Saying it like it is

From a living your life point of view, the past six weeks have been fabulous. On the cancer and related general health front, they’ve been much less so. It’s getting increasingly difficult to separate one from the other.

We went on no fewer than three trips, one by train and two by car.

We visited some beautiful parts of England. We did lots of sightseeing. With friends or on our own, we went to museums, art galleries and exhibitions. We visited various sets of friends and relatives, some of whom we hadn’t seen since just before the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2019 and some of whom we hadn’t seen for many years. We helped our younger son move into his third year accommodation at university in the city of Leeds in the north east of England. 

Back in London, I continued to meet up with people – current and former work colleagues, my brother and nephew who were down visiting from Scotland, and a group of women from BellaVelo, one of the two cycling clubs of which I’m still a member, despite not having cycled with either of them for a very, very long time.

As you may be able to tell, I did not do much work in June.

That’s a synopsis of what’s been happening over the past month-and-a-half in that part of my life over which I have control. Now here’s what been happening in the part over which I have little control*.

I had two blood transfusions in the space of just over five weeks, each prompted by falling haemoglobin levels.

My most recent blood tests showed a substantial rise in my tumour marker level, meaning there’s been an increase in cancer activity.

The implication of the above is that the metastatic breast cancer that’s in my bones and has infiltrated my bone marrow has not responded to the treatment I started just over two months ago. My next set of scans – a half-body combined PET CT scan and an MRI of my spine – is therefore being brought forward as we want to try to determine whether the cancer has spread.

If the scans show signs of progression – or even perhaps if they don’t but the tumour marker level is still markedly rising and my bone marrow is still struggling to produce healthy blood – I will move on to the next line of treatment. This would be my fourth treatment since I was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer just over two years ago. It would be iv chemo, with all of the associated additional and potentially lengthy treatment sessions and toxic side effects, including hair loss. I am really, really, really not ready for any of that. Also, with each new treatment you start, you can’t help but be aware that you’re one step closer to running out of options.

But let’s not pre-empt things. Who knows what the scans will show?

Back to the tribulations of the past six weeks.

I had another round of treatment-induced mouth sores. However, I’ve been totally clear of these for the past few weeks, which is a huge relief. You can read in previous posts how painful these were.

Another side effect of one of the drugs I’m on is night sweats. I’ve been having these on a regular basis, although not so much in the past week or so. When they happen, it means: 1) having to change your nightwear in the middle of the night; 2) changing the bed sheets the following morning; and 3) depending on how wet the sheets are and what time of the night it is, moving to the bed of the son who at the time was still away at uni and trying to get back to sleep. My oncologist and I agreed that for someone such as me who pretty much sailed through the menopause, this is a particular affront. I’ve had more night sweats in the past two months than I had during the whole of my menopause.

I had a slight temperature over the course of a couple of days and at one stage I feared it might jeopardise a much anticipated trip to Wales and Manchester. It was fine in the end but there was a fair amount of anxiety involved.

There’s more.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a nose bleed, but one morning there was blood rather than mucous on the tissue when I blew my nose.

That kind of freaked me out as you’re advised to “seek medical advice urgently” if you develop “gum/nose bleeds or unusual bruising” (see photo). I duly called the emergency number I’d been given and spoke to one of the oncology nurses.

The nurse asked me lots of questions, after which her reassuring advice was: “Monitor it and call us again if it gets worse.” Thankfully it didn’t and all was ok. So off I went to an arranged lunch date with two friends – women I’d met at antenatal classes 23 years ago but hadn’t seen for several years.

I’ve also been having dental problems – not quite pain but certainly discomfort in a couple of teeth. Tooth or gum problems ring pretty loud alarm bells in people such as me so I reported the discomfort to the cancer nurse specialists who work alongside my oncologist. An appointment was immediately made for me at the specialist dentistry department at the hospital where I’m having my cancer treatment.

