Where the heart and science intersect

Way back in 2008, when I enrolled in a clinical trial for crizotinib (Xalkori), it was the only ALK inhibitor in the world. That meant that once it stopped working (and my oncologist stressed from the get-go that this was not a cure, but rather a respite from cancer) it was the end of the road.

One year in I began to develop resistance to crizotinib but without further options, I stayed on trial and eked out almost two more years. Then, just in the nick of time, a phase I trial opened for a second ALK inhibitor–ceritinib (Zykadia).

Of course, in my universe the individuals who develop the therapies that have extended my life are absolute superstars and I the ultimate groupie. I was given the opportunity to meet Dr. Jean Cui, who formulated crizotinib, at the Xalkori Launch in 2011 and I became her number one fangirl.

I couldn’t tell you the exact moment in which Dr. Tom Marsilje and I entered the same orbit (and nor could he, as we both have chemo brain), but he codeveloped ceritinib (Zykadia). By the time I was introduced to Tom, he was battling his own cancer and suddenly our connection became a whole lot more personal.

My friend Tom is an absolute rockstar in every sense of the word and you’d be remiss not to read this profile of him in STAT–Cancer researcher races to find a cure–for his own incurable cancer. This article hits all the high points so I’ll just provide a few more personal details.

About six weeks ago Tom was in Boston and we got together for dinner (along with our mutual friend, John Novack, of INSPIRE) at the appropriately named Miracle of Science. Obviously we should have taken a selfie but neither of us thought of it (blame it on the chemo brain). We’ll just have to do a redux at a later date.

However, the first time Tom and I met in the flesh (like so many of my friendships, ours existed in the email/social media sphere), it was entirely by accident. We were both in DC this past spring, lobbying for our individual cancers (lung and colon). I was waiting for an elevator in the basement of the Russell Senate Building and noticed a man standing with his back to me and thought ‘he sort of looks like Tom Marsilje’. Well, that man turned around, saw me, started to shake a little (we were both gobsmacked), and then I rushed over to give him a big ol hug. The serendipity of our encounter was just sort of perfect.

Anyway, count me a huge fan. Even if he if wasn’t one of the reasons I’m still here, I’d be impressed by and with Dr. Tom Marsilje.

When you can’t remember shit

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Perhaps the best greeting card ever.

First, a blanket apology to anyone whose birthday I have forgotten this year. Same goes for all those unanswered emails, texts, phone calls, missed appointments and other no-shows.

Once upon a time I and my ability to recollect were reliable. As a child, I possessed an eidetic memory and when I wished to retrieve an event it was almost as if I were watching a movie of the past in my brain. According to literature the ability to remember things in an almost photographic sense disappears in adulthood, but I am a highly visual person and always utilized a sort of Hansel and Gretel bread crumb approach; when trying to remember something I would visually retrace footsteps in my mind until I came back to the thing I was searching for.

That is, until I started my current therapy, lorlatinib. A small molecule designed specifically to cross the blood brain barrier, lorlatinib is able to deliver drug to tumors within the central nervous system. This is great news for individuals with brain mets but it also means that there may be accordant cognitive side effects. I started early in the trial during dose escalation and at a previously higher dose than I am now taking, and those cognitive side effects were so pronounced that a few weeks into the trial I felt as if I could no longer process or reason. Fortunately lowering my dose improved that scenario but I still felt as if my memory had been completely wiped and that I had suffered something akin to a brain injury.

Because I was also in the midst of a nasty divorce it was hard to parse the stress from the effects of therapy, but suffice it to say that life was challenging.

Two years out I am not only still alive, I feel almost as smart as I used to be. However, my memory is still completely shot. Add advancing age into the mix, and I think it’s fair to assume that I will continue to do things like purchase airline tickets to the wrong city (last summer) or for the wrong day (upcoming trip). It’s a little unnerving and yet you know I like to look on the bright side (cue Life of Brian). Historically I was a mental ruminator, and often made myself miserable by reviewing unpleasant situations over and over. Well guess what! Not being able to remember shit sometimes comes in handy, and I no longer dwell on much of anything.

Although my memory challenges make life less predictable, I am learning a lot about flexibility, personal forgiveness, and a whole lot of scrappy. In the case of the flight to the wrong city, I rented a car (first time ever, alone) and drove the additional 400 miles to my intended destination.

