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.

Mid-Afternoon Rambling.

Have you ever seen one of those crazy videos where someone’s mountain biking on the top of a mountain with a sheer drop off either side? I feel like that emotionally today.

Not sure why, really. As far as I know I slept OK, although I woke up soaked in sweat. Felt like hell when my daughter woke me up but that’s the norm now. I get up, make some coffee and when it’s cooled enough take my morning medications with it. 30-60 minutes from then I start feeling “normal,” or at least like I can function at some minimal level. Hit Starbucks on the way to work for more go-juice and have just been sitting here, not really accomplishing much, ever since.

My wife had to help me get my socks on today. That’s embarrassing, but kind of her to offer.  I can do it but the yoga involved isn’t fun.  No idea what to do about that (my back) … my flexibility is next to nil and I still have daily back pain. I’m afraid if I go for more testing though they’ll find another tumor or fracture and I just don’t want to deal with that right now. That probably seems reckless but it is what it is. The back surgery I can handle but screw getting radiation treatments again.

I’ve at least gotten a few things done today to clean up the to-do list, like a renewal of this new sleep drug (Seroquel) that the mental health folks in Aurora had me try. Still question whether taking anti-psychotics is the way to go for a sleep aid though, especially when the website says to stop using it if you are experiencing sweating, chills, weakness. Might try a night or two without this one come to think of it, now that I’ve ordered a new bottle of course =/ I was on Zyprexa for sleep before too and it’s the same sort of drug I believe.

Ugh, sweating like a pig. I wish I knew what was causing my internal thermostat to freak out like this but I’ve about had enough now. If I’m not sweating I’ve got the chills. There has to be a solution to this somewhere. I’m guessing either the steroids I’m still on (and will be, apparently, for a while) or the stuff I’m using to sleep is causing this. Would kill for a day without soaking through my t-shirt or freezing to death in a 70 degree house though (for most of my life I thought that was actually too warm).

Got my appointments with CBCI set up with the new nurse navigator and got the status of the liver MRI appointment (waiting to be scheduled since it passed approval in finance).  I needed to call Nashville about my clinical trial status today, damnit. That’s one thing I have to do tomorrow now, all the contact info is at home.

Wish I could bust these blues today.  The last few weeks I’ve felt disconnected, even once the mental wall was rebuilt as the Ambien cleared my system. I know realistically that on a lot of levels that there’s no point to being depressed right now, but I’m having trouble shaking it. I guess it’s just been so long since I’ve felt remotely close to “normal” that it’s weighing too much on me — sick of it. I’d like a day with some energy, no pain, laughs, and not feeling like an outsider in my own life.

I think part of it lately is it seems like a huge portion of my life is spent dealing with this — like all of it, lately. Forgetting for a second the never-ending appointments and trips downtown to the oncology clinic, just the day-to-day constant reminders of the disease — the pain, the pharmacy’s worth of pills I have to take every day, feeling like shit, the depression, the constant anxiety about every little weird physical thing, yada yada yada.

I cannot express how much I envy people without cancer their blissful ignorance of this existence or the lack of these things that they are allowed to take for granted.

Anyways, hopefully the social worker I talked to Friday will come through soon with a list of therapists I can get in touch with, because this has got to change.

2018.

The holidays were such an unmitigated shit-show thanks to family drama that it really hasn’t been until the last week or so that I’ve felt centered enough to where I felt comfortable opening this Pandora’s Box. That may sound like a weak excuse since everyone seemingly has family drama around the holidays, but if it helps your perspective I actually had to consult an attorney over the shenanigans this year.

Seriously.

So yeah, most of the little energy I have just went into surviving December. And scarred and battle-worn I’ve fallen off the cliff into 2018. Here’s to hoping it’s not the health nightmare 2017 was or I don’t see me making it out of this one — I had to do some paperwork recently for our disability insurance policy (which is apparently garbage), and here’s my list of hospitalizations during the past year:

Admission Discharge Procedure
1/18/2017 1/23/2017 Colon Resection
4/19/2017 4/23/2017 Chemotherapy: VDT-PACE
5/22/2017 5/23/2017 Multiple Myeloma Complications
6/19/2017 6/23/2017 Chemotherapy: VDT-PACE
7/19/2017 7/23/2017 Chemotherapy: VDT-PACE
8/13/2017 8/20/2017  Chemotherapy: VDT-PACE
9/5/2017 9/9/2017 Multiple Myeloma Complications
9/18/2017 9/29/2017 Pneumonia Treatment
10/2/2017 10/5/2017 Kyphoplasty
10/10/2017 10/15/2017 Multiple Myeloma Complications
10/17/2017 10/27/2017 Drain of Pericardial Cavity

Fun summer, that.

Anyways a few disconnected ramblings to pour out this time, so be forewarned.

