Update 3/1/2015

March 1st, 2015 § 146 comments

Hi, Things have gotten exponentially harder in last few weeks. I needed a few paracentesis drains (stick catheter in and drain excessive fluid in abdomen) in shorter and shorter increments at hospital.

A week ago 5.5 liters were removed. This process then was going to need to happen again after only ten days. The fluid is coming from my liver because of the cancer.

I was admitted to hospital Wednesday and had a Tenckoff catheter put in. I was not a candidate for the Denver shunt because my platelets run too low and an internal shunt would be dangerous.

They removed another 5 liters of fluid at surgery. Now I have a catheter that allows me to drain myself at home. But, so much fluid removal in short period messes with electrolytes, BP, etc. and makes you feel rotten until you get equilibrium.

Still cannot walk — no change predicted in short order. We are installing ramps, bought wheelchair, etc.

For now that is all I have energy to update but should give you sense of where things are.

Xo, Lisa

Update 2/12/2015

February 12th, 2015 § 94 comments

IMG_9287Once again, it’s been a while since I’ve updated. Somehow most of you know that with me usually no news does not actually equal good news. Before I give an update I want to remind readers that I do update the blog Facebook page (click here to reach it) with short medical updates more often these days if you are interested.

Most of the last three weeks since I last wrote have been dealing still with swelling and blood count issues from radiation and from the extensive disease in my liver that we are working on with the radiation and with chemo. I’ve needed numerous transfusions of red cells for anemia and quite a few for platelets which have really come under attack. We have been taking a break from the Epirubicin and I got a dose of Faslodex (I had it last year as well in a clinical trial with a trial drug, this month I am using it with a daily pill, Letrozole). Rather than being cytotoxic chemos (traditional “cell-killers”) these are anti hormonal agents. We are just trying to let my body recover now for a few weeks.

Last week my abdomen grew and grew with fluid from the liver and overall inflammation. By the end of the week I had an abdomen the size I was when I was ready to give birth. The skin was painfully stretched. We needed to intervene. I went to urgent care for evaluation for a paracentesis (draining/”tap” of fluid). My platelets were too low. They transfused and I just made the cutoff. The process is pretty simple: visualize if the pocket of fluid is drainable (tiny pockets would not be) via ultrasound.

Three needles of increasing gauge are inserted to numb through to the pocket. A catheter is inserted and attached to a drainage bottle that has a bit of vacuum to draw out the fluid. Two and one half liters later we were done. It is a huge amount to see. I did have soreness at the site and discomfort from such a lot of fluid removal after. But this is a very common procedure with metastases to the liver (please, please remember: breast cancer that metastasizes to the liver is not liver cancer. Mets to the brain are not brain cancer. They are breast cancer cells that have moved in the body. There can be/are big differences in terms of prognosis, treatment, chemotherapy agents, etc).

Some patients only need a few of these abdominal taps. Some need them every few weeks depending on how chemo, etc. are working. Sometimes a drain is actually placed to allow a constant ability to remove fluid.

If you were following me last year you know I had a drain placed in my lung while in the hospital that accomplished something similar. I was fortunate to only need that one for a few weeks (I had already had a one-time tap on my left lung called a thoracentesis). For now there are no plans for a drain or other more serious interventions in my abdomen. Now that my potassium levels are holding steady we are using diuretics to manage the issue.

We are working on the plan for next week, it is likely that I will be going back to a chemotherapy called Xeloda (these are pills taken daily) for a bit because it is gentler on blood counts. I’ll update when we have a decision on that.

I’m weak, still unable to drive, or do much more than walk than to the bathroom or a car that is picking me up. I’ve had to adjust some things at home including bathroom rails and so on. Safety is most important and especially with very low platelets falls and any bleeding or injury risk is a serious concern.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something (or things) but I do want to get this out today. I see snow out the window but I’m still focused on Spring. These hydrangeas in my room this week reminded me March is not far off.

Thank you to those near and far for all different kinds of support given this month with an extra shout-out to my wonderful team at Sloan-Kettering. If any of my doctors, nurses, or support staff there are reading this: you help make these tough days better. I value your care always.

Update 1/17/2015

January 17th, 2015 § 78 comments

Image 5Hi everyone… finally an update. I know I have been quiet. As you probably assumed, it has been a very difficult month. I finished whole brain radiation (and I needed to add the C2 vertebrae) and liver radiation a month ago. The brain and liver were two week regimens each but the start times were staggered so it took three weeks to complete. I was having trouble with my magnesium and potassium levels and those needed to be addressed. As a result I needed to be at Sloan-Kettering every weekday for more than 30 straight days between radiation and the aftermath. It was quite a schedule.

In the last few weeks my problem became swelling (edema) from inflammation from the liver radiation. My abdomen was shockingly distended and that was causing me trouble with discomfort and moving around.

I have had fatigue but it hasn’t been the sleeping-all-day form that I was warned might happen with the brain radiation. Fatigue encompasses more than just “tiredness.” For me the fatigue has been more weighted on weakness. I have had a lot of trouble walking and doing steps. I’ve needed to use a wheelchair at SK for a few weeks now. That shouldn’t last much longer as I get stronger to walk distances again. But on the bad days I couldn’t get more than down to the car for my ride.

I started Epirubicin for my chemotherapy a few days after radiation finished in December. It is dosed based on liver function so the dose has been adjusted each week as we see how my liver is doing post-radiation. I was able to get three straight weekly doses. This current week has been my “off” week; my blood counts are low from three straight weeks of chemo (to be expected in anyone getting it) so a week off is always given for the body to hopefully make enough the replenishment cells of different types.

The magnesium and potassium as of this week are finally holding with home management and no IV supplementation. A helpful tip: the low sodium form of V8 has huge quantities of potassium. Most people think of OJ or a banana to supplement. Only 8 oz of it contain 900 mg of potassium. I drink a few a day, just make sure it is the low sodium version though.

