Wednesday, November 2, 2011

...but the news was just horrible.

Dave’s Great Adventure
Book 4, Chapter 1, Verse 5
November 2, 2011

I didn’t expect this. I was doing so well. I felt good and was getting along just fine. I mean, I had done all those half-marathons, right? How could I be this sick?

We had a busy spring and early summer. My disease, which had relapsed the previous year, had been advancing faster with my white counts doubling every couple of months or so. I was expecting to have to do more chemotherapy by about mid-summer, so we packed our travel plans into the early part of the summer. We went to Oklahoma City for a marathon (in the rain and cold) in May, went to San Diego for one there in June. We went to a reunion of my Vietnam vet buddies in Tampa in late June, to a family reunion in North Carolina in July, and more. In the midst of all these trips we went to Houston in early July to see my doc there, who is one of the world’s foremost gurus in the management of chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

I was still feeling well; maybe a little more tired than I’d care to admit, but over all, I was doing okay except that my lab tests told another story. My disease was advancing rapidly. I talked things over with my doc, Dr. Michael Keating, and we went over some possible treatments. I say “possible,” because after you’ve been treated for this disease once or twice, there are no standard “best” treatments anymore, just lots of possibilities.

But he wanted to do a few more cytogenetic (chromosome) tests before we started anything, to help guide us to, hopefully, the best of our options. He said I’d hear something about the test results “in a couple of weeks.”

Now, to me, “a couple of weeks” mean exactly fourteen days. When I didn’t hear anything in those fourteen days, I made a series of calls to M. D. Anderson and played phone-tag for a few weeks, never getting any information about my lab tests. I was getting worried.

Meanwhile, a long-scheduled appointment with my local oncologist came up so I saw him and explained how things were going. We also talked over some possible options for treating my disease and then he said he’d call Houston and get the information for me. I was grateful, as I really wanted to hear the results of the cytogenetics.

Later that day I got a call from my local doc. He had heard from Houston. He had news, but the news was just horrible. He talked for a while but all I remember was something like “…blah, blah, blah…p53 mutation…blah, blah…Arzerra…blah, blah…50% chance of it working.”

What this means
When I got sick with this disease, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, almost ten years ago, it was only “one” disease. The doctors and researchers working with it knew that some folks with this disease died in two or three years while some folks lived, without needing treatment, for maybe twenty years or more. They knew that some patients responded well to treatments while others didn’t. They just didn’t know why. But about eight years ago they found that CLL is actually a group of diseases, differentiated by the chromosomes in the leukemia cells and several other protein “markers” exhibited by the disease. There are at least seven or eight major sub-groups of CLL and perhaps more, and survival and resistance to treatment varies greatly among the groups. By looking at the mutations of the chromosomes in your cells physicians can tell how long you’ll likely survive and what treatments might work best for you, and also how aggressive they should be with trying to treat your disease.

A couple of years after I got sick, they tested my chromosomes. They were 46XY, normal male chromosomes, as you’ll no doubt remember from your high school biology course. That was very good, as normal chromosomes were a marker of easier to treat disease and generally longer survival. Curiously, however, there is one mutation called 13q- (13q deletion) which is even better than normal chromosomes in terms of survival. But there are also several possible mutations of the disease that indicate a more aggressive and harder to treat disease. These can be ranked in order of increasing resistance to treatment and subsequently, shorter survival. And since patients with CLL tend to mutate to harder to treat forms of the disease over time, my doc in Houston was retesting my disease to see if I had mutated. And the tests in July at M. D. Anderson now showed that I had the p53 mutation, also called the 17p deletion (17p-), one of the very worst of the several variations.

