I have successfully finished being exposed to 1200cG (centi-grays) of radiation over the course of the past three days thanks to an awesome team of specialists. And I even have a certificate to prove it!

The wonderful certificate of appreciation I received this afternoon after my sixth and final course of full body radiation. Even got a hug from my radiation nurse!

The wonderful certificate of appreciation I received this afternoon after my sixth and final course of full body radiation. Even got a hug from my radiation nurse!

And still, beyond a dry mouth, and a bit of fatigue, not much wear to show for all that, yet. Hopefully the radiation did its job in killing off all my bone marrow – that’s what the main purpose was of getting the radiation.

The oncology radiologist I spoke to this afternoon after my final treatment commented that I went through the radiation treatment amazingly well, and while he doesn’t know exactly why, perhaps my relative youth, good health, and good energy levels might have helped. He also indicated that there is a chance that some of my organs may have been damaged a bit (which would be fixable or heal-able), but only repeated testing (urine and blood samples) will determine if any such situations exist. So far so good (and please continue knocking on wood – it’s definitely been helping.)

On to what’s next…

One of my favorite movie quotes is from the 1980 version The Blues Brothers:

Elwood: It’s a 106 miles to Chicago. We got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses.
Jake: Hit it!

There is the absurdity of wearing sunglasses at night, but in reality is it a checklist in the pursuit of a goal. In Jake and Elwood’s case, that is to deliver concert proceeds to a tax collectors office in Chicago, while being sought by the police, and an extremist group.

My current version of this movie quote is:

Jake: I’ve just been radiated and chemo’d. It’s five more days until the treatment is over. I have a couple small bags of Haribo gummi bears, a full jug of water, no idea what I am facing and am covered by a fluffy duvet.
Jake (speaking to myself): Hit it!

Okay. Maybe not as memorable, but to me it has the same feeling. And in my case the ultimate goal is NED – No Evidence of Disease.

To get there I need to get through the next five days of treatment with IL-2 in the form Aldesleukin. From what everybody has said, intensive IL-2, which will start to be administered few hours after my TIL cells are administered tomorrow in order to super-charge the TIL cells and help them achieve their cancer-killing task. (But, as a caution, it will not be clear for at least a month how effective they were, and may take many months to verify total shrinkage and disappearance.)

After the first administration of IL-2 I will continue to receive 15-minute infusions via IV every eight hours until my body just cannot handle it anymore (based on physiological responses related to breathing, organ function, and also on mental function). There are a maximum of 14 doses of IL-2 that will be administered, but my nurse has never heard of anyone that has even gotten close. IL-2 comes with fevers, chills, rigor (shaking during chills), and all sorts of other pretty scary things – more details in the fine print available here.

Whenever it is that my IL-2 treatment ends, I will be a bloated wreck for a bit (an IL-2 side effect is the release of stored water in the body being pulled out of its regular places, resulting in a 20-30 pound “bloat” – and yes, I will have someone take pictures of Puff Daddy Jake :-) ). But I’m betting on being a bloated Jake on his way to NED.

And, speaking of photos – I know I have been remiss in providing images with posts lately, so below are several images to captured over the last week:

Linda and the kids move in to my hospital room to keep me company. Here everyone was getting their wifi connections working. Honestly, they really do pay me a lot of attention when I'm not sleeping

Linda and the kids in to my hospital room to keep me company. Here everyone was getting their wifi connections working. Honestly, they really do pay me a lot of attention when I'm not sleeping. We play games, watch movies, talk, and even torture the kids with doing their more traditional forms of schoolwork.

My IV tree the night they were administrating my first dose of Cytoxan to kill my current immune system. Festive!

My IV tree the night they were administrating my first dose of Cytoxan to kill my current immune system. Festive!

 

Cyclophosphomide a.k.a. Cytoxan, close up.

Cyclophosphomide a.k.a. Cytoxan, close up.

