Friday, November 16, 2007

You Surprised Me, Doc

Wow, another two weeks and much has happened. I had my first IVIg infusion a week ago Monday. I tolerated it pretty well. We arrived a little before 8 a.m. and the infusion was started just about 9 a.m. We had to wait for the pharmacy to mix it and deliver it to the infusion room. I took two Tylenol tablets and was infused with premeds of Benadryl and a steroid (I forget which one). They watch you very closely for any reaction, particularly watching for the blood pressure to go too high. Well, of course I never do anything the expected way and my blood pressure dropped way too low -- twice, maybe three times but the one time it was 40 over 20 and the nurse didn't believe that one. I was reclining in the infusion lounger chair so they made me sit up. But eventually my pressure came up closer to normal and stayed there so they were able to slowly increase the infusion rate. I slept most of the time. I had the bag of immunoglobulin antibodies and was done and out of there by 2:30 in the afternoon. That evening I did have a bad headache and had a headache most of the week. That is a common side effect. It really must have done some good because Jimmy, our grandson who lives with us, was sick all week and our other grandson, Jonathan, my daughter, Cheri, and son-in-law, Marc, were all sick with very bad colds and I did not catch it! My next infusion is in December.

Then this past Monday, I had an appointment at MD Anderson in Houston with a CLL specialist, Dr. William Wierda. We drove down on Sunday afternoon, Veteran's Day, which was also Cheryl's birthday. (We all went out to dinner together after church to celebrate.)

I thought the appointment with Dr. Wierda was very productive. (This was my fourth time seeing him.) My local doc thinks I might need to start chemo again, but Dr. Wierda agrees with Cheryl and me and doesn't think it is quite time yet. He does agree we are moving in that direction, though. When discussing the reasons my doc thinks it might be time, we talked about my widespread swollen nodes in every region -- neck, chest, stomach, and groin. I told him they mostly measured 3 cm by CT scan up from 1 to 1.5 cm last January. He said most of the time they don't treat just because of swollen nodes until they are over 7 cm. I had not heard that before. He asked how low my platelets had gotten (only in the 80s this time) and Monday they were 102.

He said before we did any treatment he would want to rerun most of the prognostic tests, with the exception of finding out if I am mutated or not as that doesn't change. He said he particularly wanted to check to see if I picked up any new chromosomal deletions. He then said, "Of course your body didn't listen to all those good prognostic indicators the first time around. I remember giving you all good news and saying you probably wouldn't need treatment for a very long time." I asked him if he thought there were prognostic indicators that we don't know about since I had all the best ones and needed treatment so quickly. He said of course there are and we just haven't found them yet. He said that is the only thing that explains the odd cases like me and those folks that have poor indicators and yet go without treatment.

I did tell him my suspicions that I may have had this for up to ten years but there had not been a CBC done. He said he really doubted I had it that long because of how quickly I progressed after diagnosis.

Then he shocked and surprised me. He said that when it is time for the next treatment, he wants me to start the process of preparing for a stem cell transplant. He could tell I was surprised, but he said that didn't mean we would do it then. He explained it takes a very long time to find a donor and get things prepared and set up. He wants to get the process started and have me meet with a transplant doctor/team and make sure I am a good candidate. I asked about my age and he said it used to be they wouldn't do it over 50 or so, but by today's standard I am relatively young (62) - bless his little heart.

Since Monday I have thought about this quite a bit and to be honest, it is very scary. It is a rough procedure with a fairly high (in my opinion), mortality rate. Basically they destroy your bone marrow with heavy chemo and infuse the stem cells and hope they engraft and take over. Recovery time can be quite long. Now I do know some folks that are doing very well and had a relatively "easy" time (remember, I said relatively). In fact, I met one of those guys, Paul, in person Monday. But just today I was catching up on some blogs and there are folks that are a couple of years past transplant still dealing with lots of problems and graft vs. host disease. I also know of several who did not survive the process, including one dear lady, Phyl, whose journal is listed over on the right side, here. We also visited with another fellow while there, a former member of our church, who had a stem cell transplant and his sister was the donor. He was supposed to come home three months ago, but he is still dealing with major problems. He hopes to be home by Christmas. His transplant was in May.

Dr. Wierda said he was very glad to see I had started IVIg. I asked him about my level not being below 300 (low 400's) and if it really fit the criteria. He said absolutely. Anything below 700 with multiple infections indicated the need. He said to do them monthly, but have my doc keep checking the levels and once they hit 700 to space the treatments out to just maintain a level over 700.

He said again he would strongly recommend Fludarabine, Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan), Rituxan (FCR) for my next chemo regime if I didn't participate in a clinical trial. In fact, the two trials he mentioned that I would qualify for are adding stuff to FCR. (One of the trials is a double blind study and some folks would only get a placebo added to the combination of chemo drugs.) I reiterated that I was hesitant to do FCR because of how Fludarabine depletes the T cells and leaves you vulnerable to infections. Since this is a B cell cancer, I did not like the risk. He then said slowly, "and how many infections have you had this year?" Umm, nine. He said the leukemia was depleting my immune system and causing me to get these infections. The cancer is still growing, crowding out the healthy bone marrow. FCR would deplete the T cells but they would start to come back in six months to a year and the main danger of infections would be past. (Now Dr. Hamblin has said several times that NOTHING will completely restore the immune system for those of us with CLL.) Also the VAST majority of folks with FCR are getting a five year remission and many are getting even longer remissions. For the first time, it started to make sense. He didn't say it again this time, but I knew he wished I had done FCR the first time. However, I don't regret using my choice of Cytoxan, Rituxan and Prednisone the first time as I have now gotten 16 months of a partial response. Not a bad intermission. Basically it is the same thing, just without Fludarabine.

The final surprise, instead of saying "see you in a year," which he has said the last two times, he said he would like to see me again in two months and then changed it to three months. I didn't ask, but I had the impression that he thought I might be real close to needing treatment by then. We'll see. But at least I will be getting through another holiday season without being on chemo.

And finally, report cards came out this week for Jimmy. He had 5 A's, one B and one C!!! The best report card ever. He didn't even show it to us, Cheryl found it in his school bag. We are so very, very proud of him and we all went out to dinner to celebrate. He chose the restaurant. Here he is at his last football game.


Anonymous said...

Prayers from Missouri! Thanks for the update. Tell your grandson congratulations! Those were wonderful grades. I know you must be proud. I am busy baking here. I have a seasonal baking business. I have about 80 dozen left to bake of homemade dinner and cinnamon rolls before Thursday. Reminds me of that line from the poem, "And miles to go before I sleep." Happy Thanksgving! God has blessed our lives so richly with so many friends, both IRL, and those wonderful internet friends.

David Arenson said...


MD Anderson reports a lower FCR Complete Response rate for those having had prior therapy than those who are chemo-naive. So if I were you I would ask Wierda how realistic it is that you might get five years from FCR. Here is MDA's own study (PDF) -- Table 2 shows response rate by previous therapy. As you have had both Rituxan and an alkalyting agent, your chances of a CR from FCR are around 28-29% -- if the stats hold true, and we all know they can vary case by case:

If you do ask Wierda about this I'd be curious as to his reply.