What does ‘stable’ really mean?

Heavy duty adult training wheels 18 stone

Yesterday I finally got my CT results from 3 weeks ago.  They are stable. But what does that actually mean? I don’t know how to feel about that word. It doesn’t excite or sadden me. It’s neutral. I feel like I’m in a holding circle outside Heathrow, not able to land or fly off. 

‘Stable’ definitely doesn’t ooze positivity. A political situation in a far off land that becomes ‘stable’ doesn’t have you rushing to book your next holiday there. Stable pension funds or economies are safer, but not a cause for celebration or a spend up. Riding a bike with stabilisers is an interim phase between falling off and riding properly.

I guess I’d rather not be falling off. 

Pretty much every appointment I’ve had in the last 20 months has been bad news or unfolding bad news or seemingly positive news that belied my clinical representation or turned out to be bad news due to a scanning error. 

Let’s just say I brace myself for bad news. I prepare for it, I seek to interrogate and understand it. I then accept it and move on to forming or executing the next plan of attack. I’m a problem solver by nature and profession. I’m an action junkie. I don’t know how to be around stable? I’m not organising a party and I’m not researching alternatives  or mobilising the NHS. It feels indifferent and passive and I don’t like it! 

My RECIST (response evaluation criteria in solid tumours) report shows a 1mm reduction in the size of my target lesion (the largest lymph node in my contralateral axilla). On 12th Sept scan it measured 19mm and on 19th Nov it measures 18mm. It’s going in the right direction, not enough for partial response (PR) to be classified, but not enough for progressive disease (PD) either. But here is the rub. That same 12 Sept scan was originally measured and reported by my previous hospital and the lymph node in question was reported as 16mm. 

Same raw data, different reporter. 

So based on the original report I have a 2mm growth.  In addition the same node was reported twice in the summer as being complete response to treatment (CR) and it measured 0mm! Yet I could still feel it and it felt like it was growing (and it was). See why I don’t trust scans! 

Now let’s go back to clinical evidence – or in lay terms – eyes and fingers. The lymph node in question feels smaller than it was when I started this second trial (that’s good right?), but it also feels like it has coalesced with the other enlarged lymph nodes to form a skinnier (technical term) yet longer mass.  So what are they actually measuring? 

On top of all of this my skin metastasises are growing. I have 3 reasonably significant ones and two tiny ones that I expect no one will acknowledge, but I know they feel exactly how the others did at the start. The biggest skin met has been biopsied and is definitely triple negative breast cancer cells. And yet I had a private ultrasound of my chest wall last week and the monographer said ‘there is nothing there’! I had to stop the sonographer and say I presume you mean on the scan as you can plainly see and feel them on my chest!  Of course that’s what she meant, but it made me feel like I was making it up! Even my 7 year old says ‘Mummy is that another cancer lump?’ And ‘that one is getting bigger isn’t it Mummy?’ How do I deal with ‘stable’ in this context? Even my daughter wants to know when I will switch to a treatment that actually works! 

She doesn’t get ‘stable’ either. 

A loved one in intensive care who is reported as stable doesn’t fill you with joy. You take a breath, you might be relieved, but you aren’t out of the woods. I guess a terminal cancer patient is never ‘out of the woods’, so maybe ‘stable’ is as good as it gets. I’m restless, I’m impatient, I get it.

In my case ‘stable’ is pretty hopeful. Dying’s on hold for a bit longer. Christmas can be ‘stable’ not disrupted by new treatment or adverse reactions. 

It’s still too passive for me. But I think that’s my nature. I perhaps need to turn off my ‘high alert’ button and give my para sympathetic system a rest over Christmas. Changing treatment over the festive period is never ideal (I did that last Christmas), so perhaps I need to take that very deep breath and try and ignore my sixth sense for another cycle of this wretched chemo. 

Right time to start taking those horse tablets. 

11th December 2019

The Path Beyond the Haze

I’ve been a little quiet in the last few weeks. There’s been a lot going on in and outside my head. I’ve not known where to start and didn’t want to be trite.

It’s not appropriate to discuss it in detail here, but we have been having a long term battle with systems that support our children to understand themselves, be understood and reach their potential. This has been a focus long before my cancer diagnosis, but it just got a whole lot more urgent due to me feeling like time was running out to fight their corner. Let’s just say it was on my bucket list to get done.