Linda and the kids enjoying a take out meal which I got to try part of with doctors' permission. I managed two wings and two fries before I was full.

Linda and the kids enjoying a take out meal which I got to try part of with doctors' permission. I managed two wings, a small chunk of dark meat, and two fries before I was full.

 

Here I am in my hospital room working on this blog post about Day -1, after finishing my final radiation treatment. That's Renaissance Bear next to me.

Here I am in my hospital room working on this blog post about Day -1, after finishing my final radiation treatment. That's Renaissance Bear next to me.

 

 

Day -2 – About Halfway There   October 4th, 2011

One year ago yesterday, Linda and I were in Roses, Spain, having the best meal experience of our lives under the personal care of Chef Ferran Adria and his now closed (but still worshiped) el Bulli Restaurant.

It was a lunch event like none other, involving over 35 course, meeting four new foodie-friends-for-life, and it took a mere seven and a half hours (and ended early only because our prescheduled taxi service was getting impatient). And the wine pairings were out of the world – perfect when sipped with a bite of the paired food. Though, Ali (one of our new friends) and I did more than sip our way through a fabulous Alvaros Palacios 2004 Priorat.

As I sit here tonight at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, working my way through dinner – consisting of peanut butter, jelly, and cream cheese in a low carb tortilla, and needing frequent enough sips of water moisten each bite enough to prevent me from choking on the dryness (since I have virtually no useful salivia production left at the moment), I can’t help but wonder at what a bizarre but still amazing year it’s been. Those of you who know me know I enjoy exploring cuisine and culture – from eating guinea pig in a hole in the wall in Quito, Ecuador, and street food in Fiji and Kowloon, to enjoying the cuisine of top chefs in New York, Hong Kong, and Boston. And yes, even enjoying fried butter at the state fair.

I see my salivary problems (and I have been told that those will be accompanied by loss or change of taste) will last for some time (in addition to the three months of neutropenia). But in adversity, there’s challenge, and being a devout experimenter in the kitchen, I am sure I can come up with some foods that will overcome my limitations and provide both enjoyment and education, once I’m physically able to spend time concocting. The time spent recuperating will also give me a chance to figure out how I might want to change my approach to cuisine (which in the past was to treat it as a visual as well as olfactory art form) in use in the fine art food photography I had started work on last year.

I lead in with the above as a sort of precursor that I’m doing about the same as last night and don’t have much more to say.

I am now totally neutropenic – with nary any neutrophils left to count in my blood. Other symptoms from yesterday persist: Dry mouth, swollen jaw, slight tiredness, and – how to politely put this – intestines that are a bit more aqueous than they should be. But all those are under control.

Considering I just went through another two rounds of total body irradiation (TBI) today, that’s not bad at all. No sirree. I’ve been informed that I’m not the first to have charged through the first six days into the treatment so well, and that folks here remember two other prior patients similarly bypassing the most common and debilitating side effects. The usual trend tends appears to be towards a lot more unwellness early on and then staying that way for the course of treatment and beyond.

So please cross fingers and knock on wood for me some more that I can buck the side effect trends further after tomorrow’s final two doses of radiation. The side-effects induced by those two final treatments will not immediately appear, and might take a few days to manifest. Again, all I can do is wait and see what happen, and hope for the best combination of events (and ask the same of you).

For a recap, Day -1 (tomorrow) is the last day of radiation. Day 0 is, well, THE DAY. It’s when I get my billions of TIL cells injected into my system. I have a carefully thought out music playlist created (with some help from my friends) that I will play to help encourage them to hunt and kill all those nasty growing melanoma cells in my body. I hope to publish that on Thursday before I start IL-2 later in the day, as I understand that once IL-2 starts I won’t be in shape to do much of anything at all for five days.

To N.E.D.!

P.S. Any plans to give blood yet? If not, please think about it.