I’ve now tapered totally off the very low steroid dose I had been on for months. Steroids can make your legs very weak if you take them for an extended period of time so it is good to be able to remove them from the equation.

I only needed to go to SK for one trip this week. Diuretics have helped with the edema, each day I see and adjust the dose. I do not have pain beyond what is caused by the fluid around the liver. I do not take any pain pills and haven’t needed them during radiation. I have not had any headaches or neurological issues yet from the brain radiation which is probably due to the fact that my lesions were so small and the low dose of steroids. I am still winning a bunch of my Words with Friends games too! The last time I was able to leave the house to go somewhere except to go to Sloan-Kettering was Thanksgiving. That boggles my mind.

I think this week has been a turning point. I am hopeful the major acute radiation effects are waning. No clue what lies ahead with the delayed ones but I don’t focus on that. For now I will be working on strength (after being basically bedridden for a month) and trying to get more function back. It is a process.

If all goes well I will start a new chemo cycle next week. Radiation effectiveness can’t be assessed immediately so we will do preliminary scans in a few weeks. (I finished on 12/19). Each day is different and I can’t predict how I will feel. But that seems to be the way life will be for me now. I long ago adjusted to that.

I am grateful for all of the support and concern shown over the last month from you, I understandably wasn’t able to return many messages. This past month was really about just getting through. The energy I did have was spent making sure the kids were able to maintain their usual schedules and we made it. Friends who have helped with rides and meals: thank you.

The poppy photo above is from my garden a few years ago… I’m already anxious for Spring to get here. xo

Update 12/27/2014

December 27th, 2014 § 71 comments

IMG_9257Hi all, a short update.

I’ve finished two weeks of whole brain radiation (those two weeks had simultaneous radiation to my C2 vertebrae), and two weeks of liver radiation (one overlapping with brain, so all of this was 3 weeks of treatment). I have been overwhelmingly plagued with intense fatigue and other side effects (fatigue is the worst thing at the moment though).

I need to use a wheelchair when I go to Sloan-Kettering now. I’ve needed platelets and red cells once each in the last few weeks and have needed to be at Sloan for one half-day every weekday for the last month or so because my magnesium (despite daily infusions) remains critically low, which is a dangerous situation. My potassium has similarly started to be an issue as well. I get magnesium and potassium in addition to 1.5 to 2 liters of fluids as well each day because I have been having trouble staying hydrated with the radiation effects. Not enough energy here to go into why the magnesium is still an issue now.

Four days ago on Tuesday the 23rd, I began chemotherapy (4 days after finishing all of my radiation). We are starting a new drug called epirubicin which is an anthracycline just like the well-known adriamycin (it is also red like adriamycin).

So basically I’m spending a half day at MSK every weekday and resting (I’m basically bedridden right now) at home the rest of the time. I don’t leave the house except to go to MSK. I expect at least a few more weeks of this.

I’m thrilled that my family has gone away on vacation starting today and they will have a week to ski and be with cousins and grandparents and get a fun break while I recover here. I insisted that they go; it is so important for me to know that our kids and my husband can have some vacation time and get a break. It is not easy to be a family member/caretaker under these conditions so it gives me a lot of joy that they can have a change of scenery. I have a family member staying with me since I can’t be alone and so that will work out just fine in terms of appointments and help with my needs.

I get foggy quickly so I hope this post made sense!

Many thanks as always to those who support me daily with tweets, emails, rides to appointments, donations to my research fund, meals, etc. And to any MSKCC staff who are reading this: you know how much I adore you.

I am grateful that you all continue to join me here. Wishing you a happy and healthy new year if possible and we’ll keep on going into 2015 the best we can…

xo,

Lisa

Update 12/11/2014

December 11th, 2014 § 53 comments

IMG_7086These are very rough days. Finishing whole brain radiation tomorrow (Friday), have completed one week of liver radiation and have one more week to go. Immediately after I complete those (Christmas week) I will go back to systemic IV chemotherapy. The Y90 SIRT procedures to the liver are not able to be done right now because the brain mets needed immediate attention and we couldn’t afford to have the 6-7 weeks of full Y90 procedures afterward while the rest of the body went untreated.

It is possible since we are only radiating the right lobe of the liver right now that we will later Y90 the left lobe if we can get some stability after radiation and chemo but that is to be determined. You always have to be willing to adjust to what the day brings and what the best new course of action is.

For now I have side effects of being wobbly, absolutely fatigued (unable to walk well or move), dehydrated, pain and nausea. It hasn’t gotten to the worst point it will and we are managing medications each day to deal with each days’s issues. My palliative care doctor and my medical oncologist as well as radiation oncologist are all monitoring me closely.

I have been at MSK for IV fluids and magnesium 4 days this week, radiation for five days this week, and tomorrow I will even then need to head down to NYC for platelets for clotting and red cells to combat my anemia. We need these numbers to be up so I can continue radiation and then get right into chemotherapy again.

I’m not functional for the most part and the days are very tough. But I know this is what needs to happen before I can get my strength back and the cancer under control. These are important weeks and months.

That’s all I have energy to report for right now, thank you for the support.

Update 12/3/2014

December 3rd, 2014 § 54 comments

IMG_6823I realize it has been a while since my last update. Things have been very busy with getting my whole brain radiation going. I’ve spent so much time at Sloan-Kettering… yesterday I was there for 7 hours. By the time I get home I am too exhausted to write. But I do want to let you know where we are this week.

The first thing I want to comment on is the death of my dear friend Ann Gregory. She died the day before Thanksgiving. Her obituary appears here. Some of you came to know Ann through Twitter or through my stories about her in person or through her comments here on the blog. If you did get to know her and chat with her on Twitter over the past few years, you were lucky.

