness. For the most part, modern medicine has disposed of that practice, but I find it curious to be sitting here, writing today’s blog post, with a plastic tube attached inside my body, connected to a small plastic container clipped to my shirt where my “foul humors” are now collecting.

The drain installed in my body to drain off fluid build-up

The drain installed in my body to drain off fluid build-up

Okay, so I know it’s not really “foul humors”, but instead a way to provide a release for excess fluid build-up in my body now that part of my lymphatic system has been removed, but still – there’s an interesting sort of historical analogy here, as cancer treatment is still a rather inexact science (at least for many types of cancer, include the melanoma I have been diagnosed with).

As I wrote in my previous posting, I was scheduled for a lymphadenectomy this past Monday – a surgical procedure which is intended to remove potentially cancerous lymph nodes before the cancer can metastasize in other parts of the body.

At Mass General Hospital the morning of my surgery

At Mass General Hospital the morning of my surgery

I arrived by foot at nearby Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) just before 6am on Monday, May 9th, with my family in tow. It didn’t take long for me to get processed through the surgical pre-operative routine and get parked outside Operating Room 3 (and MGH apparently has 50 operating rooms). By 8am or so, I was already under the proverbial knife in OR3, wielded by MGH’s chief oncological surgeon and melanoma surgical specialist, Dr. Kenneth Tanabe.

At 10:30am my wife Linda received a call from Dr. Tanabe explaining that the surgery went well, and there were no blatant signs that anything was amiss with the lymph nodes they removed. I personally did not regain full consciousness until sometime around 12:30pm, in the recovery unit, where I stayed until they found me a bed for the night in Ellison 7 – one of the wings where patients stay and are taken care of while staying at the hospital. I didn’t get moved from recovery to my room until about 4pm – it took a while to find me a free space.

I did discover a few things during my recovery that I had not expected. The first was that during surgery I had had a catheter administered to keep my bladder drained. I had never had a catheter before, and the ramifications were rather distressing – urinating hurt like the dickens due to a roughed up urethra, and, as I later discovered, my bladder lost its usual elasticity for a while, resulting in extreme abdominal pain later that night. That has fortunately resolved itself now.

The other thing I learned was that I had been lucky with the two prior excisions in that my post-operative wound pain was pretty minor. That was definitely not the case this time around, as my lymphadenectomy had resulted in the internal bruising (or possibly even some cutting) of muscle tissue in the area where my lymph nodes were removed). The consequence of this is significant pain anytime my abdominal or groin region tenses up, which in turn is caused by coughing, throat clearing, nose blowing, sneezing, attempting to lift my right leg, and transitioning between horizontal, sitting, and standing positions. Once I am sitting, lying down, or standing, the pain ends up going away. The unfortunate aspect of this is that I am having to utilize pain medication at present, which is not something I’m particularly fond of, as it makes my thinking a bit fuzzy (and, let me tell you, writing this blog entry coherently while on pain meds is a wee bit of a challenge).

Anyhow, shortly after I arrived in my room, my wife and children, and my “little sister” LaDonna – all of whom had been waiting for me in the Gray waiting area at MGH since 12:30pm, were summoned, and kept me company for a while.

Me in my hospital bed later in the day after my surgery

Me in my hospital bed later in the day after my surgery

I was in good spirits when they arrived, but pain was definitely a source of discomfort. LaDonna ended up leaving around 5pm because she needed to catch a train back to Maine, and my family left shortly thereafter to grab some dinner. It is definitely convenient living only a 5-7 minute walk away from the hospital, as Linda ultimately ended up making three trips to the hospital on Monday.

My nurse Natalie got me on my feet while Linda and the kids were away – it was painful getting up on my feet, but liberating in a way as well, since I could walk (shuffle) with only a modicum of pain once I was vertical.

Linda came back to visit for a bit after dinner, and then I had the rest of the night to myself – and my roommate Jack, numerous nurses, and non-stop sound and light. How anyone is supposed to get any rest and relaxation in a hospital I don’t know. Between the taking of vitals every four hours, the sounds of coughing from a roommate with pneumonia, constant alert tones and announcements, and my own bladder and pain management issues, I managed all of about three hours of fitful sleep.

When the chief resident came in the next morning to tell me that I was free to be released because I had managed to walk around the prior night, I felt greatly relieved – it was an emancipation of sorts. I didn’t think I would have been able to manage another day in the hospital (and not just due to the lack of restfulness, but also because of the unsuitable food – no real viable low-carb options – everything had starches and sugar, which would only serve to make me feel worse physically).

The process of getting back to our apartment was a bit of a conundrum. We had originally discussed the idea of having a taxi take me back, but I couldn’t see how it would possibly work considering how difficult it was for me to transition between sitting and standing, never mind that taxis don’t have a lot of leg room. So I opted for the more practical but tedious approach of shuffling my way back to our apartment on foot. A walk that would normally take about five minutes took closer to thirty minutes due to my slower and more meticulous pace. But the end result is that I am now safely back home, and after a pretty decent night’s sleep (7 hours with only one interruption), I am feeling “not too bad”. My right thigh is definitely swollen and tingly, but I have a nurse from the visiting nurses’ association (VNA) arriving shortly to remove my bandages and help me with wound care and other recovery advice.

So, what comes next?

I should have biopsy results from the removed lymph nodes by the beginning of next week.

The drain will stay attached until the bulb has collected only about 30cc of fluid for any given day (yesterday it was nearly 300cc for the whole day, and started off mostly blood, whereas now it is clearing up as the fluid collected has transitioned to lymph). The predication is that this will take a few weeks to achieve, so I will need to deal with the drain in some way until then.

