3 a.m. Skittles

It’s been somewhat of a crazy few weeks that I haven’t entirely, or at all for that matter, processed, but I figured I should get something down here before I start forgetting things.

So a few weeks ago Amy and I came out to Nashville for my final week of tests. These set up a “baseline” to compare to after the procedure and included all sorts of blood tests, a PET scan and a bone marrow biopsy. Once those were done I went through three days of lymphodepletion chemotherapy of fludarabine and cyclophosphamide which wasn’t too bad (23rd-25th) — this chemotherapy prepares your body to receive the re-engineered T-cells.  Amy took off the next day back home, and the day after I Uber’ed to the hospital (the 28th). On the 29th I was infused with my re-engineered T-cells.

I’m now genetically modified. Bizarre.

Oh another thing to mention that’s kind of interesting is that they use the HIV virus to reprogram your T cells. As a result for a while I’ll test HIV-positive.

Leading up to this mentally and emotionally was rough. My parents decided to pick this time to start an immense amount of unsupportive, toxic drama even with me begging them to knock it off and see the bigger picture. I was terrified of being away from my daughter for this long (3 weeks) and how that was going to affect both her and me, frightened for my marriage (parent drama factors into that one, but that’s a while ‘nother Oprah), and of course scared about this procedure. We’re well beyond the part of the map where it says “Here Be Monsters” with this Car-t stuff.  No long-term data on efficacy or effects.  No guarantees about how this is going to work for me, and what to do if it doesn’t have stellar results.

Even the morning of the flight out here I questioned whether I should be doing this. In the end, though, the opportunity was just too good to say no and so many had given so much so I could get this chance. As I’ve talked about before there’s a giant guilt factor associated with cancer from all different aspects, and I realized this was a new one — that I was being given a chance to take part in a clinical trial that was a life or death chance for people who’s cancer was as far along as mine was. What right did I have to come this far just to throw it away?

So on the 29th I got my cells back, which just like a bone marrow transplant is somewhat of a non-event. I got my cells around 11:30 am and spent most of the day reading, until about 5:30pm when I noticed I was having wicked tinnitus and nausea. I called the nurse and my temperature had shot up to almost 103, I was dizzy, felt weak, etc. This is the dreaded cytokene release syndrome (“storm” or “CRS”), which to me was the scariest part of the process — the problem is you don’t know when or even if you’ll experience a storm. One nurse told me it’s a good thing to get one as it implies the treatment is working (an old wive’s tale as far as most medicines go, but who knows with Car-t). They can happen as soon as I had mine, or weeks after you leave the hospital (Jesus, that would have been terrifying). You can even have more than one, apparently.

All I know is mine was fucking awful. My brain went into full-on scrambled egg mode and I couldn’t even answer simple questions like who the president was or what year it was. I also had this super-annoying sensation where I felt like I had to urinate when I didn’t, which had me constantly going to and from the bathroom.

Somehow I managed to get to sleep that night only to wake up with a headache so bad I couldn’t see straight and just brutal nausea. We were able to medicate most of that away but I couldn’t convince the staff to give me any painkillers more fun than Oxycontin because my heart rate was dropping low enough that they were considering sending me to the ICU. I slept off and on that day but sleeping with a severe headache is, at least for me, just about impossible.

Then on Thursday things started to clear up, and by Friday I had an appetite and was able to keep some food down.

Since then it’s been mostly quiet.  I’ve had three friends who came out here on their own dime just to hang out, which meant the world to me, and all three of us had some great talks.  I’ve had a fairly high success rate bribing the nursing staff to grab me Starbucks (there’s one downstairs) as well, and I’ve just been reading, sleeping and gaming a bit. Just like with a bone marrow transplant, boredom is the real bitch.  Oh, and a woman I’ve talked to online several times, Cherie, came to visit which was awesome. Cherie is in the same clinical trial I’m in and in her case the treatment completely eradicated her disease. As in Myeloma-free. She and others like her are why this particular clinical trial is so sought after.

I go for late-night walks around the floor every night with my Kindle and enough change to get a bottle of water and some munchies.  It’s a poor replacement for when I was home and would grab a glass full of frozen mixed fruit every night (my snack of choice). Although there is something to be said for Skittles and Twix bars at 3 a.m.