Ann was the strongest person I know and had numerous diagnoses of cancer throughout her life including leukemia and squamous cell carcinoma. She was quite stoic and, like me, was always okay as long as there was a plan for what to do. We spent hours texting each other (often those hours could be in a single day, depending on which one of us was sick or well that day or what phase of treatment we were in), always supported each other, and she was always a valuable source of information for me. I have missed her so much in the week since she has died. We did not want to leave each other. Four days before she died she texted me to say her goodbye. I will never delete those text messages and I am so sad that I have to do all that I have to do without her. My heartfelt condolences go out to all of her family, especially her husband, Chris, and her legions of friends. Her blog appears here. I just can’t do her life and personality justice here right now, but there is a gaping hole in my life now, and Ann is the precise shape of that hole.

…………………………………………………..

IMG_9229Last Friday I did my mask-fitting and simulation. The mask-fitting takes about half an hour and is pretty unpleasant. The mask is molded to be skin tight on your face, to the point of leaving indentations when removed. It is rigid plastic, not flexible mesh. There are no eye holes or openings for your mouth… your chin is jammed up so tightly that you couldn’t open your mouth if you wanted to. I cannot speak at all when it’s on and attached. Obviously, this is vital to making sure the radiation is going exactly where you want it to go, and not where you don’t.

Even though the fitting and simulation take a while, each radiation session itself is quite short. After confirming the patient’s identity with name, birthdate, and a photo, you lay down on the table, they hand you a foam ring to hold on to across your chest so your arms are relaxed and easy to keep still, and a foam wedge is placed under your knees. Then the aforementioned mask is placed on and with some tugging and effort, attached firmly to the table you’re on. The photo gives an idea of what it’s like.

The technicians leave the room and the linear accelerator moves into place. The beam goes on and I can see even through my eyelids a very bright light with a bluish cast. It is only on for less than a minute and then it moves and does the same thing to the other side of my head. They say there is no smell to radiation but I always smell something. I have read that others do, too. I can’t describe exactly what the smell is. I’m working on figuring it out. I’m usually focusing on relaxing and not getting claustrophobic so I haven’t solved the mystery yet. It doesn’t quite smell like burning hair but maybe that is part of it. After the actual beams are done then the techs scurry back in right away and release the mask from its mooring. That’s it.

As I said in my last post, side effects don’t usually start for brain radiation until closer to the end of the 10 session series. So, next week I will see more of the fatigue and the start of hair loss. Memory loss takes a bit longer to occur. There are many things that might happen including headaches and nausea and confusion and blurry vision but those are not as common. I did not have any neurological symptoms before starting radiation so that is a good thing. I have some nausea and loss of appetite but that is primarily due to the liver situation. An inflamed liver causes pain, nausea, and so on.

I did my liver simulation for radiation yesterday. This is actually more complicated for the radiation oncologist to map out than the brain because part of my liver already received radiation when I had the radiation to my spine in January. For this reason, she needs to make sure it doesn’t get any additional radiation this time. None of the 13 or so tattoos (permanent ink dots placed by a needle under the skin to mark where the alignment should be for the laser beams for radiation) that I had from the spine and pelvic radiation in January were in the correct spots for the liver so I got about 6 more of those. The radiation oncologist will focus on the right lobe of the liver, but even that is tricky with the kidney and bowel in range.

They will work to map it this week and I will start liver radiation next Monday. That means this week (12/1-5) will be brain only, then one week (12/8-12) of both brain and liver, then one week (12/15-19) of liver only. Then I will wait a few days and begin chemotherapy again. These are hard days ahead. Side effects will be kicking in right as I go back to chemo. Christmas week will be the peak for all of this to hit the fan.

I’m continuing to get IV fluids 2-3 times a week and am also getting magnesium infusions because the most recent chemo continues to cause my magnesium level to stay far too low. Even though I am not getting chemo right now (in this case, chemo and radiation can’t be given together even though with some cancers they are) I am still having lingering effects from the last round of Cisplatin. The magnesium infusions add about 8 hours a week to time I need to be at MSK (Memorial Sloan-Kettering).

There really isn’t time to do anything else besides be there and rest at home. I’ll be there every weekday for the next few weeks. I’m managing okay and know it’s going to get far worse before it (hopefully) gets better.

I think this should give everyone a pretty good timeline of what I’ll be doing in the next few weeks so that if I can’t update much, you’ll still know. I know people have questions and I will do my best to answer them, it might just take me longer than usual.

Thanks for all of the support, as always.

Update 11/24/2014

November 24th, 2014 § 103 comments

IMG_3314The brain MRI on Friday unfortunately showed that the metastases are to my brain, not just my skull. There are many tiny malignant lesions in the brain (imagine salt sprinkled onto a bowl of popcorn) so I am not able to do focused gamma knife radiation to shrink them individually. I will need whole brain radiation to try to shrink them all before they cause me to have symptoms.

Whole brain radiation will radiate all of my brain tissue, healthy and malignant. It is usually given in a series of 10-15 sessions, every weekday. It has side effects both short term and long term. In addition there is a claustrophobia-inducing session of mask-fitting where a mold of the face and head must be made for the patient to wear  during radiation treatments to immobilize them. Here are some photos that one woman made of her WBR process.

I am meeting with the radiation team on Tuesday to get all of the details and do the scheduling. I haven’t met with them yet. I believe the goal is to start next week. I do not yet know what this means for the radiation procedures I had scheduled for my liver. I will also be continuing with chemo as much as is possible during this time. The most serious side effect will be fatigue. As in: sleep 20 or more hours a day fatigue. Can’t get out of bed fatigue. So I will need to make arrangements to get more help here at home to help with the kids and with driving.

For now that’s all I’m going to report because I want to see what the team says about my particular case and let everyone know the plan for me. It’s obviously not the news I was hoping for. But as always I will do what needs to be done to try to manage it.

