Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What's Next? And Parking Issues Too!

Dave’s Great Adventure
Book Four, Chapter 1, Verse 2

I have often been asked in the last few months, “What are you doing now that your leukemia has relapsed?” Folks wonder if I’m on chemotherapy again, or taking some kind of pills to hold the disease off, or what. These are fair questions, as it would seem logical that now that my disease has come back yet again, we should be doing something.

In fact, we are doing nothing. At least, next to nothing. We are just doing blood tests periodically, about every two months, to see how fast my disease is coming back. This is called the “Watch and Wait” method and it’s used a lot in the management of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).

Now, if I had breast cancer or prostate cancer or some other solid tumor kind of cancer, the reappearance of the disease would spark an immediate plan to once again attack the disease with chemotherapy or radiation or something, in an attempt to destroy as much of the disease as possible before it had a chance to grow any more than it had already. With most solid tumors, the bigger the tumor, the harder it is to treat.

But my cancer is not a solid tumor, it’s a blood cancer. And the leukemia cells flowing in my bloodstream aren’t actually hurting me at all. That doesn’t sound possible, but it’s true. They are just abnormal white cells, lymphocytes, and all they’re doing is flowing around in my blood, not dying on time like they’re supposed to, and slowly increasing in numbers. But they aren’t really hurting anything. What will kill me is when enough of them accumulate in my bone marrow to prevent the formation of normal red and white blood cells and platelets.

So why don’t we treat my disease now, while there isn’t much of it around? That, too, is a great question. We could do that, but the treatments have their own risks, like damaging my immune system, causing lowered numbers of platelets in my blood, and in general, causing damage around the body. And since we can’t, apparently, cure the disease with the therapies we have been using, but can only knock the disease back a bit, it makes sense not to expose me to any more chemotherapy than I need to be exposed to. So, we wait until my leukemia again gets “bad” enough to need treatment.

And when is that? Another great question. It’s not completely arbitrary, but could be thought to be so. Basically, we will probably start treatments again when my white blood cell counts get to about 100,000, like they were in late 2007. Or if my platelet counts get too low, or if I start having lots of symptoms, large lymph nodes, night sweats or a host of other things. After my second round of chemotherapy I relapsed in about 18 months but didn’t need to be treated for two more years after the onset of the relapse. Five months have now elapsed since I found out I was relapsing yet again.

Let me digress just a bit and talk about my disease, chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Some folks used to call this disease the “good” leukemia, because it didn’t kill you as fast as many other leukemias out there, some of which can result in death in six months or so. In contrast, some folks with CLL live relatively normal lives for decades, never needing treatments, having what is called the “smoldering” CLL. But then there were the folks with CLL who died in a few years. Why should some folks die in a few years, like my dad who died in about five years, yet other folks live with their disease twenty years or more?

Well, when I got sick back in 2002, they didn’t know that CLL is actually a family of diseases, with at least seven or eight sub-types, and your survival depends in large part on which sub-group you belong to. The sub-types, which were discovered in about 2003, depend mostly on your blood’s chromosome types, as there are several common mutations found in patients with CLL. Some mutations are “good,” in terms of your survival, as you won’t die as quickly as some others. Some are very bad, and the disease in these circumstances progresses rapidly and is more resistant to treatments.

My chromosomes are normal, the usual 46XY that all normal males have. You’d think that normal chromosomes would be the “best” to have when you have a disease, but curiously, though normal chromosomes are one of the better types to have, they aren’t the best to have. There is a certain mutation of the chromosomes that is actually better in terms of longevity than normal chromosomes.

And there’s more. Long time readers of this never-ending story may remember that I’ve mentioned several “disease markers” that have been discovered in the years since I got sick. These markers also help predict how bad your disease will be. Some are good to have; some are bad. There’s the zeta associated protein, or ZAP-70 test. Having it is bad; my test is negative for ZAP-70, which is good. Then there’s the CD-38 antigen test, the higher the level the worse the disease tends to be. My levels are a bit high, not good. And there’s the beta-microglobulin test. Low levels are good; mine are slightly elevated. And there’s the antibody mutation; the IgVh test, which is, curiously, good when it’s mutated and bad when it’s not. Mine is mutated, which is good. So overall my disease markers are mixed.

The researchers have found that by measuring all your “markers” they can predict how aggressive your disease will be. The worse the markers are, the more aggressive your doctors will tend to be, both in terms of earlier treatments and strength of chemotherapy, since they know the disease will advance more rapidly.

So the reason for this lengthy explanation of disease markers and such is to help explain why I’m not being treated right now. My markers are not all bad. Indeed some, like the IgVh mutation, are considered very good. So even though my disease has relapsed and is slowly getting worse, my docs are fairly confident that we can safely wait at least a few more months before we begin treatments again as long as my white blood cell counts don’t go up too fast. But before all these markers were discovered, all they had to go by was a patient’s white blood cell count, lymph node sizes and symptoms.