I believe the last time I sat down here we were in a holding pattern to find out what Dr. Matous wants to do with me. The answer is CAR-T, but the question becomes which protocol and when. There are a few things complicating this issue, none of which I have an easy answer for:

  • The big news out of ASH was the anti-BCMA CAR-T treatments, specifically Bluebird Bio’s. Unfortunately CBCI does not have that available and won’t in the foreseeable future. They will have a two-target anti-BCMA trial opening up around the second quarter of 2018, but there’s (a) no guarantee I’d get in and (b) it’s a dosage trial, which is more experimental than I’m comfortable with.
  • Right now I’m not on any chemotherapy and we’re hoping my numbers stay stable while we figure out what to do next. Unfortunately that’s not the M.O. for my cancer so every two weeks I go in for bloodwork, and while relatively stable my numbers are creeping up. Talk about “scanxiety” … I’m not even sure what we do if they start really moving.  Need to remember to ask that tomorrow, actually.

Tomorrow … tomorrow I’ll find out more then as I go in for the monthly IViG infusion and talk to the doctor. This is pretty nerve-wracking at this point as I’m honestly not sure what to do. I’m going to set up an appointment at the Mayo Clinic with Dr. Mikhael to get some more input as well, whom I haven’t seen in over a year — perhaps he’s got some ideas.  I feel like I am definitely experiencing side effects of the cancer, however — my fatigue level is abnormally high and getting worse, and there’s something seriously wrong with my internal thermostat. Should have some preliminary answers about my temperature problems tomorrow as well.

In other health news I had an MRI last Friday for my back — I’m still having a ton of back pain and it seems to be coming from much lower down my spine this time. I should get an idea of what’s going on when we go over the results tomorrow but I have a hard time buying that there’s not something seriously wrong given the pain level. Early last week I took all of my pills out one morning, went to the kitchen to get more coffee to down them and then apparently had a chemobrain moment and just left them un-swallowed on my desk.  By lunchtime without the daily 40mg of Oxycontin on board I thought I was going to fucking die from the pain.

What else … oh! Unusual for me but I’m going to start doing reiki, or at least trying it, next week. One of the things I learned at that Myeloma support group I went to last month was that there’s a group here in Colorado that donates 12 weekly reiki treatments for free to cancer patients, so I figured I’d try it. Can’t hurt, right?

Lastly, I participated in a brain tumor Twitter chat last night which ended up being a double-edged sword. Normally I’d skip something like this but the topic was on advanced care planning and when your sub-group of cancer has as small an online footprint as Myeloma does, you take what you can get for support. Interesting chat although it stirred memories and a few things on my mental to-do list I didn’t want to think about last night, enhanced I’m sure by enjoying a bowl right before the chat started.

It does remind me, however, that I need to put together my “Hey I just died, here’s what you need to immediately do” note for the lockbox. I’ve been avoiding that one and doing so knowingly but it needs to be done. A few passwords and instructions and then I can cross it off. I’ve just been so depressed for so long due to the holiday season and how bad it got I just couldn’t, you know? But it’s time and I simply don’t have the luxury, certainly not after how bad my health got last year, of procrastinating — that’s not fair to Amy or Ari.  Sigh.

That’s about it for now. I’ll post at least a quick update tomorrowish once I find out more about the back and the rest of the doctor’s appointment. Happy New Year to you folks and hope 2018 finds you in better health than last year.

PACE round 2 wrap-up and other precious moments.

Drip.  Drip.  Drip.

People who watch grass grow or paint dry have no idea how much more engaging it is to watch IV fluids.  Sitting at CBCI getting the monthly IViG and trying to find a path home with this blog entry, but there’s a part of me that wants to play the cancerous version of “how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop” (ancient commercial reference) with my IV.  Although with chemobrain I’d probably blow the count halfway through and then be pissed for a month.

“5,400,001. 5,400–“

Nurse: “Can I get you anything?”

“5,400,0–, err, 5,4 … GOD DAMNIT.”

First the good news. As hard as it’s been on me physically, the two rounds of this “kill it with fire” chemo are getting the job done.  From a peak in early May my M-Spike has gone from 3.9 to 2.8 (and according to an email I just got, 2.3 as of Monday), igG is down to 3,786 from 6,041 and my Kappa is down to 436.8 from 1,178.6. Not bad, although I had greedily hoped for even more drastic results for several reasons; perhaps most of all because if you are going to go through the hassles, the GI issues, the pain, the fatigue, being in the hospital for a week, the mustard stains on your favorite t-shirt from ordering gourmet hotdogs delivered to the hospital (what, that could happen to other people), etc., you want to get your money’s worth. The results were good enough, however, for my doctor to want one more cycle as per our meeting this past Friday.

Sigh.  I go back in on the 19th. If you work at Billy’s Gourmet Hot Dogs then congratulations, I’ll be paying for your next vacation.

At the meeting last Friday I also met Dr. Matous’s transplant coordinator, Dana, who gave me THE BINDER. Having gotten one from the Mayo Clinic when I did my first stem cell transplant and now one from CBCI I’m assuming this is standard practice, but for the uninitiated THE BINDER is a collection of information on what to expect, rules, diet, scheduling, yada yada yada.  I read through it this weekend and was amused to see that there was a special callout about marijuana in the rules — specifically, ixnay on the opeday during the hospitalization and afterwards, including edibles (that part makes no sense to me, but OK). Although they did separate out marijuana from the “recreational drugs” category, so that’s progress. I’ve been an activist for medical marijuana for several years now so seeing stuff like that makes me believe that attitudes are indeed changing at the higher levels, especially in healthcare.