Update 11/18/2014

November 19th, 2014 § 57 comments

IMG_8995Nothing poetic here today. Just a report.

The past week was already one of the most challenging I’ve had this year: my first infusion last week of a triple dose of Cisplatin had me down for the count while I was also digesting the news of the growing liver metastases and what needs to be done to try to reduce those. This week I had a PET scan and CT angiogram of the liver scheduled to assist in my pre-surgical requirements for the Y90 Yttrium radioembolization I talked about in my latest update (the Y90 process is also called SIRT: selective internal radiation therapy).

As a result of the PET scan we got some additional information and what we got was not good. Obviously that isn’t a surprise given that my bloodwork had already told us the prior chemos had stopped working and the cancer has been progressing. The PET confirmed that my liver is an area of increasing trouble with tumors multiplying and growing in size. Not surprising. Also as we suspected, the fluid around my heart appears to be malignant. Then there were surprises: apparently at least one malignant lesion in my brain and new cancerous areas throughout my skull and jaw.

The PET is not a good way to identify exact size and precise location of specific tumors, however. Therefore, on Friday I will need a brain MRI to get good imaging and see exactly what is going on. Then we will see what needs attention, what is watch and wait. Not all brain lesions should be radiated with gamma knife surgery immediately; it is a risk/benefit assessment when you’re shooting radiation into the brain. Obviously, though, gamma knife surgery is a treatment that will be considered once we have details on what we are looking at.

Skull metastases, despite sounding scary, are just bony mets. This is what systemic chemotherapies (treatments that are given orally or through IV that work throughout the whole body) are designed to work on. Brain lesions often need different therapy because many/most drugs do not cross the blood/brain barrier (or do so in an indirect or imperfect way) and so are not effective in counteracting metastases to the brain. Metastases to the brain often require a change in therapy to address this issue.

For now we proceed with the liver plan because that is a local therapy designed to work on just that issue. It needs attention now and isn’t changed (yet) by this new information. As for the rest, I will just have to see what the brain scan shows and go from there. It will be a long week of tests and waiting. Sometimes I wonder how I walk around knowing what is in me and what it is doing to me and still manage to get through the day. I have seen the roller coaster of what this disease does. Some things that sound terrifying end up being able to be managed.

We will be scheduling chemo intermixed with my liver procedures (day before, or maybe a few days after), adjusting the chemo doses to lower ones so that there is time for my blood counts to rise in the time needed. It will be an art and science to balance. By then we will know if the Cisplatin is working. I can only hope that it is and that it will. We have a few choices lined up for if it isn’t.

While all of this goes on I still search for that laugh, I still appreciate the small things.

Most people know my “bit of beauty” tweet by now (“Find a bit of beauty in the world today. Share it. If you can’t find it, create it. Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere.”). Judy Clement Wall has made this into notecards and a print and is donating all funds from sales through 2014 to my research fund at Sloan-Kettering. If interested, go here to her Etsy shop. I know that this is the quote many people will remember me for most. But I have another tweet I like to send out. Some days this one just feels right. It is:

Make the most of this day. Whatever that means to you, whatever you can do, no matter how small it seems.

For now, and again, I say: Onward.

 

(A housekeeping note: for anyone who has signed up to receive these posts by email but sees that posts aren’t arriving: you must confirm your subscription by clicking the verification option in the first email you will receive. If you have been wondering why you aren’t getting the emails, please re-sign up from the home page at www.lisabadams.com, upper right corner, and make sure to verify. There are loads of unverified requests and only you can do this part!)

Update 11/7/2014

November 7th, 2014 § 82 comments

IMG_7240This week has been one of disappointment and adjustment. I met with the interventional radiologist on Wednesday afternoon to discuss what can be done for the metastases to my liver and what options are available. While chemotherapy has done a remarkable job in clearing up the cancer in my chest (it is resolved; if there, is small enough that it doesn’t show up on the scan), there are metastases to my liver that are chemotherapy-resistant. This means they have grown despite the fact that chemo that has worked well in other areas of my body.

Unfortunately, what I learned while reviewing the scan with him is that I don’t just have two tumors in the liver. Instead there are actually many tumors in my liver, with those two being the largest. The fact there are so many tumors is why I am not a candidate for external beam radiation or other non-invasive treatment.

So far I am still a candidate for the Yttrium 90 radioembolyzation procedure where radioactive beads are inserted via a catheter snaked up through the groin into the hepatic artery and subsequently “feed” the tumors radioactive material as the beads work their way into the liver.1

It will take three separate procedures spaced about two weeks apart to get this done. I will start the first week of December and finish in January. The first procedure involves mapping things out (in essence, a “dry run” where mock beads are inserted) and the next two are actual placement procedures. This is all a joint approach between interventional radiology and nuclear medicine. Before I start I will need a CT angiogram of the liver and a PET scan. After treatment I will have to monitor progress with PET scans every three months.

In the meantime we need to start on a new IV chemotherapy right away to try to see if we can find a chemo that will work on the liver tumors. We have no way of knowing if we will find one or what it will be. Right now my oncologist is eyeing Cisplatin, a platinum-based chemo like the Carboplatin I was on this summer. We will make the decision by next week and begin then.

The liver situation is serious. The cancer is growing rapidly there and we need to get it under control. Results of using Yttrium 90 for breast mets is pretty good, definitely good enough to proceed with it. To be honest, it is not a choice about whether to do it (I’m not at a point where I would consider doing nothing and stopping treatment, I realize that proceeding with any type of treatment is a choice in and of itself). There aren’t other options to treat these in a “batch” way.

So, there is a lot of adjustment right now. I feel sadness, disappointment, and anger that chemo has worked so well in some areas but the liver has been resistant. Things change so fast with this disease. One day things are relatively stable and within weeks they can be spiraling out of control.

As always, I will continue to educate and do what I can to show what my life with metastatic breast cancer is, what life with the disease can be.