I’ll include a short description of what this genetic shorthand means for my friend Steve who lives in either Englewood, Colorado, or Centennial, Colorado, or maybe unincorporated Arapahoe County (I don’t remember which for sure), in the Denver suburbs. He likes details. Anyway, normally we all have 46 chromosomes per cell, 22 pairs of “somatic” chromosomes plus our sex chromosomes, the XX for females and XY for the guys. The other 22 pairs are numbered 1 though 22. Also, if you remember looking at pictures of chromosomes in textbooks, they look rather like stretched out X shaped figures, usually arranged with shorter arms at the top and longer arms at the bottom.

(By the way, our chromosomes don’t just stretch out and pose for the pictures that we see in books and magazines; they have to be manipulated with various chemicals to make them look this way. Normally they’re all balled up in a tangled mass in our cells’ nuclei.)

The short arms at the top of the chromosomes are called the “p” arms; the longer ones at the bottom are the “q” arms. If you took a part of the “q” arm off a 21 chromosome, it would be called a deletion and written as 21q-. Sometimes extraneous genetic material gets added onto chromosomes. These are additions, written as 21p+, for example.

The p53 mutation
So, now I have the dreaded p53 mutation, also called the 17p- mutation, the 17p deletion. Over the last few years my disease had changed, which is what it typically does for most patients with CLL. p53 is a gene, the “tumor suppressor gene,” which normally resides on the short, “p” arm of the 17 chromosome. Now it’s not there; in my case; it’s been “deleted” somehow. This is a very important gene which, as its name suggests, suppresses tumor growth and malignancy formation. Now I don’t have it anymore. When you read about the p53 mutation in CLL you see things like, “much more difficult to treat,” and “more aggressive disease” and “average survival of about 13-15 months.” Our friend Larry Love recently died here in Denton. Larry had an extremely rare case of metastatic basal cell skin cancer. Basal cell cancers are generally among most easily treated of all skin cancers yet in Larry’s case, this usually innocuous skin cancer spread throughout his body and despite three years of treatments, he died because the disease could not be controlled. Larry’s skin cancer had the p53 mutation. The p53 mutation is not good news.

This is the drug my doc picked to treat my disease this time around. Now, if you’ve been reading my stuff for any length of time at all, you’ve read about Rituxan, which has been a part of my three different previous chemotherapy regimens. Rituxan (rituximab) is a mouse-based antibody against leukemia cells. It targets a specific protein (called the CD20 receptor) that all CLL cells have. It works extremely well at doing this. The only problem is that being mouse-based (or “murine”), it itself is a foreign protein and humans can form antibodies against these murine antibodies, inactivating them.

Arzerra (ofatumumab) is similar to Rituxan in that it is also an antibody which attacks the CD20 protein receptor. It has been around in Europe for a few years but has only been approved for use in the US for about 18 months. In Europe it is called HuMax, which reflects the interesting fact that it is a humanized antibody against the CD20 site. In theory at least, it should be better for attacking the leukemia cells since humans shouldn’t create antibodies against it. In addition, it binds more tightly and for a longer time to the leukemic cells than does Rituxan, if you believe the manufacturer.

Interestingly, when reading the prescribing information that comes with this drug, the manufacturer states that it will not cure, put into remission or reduce the symptoms of any patient with CLL. This is an amazing thing to put in writing. It must either be something required by the FDA or perhaps it’s just their lawyers lowering expectations. Otherwise, it would be no more than a placebo drug!

I was very disappointed, at first, to be prescribed single-agent therapy with the Arzerra. My disease is now much more aggressive, yet I was being given a drug that would be very unlikely to put me back into remission. Studies of the drug in patients with my mutation showed only about a 50% rate of successful treatment. From the very beginning of my adventure I have wanted to be as aggressive as possible in treating the disease. Here it looked to me as if we weren’t doing as much as we could. I had found, on-line, several studies of Arzerra being used in combination with other drugs with apparent good success in short term studies. I wanted to use lots of drugs. I wanted to kill the leukemia. I want to rid my body of it. That’s always been my goal.

