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!