 

Tuesday: Starting with a restless and mostly sleepless night, I arrived in Bethesda around the middle of the day, and checked in my room in the 3NW immunotherapy wing of the Hatfield Building, greeting all the fabulous nurses I have come to know from my prior stay. After unpacking, I had a chest X-Ray, an EKG, and blood work done. All look good!

My platelets, which had dropped to a level of 30 last week were up to a healthy 130, which resulted in a high five with the doctor as we celebrated, albeit breifly, that my blood counts were good enough to allow for the protocol to proceed unimpeded.

Linda and kids were here by late afternoon and settled into the adjacent Safra Lodge, which is quite a nice place. The Lodge is on the NIH campus, same as NCI, and has great facilities for families whose loved ones are being treated only a few hundred yards away. The rooms themselves are like regular hotel rooms, but there’s a huge shared kitchen area for the storage of food, cooking supplies, and leftovers, and there are a number of nooks which provide quiet space for stressed out family members, and in our case places our kids can work on school stuff.

Best of all, the Lodge is free – which is important in an area where the average hotel room night tends to run around $250/night. As one might imagine, the Lodge is quite heavily booked – up to two weeks in advance, so Linda and the kids will need to move to a regular hotel on October 2nd for four nights before moving back to the Lodge, unless those dates happen to free up for them. They are back until at least October 20th, my projected departure date.

I had expected Wednesday to be the start of chemotherapy, but that appears to be actually Thursday.

Instead, Wednesday provides a buffer day in case there’s a need for additional scans or labs, which will be determined after rounds in the morning.

We will have more details on the actual treatment process later today, probably.

Also, Linda has been set up with an account on this blog, and may post in my stead should I be feeling unwell enough to post on my own.

 

If you have a short attention span, here’s the big news: My Tumor Infiltrating Lymphocyte (TIL) with Total Body Irradiation (TBI) treatment starts next week, on Tuesday, September 27th.

The long version, including historical information, follows below.

My week at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has gone quickly, but not without some complications.

On Wednesday, I got my scheduled stem cell apheresis, this time through my newly installed Hickman catheter. It was wonderful to not have to get stabbed again with needles for this process, especially as the bruising I incurred last week for the feeder apheresis are in full bloom with all sorts of color.

But the stem cell apheresis on Wednesday was pretty tiring too. As I later found out, part of this was because the process caused my magnesium, potassium, and platelet counts to drop significantly. Contributing to this was that this apheresis also required that 30 liters of my blood (about five time the blood supply in my entire body) to be fed through the centrifuge over a six hour period.

I spent the rest of the day resting and dealing with a related headache, under the assumption that all had gone well with the stem cell apheresis. However, at midnight, deep into Ambien-assisted slumber, I got woken up and was informed that they did not manage to collect enough stem cells (the minimum required by the protocol is 4 million, but 5 million is more ideal), and that I would need to go through the process again on Thursday morning. No further details were available, but I was given another pair of Filgrastim shots, and put on an IV with potassium chloride to help boost my electrolytes (and potassium levels).

So, yesterday morning I found myself in the apheresis center again, for another 30 liters of blood processing. Turns out that the first day produced 2.6 million stem cells, so not a complete failure. Fortunately, yesterday’s collection produced another 2.04 million stem cells, for a total of 4.64 million cells, sufficient not to require additional vampiration (and delay treatment). Because of the unexpected second day of apheresis, I also had to rearrange appointments with doctors from radiation oncology and from the dental clinic. In each case the doctors advised me on the side effects of the radiation treatment (which are potentially significant). But other then sterility and an increased chance of early cataracts, only these effects are generally transient (but could last for many miserable months).

I fortunately had also learned first hand about this from a couple where the husband had finished treatment about two months ago – they learned about be from Melanoma Mom Jamie’s blog, and were wonderful enough to look me up at NCI to see if they could help with any questions I had about the process. Thank you so much Pam and Joe!
In any case, the anecdotal evidence suggests that the aftermath of TBI is well worth it in terms of increased probability of response to the treatment. The amount of response benefit is actually what this clinical trial is designed to help define.

