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.

 

I write to you tonight from my private (for now) room at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland. For those of you who follow this blog closely, you will understand that this means that when I signed the agreement to participate in the Melanoma TIL (Tumor Invading Lymphocytes) clinical trial here yesterday, I was randomized into the arm of the trial which adds Total Body Irradiation (TBI) to the base TIL treatment.

This is actually a good thing – even with the nasty side effects – because the use of TBI, based on anecdotal evidence, appears to contribute handily to improving the response to the TIL treatment. And, as it was confirmed this morning that the melanoma has now started to spread to my liver and my lungs (small tumors were spotted on the CT scan on Wednesday), I am pushing for every bit of help the TIL treatment can get in killing my melanoma. So TBI is most welcome as a part of my treatment.

The emblem of the surgical unit of the National Cancer Institute

The emblem of the surgical unit of the National Cancer Institute

A short while ago I received my first set of injections of a medication called G-CSF a.k.a. filgrastim a.k.a. Neupogen. The purpose of this medication is to stimulate the growth and release of stem cells into the bloodstream. The careful readers among you may notice that I referred to “injections” in the plural. As it turns out they can only inject a maximum of 2mL of filgrastim per injection site, and my dose is 2.8mL, so they split the dose in two, shot into opposite sides of my belly. I apparently will be getting two shots every 12 hours (at 7am and 7pm), instead of one larger one, for the next five days. Eek.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by having to be poked twice as often, as needles have been a big part of my week here in Bethesda. In counting the number of times I have been punctured in the last three days, I get to twelve. Only nine of those were successful. This includes the two belly injections tonight, two sets of drawn blood, three IVs, and two related to my leukapheresis. The puncture wounds on my arms alone make me look like a junky. But that should have changed with the small surgery I had this afternoon to install a double-lumen Hickman catheter (more on that later).

The feeder apheresis, also know as a leukapheresis, was pretty interesting. As described in my prior blog post, the idea was to remove blood flowing through one arm, filter it for the desired blood component, and put the remaining blood components back into my body in the other arm. And that’s pretty much how it worked yesterday morning. All in all, 15 liters of my blood (which is about 3-4 times my total blood volume) was run through the apheresis machine to produce almost a liter of mostly white blood cells. The process ran nearly four hours, and after the initial installations of the intake and outtake needles, was pretty painless.

My white blood cells after the leukapheresis

My white blood cells after the leukapheresis

The filtering process is actually a centrifuge which forces the components of my blood into separate layers, one of which is the white blood cell layer. It’s next to the red blood cell layer, which is why the above bag of white blood cells is reddish in color. The white blood cells will be further separated out in a lab, and then fed to the TIL cells being grown for me, since those cells will appreciate a “homey” environment (namely from my body).

Next Wednesday morning, all the stem cells being released into my body will be collected via a stem cell apheresis, but this time I won’t need to be punctured again. That’s because this afternoon I had a dual-lumen (two port) Hickman catheter installed into my jugular vein.

Diagram of a dual-lumen Hickman catheter

Diagram of a dual-lumen Hickman catheter

The doctor installing the catheter indicated it was 23cm (almost 10 inches) long. It starts in the middle right part of my chest, loops up over my right clavicle, and down again into the vein. At the end of the catheter (the part inside my body) are two openings about 1.5 cm apart, at right angles from each other. The catheter itself has two independent channels (lumen), one connected to each of the openings.

On the end of the catheter sticking out of my body are two ports which can take IVs, but more importantly, can also be used for my stem cell apheresis so I don’t have to be poked again for that (or future apheresis or any IVs other than for CT or MRI contrast injections).

The catheter is pretty uncomfortable tonight – a little bit of pain, plus a feeling like I bruised my neck muscle, but the doctor (and the nurses here) said I would get used to it in a couple of days. Good thing, since I need to continue to keep it in for at least three months.

I also had a dietician come visit me today to discuss my dietary needs and restrictions once I start my actual treatment of chemotherapy followed by the radiation and IL-2. And, even more importantly, the months after treatment where I will be recovering from the effects of the radiation. About half-way through my treatment, I will achieve a point where I am “neutropenic” – having little or no white blood cells with which to fight off any infections or illness, and that will require being extremely careful about what foods I eat (and whose hands I shake).

However, even as my white blood cells come back after the reintroduction of my stem cells, I’ve been told that I will need to maintain a neutropenic diet for about three months after treatment to avoid complications. This cuts a lot of fun and interesting food out of consideration for consumption, so perhaps I should take solace in the fact that I won’t have much of an appetite, as well reduced taste sensation, during my recovery.

An overview of the “can and cannot eat” items in a neutropenic diet can be found here.

After I return back to Boston on Friday or Saturday, I can only count on being there for between five and twelve days, and I’m betting on the lower end of that range based on how fast things have gone at NCI. Then I’ll be back in Bethesda, starting my treatment, and hopefully moving my way through the final step towards NED – No Evidence of Disease!