And, I have my first round of clinical oncology meetings on May 31st to see what faces me next in terms of adjuvant treatments – immunotherapy with Interferon, most likely. That gives me about three weeks to learn all I can about cancer cellular biology and melanoma treatment possibilities so I can better understand my options.

 

When I was first told I had malignant melanoma, one of the leading questions bouncing around my dazed brain was “why me?” And when questions like that start invading one’s consciousness, the answers are rarely satisfactory, and are, in fact, frequently disturbing.

You feel guilt for having somehow contracted a deadly disease, but can’t figure out how you might have contracted it – was it that sunburn in Costa Rica in September 2008? Or too much time spent at high altitude in airplanes? Maybe something we ate at some point? Or too much wine? Or not enough? Could it be our low carb lifestyle? Or did that actually prevent the melanoma from cropping up earlier?

You wonder what you could have done differently so that the diagnosis had come back clean instead of laden with cancer. You wonder if you could have acted sooner to somehow head it off at the pass. You worry that since you got the disease, your loved ones might be susceptible to a similar diagnosis. And, if you’re a person of faith, you might view your diagnosis as some sort of spiritual test.

And this series of “why me?” and “what if?” questions can drive you crazy, stress you out, and depress you – none of which will help one overcome the disease, and could make it even worse, if the theories of mental attitude affecting physical wellness are to be believed (and I do believe them).

After dwelling on these thoughts for a while, and doing some research, which confirmed that even the really smart medical people really don’t know exactly why some people get melanoma and others don’t, I came to the conclusion that the reason I ended up with cancer boiled down to chaos theory, or, in other words, “shit happens” (with apologies to my kids for using the “s” word).

As I have been learning, cancer is the result of cell mutation, which, in simple terms, results in particular cells growing out of control either because they have mutated in a way that accelerates cellular reproduction (mutated oncogenes) or disables the cellular controls that prevent such rapid reproduction (mutated anti-oncogenes). Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” equates these mutations to the controls of a vehicle: the accelerator pedal being pressed all the way down (the mutated oncogenes) or the brake pedal failing (the mutated anti-oncogenes).

In the case of melanoma, the type of cell that has gone nuts – at least initially – is a melanocyte, a pigmented skin cell, hence the classification of melanoma as a skin cancer and warnings by folks like the World Health Organization warning about sun exposure being the cause of skin cancers including melanoma.

However, according to a friend in the field of cancer treatment research (thanks David S.), the mutation can come from any of a number of causes, including, but not limited to, sun exposure, chemicals, or simply the build up of random errors that occur during normal cell division. So, in other words, we’re back to “shit happens”.

In a way, the idea that my cancer was a random, unpredictable occurrence is a bit of a relief, as it allows me to not have to worry about the past, and instead focus on the future.

And that future involves surgery next Monday, and then some sort of treatment – most likely immunotherapy – starting at some point in June.

The surgery I am having on Monday morning is called a “lymphadenectomy”, and involves the removal of all of the lymph nodes in the area where my sentinel lymph node was removed, namely in the region of my right groin. More specifically, I’m having an inguinal lymphadenectomy, “inguinal” referring to the groin and lowest lateral regions of the abdomen (per Merriam-Webster’s dictionary). The surgery will take between two and three hours, and will result in several incisions ranging from the middle/upper part of my right thigh up to my lower abdomen – probably an area about 12-18 inches high in total.

The reason for the lymphadenectomy is that it is believed to be a way to surgically treat cancer which has spread to the lymph nodes but has not metastasized beyond them. The lymph nodes appear to act as a dam of sorts to the cancer cells, collecting and preventing them from easily spreading in the rest of the body, but at some point they can get overwhelmed and then the cancer cells will spread to invade organs and other parts of the body. So, by removing the affected lymph nodes surgically, the hope is that it will also remove the cancerous cells (see, e.g., WebMD). There will be a biopsy performed on all the lymph nodes removed during the surgery to determine how wide spread (if at all) the cancer was in my lymphatic system.

As a bit of background, the lymphatic system is part of a body’s immune system, including the fighting of bacteria, viruses, and even cancerous cells. The clear fluid carried in the lymphatic system is called “lymph”, and lymph nodes act as a filter against foreign materials. There is a good overview of what the lymphatic system is and does here. A diagram from that link showing the lymphatic system and the lymph nodes can be seen below:

(From http://penile-cancer.ca/pc/lymphadenectomy.htm)

Of course, no externally induced physical changes to a biological organism can be made without some sort of side effects, and for lymphadenectomies, the side effects will likely include swelling from the build-up of lymph, now that the lymphatic system has been disrupted by the removal of all the lymph nodes in a given region. This swelling may or may not be temporary, and is called lymphedema. Dealing with the swelling and lymphedema in a leg would require the use of a pressure stocking. Also, during the recovery period after the lymphadenectomy, until the body has adjusted to the lack of particular lymph nodes, will also require the use of a drain to remove excess fluid build-up. The drain I was shown during my initial appointment to discuss the lymphadenectomy was about the size and shape of a hand grenade.

I expect to be kept in the hospital for a couple of days – probably getting released on Wednesday, and already have a follow-up appointment scheduled at the end of the month, followed by meetings with the clinical staff at the hospital to determine my adjuvant treatment, which will likely involve immunotherapy. Unlike chemotherapy, which involves using cellular toxins to try and kill cancer cells in the body, immunotherapy tries to boost the body’s immune system to help attack any cancer cells remaining in the body after surgical removal of cancerous bits (lymph nodes in my case).

On a separate note, the skin graft on my wide excision has, for the most part, failed to bond. Blood formed under part of the skin graft and prevented it from grafting properly. The downside to this diagnosis is that it will take longer for the excision to heal, and I will have a noticeable scar on my right thigh, but both of those items are, in my view, not significant in comparison to the greater challenges I face in fighting my cancer.