Yesterday, I was also told that I had excellent teeth and dental health. I think that was the high point of my day. The day ended with more potassium infusions, and six units of platelets, both of which helped my blood counts creep towards normality.

I wrapped up my stay this morning with a simulation scan to prepare for my full body radiation treatment (which goes on twice a day for three days, starting October 3rd).

The end result was that I now have a bunch of lines on me, drawn with a permanent marker (fortunately not really permanent), with the critical markings covered by waterproof tape. The lines will be used to align my body with respect to the photonic radiation emission equipment. By the time I’m done with the three days of radiation, my body will have absorbed 12 Grays of radiation, and my lungs only 6 Grays. The Gray is a unit of measure that relates to “rads”. It is a significant dose for full body exposure, but small compared to localized radiation.

As I already indicated in the abbreviated version of this blog above, I learned that I have been scheduled to return to Bethesda on Tuesday, September 27th – so a mere four days from now. The first day will be spent getting me all set up, and I start my five day course of chemotherapy on the next day, followed immediately by the three days of radiation.

Again, the whole purpose of these two components of the overall treatment is to kill my immune system as well as the cell generation in my bone marrow. The idea is that the resulting environment (no immune system) gives the TIL the best possible chance to do its thing – namely kill all those nasty melanoma cancer cells that are still intent on spreading throughout my body, without interference from my own normal immune system.

After the TIL cells are administered, the stem cells will be administered, then I get the mind numbing IL-2 treatment to boost the power of my TIL and stem cells, and then there’s recovery…

I will stay at NCI until it is deemed safe for me to be exposed to much of the world, namely when my immune system has recovered enough to ensure that I will no longer be in danger of infection from the most minor germ. Right now, my return date to Boston, as a bald, easily nauseated, and very tired person, is scheduled to be October 20th, but that date is subject to change based on my recovery, and the on-going entropy that is part of my life these days.

I want to extend a very special thanks to Jamie and Jeff for letting me be part of their nightly take-out dinners during my stay at NCI. Thank you both for your friendship and hospitality.

The few days I have in Boston (I am en route now) are going to be spent with family. In fact, my parents flew in from the Czech Republic yesterday – the original plan being that we’d be spending a couple weeks together. However, the melanoma train stops for no one, so we’re down to only a few days together. But that’s okay, because my train’s destination is NED – No Evidence of Disease. And a pig roast at our house in Bonaire in the spring!

Note: I want to mention to those folks who have been depending on e-mails from me for notification of new blog entries, I will no longer be sending out those e-mails during treatment. And I will not be posting notification on Facebook or Google+ either. My upcoming posts, throughout treatment, if I can manage them, will be a lot more succinct than my usual posts, and to see them you will have to remember to check back here at http://www.jakestake.tv every so often to see what’s new.

 

Our few days earlier this week in the Washington, D.C., area – which were centered on my scheduled testing and interview at the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute (NCI) – have been dizzying. And shaky, as we got to experience an earthquake during the process. It wasn’t a big deal, but it was interesting to go through and observe, including the mandatory building evacuations.

The Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center at NIH, seen after our evacuation after the earthquake

The Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center at NIH, seen after our evacuation after the earthquake

The actual physical tests and examinations performed this past Tuesday at NCI were routine – taking my blood (13 different vials, though), an EKG, chest X-ray, and a urine sample.

Linda and I also spent time with a social worker who explained how treatment at NCI worked: it’s free to the patients, as it is a federally funded research facility, and they will even take care of transportation costs for the patient (but not the spouse or children of the patient) from anywhere in the U.S., as often as necessary. There’s also a small lodging stipend ($50/day) for the patient’s hotel room if the patient is an outpatient.

One of the benefits, in terms of treatment and medical care, of not having to deal with the costs of such care (personally or via insurance companies) is that there’s no wait or delay in waiting for pre-certifications or considerations about the expense of tests that may or may not produce useful results.