I was given an extremely thorough dental examination that involved among other things tooth sensitivity testing and x-rays. Nothing of concern was found. The discomfort remains. I’m to be seen again in three months’ time, or sooner if it gets worse. In the meantime, I’ve been referred to the hygienist for a deep clean (my own words there).

Zometa (zoledronic acid), the bone strengthening drug I currently have via infusion over 15 minutes every four weeks, helps prevent skeletal related effects of the cancer such as bone fracture, pain and subsequent radiotherapy, and spinal cord compression. It’s one of a group of drugs called bisphosphonates that, unfortunately, come with a small risk of a nasty condition called osteonecrosis of the jaw, or ONJ – a rare but potentially debilitating condition in which bone tissue in the jaw is no longer covered by the gums and starts to die.

ONJ symptoms can range from very mild to severe. It can cause tooth or jaw pain and swelling in your jaw. Severe symptoms include infection in your jaw bone. You can get ONJ after dental procedures, such as extractions. The healing process after such procedures may take a long time or may not happen at all. That’s why everything possible is done to avoid the need for tooth removal in patients taking Zometa or denosumab (Xgeva), another drug used in this setting. That’s why my report of dental problems was taken so seriously.

Your risk of ONJ increases the longer you’re treated with bisphosphonates or denosumab. I’ve been on either Zometa or denosumab since my secondary diagnosis. In addition, I was on Zometa periodically for some time after my primary diagnosis as there’s some evidence that, in post-menopausal women, it can reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back.

Given all of the above, I’m taking a break from Zometa this month to see whether it makes any difference with regard to the discomfort. And I guess, in case any dental treatment were needed.

I was impressed that an appointment was found for me so quickly. However, it was on the morning of the day we were setting out on our Wales/Manchester adventure and I spent a fair amount of time worrying about whether we’d make the train. We did make it, and it was the loveliest of trips, despite my teenage goddaughter in Wales beating me at chess in an agonisingly slow game that lasted the best part of two hours. We’re evens now, but I will endeavour to rise again!

I mentioned in my last post that I had started once again to have sore feet at night, yet another side effect of one of the drugs I’m on. I suffered badly from this under my previous drug regime and while it’s not as bad as it was then, it’s no fun. Now as then, it’s exacerbated by exercise that puts pressure on the feet, such as running or long walks. Cold, wet towels to wrap round my feet in the middle of the night when the discomfort is stopping me from sleeping are once again a feature.

I’m not so bothered about running, having proved a point by completing a 5k just recently. Stopping walking or only walking for short distances, however, is not an option.

Had I not been prepared to walk on the various trips we’ve just been on, it would have meant not traipsing round and enjoying the northwestern city of Manchester for hours and hours and hours over the course of a couple of days with friends from London.

It would have meant missing out on wandering round the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, south of Leeds. This has been on my to-do list for ages and it didn’t disappoint (couple of photos here as evidence).

It would have meant not exploring the pretty village of Hathersage in the Peak District.

And it would have meant not walking round Sherwood Forest near Nottingham or visiting the small but super interesting Civil Wars Museum in Newark.

For the moment, I’ll take the sore feet. It’s a price worth paying. They’re not likely to get any better under the next treatment. Hopefully by adding painkillers and/or sleeping tablets to my arsenal, I’ll get by.

On top of all that, the wound on my lip from the horribly painful and ugly cold sores that I had earlier this month is taking forever to heal.

The cold sores appeared over a month ago, triggered by a bike ride in the sun (see photo) on the first of the three trips.

One day recently, my lip looked so awful that I almost called off a brunch date with a very, very good friend and her husband. I’m so glad we went in the end. On another occasion, the wound started bleeding when we were minutes away from the house of some old friends we were going to visit. I burst into tears from sheer frustration. We stopped the car and waited til the bleeding had stopped and I’d stopped crying before continuing.

While we’re on the subject of wounds, the one on my right calf that was healing so well opened up again, stopping me from exercising at a time when my feet were still fine. Is that ironic or just Sod’s law? The wound has almost cleared now.

