The Dude Abides.

Sitting here with my wife and daughter Saturday night, idly typing while a movie plays and  lost for a moment in what normalcy must feel like. You forget, you know. So many months, years, of the anxiety, the chronic pain, the never-ending appointments, the sleepless nights.  It’s so hard sometimes just to remember what normal was.

Amy and I got back from Nashville yesterday. I’m grateful she was able to come with me and for her parents stepping up and staying with Ariana and Trixie while we were gone. I would have been screwed if I had gone out there solo — just too much emotionally and physically for me now. But almost as importantly it gave me some alone time with my wife to just talk, something we haven’t done enough. Ever, really.

So after a relatively quick meeting and bloodwork on Wednesday, I showed up at the apheresis department at 7:30 am to have my T Cells harvested.  This is done by a process called leukapheresis (I linked a photo of this on Instagram and Twitter if you want to see it). So I had an IV put in each arm, and from 7:30 am until 3:15 pm it cycled my blood through a machine that separated out the white blood cells. I slept through the process for the most part, having not slept well for the previous few nights. Other than being extremely cold during the process it wasn’t too bad, although when it was done I was pretty wiped out.

Mentally and emotionally this was a really hard week. My disease has progressed fairly substantially … my bone marrow biopsy from the previous week was 95% Myeloma, the highest I’ve ever recorded.  I talked with Dr. Berdeja about that briefly during the harvest and while he thought they may just have hit a pocket of bad cells to get that number, it’s still pretty scary. The skeletal survey wasn’t much better … while I don’t even understand half the terms in the analysis, I know it’s not good:

“Small 5 mm and less fairly diffuse round lucencies throughout visible skull on lateral x-ray of skull.  Scattered similar small round lucencies in cervical spine and thoracic spine.  Moderate T12 compression fracture.  Moderate L2 compression fracture treated with vertebroplasty.  Right internal jugular Port-A-Cath in satisfactory position. Previous right upper quadrant abdominal surgery. Scattered small round lucencies in multiple ribs. Small round lucencies in mid left and right humeral diaphysis intramedullary. Ovoid lucency in left lateral upper acetabulum deep to cortex. Pelvic phleboliths. Small lucencies in proximal femoral diaphysys intramedullary.”

Even not understanding most of that (I’ll have the doctors explain it this week, have an oncology appointment on the 24th), I know it ain’t good. Also now I know why my goddamn back has been killing me even after having that L2 vertebrae fixed; apparently the vertebrae two above the fixed one is fractured as well. Christ. Not even sure what to do about that, but I guess I’ll find out.  Right now the name of the game is to not fuck up my qualification for this clinical trial so I’m walking on eggshells and making sure everything is run by Nashville.

Other than that and fatigue I’m having what I can only assume is neuropathy in my toes.  It started a few months ago and I let the oncologists here in Denver know, who told me to let them know if it starts to hurt. It kind of feels like a combination of all of your toes being on pins and needles and numb at the same time, hurts to the touch, but now is creeping towards my heels. Definitely makes walking a new and unpleasant experience, so I’m doubly thankful I’m done doing so in airports for at least five weeks. Although I did for the first time in my life get a courtesy cart ride this time, and man, that’s the bomb. I was so excited to not have to walk from the car rental place I gave the guy a $20.

Assuming all goes to plan, I will be re-evaluated on May 21st in Nashville, start chemotherapy on the 23rd for 3 days, and then admitted to the hospital on the 27th. I’ll get my re-engineered T Cells back on the 28th, be in the hospital for two weeks, and then outpatient in Nashville for two weeks. Before all of that they want me to do some form of chemotherapy as well which I’ll start this coming week — it apparently has to be one I’ve already done previously and has to end before May 8th so I’m “clean” for two weeks. My oncologist here and the one running the trial in Nashville have apparently already coordinated on that.

So that’s the mechanics and logistics of it all. I spend a lot of time trying not to think about it (and failing miserably). It’s just so … big. There’s so much riding on this, so much logistically to work out especially with a kiddo in school, so much danger. There’s no long-term knowledge of what happens with this, and there’s a good amount of risk involved (although they seem to be aware of how to deal with most contingencies). But it’s pretty scary. Spent a ton of time in my head this past week and I think the only thing that saved me, especially with the lack of sleep, was having Amy there.  I know we’re having problems now but the ability to just ask someone to spoon you for a bit while you cry quietly, versus having nothing there but empty space and feeling like nobody cares, is worlds apart.