For now, I will begin a new chemo and proceed with plans and pre-surgical testing for December. I’ve appreciated the emails and comments so much and I thank you all for your concern and wishes. I am sorry that I can’t respond to them all individually.

  1. If you would like to read about the details, one summary of the procedure appears here, it is mostly used in colorectal metastases  to the liver []

Update 11/5/2014

November 5th, 2014 § 54 comments

IMG_2270A quick update.

I received my fourth round of Navelbine yesterday and I’m feeling incredibly rotten today. We’ve now confirmed that this drug is not working (at least as a single agent), so I probably will not have to put up with it much longer.

Yesterday I learned my liver tumors are too big to do the ablation procedure we had hoped (please see update on 11/7 for some corrections to this paragraph). Instead, later today I will be evaluated for a more complicated procedure called Yttrium 90 radioembolization. I will learn more about it today but the general idea is that a catheter is snaked up through the groin to one of the two blood supplies to the liver. While the liver usually gets 75% of its blood from the portal vein, when there are tumors present they often get almost all of their blood from the hepatic artery. The interventional radiologists insert radioactive beads of glass or plastic into that artery so when the tumor gets its blood supply, that supply is radiated and hopefully shrinks the tumor locally, without disruption of healthy cells in the rest of the body. Only one tumor can be treated at a time. It is not a cure, it is just palliative for these metastatic tumors to try to stabilize them or reduce them. I will also need to be off chemo for a week on either side of the procedure.

I also need to be seen tomorrow by the cardiology team at Sloan-Kettering for another opinion on my pericardial fluid situation now that I am having some symptoms and have had more imaging done. They will decide if we need surgical procedure to drain the fluid and biopsy it. It is probably malignant but we can’t be sure. If they don’t feel we need to do any intervention right now, we will watch and wait.

So, we have some big decisions to make including what chemo to go to next. I won’t go into those options here now. First I need to deal with these more pressing issues of the liver and the heart. I had hoped to be able to rest and get through these difficult post-chemo days at home but the appointments mean pushing myself beyond what I really think I’m able to do sometimes. But I have to get answers and be able to get scheduled for what I need when I am hopefully feeling a bit better next week.

Once we have some decisions made about it all I will report back. Things just don’t seem to go the easy or simple route and I’m getting used to that. For now I am going to try to conserve energy and stay pretty quiet. Thanks to you all for your continued support.

 

Update 11/3/2014

November 2nd, 2014 § 29 comments

IMG_9141Last week didn’t quite go as planned. I was hoping to post more pieces here to finish out October with some of my favorites. I will still try to get those up in the coming weeks. What prevented me from doing so was a week that became dominated with medical appointments.

Monday I saw my cardiologist to try to get some information about some symptoms I’d been having. My echo (and later in the week, the CT scan) showed there is some excess fluid around my heart. For now it is not causing any effect on heart function but we can’t rule out that it is a problem. I’ll have to repeat tests in a few weeks to try to see if it grows in volume (this would indicate a more sinister issue, and we would need to rule out a malignancy). For now, though, that goes on the back burner.

Tuesday I had bloodwork and IV fluids. The bloodwork is still a bit unclear about if the current chemo (Navelbine) is working. The rise in tumor markers is slowing but we need some definitive results this week, I think, to feel confident in interpreting them. The bloodwork also revealed I was anemic again, so on Thursday I went to New York City and got a transfusion of two units of blood.

On Friday I had a CT scan to compare to my last scan and help us make decisions about treatment. The CT showed both some good news and some concerns. While the lymph nodes and malignant tissue in my chest have resolved (chemotherapy in the last six months has worked and reduced those areas), my liver unfortunately shows two tumors.

The best thing at this time would be to biopsy portions of them (to gather tissue for future testing; my cancer has rarely been in areas that we can actually get samples, so this presents a rare chance to grab some) and also do ablation on them. Ablation is a localized procedure that when successful, destroys tumors of a particular size with very few side effects.

So, a lot is up in the air at the moment.

Because it is only Monday morning I don’t know what this week will bring in regards to chemo. We also don’t yet know if the interventional radiologists will decide that I am a good candidate for the ablation.  For now, I wait.

Palbociclib, a drug I received through the expanded access (formerly “compassionate use”) program from Pfizer should arrive this week. That process took approximately 9 weeks and usually takes longer than that. I am fortunate my oncologist kept the process moving in such a timely manner (all applications and documents for such use must be done by the physician, not the patient).

I’m not feeling that well and have been primarily staying home for the last month. Now that I think about it, though, I’ve been basically staying home for the last ten months. Many days my half hour in the morning driving the older two kids to school is my only outing of the day. But I am patient.

At this point the options are still very reasonable and typical for this stage of the disease. I’m waiting for the next treatment proposal and then onward we go.

Update 4/27/2014

April 27th, 2014 § 141 comments

IMG_8374It’s been a long time since my last update. The weeks have been very tough and I haven’t had the energy to do much of anything, much less update the blog. I have switched chemotherapy agents to Carboplatin and Gemzar. These are given in a bit of an unusual schedule: both drugs the first week, just Gemzar the second week, and then a week off to allow blood counts to rise back to (hopefully) normal levels. I will be starting my third cycle this week.

I’ve had tremendous fatigue and the palliative team is trying some medication to hopefully help with this. There still may be effects from radiation weakening me (fatigue from high doses of radiation like I received to my spine and pelvis can last up to six months they say) and of course when certain blood counts drop it makes you feel just tired and rotten. I fervently hope that the medication will help and I will be gaining some strength and energy soon. It’s been such a long few months. Good news is that radiation did such a great job on the two areas that I’ve been able to completely wean off of pain medication. The pain I have from the current tumors throughout my body does not require medication right now. I know that will change as those tumors grow, but the gradual weaning process I have been doing for the past 3 months has been a huge success and I’m so glad to see the vertigo and other side effects from the pain meds disappear.