Finally, my finger nails are getting ever softer and weaker and in some cases are lifting off the nail bed. As for my hair, when I find a knot and try to tease it out, sometimes a whole clump of hair comes out.

I started this latest treatment – a combination of two (non-chemo) drugs, everolimus (Afinitor) and exemestane (Aromasin), taken in tablet form, once daily – a little over two months ago. At my latest appointment with the oncologist, we agreed that I’d stay with it for a third, 30-day cycle to give it a proper chance to work. I agreed to stay on the highest dose of everolimus, despite the problems I’ve been having with mouth sores. The rationale is that we need to give the drugs the best chance of generating a response. I find it rather ironic that I’ve not had any mouth sores during this third and possibly final cycle.

So there we are, just saying it like it is.

I initially thought of having a photo of me having a blood transfusion at the hospital as the final image in this post. How much nicer, though, to use a photo of some of the beautiful roses that we are so lucky to have in our garden. Or rather had in our garden until the rain of the past few weeks came and ruined them!

Let’s see what the next few weeks bring on the health front.

What is certain is that there will be multiple trips to the hospital. Thank goodness I only live a couple of miles away. As it stands, I have six appointments for one thing or another over the next two weeks alone. The first of these was this morning, for blood tests to see how things were looking after the transfusion I had ten days ago. I had blood taken then waited for the results with the cannula in “just in case” I needed another transfusion. I didn’t.

Another certainty is my birthday, next weekend. I’ll be 58. I’m still standing.

*I also have increasingly little control over the lives of our 20 and 22 year old sons, both of whom in the past four or five weeks have had and, thankfully, have also recovered from Covid.

Restrictions lifting and moving on to the next treatment

Pandemic restrictions are loosening and things are looking up on that front. 

We’ve been limited to meeting up with just one other person outside for exercise since December but now the rule of six – whereby you are allowed to gather outside in groups of up to six, including in your back garden – is back. I’m already taking advantage of it. 

In the fading sunshine one evening last week, my husband and I had beers on Tooting Common at the bottom of our street with some friends who live locally. 

We were all so happy to see each other and to be able to actually sit down and relax and enjoy each other’s company. We’ve been meeting up on Zoom and we’ve had some really fun evenings. However, as everyone knows, it’s really, really, really not the same as meeting up in person. This group largely comprises people who were parents of children who attended the primary school at the time our two sons went there. Before the pandemic, we’d meet up once a month in a local pub. Our boys are now 22 and 20 and it’s been a great way of keeping in touch and maintaining friendships. There are way more than six of us; we did more or less manage to arrange ourselves into groups of six. 

Talking of our sons, one is already back home from uni for the Easter holidays. The other is due back later today or tomorrow. We haven’t seen them in three months. That’s not long compared with a lot of people, I know, but this is longest we haven’t seen each other in person. On Easter Sunday, the four of us will have lunch in our garden with my two London-based nieces. Blankets may be involved, depending on the weather. 

Tomorrow morning I’m meeting up, again on the common, with some other good, local friends, all women this time. We’ll be having coffee and pastries rather than beer! Before the pandemic, we would meet up in each other’s houses once a month to catch up, watch a film and discuss it afterwards. We’ve continued throughout the pandemic, remotely. Someone chooses a film, we have a chat on Zoom then we each watch the film in our own homes and we catch up again afterwards on Zoom to discuss the film. It’s been great. There are five of us in this little group, and I think it’s safe to say we all very much appreciate, and take strength and comfort from, each other. Since last August, the group has experienced three bereavements. My mum died from an infection, one member lost her sister to dementia, and another her husband, tragically to COVID. 

Later on next week, I have a game of tennis planned with my four very special tennis buddies, followed by a birthday lunch for one of them hosted in the back garden of another of them. 