So even if I miss the boat entirely (wink wink–see above), I know I’ll still get there. I just might not remember how.

Because magic can be in a moment

I’ve gotten an adventure or two under my belt since my last post (with more to come) and I plan on divulging in detail. But before I get to all that I’d like to share a truly magical moment. On Sunday I accompanied my friends/neighbors Machiko and Koichiro Kurita and their dog Momo to Mill No. 5; an enchanted space if there ever was one. The four of us were wandering about and came across this most perfect of props. I whipped out my handy iPhone for an impromptu portrait of two of my favorite photographers and their little peach Momo. Serendipity.

Koichiro, Machiko & Momo.

Koichiro, Machiko & Momo.

It’s all Fun

Two years ago I was going through a tough patch, as I had recently separated from my husband and my health and financial situation were both a bit grim.

I spent a fair amount of time on the phone talking to my mother Evalynn and I’m awfully glad I did, as she passed away unexpectedly that June. During what would be one of our last conversations, my mother asked me what I did for fun. ‘Everything’ I said. ‘Everything I do is for fun’.

And I really meant it.

Approximately 2975 days have passed since I was told that I had three to five months left to live. Each and every one of these days has been a glorious bonus; an unexpected gift; an amazing treasure.

Recently I heard about someone who had ‘made the best’ of a similar situation where they’d received an extended reprieve from death. This individual was traveling the globe. Sounds like fun.

However, bucket lists are not an option for me–out of reach financially but also not what I really desire so much as to go on with life.

And so I have. Living each day as if it weren’t my last. Yet doing so with utmost awareness of how unexpected but also special each and every moment is.

I choose to love life unconditionally and so without judgement. It’s all good. And 99% of it–also fun. Simple stuff like waking up in the morning. Having that first cup of coffee. And then the second. Texting my kids. Hanging out with friends. Going to a thrift store. Smiling at a baby. Striking up a conversation with a stranger. Taking long walks.

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But also paying bills, sitting in a waiting room, getting blood drawn. Doing laundry, languishing in traffic, buying groceries. Watering the garden, scrubbing the tub, unloading the dishwasher. All fun fun fun. Because each and every one of these tasks is a privilege I never thought I’d have.

Sometimes it is incredibly poignant and I am reminded of certain moments from childhood: playing outside as dusk approached but knowing that a grownup would soon call us all indoors. The slight anxiety and anticipation would lend a tingling excitement and new intensity to our games. Perhaps we ran a little faster; shouted with a little more bravado, became a bit bolder than before.

That which is fading is often held all the more dear. And I am hanging onto dear life with all the joy I can muster.

xo

 

Me and my hero

 

Linnea (me!) and Dr. Alice Shaw

Linnea (me!) and Dr. Alice Shaw

Just thought this was as good a time as any to post a recent photo of me with my personal goddess/oncologist Dr. Alice Shaw. She is a rock star and with Alice by my side I feel as safe as a person with stage IV lung cancer can possibly feel. Better than that, actually. I know my doctor will do everything within her power to achieve the best possible outcome in regard to my future. That when she says we are a team, she really means it.

Her role is to watch my cancer like a hawk and to stay abreast of any developing treatment options. She’s got that. My task is to work on being as strong as I am able–emotionally and physically–so as to better bear up under both changing health conditions and new treatment regimens. To hang onto optimism and to keep the faith. And, perhaps the most challenging of all, to continue to sit with uncertainty.

It takes commitment and an incredible amount of confidence; on the part of my doctor but also myself. Alone, I don’t believe I could manage. Together, we’re a formidable team. Cancer better watch its back.

It was good while it lasted.

Stability, that is.

As any metastatic cancer patient understands only too well, what doesn’t kill you often just keeps trying.

I’ve been in this battle for so long now–more than eleven years–and most of that time has involved active combat with an ever advancing foe. But thanks to lorlatinib, my disease has been stable since June of 2014; my most sustained period of response yet. As a bonus, I’ve felt so damn good it’s been easy to imagine myself cancer free.

However, my scans have always told a slightly different story, with remaining nodules and opacities scattered here and there.