One day I hope my kids will see that using my energy and our money for their diagnoses will have more longevity and impact than a trip to Disney. I am determined that they are aware of their emotional and practical needs, how to ask for help and support to create and take opportunities in life.

My mum was always there for me (and still is), she put me before herself or others on so many occasions. Sometimes this was intense and difficult for me and other people in our life, but above all I have had the privilege and knowledge that I am loved immensely and unconditionally. I want my children to know that too. Like my mum I want to help them in practical ways, but also to help them know themselves and be proud of who they are. I hope they have already felt that, and will remember it fondly with gratitude. I might not be there, so I want all the people around them to do their best to nurture and support them to be strong individuals.

Actually they already are strong individuals, but I want my diagnosis to make them both aware of their vulnerabilities and the power of resilience. I continue to believe that my attitude to cancer’s challenges will hopefully give them values and lessons that will endure long after I’m gone. I’ve also always believed that it takes a whole village to bring up a child and we need this now more than ever.

It’s one of the many reasons I am open about my journey. My broad and varied support team are as invaluable to us now as I hope they will be if and when I’m gone.

This post is taking a surprisingly sentimental direction.

I’m anxious about my CT results.

I’m waiting in clinic to see an oncologist. The path forward is a bit hazy at the moment. I don’t mind tough terrain, I just want to know the plan. I’m hoping with equal parts that the current chemo is not working and is working. If the latter, I stay on my current regime. The former continues the fight for immunotherapy or any treatment that slows the spread.

I’ve waited 3 weeks for these results and it’s been two months since my last scan results. A lot can change in that time.

Where am I now?

I’m now on the last day of Cycle 3 of Capecitabine. I’ve been on the oral tablets 14 days on and 7 off for 9 weeks. With multiple anti-sickness tabs and a strong routine around food, I’ve managed to keep them down. The other side effects are pretty grim. The skin on my hands and feet is red raw and swollen, peeling in places and inflamed.

My fine motor skills are being challenged as my finger prints are smoothed out and the fingertips are bolbus. This is further exasperated by lymphoedema on my right arm and a suspected DVT. My iPhone doesn’t recognise my fingers and even hitting the right keys and letters is a challenge. My feet are sore after walking or standing for too long and they are burning hot.

I’m not letting any of this stop me walking or typing, but it makes it more tiring. I’m annoyed with my failing body. In fact what I am annoyed with is the chemo is effecting me adversely, yet it doesn’t appear to be working.

I wrote in a previous poem that I’m happy to poison myself in the now to see more future. With each chemo that fails this journey seems more futile and the path ahead less clear.

10th December 2019

A Bitter Pill (or 10)

There is no doubt that mentally it’s tougher to physically swallow chemotherapy. Not least when you were hoping to avoid it and try immunotherapy.

Breakfast in bed never looked so appealing.

The last 3 weeks have been a blur. I’m hoping I’m through the worst. This post has been written a bit intermittently. 

Most of you know by now that I was on the placebo in the last clinical trial. After a bit of a scramble, I was lucky enough to get on another clinical trial. The last place globally, with a chance of getting Atezolizumab. 

Unfortunately I got the control, so as you know I’m not on immunotherapy I’m on chemo again. I’m so over chemo.

Passage produced the first weekend of the new chemo, Capecitabine:

I am now dictating this in the dark with my sunglasses on because I’ve been in bed since Saturday night, it’s now Monday morning and I have been pretty sick since Sat. This is my seventh type of chemo drug and my third block of chemo cycles. Naïvely I thought that this oral chemo would be convenient and fit around my life.

Oh how I was wrong.

I feel more unwell than when on any of the other chemos. When you sit and think about it, or lie in my case, the chemo pills are going down my throat and into my stomach and through my intestines, which is a lot of surface area for a cytotoxic drug to be in contact with. I can only assume that this is why I feel so ill.

It may also be the dosage which they may alter, but for now I am still trying to swallow 10 bitter chemo pills a day. I can just about handle swallowing them, but once they have melted or partially melted in my stomach, bringing them back up again is one of the most unpleasant things I have had to endure.

I cannot really put into words the feeling of that acidic liquid burning my throat on the way out.

I really thought the first lot of chemo I had back in June 2018 was the worst (which is why I have yet to write about it properly), but this seems to have really knocked me for six.

As truly revolting as the vomiting is, the headache which feels like my head is permanently in a vice and the photo sensitivity are debilitating. I’ve been lying in a dark room since Saturday night. Unable to read, watch TV or talk too much.