But in the larger picture, moderation may be better in treating my disease. Yes, it’s much more aggressive now. Yes, my survival seems to have been shortened by the mutation. Yes, it’s harder to treat. But, there are several, and I mean several as in four to six or so new therapies which are just over the horizon and at least some of these depend on a patient’s functioning immune system to be effective. In the past my chemotherapy regimens have included the use of several toxic medications which have vigorously attacked my disease with a “chemical machete,” clear-cutting my marrow, taking away good cells as well as bad, severely damaging my immunity. The use of these drugs now could jeopardize my ability to use some of the newer therapies which are still in the study phase and just on the verge of being more widely available. Three of these are in pill form and are taken daily, at home, much like the vaunted drug Gleevac, which has shown such remarkable success in treating (but not curing) another form of leukemia known as chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). And there are studies using gene therapy to train one’s own T-lymphocytes (a topic for another day) to attack and kill the leukemia cells. This therapy has reportedly “cured” two people in a study recently released by the Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia, though the follow-up was a short ten months. And if nothing else works, there is a stem cell transplant, which is the ultimate treatment for my form of CLL with the p53 mutation. With the p53 mutation, some docs reportedly give you one course of chemotherapy and if you fail go directly to transplant. The problem is that there is somewhere between a 10% and 25% mortality (death) rate with stem cell transplants. You don’t go into them lightly. But, they are said to give “durable remissions” in patients with the p53 mutation. Notice that the word “cure” wasn’t used. It rarely is.

Anyway, I’ve been through “Phase One” of the Arzerra treatments and the short story is that it has worked well, dropping my white count from 80,000 to about 4,000 (normal) in just eight weekly treatments, with minimal side effects. “Phase Two” starts later this month. I’ll leave the details of all this for the next update, since this has gotten long enough. And I hope to have it to you before another six months goes by.


I read these words in a USA Today recently, while sitting in a chair in the waiting room of the Leukemia Clinic at M. D. Anderson.

“Have you come to the Red Sea place in life,
Where, in spite of all you can do,
There is no way out, there is no way back,
There is no other way but through?”
---Annie Johnson Flint

Sunday, May 29, 2011

It's Back!

Dave’s Great Adventure
Book 4, Chapter 1, Verse 4
May 29, 2011

“It’s back.”

When you have a malignancy of any kind, breast, colon, prostate, or whatever, and you’ve gone through a bunch of treatments with chemotherapy and surgery or radiation and all the other things that go along with these kinds of treatments, it’s a wonderful thing to be told you’re in remission. It makes all the torture and misery of the treatments worthwhile. You start to feel like things are back to normal, that you don’t need to worry about dying too soon or having to go through more treatments. But then, at some point, perhaps quite unexpectedly, you’re told, “It’s back.”

That’s probably one of the most economical ways to give really bad news. A couple of words, eight letters, that tell you the thing you’ve been fearing, that unseen disease in your body, wants to take over again. And wants to take you from everything and everyone you know.

I’ve known from the very beginning, from when I was first diagnosed with leukemia, that it was, and is, incurable. Yet, like every other person with any kind of cancer, I want to believe that I’m going to be the exception to that “incurable” rule and that I’m going to survive, I’m going to outlive this disease. After each of my courses of chemotherapy I’ve been told that I was in complete remission. I focus on the word “complete” and try to translate that into “cured.” I know, intellectually, that I’m not cured, but I want to believe that I am.

After each round of chemotherapy, after I get over the side effects and regain my strength, I start living a fairly normal life. It’s easy to forget that I have an incurable disease lurking in my body. I actually sort of forget about it, or think that it’s just been a bad dream, and that it’s not real. But at some point I get the news…

“It’s back.”

…and Kathy and I look at each other and are fairly roughly thrust back into the reality that I have an incurable, lethal disease. And we know that my future holds more treatments and that with each treatment I undergo, I have fewer and fewer options left for the “next time.”