As I said earlier we talked a lot on this trip. Neither of us are religious but at one point I was talking about how it’s taken all of this shit for the past five years to scour away the person I was (the bad parts). The fucked-up upbringing and ideals I had, the complete lack of knowing and experiencing what a good relationship and intimacy are supposed to be like; what a good person is, really. Although ironically now perhaps too late due to this disease, I feel like I’m on the right path as a person. Kinder, more thoughtful, more loving, less cynical. I have my moments, of course. But it’s a startling change from who I was, I can tell you that.

Amy commented that perhaps this is what had to happen, that this was the universes’ plan. This is something I’ve struggled with most of my life, really. Raised as a non-believing Catholic, finding out I had cancer put the kibosh on any sort of belief in a higher power. Which I think’s common with cancer patients or anyone else struggling with their health or things in their life — the constant emptiness that threatens to break you down when you just ask the constant “why me’s”, you know? Perhaps she’s right — it definitely made me think, and I will continue to do so.

Although to be honest I wish I could just stop, thinking that is. The gravity of all of this is sinking in and it’s tough to grasp at times. I didn’t feel so much like a guinea pig in the last clinical trial I participated in, partially because the main component was an established Myeloma drug that they were just adding another drug to (so I didn’t see much downside risk). This time though the reality of what we’re doing is seeping in and it’s scary. No idea of the long-term effects. Cutting edge sci-fi-ish technology. Only a handful of people on this planet have done anything like this. Which is an interesting thought in itself — am I just lucky for the opportunity, or one of the worst off? A bit of both I think.

And what do I do if it doesn’t work?

And what do I do if it does?  There’s a woman who just went through this study from Texas that I’m in a Facebook group with and have communicated with. She was in a similar place to my own in terms of disease progression.  She just got the news she’s now in complete remission.  Complete. Remission.

I’ve been doing this for so long, had every treatment fail after such short periods of time, that I can’t even really get my head around that. What would it even be like to not be in pain anymore? To be … normal? I try not to get my hopes up too too much because that way lies madness as well, but man.  Just … man.  I can’t imagine.  No more daddy’s too sick for this, or too tired for that.  No more pity.  No more tears of despair. I’ve lived with this stuff for so long it’s become my life … to actually contemplate feeling human again?  It’s a bit much.

Knowing me I’d probably just feel guilty that more people didn’t get to experience it.  Yeah I’m wired strange, I know.

Lots of questions, things to think about, things to avoid thinking about. I try, and sometimes succeed, in keeping my spirits up though. And chew Xanax like candy. At least I’m sleeping better … I added St. John’s Wort (spelling?) to my cocktail of nightly sleep meds (1mg of Xanax and 1mg of Ativan) and I’ve been sleeping through the night better.  Still have trouble shutting my brain off to get there but at least when I do it’s solid sleep.  Too solid, I just want to stay in bed every morning now.  But there you go, another tip from a 5-year Myeloma “expert.”

Anyhow, off to the local oncologist tomorrow for a talk about a bridging chemotherapy (think I mentioned that above) and to get an IViG infusion. Going to ask about my back and toes too — the name of the game right now is DO NOT FUCK UP YOUR QUALIFICATION FOR THE CLINICAL TRIAL. And make it through, one step after the other, somehow.  I feel like we’re coming to a crescendo with all of this, somehow. That one way or the other life with be altered permanently in the next few months. It’s chilling, but then again as low as I feel most days I welcome it.

CAR-T Begins.

I mentioned it on Twitter and Facebook but haven’t had a chance, or to be honest the desire (Pandora’s Box issues) to sit down and write this. But I got the call and I got into the expansion trial for Celgene/Bluebird’s bb2121 clinical trial.

Apparently I actually got in in January, but because I was receiving radiation for those tumors in my back and hip at the time the nurse in charge didn’t even mention it, just asked me some questions.

So I flew out to Nashville last week for the initial testing.  I went by myself, which was a mistake — it was all just a little too much, too real. I’ve been dealing with so much of this cancer alone but I just don’t have the mental and physical strength anymore, especially after the last few months.  I hadn’t slept the night before I flew out and my wife offered to drive me to the airport that morning since I was in such bad shape. Spent most of the trip just mentally trying to push myself to the next meeting, the next test, etc.