That philosophy became evident on Tuesday afternoon (after the hubbub from the earthquake we experienced had settled down), when the new Fellow (a term for a doctor on a long term rotation) assigned to me suggested I could have surgery in the next couple of days to remove my largest tumor to use in harvesting lymphocytes (immune cells) which would later be used to fight my rapidly spreading and growing melanoma.

The mere suggestion that they wanted to operate on me indicated that my acceptance into the so-called TIL (tumor infiltrating lymphocytes) protocol was almost a given at that point. That was a huge relief.

As part of our meeting with our Fellow, we also met with the Attending doctor who has worked at the NCI immunotherapy clinic for the last decade. Fellows rotate out every year in July, while the Attending doctors rotate every month or so, incidentally. They gave me a physical examination, palpating me to see if they could feel any tumors (and they thought they could feel some around my lymphadenectomy site). They also confirmed that the rapidly growing mole that I had on my right thigh, located about 1.5 inches from the old melanoma mole, was a new melanoma, as I had surmised a couple of weeks ago.

One initial idea raised at this meeting had been that they might try a radical surgery to remove both the large 3cm+ tumor found on the scans last month, as well as any other lymph nodes, in the hopes this might eliminate the cancer from my system, but after the examination and the identification of the mole they agreed that survey was not the way my cancer could be dealt with as I likely had some “melanoma channels” throughout which the cancer had spread and continues to do so. No surprise there – I already knew that instinctively based on how aggressive my melanoma has been.

In order to help determine the best course of action, as well as provide data that was incomplete in my records, I was asked if I could come in the following day for a brain MRI and a CT scan of my abdominal and thigh regions. We had fortunately tacked an extra day and a half to our trip when we planned it, so I was able to stay at NCI all day yesterday (Wednesday) for those two scans, which were arranged for me by a uniformed research nurse who is our direct link with any information or support we need on the medical side.

At the end of the day I exchanged e-mail with our Fellow, and she informed me that the CT scan did confirm that all my tumors were continuing to grow (again, no surprise there), but that from a treatment perspective, this was helpful as it provided more potential samples, as well as reference tumors to use to see if the treatment was working once started. However, surgery was not happening this week, as she and the Attending wanted to present my case formally to their colleagues at the weekly Monday staff meeting, and solicit ideas on how to best proceed with my tumor resection and subsequent treatment.

The clinical protocol, which is really a clinical trial, discussed with everyone on Tuesday has several steps.

First is the harvesting of lymphocytes from a tumor. They need at least a 2cm wide tumor to do this, and my largest tumor is quite a bit larger than that at this point. This is an invasive procedure but in the case of my tumors in the lymph nodes is less tricky than removing a tumor from an organ which thankfully my melanoma hasn’t gone there yet.

Next, the labs at NCI extract the lymphocytes and grow them. They use Interleukin-2 (IL2) to help “boost” the cells as they breed them. This process takes a couple of weeks or so, if it is successful.

Once it is confirmed that the lymphocytes are replicating and growing properly, I would get flown down to NCI to be formally admitted into the clinical trial.

For those of you interested in the details, the link to this trial is here. There is also a really good FAQ here.

In case you also are interested, the rather scientific title of the trial is “Prospective Randomized Study of Cell Transfer Therapy for Metastatic Melanoma Using Tumor Infiltrating Lymphocytes Plus IL-2 Following Non-Myeloablative Lymphocyte Depleting Chemo Regimen Alone or in Conjunction With 12Gy Total Body Irradiation (TBI)”.

Once I signed the agreement to participate in the trial, a computer would flip a virtual coin to randomize me into one of the two arms of the trial. The first arm is the basic TIL treatment, while the second arm is the basic TIL treatment with total body irradiation (TBI), namely three days of extreme radiation treatment. As I understand it, the purpose of the trial is to determine whether or not the radiation component increases the cure rate appreciably or not across a wide range of people. The current belief is that it makes a small difference, but this trial will help quantify that difference. That in turn will help determine whether the amount of difference is significant enough to justify the abuse of the body the radiation treatment adds to the process.