I am unsure whether my body‘s reaction to this is just a chemical one or if I am psychologically rejecting the control; the injustice and all-round bad luck in missing out on Atezolizumab again.

Dictated notes from the first lot of Capecitabine.

I am determined to blaze through this drug in the hope that it is doing to the cancer what it is doing to me. The week before last I ended up back in the hospital in London because the vomiting wouldn’t stop. After some monitoring and a lot of hanging around, I was sent home with additional anti-sickness drugs (or ‘Auntie Soonest’ as my dictation wrote the first time. I quite like that, she sounds like just the kind of person I need right now!).

It is slightly surreal waiting in this Cancer Assessment Unit looking through the pouring rain at the twinkling lights of the city. The streets below packed with the aftermath of ‘Extinction Rebellion’ and the state opening of parliament. Looking out at these two different fights and the enormity of their meaning make me and my plight feel insignificant. I like that. Big cities, vast skies and coastal vistas all make me feel small. They calm me.

After the first lot of sickness I was given 48 hour respite from the chemo to then begin again. 

Once I started up the chemo tablets again it didn’t seem quite as bad; then three days later it started. I had the headache, I was dizzy I couldn’t really talk I couldn’t read or watch TV. Once again I am dictating this into my phone in the dark.

Chemo is a bit like childbirth. No one really tells you what is is actually like and everyone’s experience is different anyway. Universally it’s pretty horrendous going through it, but the potential reward is worth it. Moreover the end result seems to wipe your memory of the enormity of the process of getting there. However, unlike the birth of both my children I was not rewarded at the end of the last two gruelling journeys.  That has certainly been my experience thus far. All that pain and horror for nothing.

Actually not nothing: disease progression.

I am left wondering if this particular chemo is so bad because unlike the others it’s really doing the job. That is all I can grip onto as I endeavour to endure another day.

Cancer is truly an evil bastard. Its treatment is something else. It is impossible to fathom the paradox of feeling relatively well when you are off treatment, with tumours growing everywhere, versus being on treatment and being debilitated.

Mummy I preferred it when you just had cancer, you were ok then, I think the chemotherapy is making you ill, can we go back to you just having cancer?

As my daughter said, right back at the beginning of the first lot of chemo. She was six then.

That’s how I feel right now.  This is why people stop treatment. At the moment I am wobbling my way along a tightrope between tolerable drug toxicity and drug efficacy.

My daughter is seven now. She has an amazing ability to cut through the crap and describe the heart of the situation. For example, when we finished chemotherapy the first time I went on to have three operations, each one hoping to get a clear margin around the cancer. Each one failing in its mission. As I got the last pathology report back in early December 2018, I was truly devastated to discover that there were still cancer cells in the margins. Teeny tiny bits of cancer in my blood and lymph vessels. I knew these where tributaries of two crucial fluid systems that move stuff around my body. This did not sound like a good place for cancer cells to hang out, however ‘microscopic’ they were. My surgeon told me I would probably have to have adjuvant chemo (after surgery) as well as the 18 weeks of neo adjuvant I had endured before surgery. 

This was the first moment I lost it in front of a consultant. My head crashed down on the other side of his enormous oak desk.

Bang!

“F**k!“ I screamed.

When we tried to explain this to the children, my daughter’s reaction was:

So mummy instead of being nearly at the end, we are actually right back at the beginning.

She nailed it then too.

It seems that killing cancer has to happen in a way that makes it feel like it’s killing you first.  Chemotherapy is what you call a systemic treatment. It is undiscriminating, attacking my whole body because the harsh reality is nobody knows where those microscopic cancer cells are hiding now.

So long story short, the same thing happened when I restarted the Cape (as it is known to its friends(!!)).This time I decided not to go to A&E. I took my pulse, temp and BP at home and they were all OK (that’s the first 2-3hrs of being in A&E covered). I didn’t have an infection. I was massively dehydrated and exhausted from vomiting. We phoned the hospital hotline again and said we were stopping the drugs in order to get some fluids back into me. We did and within a few hours I was improving. Once well enough (ish!) to travel to hospital, the oncologist came to the same conclusion as me. It was the tablets and nothing more sinister.

Whilst my reaction was a bit adverse it wasn’t unheard of.