Also in our short-term plans is a drive an hour or so out of London to meet and have a walk with some friends we haven’t seen since last August.

Pubs can serve food outside to groups of up to six as of 12th April. Not only have we managed to make two evening reservations for that and the following week, some friends have invited us to celebrate the 60th birthday of one of them one evening that first week at a pub where they managed to get a reservation. Also, an early supper is in the diary one evening over the next two weeks with the tennis crowd. Finally, the BellaVelo cycling club I’m a member of has booked all the outdoor tables at pub on 21st April and I’m due to attend that too. There can be no mixing between tables but it will still be lovely. 

Finally, we’ve booked to eat out – inside!!! – with four friends on the very first day that’s allowed, 17th May. 

If I sound rather desperate to be out and about again and see people, it’s because I am.

We’re also having a mini revamp done of our garden. That is very exciting, especially as we’ll probably be spending a lot of time there this Spring and Summer.

Staying with the good news, I’m due to have my second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine this coming Tuesday. It’s not known how much protection the vaccines provide for immunocompromised individuals such as myself, but it has to be higher than zero, so that’s something. 

On the downside, I didn’t get the best results from my most recent set of scans. 

There are some positives. My secondary breast cancer is still confined to my bones and bone marrow; it hasn’t spread to organs such as my liver or lungs. Also, the cancer that’s in my spine isn’t exerting pressure on my spinal cord. 

The bad news is that the cancer has spread within my bones. It is showing up on scans in places that were clear before. “Disease progression with widespread metastatic disease activity now apparent”, reads the report from the combined PET-CT scan of my body from the top of my spine to my mid thighs. The MRI scan I had of my spine shows “widespread diffuse abnormal marrow signal throughout the spine, in keeping with metastatic infiltration”. That said, “overall appearances [of the spine] are relatively stable” compared to the previous MRI scan I had, almost a year ago.

In addition to there having been progression, the relevant tumour marker level in my blood is continuing to rise and my haemoglobin level has been falling. This means it’s time to come off capecitabine, the oral chemo I’ve been on for the past 10 or 11 months and move on to what will be my third line of treatment since my diagnosis of secondary breast cancer two years ago.

There are a couple or perhaps even several treatment options, each of which comes with its own delightful set of potential side effects. We’re still working out what is best and what is possible. I see the oncologist again this coming week, when we will have some more information to inform what the next steps will be. In the meantime, I’m still on capecitabine.

In light of the scan results, we made a change to the other treatment I’d been on.

With bone mets, the cancer weakens your bones. You’re therefore given one or other of two drugs that are aimed at reducing the risk of what are known as “skeletal-related events”, that is fractures, spinal cord compression, bone pain requiring palliative radiotherapy, and orthopaedic surgery. 

In my case, as well as taking capecitabine tablets morning and evening on a one-week on, one-week off basis, I’d been having monthly injections of denosumab (brand name Xgeva), one of the two above-mentioned bone-strengthening drugs.

On seeing the scan results, my oncologist changed from me from denosumab back to Zometa/zoledronic acid, which has the same aim as denosumab but works in a different way. The idea is that trying something different, even though I’ve been on Zometa before, will have a positive effect. I’m fine with that. My position is that almost anything is worth a go, despite the fact that long-term use of Zometa is associated with a higher risk of dental problems than denosumab, such as sore gums and tooth loosening.

I’d only just got used to giving myself the denosumab injections at home. Now it’s back to the treatment day unit at the hospital every four weeks for an iv infusion of Zometa. The procedure only takes half an hour so I guess I shouldn’t complain too much. However, I hadn’t been hooked up to a drip for more than a year (other than to have a blood transfusion last July) and I have to say it felt weird.

Also, because I don’t do things by half, I’m to have two freckles/moles/lesions/whatever removed and biopsied. The dermatologists who examined me said they don’t think they’re suspicious but they advise removal given my current situation and my history of melanoma. 

