The last three weeks have not been particularly enjoyable, filled with uncertainty, angst, and a modicum of hope that what I was facing was just a minor hiccup in my treatment.

It all started on Monday, November 14th, when my doctor at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) called to tell me that their radiologist had been unable to load some of the images from my brain MRI the prior week when I was at NCI for my monthly evaluation and consult.

Unfortunately, the news wasn’t very good. Turns out that in contrast to what we were told during the consultation, the brain MRI was not clean, but that there were five “mets” (short for metastatic tumors) in my brain – the largest being 6mm (the size of a small pea) across and on my cerebellum. The other four mets were quite a bit smaller, with two each on opposite sides of my brain.

I was also informed that since I now had brain tumors (under the assumption they had formed after my TIL treatment on October 7th) I could no longer be part of the protocol (no brain tumors allowed in the protocol), meaning no more free monthly evaluations at NCI (which made the costs of CT scans and MRIs completely free to me – no insurance involved. I was therefore being remanded back to the care of my oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).

While we really like my oncologist at MGH, the news was a real blow – a stunning reminder that with melanoma, nothing is predictable, and that there appears to be no simple, straightforward path one can rely on in treatment, even with TIL. I would have thought my initial reaction would have been depression, but in fact it was sheer anger at this stupid melanoma and its inability to stay put and let itself be exterminated by my TIL treatment.

We made contact with my oncologist at MGH (it turns out that the immunotherapy group at NCI regularly consults with him as an expert in the field of melanoma treatment) to figure out what to do next. After reviewing our notes we were thinking that the brain tumors could have formed in the three weeks before my TIL treatment started which gave us hope that the TIL treatment might be shrinking the brain tumors in which case I could be readmitted to care at NCI. In meeting with the brain-radiation oncology specialist at MGH the following morning, we came to an agreement that I would get a brain MRI in about three weeks to see if the tumors had shrunk. If they had, I would be remanded back to NCI. If they were unchanged, we would monitor with a later brain MRI. If the tumors had increased we would go ahead with whole brain radiation.

That MRI took place last night, and this morning Linda and I met with the radiation oncologist. Turns out there was a fourth option we hadn’t considered, namely tiny little hemorrhages (bleeds) at the location of the previously found tumors, along with “new small regions of hemorrhage and in areas of previously uninvolved brain” (from the doctor’s notes), suggesting that there were tumors that were too small to be seen in the MRIs, but having an impact nonetheless. This apparently is not uncommon with melanoma mets in the brain.

Also, there was certainly no shrinkage in the previously detected tumors, and there might have been minuscule growth (which appears to be within the margin of error the MRI machine, so that’s not entirely definite either).

These factors, especially the hemorrhages, pretty much necessitate the whole brain radiation, which will stop any active bleeding (the MRI can’t distinguish between active and non-bleeding hemorrhages), as well as kill all the cancer cells in the tumors and elsewhere in my brain. That means I will likely (very high probability) be free of melanoma and bleeding in my brain after the whole brain radiation. There will be another brain MRI sometime in February to confirm.

Note too that the whole brain radiation apparently has no impact on TIL cells outside the brain, and it’s unclear if it has a negative impact on the TIL cells in the brain. Seeing as TIL cells are white blood cells, it’s unlikely, but unknown.

As a result, I started a 13 day course of whole brain radiation today at dose of 2.5Gy per day (takes all of 30 seconds for the two exposures needed, but about five minutes for set-up and tear-down). I had to get a form fitted mask made to ensure my head would be perfectly aligned to avoid irradiation of non-brain parts (eyes, nose, etc.)

The custom face mask made using my face - the mesh allows for easy breathing

The custom face mask made using my face - the mesh allows for easy breathing

 

I will need to go into the radiation oncology facility at MGH every week day through December 15th for this radiation treatment. While the treatment is quick, if the Linac device I am scheduled for (there are three there, and I’m assigned to a particular one for the duration of my treatment) is backed up with other patients, I may have to wait up to an hour for my radiation treatment.

Me with my custom mask on, getting ready for my first dose of whole brain radiation

Me with my custom mask on, getting ready for my first dose of whole brain radiation

The side effects of this treatment are likely to include hair-loss – Hah! – I have that one covered! (see photo below). In my case it will mean that my hair will take some months longer to grow back. The other likely side effect is fatigue, which would be layered on top of my existing fatigue, which has not been significant so far. The radiation oncology doctor indicated that some of his patients are prescribed Ritalin to help overcome radiation induced fatigue.

Jake Self-Portrait - November 16, 2012

Jake Self-Portrait - November 16, 2012

Still missing from the above is a discussion with my melanoma oncologist about what to do about follow-up body scans to see how the TIL treatment is working, since NCI won’t be providing these any more (meaning, by the way, that our planned trip to Bethesda next week no longer exist). Another discussion that will need to take place is whether it’s a good idea for me to have some other sort of systemic treatment, like ipilimumab (Yervoy). Those discussions should take place in the next six weeks.