On the flip side, while the pain component has been a success, the last few weeks have been fraught with some unexpected problems. For the last month I’ve been seeing specialists and having tests to figure out why my voice has completely deteriorated and I also developed a varying left eye droop and lack of dilation in the left eye.

After a brain MRI to rule out a brain metastasis the doctors have determined that it is actually a malignant lesion in my left chest causing Horner’s Syndrome in my eye. The lesion is also pressing on the nerve cluster that controls my left vocal chord. It’s not totally paralyzed yet, but they say that it is on its way. My voice is almost completely unusable in any situation with noise (ordering in a restaurant is impossible, being heard on the phone is difficult, etc.). I can get out a strong whisper to a quiet raspy voice for about ten to twenty minutes in the morning sometimes but communication outside the quiet house or after twenty minutes is very, very hard.

I already do know there are things like voice magnifiers or computer generated voices. I know they are out there but I am not ready to use them. The damage will almost certainly be permanent they tell me. Swallowing will become more difficult and dangerous as the chord deteriorates. There is an injection they can do to stiffen the chord but at this point they are not ready to do that because I won’t get any additional improvement over where I am now.

The lack of voice limits further the amount of social contact I can have these days and the energy it takes to communicate is magnified because breath control is reduced so much. I will go back in three months and we will re-evaluate. Even my voice isn’t off limits to cancer it seems. I really just feel a period of stability would be so welcomed.

The rest of my family went to Florida for Spring Break two weeks ago while I had my tough week of chemo and some appointments with specialists. I was so glad they could go get some sunshine and  respite from the stress that I know my situation brings. It is so important to me to try to always look at things from their point of view and know what this situation asks from them. I wish I could be a better wife and mother right now, but wishes don’t count for much I know. It was hard to miss yet another family trip, there have been a few this year.

I try to get out once a day but I tire easily and usually am not able to get out on chemo weeks (more than 2/3 of days). Walking and standing are still my challenges. I continue to be very isolated. My daily life of exhaustion, immunosuppression, chemotherapy, and treatment effects keep me chained to cancer, much as I hate to be.  I try to be as independent as I can, not ask for help often, and keep my thoughts to myself about what is happening and what is yet to come.

For now, I keep plugging away, hoping the new chemo is continuing to work and doing the best I can even when things seem stacked against me. My medical team continues to be warm, caring, and helpful and I am so grateful to them and to you.

Things are very hard right now. It takes all of the strength I have to get through each day doing things I otherwise would be giving little thought to. I miss that part, the carefree, energetic part of me I had.

For now, I just keep going, doing my best. It just is going to have to be good enough. Spring has been lagging, the garden isn’t flowering as it usually is. The days have been chilly and nights sometimes still have freeze warnings. Let’s hope by my next update the flowers and I are both blooming a bit more.

Update 3/25/2014

March 25th, 2014 § 83 comments

IMG_8311It’s been such a rough few weeks. I’m going to keep this short. I’ve wanted to update and haven’t been able to… you know that means it’s been tough.

I’ve switched chemo. Taxol wasn’t doing what it should/had hoped. So we have changed plans.

Last week I started a three week course of Carboplatin and Gemzar (both drugs are given the first week, just Gemzar the second week, third week is a break week in my particular plan). We may have to modify this because the fatigue and steroid crash have been giving me a really hard time.

Taxol wasn’t doing a great job but the scans show that radiation did a good job on the tumors in my spine and hips. There are others that we are watching in bones and will monitor them. Now we also go to work on liver tumors and when they shrink down we will radiate (ablate) those. It’s always like Whack-a-Mole. Something drops down and something pops up. You try until you find something that works.

I still have problems with my esophagus from the radiation. Each chemo session aggravates it and it gets hard to talk. Thankfully it’s not too painful. But it does flare each week and means no talking on phone and not much in person. It does affect eating as well.

I haven’t been able to be out much at all, just a few times in the last few month, usually on days when steroids are giving me a boost or I need to be at a doctor’s office for fluids to prevent dehydration. I’m sleeping a lot… sometimes for literally days at a time and trying to let my body work through this. There’s no other choice. I wish I could be doing more with my family. But I hope they know I am doing the best I can, admittedly not so much right now.

I can’t truly explain how debilitating the feeling is: needing a nap after a shower, sleeping for most of the day and then sleeping right through the night, trying to decide how many times it’s manageable to get up to go to the bathroom. But we will keep working to find a way to get through it. The radiation with chemo right on its heels is still knocking me back even months later, as are ongoing chemo treatments.

I’m so grateful for the rides, help from friends, and delivered meals that keep things going. I couldn’t do it without the friends that drive the kids to school and bus stop daily, take me to doctors’ appointments on the spur of the moment for IV fluids, and those who offer assorted favors. I need you more than you know and am grateful to those who offer. I am not answering most emails at this point but I do read them.

Thank you.

Update 3/4/2014

March 4th, 2014 § 73 comments

IMG_8310Hi everyone, an update to briefly say hello since my posts are still infrequent. It’s been about three months now since this particular acute metastatic breast cancer episode started. First I was stuck at home in pain with tumors in my spine and hips before and during the holidays. Then I was in the hospital for three weeks at the start of 2014 getting pain under control and having two weeks of radiation. Now I’ve been home for another six weeks since leaving the hospital.

After such a long period of time many people will start to assume you “must be back to normal by now.” Each day they anxiously wait for news that someone “feels better.” It doesn’t work like that all the time, just the way with metastatic cancer you don’t “beat it.”  A good day or two may come, but they are often followed by a bad one, or two, or three. Add chemo to the mix and you start to realize the good days are relative and elusive in incurable cancer. Support is always so appreciated as the days, weeks, months go by. It’s friendship for the duration.