Lungs and Airways: The patient is status post left lower lobectomy for lung
cancer. There is a left lower lobe solid nodule on image 41 series 201 measuring
5 mm unchanged dating back to 5/14/2015. There is also subpleural patchy opacity in the left lower lobe image 63 series 201 that remains stable compared to 5/14/2015. There are small centrilobular groundglass nodules in the left lower lobe image 51 series 201 also stable compared to 5/14/2015 the largest of which measures 9 mm. There is a stable 2 mm right upper lobe nodule image 32 series 201. There is a stable subpleural groundglass nodule in the right upper lobe image 48 series 201 measuring 5 mm. A second groundglass right upper lobe nodule measuring 5 mm but is essentially unchanged from 12/10/2015 and 4/14/2016. A 4 mm solid nodule along the right minor fissure is stable. There are no new nodulesPleura: There is a small left basilar postoperative pleural effusion that remains essentially stable.

The words unchanged and stable are absolutely key here.

However, on my scan report today it was noted that one nodule had in fact changed size: There is a 5mm nodule on image 52 that appears to have grown since 5/14/2015 when it measured 3 mm but is unchanged compared to 3/6/2016.

Obviously it had escaped the notice of previous radiologists. However, upon reading today’s report, my oncologist Dr. Shaw reviewed the scans and agreed that this particular nodule had in fact enlarged and likely represented progression.

Nothing to panic about but a potent reminder that shit is still real.

Dr. Shaw is already talking game plan. We will scan again in three months. If the nodule continues to grow, we might biopsy in an effort to determine what the mechanism of resistance is. If it can be identified, I might be a candidate for a combination therapy of ALK inhibitors. As this is a solitary nodule and in my right lung this time, surgery is a possibility. So is radiation.

Stability may have been rattled but I’ve still got options.

And honestly, that’s the most important thing.

Just not a just world

There are two kinds of people. Those that believe life is fair (everything happens for a reason) and those who don’t (shit happens).

These differing viewpoints may seem like no big deal until you start thinking about the moral implications of belief in a just world. I suppose if everything is working out for you it’s a pretty convenient philosophy. However, if life has thrown you some major curves (such as a diagnosis of terminal cancer) than you probably don’t believe we all get what we deserve.

My own diagnosis of lung cancer left me completely gobsmacked. How on earth did a young, seemingly healthy woman who had never ever touched a cigarette (me) get lung cancer. And yes, I was struck by the unjustness of it all. I mean, why me?

Well, first of all, lung cancer in non and never smokers is nowhere near as uncommon as most people believe. Approximately 60-65% of newly diagnosed cases occur in former or never smokers.

Secondly, life is not fair.

However, most of us grew up believing in a just world, a well ordered place where sensible and good behavior was rewarded and risky or bad behavior duly punished. This viewpoint not only shaped our moral code, it lent us an invisible cloak of safety.

This philosopy is the very reason that those of us with lung cancer are consistently asked as to whether or not we smoked. The asker wants to be reassured that our lung cancer is the direct result of cause and effect. Of course they haven’t stopped to think about how this question will impact us. If the answer is yes, the implication is that we are the agent of our own misfortune. And if it is no, we are reminded once again of our extraordinarily bad luck.

Belief in a just world is the thinking behind the stigma associated with a diagnosis of lung cancer. Stigma is defined as ‘a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person’. In the case of lung cancer, our diagnosis is inextricably linked to shame and a blame the victim mentality.

Which makes us all incredibly sensitive to any suggestion that cancer, and our disease in particular, is almost entirely preventable. ‘Helpless to Prevent Cancer? Actually, Quite a Bit is in Your Control‘ reads the catchy title of a recent article from the New York Times. The author, a professor of pediatrics (and therefore, I think, not an expert on adult cancers) makes statements such as this: ‘… you’d have to be living under a rock not to know that smoking causes lung cancer…’ Or this ‘About 82 percent of women and 78 percent of men who got lung cancer might have prevented it through healthy behaviors.’ The author makes a stab at empathy with this observation: ‘You don’t want to get into situations where you feel as if people don’t deserve help because they didn’t try hard enough to stay healthy’. However, the word deserve and that bit about not trying hard enough harkens right back to shame, shame, shame.

The way in which disease is characterized matters. Talking about lifestyle changes that can optimize health is always a good thing, but it is important to remain sensitive to the language that is used.

Calamity of all sorts and cancer in particular is often beyond our control. Nobody deserves lung cancer, whether they smoked or not. But sometimes, shit just happens.