I had a TON of blood taken, got a new skeletal survey, met with the coordinator several times, signed all of the paperwork, met with the apheresis folks who will draw my T-Cells this coming week (I’ll get to that), and then on the 10th I had a bone marrow biopsy. I’m still hurting from that one — and it’s worth mentioning that if you drive yourself to one of those they won’t give you Ativan and Morphine, just a local.  So after having what felt like most of my pelvis clawed out of this tiny hole in my beltline I got to hop behind the wheel, drive to the airport, sit a few hours and then sit on a plane for 3 hours. One of the worst days I’ve had in a while.

And the week since … I still can’t bend over without extreme pain.  On the bright side my back isn’t bothering me as much, heh. Not like I could tell.

This Tuesday I fly back out to Nashville for a meeting at the clinic and then the next day (19th) they draw out my T-Cells. My wife agreed to come with me this time — like I said I just can’t do this stuff alone anymore. I was seriously losing it in the hotel last week and about the only lifeline I had was a very close family friend who tried to fly out to stay with me — talk about friendship. I feel like my mental and emotional fortitude has just crumbled, especially lately. I felt lonely sometimes (well, a lot) when I’d have to go to Scottsdale alone for the Mayo Clinic visits but I felt stronger back then, physically and otherwise. Now I feel infirm and some days each step seems like it’s just one too many to take. Hard to explain.

But like I said this time I have my wife with me, someone to hold my hand through this stuff.  I’ll be honest (when aren’t I), I’m fairly scared about all of this. New techniques, no idea of long-term effects.  So the way it works is they harvest my T-Cells, and then send them to a lab for 2-5 weeks to be reprogrammed to fight the Myeloma. I go back to Nashville then, do more tests and 3 days of chemotherapy, and then enter the hospital. They reintroduce my reprogrammed T-Cells and then I’m in the hospital for two weeks while apparently all hell breaks loose — your body fights against the new cells, which can be pretty dangerous. After making it through all of that I’m out-patient in Nashville for 2 more weeks in a hotel and then I get to come home, but I’ll be flying out there once a month for years apparently.  Pretty intense.  Too intense if I think about it too much.

With Ari still in school just the logistics of being in Nashville for those 5 weeks are going to be hard. The study, amazingly, pays for my hotel while I’m out there but not for the two weeks I’m in-patient. That’s a huge relief as these last-minute plane tickets have been breaking the bank. But ideally I’d like someone out there all the time, or at least while I’m out-patient (well I have to have someone when I’m out-patient, I’ll require a caregiver). I have no idea how to juggle that but we’re back-burnering that problem until we find out when the dates actually are. The bone marrow transplant I did in Scottsdale was much easier as Ari wasn’t in school then, so I just got us a condo for several months and we basically moved out there with her step-father coming to help for a month.

Who has offered to help again, because unlike my folks he seems to actually care about me. Sigh.

I feel like I’m standing at the foot of Everest, unequipped and unprepared, wondering how the fuck I’m supposed to climb it. I had hoped that something like this would have people coming out of the woodwork to help, emotionally and to just take some of the load off, and it has in some quarters, but those that should have been closest to me (namely, my parents) are being awful.  Really awful.  And it’s fucking me up worse than I like to admit.  I just don’t get it, or them, but it hurts. My anxiety level is at an all-time high, although the suicidal thoughts and hardcore depression are not like they were when I was taking that Ambien. I mean I’m depressed, for sure, but not like that.

Although I have found a new trick lately … two Ativan and a Xanax before bed.  It doesn’t knock me out but I sleep really well.

I know this is sort of all over the place. I’m all over the place today. Had a really bad day thanks to my folks yesterday, not feeling great, and like I said I’m scared of all of this. Not like 5 years of chemotherapy wasn’t “serious” but this feels, I dunno, SERIOUS. Scared of fucking it up, scared of all of the travel, the results, being away from my comfort zone, my daughter, etc.  Rough times.

People ask me a lot how I do “this.” It’s the same thing as thinking, like some do, that a cancer patient is some sort of hero or something for not just laying down and dying immediately. They express wonder at how I still go to work, etc.  I remember thinking about this when I landed in Nashville last week, exhausted, with a long walk to the car rental garage, and just looked down and focused on putting one foot in front of the other one when I really just wanted to lay down right there. That’s my life, really. When in doubt, forward motion. It’s not heroic. Maybe it’d be more heroic to just give up and say fuck this, to stop ruining everyone elses’ life around me with this fucking disease.  I dunno.

I just keep moving.  Or trying to, anyways. So next stop, Nashville. And although she doesn’t read my blog (don’t ask), thank you, Amy, for coming with me to hold my hand.