I checked the dosing levels for my body surface area (my husband worked that calculation out) and we felt I was on a pretty high dose. Tipping into the criteria for 10 tablets by a fraction. Chemo sounds like a very precise treatment, but the truth is the dosing levels are quite a blunt tool. It’s unbelievably a bit of trial and error. Thing is, it’s me that is being experimented on. I have had to have my dose reduced on every other chemo drug due to toxicity and adverse reactions, so I guess this is where we are headed.

So after some good peer to peer discussion the oncologist and I agreed that I would give it another go at 80% of the original dose. So only 8 tablets a day now. I’d also have a break until the beginning of the next new cycle to let my body recover. This has given me a week or so to get back to myself, which aside from the cumulative cancer side effects I am now. Hence I thought I’d better get you lovely lot up to speed.

I want to give this chemo a good go because as I have said before the list of possible options for TNBC is very short. I’d be a fool to write one off at the first (few) hurdle(s).

New dose, new attitude, new drug administration regime with three lots of anti sickness tablets.

Let’s do this.

Again.

A dose of chemo reality check

Chemotherapy is barbaric. It is counter intuitive to everything we know and expect from medicine. It makes you feel poorly before it can make you feel better. Often it doesn’t make you better.  It just slowly eats away at your insides and messes with your head until your bodily functions and processes are effected. Then, in theory it starts to impact on your cancer’s ability to grow. 

That’s if you’re lucky, with Triple Negative this is often a short lived effect.  Sometimes it doesn’t work and the cancer just grows. After 18 weeks of four types of intravenous chemo last summer, mine grew. The main tumour was bigger than 96mm when it was removed. The last lot of 18 weeks chemo I had in spring/summer this year worked at first. My RECIST (Response Evaluation Criteria In Solid Tumors) was even described as ‘0mm, a complete response to treatment’. That was for about a month, until I felt it growing again. It was another couple of months before this showed up on a scan. My secondary tumour is now bigger than it was when I started the last clinical trial and it’s in other lymph nodes too, plus a local reoccurrence on my chest wall.  You can probably tell I don’t believe chemo is that effective.

You have to be dying, to want it.  Enough said.

Added to this I was always way too much of a control freak and sensible scare-dy cat to take drugs (aside from a few puffs on a spliff at Uni). Having worked for 25 years in marketing, advertising, branding and innovation consulting that’s quite an achievement and a very deliberate choice. So, it’s depressing to poison your body again and again. It is beyond comprehensibilty that the cancer continues to defy the chemo’s aggressive purpose.

It’s fair to say I’ve had a few interesting reactions to drugs in the past (pre cancer) and I’m even allergic to Red Bull. It gave me altered reality and makes me hallucinate. Even without Vodka.

So as you can imagine I’m not relishing starting my daily chemo.  

I put on my big girl pants (I think I will need them!) and I tucked into my seventh type of chemo drug last night. 

Two years ago I was ignorant about chemo. Chemo was chemo. It was a scary abstract concept that I’d seen depicted in films. It made you lose all your hair, vomit, your skin turned grey and it hollowed out your eyes. It looked grim. It wasn’t on my to do list. It definitely happened to other people. Not people I knew and not me.

And here we are. I am no chemo expert by any stretch and having looked into the ingredients and how they discovered some of them, you don’t always want to know. I’ve mentioned the mustard gas derived Cyclophosphamide before. That really messed with my eyes when it was surging my veins and my eyesight deteriorated. Others are platinum based, taxanes are derived from genus taxus which are yew trees, a tree we played under as children and were told in not uncertain terms not to touch the sticky yew berries (or glue berries as we called them). These are not ingredients you are salivating over putting in your body. That’s why for me intravenous is better. It’s a good way to detach.

This time around I’m on oral chemo. Who knew there was such a thing? It’s a tablet. Ten to be precise. Five in the morning and five at night. So ten times a day I am expected to knowingly swallow cytotoxic chemicals. So cytoxic (not that I think anything can be a little bit cytoxic) that I have to wear gloves to pop them out into a little sauce pot and then take them. I have to return the empty shells of the packet to the hospital, presumably to incinerate (or maybe because it’s a trial). Hopefully I won’t be an empty shell too, I’m not ready to be incinerated yet.

My homegrown tomatoes lovingly looked after this summer rather contrast my new daily ingredients

I thought tablets would be easier, more convenient. I’m only 10 tablets in and psychologically it’s a bit more invasive. 

Give it a week and it will be my new normal.  Or I’ll be distracted by the side effects.  

Onwards. 

11th October 2019