For those of you wondering, our trip to Bonaire at the end of the year, necessitated by the requirements of our special medical insurance for U.S. citizens who are foreign residents, is not affected by the radiation treatment. I’m hoping the fatigue won’t interfere with the enjoyment of the trip back home.

So, while these dramatic changes are frustrating, the fact there is a plan that will deal well with my brain mets in place gives me hope that we can move back to Bonaire full-time in April 2012, with my taking occasional trips to Boston for appointments while finding a guest bedroom to crash in with family and friends during my visits.

Some other miscellaneous notes that might be of interest to those of you following things more closely:

Dry Mouth Update – My dry mouth continues to improve. Sleeping with the dry mouth is no longer a real issue. If things get too dry I use a dry mouth mouthwash to un-dry my mouth. I can now taste and enjoy a pretty wide range of flavors (within the bounds of my neutropenic diet). Exceptions are spicy (chili pepper spice, like cayenne) foods, and foods with high acidity. White wines are unpalatable at present because of this, and red wines are drinkable but not as enjoyable yet as they were before my treatment. I don’t suffer a lack of appetite, although my shrunken stomach has physical limits as to what will fit inside.

A New Richter Cousin – One of the nicest unexpected side benefits of my melanoma treatment has been the discovery of a heretofore unknown Richter cousin. I first met Carolynne at the PET scan waiting room at MGH early this past August, and we got to talking about our respective melanoma occurrences and spread and the fact we both had the rarer NRAS gene mutation instead of the more common BRAF mutation. When I came back from my injection with the radioactive isotope, she and her husband Mark were gone. But a month or so later Carolynne had found this blog and sent me a message to explain her maiden name was Richter. With my father’s help, we found that our family tree shares an ancestor from the mid-1800s, and that her next generation ancestor after that was the brother of my similar generation ancestor. Look at the picture below and judge for yourself. The photo comes from when Carolynne and Mark came to visit us for a few hours of social and melanoma chat about a week ago. Definitely a major highlight of November for me.

Richter Cousins

Richter Cousins

Weight and Girth – My weight post-treatment has been holding steady at around 200 pounds. Sadly, a lot of that weight loss is muscle tissue, and not the roll of chubbiness around my mid-section (though that has decreased too). I have not weighed that little since late junior high school or early high school, when I was also a number of inches shorter than I am now. My waist is down to around 32″, the same as that of my 14-year old son Bas.

Neutropenic Diet – I am presently more than half-way through the three months that I need to be on my neutropenic diet, which ends on January 6th. I will be looking forward to my first medium-rare bone-in rib-eye after that date, with a green salad. Both are things I am not allowed to eat at present. I’m also planning for Bobbe Jan’s ribs and fries on January 6th, my last evening home on Bonaire before flying back to Boston. Yum.

That’s it for now. More when notable stuff happens, and apologies for not posting sooner, but we didn’t want to increase the amount of anxiety in our families and friends until we knew what was happening.

 

Still on the Path to NED   November 10th, 2011

Yesterday I spent the day at the National Cancer Institute at NIH getting scanned and poked. The poking started my day at 7:30am with an apheresis to process five liters of my blood (basically, my whole blood volume) to extract white blood cells for future research use and review when the clinical trial I am in ends (which will be once the 118 candidates have all gone through treatment in a year or more). The wonderful apheresis nurses managed to jab me only once per IV (I needed two lines – one in, one out), and even set it up so one of those IV lines could be used for my scan contrast injections later in the day.

I had CT scan first, from neck to knee, and then an MRI of my brain and my liver.

All told I was at NCI for 10.5 hours for these three procedures (they took my blood during apheresis as well). I was beat, so we had dinner at the Tastee Diner around the block from our hotel. Food was decent diner food, but the highlight was the people watching and ambiance.

This morning we had a very nice brunch at the Louisiana Kitchen with friends Mark and Resa – whom we knew from many years ago both from Bonaire and the BonaireTalk on-line community Linda and I had started a dozen or so years ago. We’ve been corresponding frequently in the last couple of months, and it was nice to see them in person.

And this afternoon (I’m being extra wordy because I’m working to build up the tension to the information you are all really interested in) we met with my doctor and medical team to learn what the scans revealed. First, the dietician came in and when we explained all that I was able to eat, and how well my taste buds were recovering in such a short time, she was elated, telling me that I was months ahead of where she expected when I left the clinical facilities three weeks ago.

Next in was the research nurse managing the clinical trial. She was happy to see my progress in terms of eating and fatigue, but cautioned me that in her experience, everyone who has had the radiation so far has suffered significant set-backs after the first two to three months after treatment. She indicated she would be happy if I proved her wrong, but thought it was much more likely than not that I would have a serious crash in terms of fatigue and other symptoms by the end of the year and that recovery would be rough for a bit at that point. Linda and I are both hoping that she’s wrong, since I’m already at the same equilibrium I was at before treatment, at least in terms of being a bit of a couch potato.