I’ve had three different courses of chemotherapy in the last nine years. I’m very lucky, actually, that there have been these options for me as this wasn’t the case in the past. And with each course of chemotherapy, each of which was experimental, I’ve been put into a complete remission. And each time I’ve been thrilled with the news. But each time I’ve eventually heard the words, “It’s back.” It took a year the first time, eighteen months the second time.

My third course of chemotherapy was my longest and most intense, at six months long and including four different drugs. A year out from the completion of my chemotherapy I still was in complete remission. I had a bone marrow biopsy done about that time and they couldn’t any trace of the disease even with a “molecular probe.” Now, that was particularly good news as I’ve heard of folks like me who have gone through similar courses of chemotherapy and then been found to have a negative molecular probe, and some of them have been alive and free of disease many years, even a decade later. I thought that would be me, too. Later, my doc even told me that with this finding there were three chances out of four that I’d be in remission for up to ten years!

“It’s back.”

I heard those words again just days after I had been told I might be in remission for up to ten years, in a particularly cruel sequence of events. I suppose I was just that one person in four to whom the statistics were unkind. It has to happen to somebody or there wouldn’t be any odds to try to beat.

My disease actually reappeared over a year ago but I’ve felt so relatively normal during that time that I’ve continued to train with the wonderful folks from The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training and, since I recovered from my last course of chemotherapy, I’ve completed eight half marathons, even as my disease slowly grew within my body. And soon, within a week, I’ll do my ninth. And then I’ll leave my training schedule behind and start another task and schedule, the schedule that our lives revolve around when I’m undergoing chemotherapy. And that schedule does, in fact, rule our lives.

I don’t know yet what that schedule will be. I have some appointments coming up in June to see my local oncologist and to get some more blood tests, but I won’t know with any certainty what the future holds until we see my doc at M. D. Anderson in Houston. I’ve gotten my appointment with him moved up to early July and that’s when we’ll hear what he thinks we should do. As one of the nation’s preeminent specialists, specifically in my form of leukemia, I have great respect for his opinions.

In the last year or so he has dropped hints about what we might consider doing if/when I relapsed. I believe he’s going to want to treat me with a combination of two new drugs, Revlimid and Hu-Max. (I won’t go into too much detail about these drugs until I know for sure that we’ll actually be using them, even though our friend Steve out in Englewood, Colorado loves technical details) but I will mention that if we use this particular combination, I’ll be taking a pill form of chemotherapy 21 days a month (the Revlimid) in combination with intermittent IV infusions of the Hu-Max, which is an artificial antibody against the leukemia cells. The course of therapy lasts up to forty weeks. Using a pill form of a drug will certainly be convenient, if we end up doing this particular protocol.

But I have to tell you, I’m as worried about the course of my disease and the side effects of the drugs as I have been in a long time. These drugs, and particularly the Revlimid, can induce some particularly nasty side effects. And the incidence of inducing complete remission really isn’t all that high. I’ve seen 9% reported in some early studies after forty weeks of treatment. And the logical question that comes to my mind is, “Well, if I’m not in complete remission after those forty weeks…well…, then what?”

But I’m getting way ahead of this. I tend to be a planner and a worrier and should learn to wait and see what actually happens, but that’s hard for me.

Since I don’t have any more details to pass on at this time I want to begin closing by thanking all of you for being so generous in helping me with my San Diego fund raising drive. I’m not looking for donations any more, as I’m well over my goal, but please take a moment to look again at my fund drive page and see what you guys did. You are all awesome. Thanks so much.
I have failed to thank each of you individually so far, but each of you WILL hear from me.

I’ll close by passing on a bit of good news. About a year and a half ago, or so, I had an echocardiogram which seemed to show that my heart was failing and that I would soon need open heart surgery to repair my mitral valve. I wondered how that could be, as I was feeling well and, in fact, had recently completed a couple of half marathons. Well, after having follow-up echocardiograms in three months, six months and then again in another six months, well…, everything is described as “stable” and there is no longer any talk of needing surgery any time soon. At least that part is doing well.