You also can’t have nail clippers or a razor. You can however have people bring you restaurant food which seems odd since at the Mayo they were pretty adamant about not eating food that hadn’t just been cooked and served to you, but hey, if I can get delivery while in the hospital for three weeks then it will make things a lot more pleasant.  I’ve noticed that, much like staying in Vegas, no matter how good the food is (and PSL’s is pretty good) you still feel like you’re living in a Denny’s after a week or so.

Speaking of razors, when I entered the hospital for round two of this chemo I started losing my hair in earnest thanks to the first cycle. Irritatingly I only started losing it in the middle of my head, making me look like a poster child for those spraypaint your head infomercials for baldness, so with nothing better to do I busted out my shaving razor and shaved my head during my inpatient stay. As an encore all of the dark hairs fell out of the goatee section of my beard and mustache, so I shaved that all off too. Unfortunately I think in doing so it opened somewhat of a Pandora’s Box without me even knowing it that has fueled some of the depression I’ve been feeling lately. I think it’s a pretty common tale in the cancer world, but since only one previous treatment threatened hair loss (my first stem cell transplant in 2014) and it didn’t really happen I never gave it much thought.

Now I find myself staring into mirrors or purposely ignoring them; I feel like I look like Uncle Fester from the Adams Family. It reminds me a bit of year one when I was first coming to grips with this fucking nightmare while doing chemo during the day (Velcade shots) and feeling an intense isolation as I walked out of my office building when everyone else was going to lunch. Perhaps it’s silly but I find myself battling self-conscious thoughts, something I thought I had been done with by forty-six. I have to consciously look past the feelings of embarrassment now even though I know it’s ridiculous. Might as well get used to it, though, as with another round of this followed by a stem cell transplant I won’t have a beard again until around Christmas-time.  Grrr.

I imagine that seems a petty concern when you are facing a terminal disease. Honestly I never thought it would be a big deal to me, especially since I’ve had my head shav– err, shaved?  Shorn? Whatever, I’ve been getting the brain basket done with a #1 razor for a year or more and had a full beard since my goatee started growing back after the first stem cell transplant. It’s different than I thought it would be though, adding a visceral in-your-face reminder of this disease that I can’t avoid around reflective surfaces.  Didn’t see that coming.

I did, however, talk to my oncology team’s nurse practitioner about depression today. I’m reasonably sure, when I examine things from a distance, that I am in fact depressed. Duh, obviously, but I mean on a level where I would like to go after relief medically so I can function. After consulting with a few psychologists on staff, the oncologists want me to taper off of Lexapro, which I started when I was first diagnosed (suicidal thoughts, general depression) and start taking Effexor. Hoping this works since I was at the max dose of Lexapro and lately I’ve been feeling like it may not be working very well. Fingers crossed because I really do not need a healthy side dish of depression along with my heaping pile o’ cancer.  Especially heading into a gauntlet of some fairly hardcore regimens this year.

One way or another, one way or another,
One way or another, this darkness got to give.

Been listening to the Dead a lot recently (that snippet is from New Speedway Boogie, an old favorite of mine), partially because I’ve been watching this great documentary mini-series on Amazon about them and really it’s just been a while since they lead the mental rotation of what I feel like listening to.  I get in a Dead mood about three times a year and then binge on the live stuff for a week, which you can now download a fuckton of from iTunes. Which still seems weird and out of place to me, just like it does when I download old punk music, but we do live in a convenience-centric world now.

But I digress as usual.  Today at CBCI I also asked if I could get a “why” as to why we’re doing a stem cell transplant, especially when the first one didn’t really do much and subsequent ones are, as I was told when I was at Mayo, only 75% as effective as the first one. Not that I don’t trust my oncology team, but I’ve now been asked this twice by folks and neither time have I really had a satisfactory answer. If I’m going to deal with the incredible hassle, danger and three long weeks without seeing my little one I need to know for myself why I’m doing it beyond just a vague “to reduce my numbers.” Should have an answer next week as they are going to discuss this question at their Thursday meeting.

Thinking about transplants reminds me of a good stem cell transplant story, however.  Back in 2014 when I did my first one I moved my family to Scottsdale for several months and set up my laptop to Skype with my daughter every night (who was three at the time).  So the first night I get on Skype all excited to see Ariana who, after maybe one minute of talking to me, turns off camera to her mother and asks “How do I change the channel?”

Edit: Almost forgot. Found out an old friend was struck down with a brain aneurysm this past weekend and is fighting for his life. I’m not the praying type but if you can spare a few seconds to send some positive vibes for Rob S. and his family I’d sure appreciate it — his kids don’t deserve to grow up fatherless and I have no doubt he has a ton left to offer the world. Thanks.