And finally, it was time for my doctor. She expressed genuine joy and happiness at how well I was doing physically, indicated that while my blood work showed a few below-normal indications, it was perfectly normal and stable for where I was at in terms of recovery. Then she gave us the scan results: No new growths, and the tumors they had been tracking for size showed an average decrease in size of 4.4% compared to the scans taken a right before my treatment started, and a week before I got my TIL cells. Considering my tumors had a week to grow after that last scan, a 4.4% reduction actually translates to something a little bit more numerically, we believe. And no new growths is excellent news too.

We asked her about the tumors in my thigh that have disappeared, and she indicated they had been too small to measure previously, falling within the measuring margin of error, but indicated this was a positive sign. She also confirmed she could see on the scans that the baseball-size lump I had in my thigh had gone from rigid to mushy (same as we had discerned by feeling the lump over the last few weeks), and appeared to be becoming more cyst-like instead of tumor-like, which suggests that the body is working to dispose of it.

While 4.4% percent may not seem like much, considering how rapid the growth and spread of my tumors had been up through the end of September, it’s an amazing achievement.

My next appointment for scans and meeting with the doctor is set for December 5th & 6th, and that meeting should shine further light on how well my tumors are shrinking and keeping me on the path to NED.

In a related matter, we resolved a problem with our insurance company this week – they appeared to be trying to prevent me from renewing my health insurance for next year – but that has now been worked out and I am renewed for 2012. One of the requirements for renewal (as this policy covers U.S. citizens who reside outside the U.S.) is that we be residing outside the U.S. on the renewal date, which is December 28th. As such, we will be spending the end of the year, and the beginning of next year – with my doctor’s blessing – back home on Bonaire. We will arrive on Christmas weekend and leave a week after New Years. For us, being back on Bonaire will truly be a reason to celebrate. And my biggest wish for that time is that I will not be suffering the extreme fatigue the research nurse warned me about, so that we can spend some time catching up with friends and home.

 

Eating Well and Touching Myself   November 5th, 2011

Okay, so maybe the title is a bit provocative, but enough time has gone by, with enough changes, that I thought I should post an update.

On the recovery side of things, while I am still not at full energy, I do find that my energy levels are going up by a tiny bit every day, and in fact, I’ve not had a daytime nap in a week. I am making sure not to overdo things, but every other day I go for a pretty long (and slow) walk to rebuild my strength and stamina.

The dry mouth is still here, with some days better than others, and my foods still need to be well lubricated (sauce is good!) or moist for me to be able to consume them.

More importantly, my taste buds are healing, and I’m able to taste more and more foods. I still find myself very sensitive to very tart (acidic) ingredients as well as spice (of the chili variety), but am now able to manage most normal foods and enjoy them reasonably well. Black pepper is fine now too. For example, in the last week, we’ve had Indian, Thai, and Chinese foods, and I’ve been able to eat all but the spicy dishes. Plus, of course, the fabulous creativity of Linda and Krystyana have been a key component as well. For example, last night they made 40 clove chicken (I only had one garlic clove, but two large drumsticks with the lemon garlic sauce the chicken was braised in).

I know I am still quite far from getting the full flavor of dishes and foods, but that will all come in time. And considering where I am now, relative to where I was just three weeks ago, it’s a huge world of difference already.

So, onto the “touching myself” aspect of this post…

When I was starting my TIL/TBI treatment at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda at the beginning of October, I had a number of very palpable melanoma tumors in my right thigh, and the area the tumors for the TIL harvest had come from felt like someone had buried a baseball in my thigh – it was rigid with small lumps around it as well.

Flash forward to the present, and I can only feel (by touching myself – get it?) just one of the smaller tumors (there were over a half dozen) in my thigh, and the baseball shaped mound in my thigh has gotten quite soft as well. Considering that my weight is down to a svelte 200 pounds (down from 225 when I started treatment) – meaning I have lost quite a bit of weight, which should have made the tumors more pronounced if they were not shrinking, this suggests that some aspect of the treatment is working, and working much more quickly than expected. It’s not clear whether the IL-2 or TIL cells (or the combination thereof) are the cause, but either way, Linda and I are pretty jazzed by these rather noticeable early result. We haven’t said anything publicly sooner (although we noticed the tumors becoming less palpable over a week ago) because we wanted to be sure that trend was continuing (and it is). My doctor did tell me last week (after getting my excellent blood work results), that I continue to be ahead of the curve. So here’s to being an overachiever with a type-A personality!

We’re expecting that the scans coming up this next week at the National Cancer Institute will give us some further insight as to what’s happening internally, but outward appearances suggest that I am slowly heading towards NED. And that means being able to going back to living at home on Bonaire on a more permanent basis once again down the road. Woo hoo!