If my virtual coin flip put me into the arm with TBI, I would stay as an inpatient for a week at NCI while they extracted stem cells from me. These stem cells would be grown and stored for reinjection after the radiation treatment was over, since the TBI would kill all the cells in my bone marrow, which include cells which generate all of my white blood cells (for fighting infection, among other things).

This initial visit would be shortly followed by another visit to actually perform the core part of the treatment.

First step in the treatment would be to have five days of chemotherapy to kill my immune system and create a vacuum to allow my boosted lymphocytes to both have a more dramatic effect on my melanoma tumors (as well as individual bits of melanoma floating in my system) as well as prevent my body from just reabsorbing the injected lymphocytes without letting them perform their intended function. Note that the chemotherapy would be unlikely to have any effect on the metastatic melanoma in my system.

The chemotherapy side effects would be much the same as for traditional cancer chemotherapy, including full body hair loss, nausea, fatigue, etc.

If I were in the TBI arm of the trial, the chemotherapy would be immediately followed by the full body radiation, which has a pretty nasty set of side effects, some of which overlap with those from the chemotherapy. The radiation side effects can (and likely will) last many months, or even the rest of my life (including infertility – fortunately not something I am concerned with at this point in my life). The radiation would further weaken my immune system in order to make my reintroduced lymphocytes more effective.

Once my immune system was wiped out, the lymphocytes would be administered via an IV, and if I were in the TBI arm, the harvested stem cells would be administered as well to help my bone marrow regenerate to rebuild my immune system.

I would then go on a short course of intensive IL-2 (up to 15 doses, given eight hours apart) to further boost the lymphocytes now in my body, to help them better battle my cancer cells. After that it would be just a matter of time to recover from the nearly two week abuse of my body in order to try and cure the cancer.

The amount of time for recovery from the highly weakened state depends greatly on a number of factors, but the trial documents suggest for the non-TBI arm it should be two to three weeks in the hospital. For the TBI arm, it would be that plus four to six months of recovery to overcome the recurring fatigue, nausea, and other side effects that will undoubtedly arise.

There would also be return visits back to NCI every four to six weeks for scans to see how effective the treatment was. That would go on for a year, with semi-annual visits after that.

The one thing that this arduous treatment offers that so far we had not heard is the possibility of a near total cure. Statistically this has occurred in approximately 50% of the subjects, but that’s a heck of a lot better than the odds with traditional adjuvant treatment for melanoma, which in most cases, if it works, only seems to put off a subsequent recurrence to a later date (albeit potentially a much later date). And that difference – between a cure and a delay – is what will make this TIL treatment – with or without TIB – worth all the sacrifices necessary to get through the treatment.

In closing, I would like to also give special thanks to my new friend Jamie. Jamie blogs as Melanoma Mom (http://melanomamom.blogspot.com) and has been getting treatment at NCI since March for metastatic melanoma (read her blog for details). She and her husband Jeff are incredibly well-informed about various trials and protocols at NCI, as well as the logistical issues of being an in-patient at NCI. And Jamie is taking part in a rather revolutionary treatment herself starting in about two weeks at NCI. She, Jeff, and their beautiful baby boy, Kai, were kind enough to get together with us on Tuesday night (they live only 20 minutes from NCI). We learned so much from her and Jeff, and are thankful to number them among our friends now.

One simple thing Jamie taught us that I can easily share with you is a toast when you share a drink with others: “To NED!”

NED is an acronym for “No Evidence of Disease”, and that’s Jamie’s goal and my goal for our respective melanomas.

So please hoist your glasses to NED, often and with gusto! I know I certainly will!

My next post will be once my treatment course and schedule solidify just a bit, hopefully early next week.