There are many situations where isolation may be a real danger including examples of infertility, chronic illness, and grief. Those who must deal with these problems start to feel isolated. Additionally, they may start to actively separate from others when they feel that life is just moving on without them. As time goes on, they may hesitate to talk about their problems because they fear that friends will have grown weary of hearing about it/ still can’t relate to it. More and more, they keep these things to themselves. This leads both to further isolation and also the faulty notion from their friends that the person is “over it.”

The truth is that it’s very hard when  difficult situations of all kinds linger. I think we all do better when tough times are brief. Being in one of these situations has shown me the depth to which this is the case.

Today I had to miss Tristan’s Spring music show at school. It broke my heart to tell him I couldn’t attend. They were able to videotape it and I know we will watch it together and have a special time doing that. If it were just one thing it would be different. But as any parent can imagine, saying, “I’m so sorry but I can’t…” again and again for months is difficult. The truth is that if I knew it were temporary it would be easier. But I know that there will be more and more things I can’t do with the kids. And that’s what weighs on me: this thing is part of a whole.

I tried driving last weekend but unfortunately, for now, the verdict is that I am still unable to do more than go to the bus stop at the end of the street if needed. So I continue to be housebound.

I’m working with my doctors to adjust my medications and try to manage the vertigo, sedation and pain. I am using less pain medicine (hooray) but unfortunately I still feel so rotten I sometimes can’t get out of bed and most often can’t go anywhere except to chemo. It is a cruel balance. This weekend I was stuck in bed for three days. It saddens me to lose so much time.

I still long to write here more. I miss the creative part of my brain working the way it used to. I miss poetry and photography and so many things. I will bring them back though! The orchid photo above is one I took in the kitchen this week. My friend Alex brought me lunch and a beautiful potted orchid. I even ordered daffodils with my groceries this week to remind myself of the garden outside and what’s waiting under this snow.

Winter break at school came and went. I know it’s a very busy time for everyone as Spring approaches. It’s hard to see life outside passing me by while I wait for Spring so I can at least get fresh air here at home. It has continued to be cold and wintery over the past few weeks. If you’re able to be outside today doing anything: errands, standing at the bus stop, or waiting the train platform on your way to work: think for a moment what it would feel like not to do any of that for three months. It’s a very long time. Mundane things can be sweet when viewed in a different light.

I am so grateful for the offers of help and meals that continue to come. Let me assure you they are so needed  and appreciated. I will have chemo again this week. In two weeks’ time the plan is to do scans to see if there is any visible evidence about whether radiation and chemo have shrunk the cancer.

My daily reminder: Find a bit of beauty in the world today. Share it. If you can’t find it, create it. Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere.

In case you need a bit of beauty I will leave you with one of mine, a good laugh this week from Tristan. With a very serious expression on his face  he says to me quietly from the dinner table, “Mom, I have something to tell you and you’re not going to like it. It’s something I learned. I was reading it in a book. But I think you will be upset. The book was about Albert Einstein. It said that for a while he didn’t want to go to school. He didn’t want to learn things in school that they wanted him to learn. He just wanted to learn what he wanted to learn. He stayed home for a while and didn’t go to school. See? I think you would not think that was very good that Albert Einstein didn’t want to go to school.”

Going, going, gone…

February 23rd, 2014 § 35 comments

ImageSunday morning.

A different kind of strength: shave the few soft but strong hairs that are finally ready.

Now gone to the floor.

No tears.

Necessity.

……….

You’ll be seeing more posts here in the near future about some of my feelings over the last two months. I’m starting to feel more like myself. The vertigo is lessening with the decrease I’ve been able to make in the pain medication, as we’d hoped. I’ve reduced the pain meds by 20% and the hope is that as the radiation effects start to kick in I will be able to decrease more. It’s been five weeks now since I finished radiation. I needed these Fentanyl patches desperately while the tumors were out of control. I could not have done it any other way. But certainly we all want me only using the amount I need to control my current level of pain.

I will be going back to meet again with my palliative care doctors this week to reassess my pain meds and talk about the plan for the next few weeks. I was thrilled to see that my last post about the importance of early palliative care and its definition (not end-of-life pain management… but instead total patient care pain management) was so well-received by patients and doctors alike. I encourage both sides to really form a team and focus on all side effects that patients are having with all kinds of treatment.

Patients function better not only emotionally but also physically in that they will heal better if their bodies are not weakened by pain. It takes trial and error to find the right drugs and the right amounts. It takes patience. Most palliative care doctors are experts in patience, I have fortunately found. I know that is not always the case and I always receive emails and comments from people who have had distressing experiences with their care. I am so sorry for that. I am hoping by relaying my own experiences, readers who have not yet found help with pain will have strength to ask again or pursue help if they’ve been unable to.

I’ve started my second month of chemotherapy (Taxol). I do three weekly treatments in a row and then have one week off each month. I had my first infusion of my second month on Thursday. I haven’t had any additional reactions to the chemo so I’ve been able to have the sessions done rather quickly (30 minutes for the 3 pre-medications and then 60 minutes for the actual Taxol). Sometimes I go alone and sometimes I have a friend join me. I am developing a routine and it has worked well so far.

IMG_2023We still have a lot of snow on the ground and on sunny days like today the brightness is astounding. We are all anxious for Spring but it’s just not here yet (more snow due to arrive this week). I am thinking of my snowdrops and daffodils just waiting under the snow pack. The photo at left is from last year… can’t wait to see this in the front yard again soon.

For today I’m sporting a head scarf and getting used to seeing a new reflection looking back at me in the mirror.

………

Make the most of this day. Whatever that means to you, whatever you can do. No matter how small it seems to you. Don’t waste it.

Where Have the Days Gone?

February 7th, 2014 § 66 comments

IMG_8248It’s hard to believe how many days went by when I was in the hospital. It’s hard to believe how many days have gone by since I’ve been home.