I’ll be back if there are any significant changes or after I go to Houston and find that we have a plan. Until then, thank you again for all your help with my fund drive and thanks for helping the researchers who are looking for better treatments for me and so very many people like me. As I’ve told many folks at many different meetings, my only hope of outliving this disease is for some researcher, somewhere, to find a cure in my lifetime.

Bye now,


PS: After our armed forces recently “removed” the person responsible for the mass murder of 3,000 of our fellow citizens, I am reminded of the quote, usually attributed to George Orwell, which goes:

“We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm."
Please take a moment this Memorial Day to remember our fellow countrymen, these “rough men” (and women, too), the many, many thousands of them, who have died in the service of our country.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dave's Great Adventure Returns

Dave's Great Adventure
Book 4, Chapter 1, Verse 3

I know it's been a long time since I've sent out an update to Dave's Great Adventure, to the great relief of many of you, I'm sure. But unfortunately I'm going to have to resurrect this long-running drama in the very near future as things are starting to change more rapidly than I'd hoped. More of "Book Four" looms in front of me.

Now, I have tried to get some updates out in the past 18 months or so, and have actually started composing a few but I just couldn't finish them. It wasn't that there was nothing to report, as many things of some import have happened, but the basis of the DGA series, my leukemia, though relapsing, was doing so very slowly and undramatically...until this week. So I'll have to get things going again, in many ways.

What has happened is that my white blood cell counts have more than doubled over the last three months. Typically, if a leukemia patient's white blood cell counts double in six months to a year, that's considered worrisome. My counts did so in a far shorter time. That may indicate a return of a more aggressive disease. We shall see. I am awaiting some calls from my doctors as to what we're going to be doing and when we might do it. I presume Kathy and I will be traveling back to Houston, to the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center and I suspect that more chemotherapy of some type will happen much sooner than later.

But that's not the immediate reason I've gotten in contact with you again. I don't have enough details on what's going to happen to really fill you in. What I really need from you right now is your assistance, if you can me reach a goal I need to reach very soon.

During my current remission I have been fortunate to be able to participate in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team In Training. Most of you know that I have gotten involved in several endurance events, which I'm very pleased to say I have been able to complete. In the last two years since I completed my most recent chemotherapy treatments, I have finished eight half marathon events. I find that quite amazing, as before I had chemotherapy, I had never done even one, and never thought I'd ever do even one. Many of you have helped me out with some fundraising which I've done in connection with a few of these events, as well.

I am going to try to complete ONE MORE half marathon before I start any therapy and am scheduled to participate in the Rock and Roll Marathon event in San Diego in just over three weeks. I have pledged to raise some more funds for the LLS and have just until May 24th to do so. I haven't been very aggressive in my fund raising this time as I have asked some of you for your help several times over the last few years, so I'm a bit late in getting this going (though I have reached out to some of you, and many of you have already helped out; thanks for your help!).

But, if you're able to do so, I would greatly appreciate your taking the time to read my story at the link below:

If you're able to make a donation to my fund drive, I'd be very grateful as well. This will be MY LAST fund raising event for quite some time, as I fully expect to be under treatment again before the end of the summer. That's going to put a stop to my distance event training.

As I find out what's awaiting me on the treatment front, I'll be back in touch with an update that doesn't include a request for a donation. I should know something fairly soon.

Thanks for any help you're able to provide. Any funds I collect on behalf of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society will go to help patients with these diseases and to further research in to finding cure. I personally appreciate what you have done for me and so many folks like me in the past.

I'll be back soon with an update as to what sort of experimental chemotherapy I'll be doing this time. I know it'll have to be something experimental, as there is no standard therapy for someone like me who has now relapsed three times after being treated for chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Wish me luck! Prayers are appreciated as well.

Bye for now. I'll be back again soon.