I feel that I have been a bit remiss in providing updates here on my blog, but I figure I have a good excuse – namely fatigue from my Sylatron treatment, as well as being more easily distracted by a myriad of things, perhaps again because of the treatment.

I gave myself my fourth Sylatron injection last Wednesday, marking the half-way point of the induction phase of my treatment. And while my side effects are not nearly as challenging as they could be (two of my melanoma buddies who just started their Sylatron have already experienced fevers and chills within a half day of their first injections), it’s a bit of work to overcome the side effects I do have.

Two side effects are most prevalent. Fatigue is the first, mostly taking place in the mid to late afternoon every day. The occasional nap seems to help, as does exercise in the form of long walks in and around the city. On days when I have client commitments I seem to be able to bull through the fatigue for the most part, but can’t keep that up for more than a day or two without taking a break (including naps).

The other side effect that I find perhaps more disturbing is a lack of appetite. I can eat, and I’m certainly not starving myself, but a lot of the joy I took from creating my own meals and puttering about in the kitchen seems to have dulled. Folks who know me know that food is a major passion, so to have that passion fade somewhat is emotionally distressing. Again, I can overcome it (like with the excellent home-made clam chowder I made on the 4th of July), but it takes quite a bit of effort to motivate myself. I am also able to dine out at nice restaurants, but the portions I consume are necessarily smaller than they used to be, and it takes a bit of work to get through a multi-course meal. The good news, in a way, is that I am very slowly approaching the weight I had before I was diagnosed with cancer back in March.

I have also found that the injection sites are a bit tender for the first week after an injection, and that bruising is not uncommon – both of these symptoms require that I change my injection site each week.

So far, I have had two blood tests to see how my body is reacting to the Sylatron, and these have shown a noticeable drop in my white blood cell and platelet counts, but not so low as to have me suspend treatment. I get another blood test next week along with a meeting with my oncologist to discuss my status and my upcoming radiation treatment.

One good bit of news I learned about the cost of my Sylatron treatment is that when I resume with the maintenance dose of 3μg/kg (the current induction dose is double that – 6μg/kg), the cost of the Sylatron each month will be almost half of the present $12,576.99. We are still waiting for the insurance company to even register the claim for the first month’s dose we submitted nearly four weeks ago, incidentally. Not very encouraging, although we did get a letter indicating they had precertified the drug.

Genetics

One of the things I had requested back in May was a genetic analysis of my cancer cells, in the hopes that should I have a relapse down the road, drugs which target specific genetic mutations will be available to treat my cancer. It takes about a month for the genetic testing, and I learned a couple of weeks ago that my particular genetic mutation occurs in the NRAS gene (more specifically, at Q61-182Am, with the Gln61Arg mutation).

According to one paper I have read, about 20% of all melanoma mutations are NRAS, but most of the gene-specific treatments being worked on right now are focused on mutations of the BRAF gene, which is more prevalent in melanoma. I hope, for entirely selfish reasons, that more work will be performed on NRAS mutations in the coming years, so that when I might need additional treatment, the appropriate drugs will be ready for me.

In Memoriam

The saddest and scariest thing to occur this past week was learning that Mark Beckelman had passed away as a result of his fight with melanoma. Mark was one of the leading Photoshop experts in the U.S., but more importantly, he had been an inspiration to me. I “met” Mark this past semester – he was my Photoshop for Photographers instructor at the Academy of Art University. When I expressed my concern to him this spring about not being able to complete my coursework in a timely manner due to my melanoma diagnosis, Mark volunteered that he knew my pain, intimately, as he too had gone through a similar diagnosis and subsequent surgeries back in 2006.

At a time when I knew no one else who had had melanoma and all statistics suggested it was a likely near-term death sentence, the exchanges I had with Mark gave me hope that I had at least a few more years ahead of me, at the very least. He also relayed that he had had a relapse last year and was still fighting the spread of his melanoma, and that things were not looking too good.

On July 5th, Mark succumbed to his melanoma.

Even while he was suffering from his advanced melanoma, he had time to help me come to grips with my own diagnosis. For that I will be forever grateful, and hope that I can be as strong and giving of myself as he was with me. And that doesn’t even cover what I learned from him technically.

Mark – Rest in peace, and thank you.

Lymphedema

The other situation I am dealing with is the aftermath of my lymphadenectomy (also known as a completion lymph node dissection). One of the common physical artifacts from that surgery is lymphedema, which is a swelling of the region near the place where the lymph nodes were removed due to the accumulation of lymph fluid (the fluid that drives the lymphatic system). The reason for this is that the removal of the lymph nodes ends up acting as a block or dam preventing the lymphatic fluid from taking the usual paths (which would previously have been through the lymph nodes, acting as filters).

To minimize the lymphedema I am experiencing I have to wear a compression stocking 24 hours a day on my right leg, plus exercise (walking works well for this) to keep to the lymph fluid from collecting in my leg. Additionally, I have weekly physical therapy sessions with a lymphedema therapist, who performs an hour-long lymphedema massage on me to move the pooled lymph fluid up around and past the blockage into my torso where the body can deal with it more appropriately. The therapist, Kathy, has also shown Linda how to perform the lymphedema massage, and my lovely wife has been patiently performing the massage each evening before I go to sleep, as the end of the day is when the lymph fluid pooling is at its worst (you can feel hard patches just under the skin where the fluid has accumulated).