I have wanted to write a blogpost so often. I sat down at the computer many times in the last few weeks to update you on what has been going on.

Most often what happened when I did that is simple: I got very tired and fell asleep. Sometimes my vertigo was really distracting.  Sometimes  the distraction was something wonderful: one of the kids wanted to tell me something. Frequently it was Tristan in his little voice saying, “I love you, Mama.” That one always takes priority, of course.

I’m on a lot of pain medication at the moment. I have been since leaving the hospital almost three weeks ago. The positive effects of radiation haven’t quite kicked in yet. I still have many of the negative effects of radiation. These will go away soon. But right now I’m still waiting. This is totally normal for radiation that is used in the way I used it, I should point out; it takes weeks, and in fact months, for the positive benefits of radiation to be fully realized. During that time the negative side effects of radiation can linger.

They radiated my spine in the T9/T10 areas from both the front and back and also radiated my pelvis through from the left and right sides for ten sessions over two weeks. The side effects that I have are related to the particular lines of radiation and what areas the beams hit while also hitting their targets. For me, esophagus, stomach, intestines, colon, pelvis, sacrum, and spine were the main areas hit. Esophagitis which makes eating and drinking painful is starting to decrease (but the raspy voice continues). Problems with digestion continue. Lowered blood counts continue. Pain and inflammation in nerves and tumor sites continue. Heartburn and colitis have decreased. I do not have radiation burns right now and they really didn’t get too bad over the course of those two weeks, just some sensitive pinkish/brownish areas.

The pain that was so debilitating is finally under control with pain patches. It takes quite a high dose to keep it managed right now but we will try decreasing this amount as the weeks go on. I will meet with the palliative care team in a few weeks to talk through a strategy for the reduction. The team is always available by phone for any fine tuning or questions that I have until that time.

Again I’d like to remind readers that palliative care is not synonymous with end-of-life care. Palliative care is for pain management and side effect management at any point of treatment for cancer or other diseases. If you have pain or other problems that are bothering you or a loved one, I encourage you to talk to the specialists in palliative care. They will be able to help.

Patients and their families often wait too long to consult with these specialists because they think talking to them implies something about death. It does not. In fact, if you wait too long (until the very end of life) the palliative team will probably be less likely to fully help you or your loved one because they won’t know how the patient responds to different medications, what their side effects are, what doses they respond to, etc. Palliative care doctors can help better if they know the patient and their particular side effect profile. I implore you to use them sooner rather than later. Time and again, studies have shown that healing occurs better when patients are not in pain.

We aren’t quite sure where it’s coming from, but my vertigo is quite the problem right now. We know it is from one of my medications, presumably the pain one. Of course for now I still need to make my pain medication the priority. As I said earlier, as soon as I can, I’ll be decreasing that dose. We know from a scan a few weeks ago that I do not have any metastases in my brain causing the vertigo. Of course that was  a natural concern and it’s nice to have that possibility off the list. I still can’t drive because of the vertigo. So I’ve been housebound for the three weeks I’ve been home. Before that I was in the hospital for almost three weeks. I don’t have cabin fever too much because of the bad weather we have been having. But I’m probably getting close.

I’m still trying to figure things out. I’m still adjusting to the new information about the tumors and the progression that’s been happening in my body over the last few months. I’m learning about the genomic mutations that are present in the metastases and what they mean for future chemotherapy and clinical trial choices. I did not start the clinical trial I was planning to, obviously. Instead, we needed to do more aggressive and surefire treatments rather than investigational. Therefore, I did the radiation and then started chemotherapy 5 days after the completion of radiation (a bit of a fast track but I felt up for it and my bloodwork and exams indicated to my oncologist that I was ready).

I started chemotherapy two and a half weeks ago. I’ve had three infusions so far of Taxol. This is an intravenous chemotherapy that works on rapidly dividing cells of all kinds. One ramification of that action is that it will make my hair, eyebrows, and lashes come out in the next few weeks. I received it in a different regimen six years ago as many people do with early stage breast cancer following the use of Adriamycin and Cytoxan on a dose-dense schedule (every 2 weeks). It’s a popular drug.

The way it’s used now in the metastatic setting is different in terms of dose and frequency of infusions. In the metastatic setting there are different doses that are used. I’m using the highest right now. It is done in a “three weeks on, one week off” schedule. That means I get it once a week for three weeks and then I get a one week break. Though I never had a bad reaction to it in 2007, I did have a reaction to the drug the first time I got it a few weeks ago. I won’t go into the details of it here. I’ll just say that with increased amounts of steroids as pre-meds I’ve done just fine with the Taxol since that first episode.

For now I’ll close by saying I’m grateful for the friends that have been lending a hand with rides and playdates and meals while I’ve been  housebound and unable to drive. I’m thankful for all of my readers who have been checking in on me and waiting patiently for this update. I am so happy to see so many new blog readers and Twitter followers in the past few weeks!

I want to give special recognition to all of the doctors, nurses, aides, therapists, and everyone else I came in contact with at Sloan-Kettering while I was hospitalized. Yes, there are always ways to improve, but I can truly say that I felt fortunate to be in such a caring environment for those weeks. I never doubted that it was the right place and that everyone there had my health and overall well-being first and foremost in their minds. It was always a team effort and for those of you who helped me in every way, I thank you. The fact that I miss so many of the you who cared for me shows that you made an impression on me.

The blogposts will return to a mix of updates, practical advice, and poetry as the weeks go on and I feel more and more like myself. Most posts will be shorter than this one but I know most of you have been wondering how I am and what I’ve been up to. I think this brings you up to date.

*Please note that I do not need suggestions for my side effects. I haven’t gone into the details here of what I’m taking, but I do have what I need from my team. Thank you!

Find a bit of beauty in the world. Share it. If you can’t find it, create it. Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere.

 

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