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.


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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 []

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