In the meantime I have continued to work with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, hanging around with members of their Team In Training. I have been one of their Honored Heroes (as they call members who have or who have had leukemia or lymphoma) for a few years now, but after I recovered from my last chemotherapy I got more active in their programs. I started walking farther and farther with them, finally working up to doing a half marathon in May of last year. And since that time, I have finished five half marathons, all within the last fourteen months! Many of you have helped me do some fundraising for several of these events. I just completed my last half marathon in early June when I went to San Diego for a fantastic event with an incredible 30,000 runners doing either the half or full marathons. (The crowd was so large that, though the starting gun went off at 6:15 AM, I didn’t cross the START line until 7:05. I was toward the back of the crowd as it slowly shuffled toward the start.).

Anyway, all that talk about doing multiple half marathons makes my next bit of news hard to believe. I had just finished my fourth half marathon in May and was preparing for another in San Diego in early June when I had a follow up appointment with my cardiologist. I’ve been seeing a cardiologist regularly since I had an echo cardiogram done back in 2004, at which time they found my mitral heart valve was apparently deteriorating (see October 7, 2004 of my Adventures With Leukemia blog, link below, for the details). It was initially thought to be bad enough that I might need surgery soon. But subsequent testing showed it wasn’t quite so bad. Moderately bad, perhaps, but not seriously bad.

So I get my heart checked every six to twelve months. When I saw my doc in late May I told him I felt like I was doing, overall, better than I had in a while. Though I quickly get short of breath if I try to run, I can walk long distances without too much difficulty. So he ordered a routine echo cardiograph (an ultrasound of the heart). Now, usually, after he looks at the echo cardiogram, he says something like, “Looks good, see you in six months.” But, this time he said, “Hmm, let’s go in the other room and talk.” I didn’t like hearing that.

It turns out that my mitral valve is indeed deteriorating now, and it may be that I really am getting to the point that I need open heart surgery. That’s just so hard to believe, since I feel so relatively normal, frequent fatigue notwithstanding. But things have changed since my mother had her mitral valve replaced twelve years ago. First, they now try to repair the valve rather than replacing it. That’s wonderful when they can do that as then you don’t have a metal valve in your heart and don’t need to take a lifetime’s worth of blood thinners. Secondly, they now try to do any needed surgery before you absolutely “need” to have it done, as you’ll be healthier and the outcomes are generally better. So, they won’t want to wait until I’m in heart failure and sick from my cardiac disease before they do the surgery. The issue, then, is when am I about to go into heart failure and “need” the surgery? There’s a certain amount of guesswork involved in this and if any surgery needs to be done in the next year to eighteen months or so, it needs to be coordinated around my next chemotherapy. And when will that be? Well, we don’t know that either.

So, what will happen with both of these issues is that we’ll follow them and see what I need to do first. If it’s the chemotherapy, I’ll have to hope that my heart doesn’t get much worse during the months of chemo, because the cardiac surgeons won’t touch me if I’m doing chemotherapy. But if my heart does get worse during chemo, then we may miss the window of opportunity to have the surgery done before I go into heart failure. If I need the heart surgery first, I’ll have to hope the leukemia doesn’t relapse too fast and cause me to need chemotherapy while I’m recovering, as that really could impact my recovery. Anyone know a good fortune teller?

Anyway, while we’re waiting to see what happens, I’ve signed up for two more half marathons, one in Denver in October and another in Dallas in December. We’ll see if I actually get to compete in these events.

Let me end with some good news. Crazy news, actually. As I’ve already told some of you, whenever I see a charity or some other worthwhile organization selling raffle tickets, I buy a few. I have bought raffle tickets for trips to Germany, for handmade quilts, for vacation packages, for meals at fancy restaurants and so forth. I never win anything and that’s okay. I just feel like I’m supporting the charities with my raffle ticket purchases and I don’t mind doing so. So when the Ft. Worth Symphony Orchestra had a raffle recently I bought some tickets. I already support them as a season ticket holder and as a donor anyway, so why not buy some raffle tickets?

Well, on July 6th I got a call from the president of the Symphony. I wondered if I was behind in my pledge for the year or something. But, no! She called saying she had good news. At the annual 4th of July concert in the botanical gardens in Ft. Worth, they had drawn the name of the winner of the raffle, and the winner was me! And so, what did I win, you ask? I won a completely restored 1968 Cadillac convertible, black paint with black leather interior, chrome wheels and “power everything”. This thing is huge! It’s about 18 to 19 feet long and has a 7.7 liter V-8 engine that puts out about 340 horsepower. Now, that’s all well and good, but I have no place to put it. I’m currently looking around for a place to park it, as we only have a two car garage and we already have two cars. We can’t generally park cars on our driveways around here (home owners’ association rules, of course). So, it’s going to be interesting. Fun, but interesting.

And that’s all for this update. But there’s always more.