I will mention that my lymphedema swelling has been gradually improving (getting less), to the point where the swelling in my leg is barely noticeable, but unfortunately it has not gone away entirely, and I will likely face wearing a compression stocking for the rest of my life.

One of the goals, though, is to reduce the regular swelling as much as possible before I start my radiation treatment next month, as the radiation treatment will exacerbate the existing scar tissue in my right groin, and thus lead to more blockage and therefore more lymphedema. So, the more my lymphedema can be dealt with before then, the less severe the results will be of the radiation treatment – or at least that’s the theory.

Labels

As my blog post today is a bit of potpourri, I wanted to share my thoughts on a subject that has been bugging for some time – namely labels for those with cancer, and in particular, at which point someone can be deemed to be a “cancer survivor”.

Based on my readings and conversations, I have come across four cancer classifications/terms which are applied to those with cancer:

• Cancer patient
• Cancer sufferer
• Cancer survivor
• Cancer victim

From the rather intimate perspective of someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, I find myself unsatisfied with these terms.

The term “cancer patient” is the only that perhaps best applies to me in my present situation, since I am still undergoing treatment (and will be for at least a year or more). This term is the only one that seems to have some practical relevance to what is actually going on in the life of a person undergoing cancer treatment.

“Cancer sufferer” by its very nature, suggests there is suffering involved. While the mental anguish of being diagnosed with cancer could perhaps be seen as a form of suffering, society’s use of the term suggests that the suffering should be that of physical discomfort. However, for many cancer patients, the physical suffering relates to the treatment of their cancer (such as surgery and chemotherapy), and not the cancer itself. As such, perhaps this term would be better cast as “cancer treatment sufferer”. I don’t mean to diminish the pain and anguish of people with cancer who are suffering from the actual cancer itself, but I believe that casual users of the term don’t necessarily understand the distinction between suffering from treatment and suffering from cancer.

One of my melanoma buddies recently referred to me in his missives as a “cancer survivor”, and while I appreciate the thought, I must say I do not think of myself as a cancer survivor, at least not yet. At present there is no way to know if any cancer cells remained in my body after surgery two months ago, but the probability is high that not everything was completely removed. Think of it this way – you pour fine grain salt from a height onto a smooth kitchen counter. The salt represents cancer cells. The surgery is like a large sweep of a hand and arm across that counter. What is the likelihood that a single grain of salt remains on the counter, perhaps in some corner or area where the sweeping hand didn’t come across it? If you’ve ever spent any time cleaning kitchen counters, you’ll know the probability is high that there will be at least one grain hiding out somewhere.

This is why people in my situation go through systemic cancer treatment (like I am doing with the Sylatron), and also through localized treatment (like I will be doing with my radiation treatment next month). And why I will be getting regular scans every three months for the first couple of years.

As a cancer patient, I can’t see myself labeled as a “cancer survivor” until I have hit some sort of threshold or milestone with no cancer relapse. Statistically, for at least melanoma, the most cited milestone appears to be the five-year mark, and thus, if I make it to March 2016 without a relapse of my melanoma, I will gladly start calling myself a cancer survivor at that time. Until then, I am a cancer patient (and hopefully nothing worse).

What could be worse? Being a “cancer victim”. That has a rather terminal feel to it, as it suggests that one has already succumbed to cancer. However, I have heard living cancer patients referred to as cancer victims, and I can’t imagine how painful it must be for a cancer patient or the patient’s family to have that very negative term used in relation to the living patient.

Protesting Cancer

As I have been learning over the last four months (and it seems somehow so much longer than that), cancer does not discriminate. We just don’t hear much about how prevalent cancer really is. A recent fund raising e-mail from the LIVESTRONG Foundation suggests that, based on a global survey, only 34 percent of people said they would tell their friends if they had cancer. That is truly scary.

I’m firmly of the belief that the best way to address cancer individually and as a society is to be open about it and help people realize that cancer affects us all – either via friends and family who have cancer, or when one is diagnosed with a cancer.

In that vein, I now regularly wear a t-shirt that says “Cancer Sucks” (I have five different ones), along with a black silicone wristband with the same phrase. Linda and Krystyana wear pins, necklaces, and bracelets that feature black cancer ribbons with the word “hope” to share their support. I should add that black is the color for melanoma, and that someone somewhere came up with a color coding for each major type of cancer (hence the pink ribbon for breast cancer – see http://www.choosehope.com/category/by-cancer-color-cancer-type for more examples).

The idea with the “Cancer Sucks” t-shirts, the jewelry, and the wristbands is to both increase awareness that cancer can affect us all as well as a start a conversation with others who want to express their frustration and angst regarding cancer, and show support for friends and family who have been diagnosed with cancer.

I have had dozens of strangers come up to me in the last couple of weeks to tell me that they agree with my shirt, and some even ask where I got my shirt from so they could get their own. In case you’re interested, that happens to be the web site Choose Hope (http://www.choosehope.com), which donates a part of its proceeds to cancer research.

On that note, let me leave you with a photo of my t-shirt, worn yesterday on Boston’s Beacon Hill:

One of my many new "Cancer Sucks" t-shirts

One of my many new "Cancer Sucks" t-shirts