One lesion is on the sole of my right foot and the other is on my right calf, near the scar from where I had a microinvasive melanoma removed in 2017. The latter has been there forever; the one on the sole of my foot is new. I contacted my GP, who referred me to the dermatology department at the hospital where I’m having my breast cancer treatment. “I’m here so often I should bring a sleeping bag,” I said to my oncologist when I told her about this latest news. I thought it was funny.

I’m waiting to hear when my appointment to remove the moles will be. 

Since I completed my big athletic achievement in early March, I’ve been taking it easy on the exercise front to give my poor feet a rest after subjecting them to such a pounding in January and February. The throbbing - a side effect of capecitabine combined with pre-existing damage from the chemo I had in 2015 – has definitely subsided but it is so much worse at night than during the day. I could count on one hand the number of proper sleeps I’ve had this month. Getting up in the middle of the night to wrap my feet in a cold, wet towel in an effort to sooth the throbbing is not an uncommon event.

I’ve also been feeling knackered – probably due to a mix of a lack of sleep, the cancer having spread, a low haemoglobin level, general pandemic-related general fed-upness, and – perhaps ironically – not doing much exercise other than walking. Seriously, exercise is known to help reducing cancer-related fatigue. And as we all know, if we can exercise, it does make us feel better.

I’ll give the running a rest for another while, but hopefully I’ll start getting some proper bike rides in soon. As for what playing tennis will do for my feet, I have no idea, but I want to play and so I will. I’m not sure my feet can be much worse than they have already been.

Finishing off, we’ll just have to see how it goes with whatever new treatments I end up on. I was on each of the two previous lines of treatment for almost a year. Let’s see how long I last on this next one. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

An update

In the grand scheme of things, I’m quite relieved at the results of my latest round of blood tests.

I met the oncologist earlier this week to discuss the results of the tests I’d had done the previous day. The best I could have hoped for was for my tumour marker to have stayed at the level it had jumped to in December. I figured that was unlikely given that it had risen by a whopping 20% between the November and December blood tests. In the event, it went up by around another 10%.

On the upside, on the blood front things are good. The secondary breast cancer that has spread to my bones has also infiltrated my bone marrow and so reduces my body’s ability to make healthy blood. It was therefore good to hear that my haemoglobin count is up from last month and is again within the normal range, albeit at the very lower end. My neutrophils, while still below the normal range (they’ll never be there again), are 40% up on last month. That means I’m a little better placed to face any infection that comes my way – a positive in the current climate.

Once again, it’s swings and roundabouts. The tumour marker is up but bloods are ok.

With the pandemic still on the rampage, every effort is being made to minimise the number of trips patients on treatment make to hospital. For example, every other appointment with the consultant over the past nine months has been on the phone rather than in person. In fact, I may have had more over the phone than not. Some people don’t like this way of communicating but it’s fine by me. In addition, for my next two rounds of treatment, I’m going to self-inject at home the bone strengthening drug (denosumab/Xgeva) that I have at the start of every new cycle. It’s usually done by one of the oncology nurses at the day treatment unit at the hospital. I did it myself last month at the unit under supervision and that too was fine.

The fact that the marker is going up indicates that there is increased cancer activity somewhere in my body. That’s what happens with secondary cancer. It eventually outwits every possibly treatment. While these latest results were far from disastrous, you do have to be practical. The oncologist therefore discussed with me what drug(s) I might move onto if the scans I’m to have in seven weeks show signs that the cancer has progressed to the extent that we need to change to another treatment. The scans could show any number of things. While you can’t predict a precise course of action in advance as you don’t know what you’ll see, you can be thinking of what might need to happen under various scenarios.

The discussion was quite sobering. But let’s not pre-empt things. That decision – if indeed a decision needs to be taken – is eight weeks away. In the meantime, I carry on with my current treatment and just get on with things.

One of those things is reporting my health status daily on the Covid Symptom Study app – covid.joinzoe.com – that is used to study the symptoms of COVID-19 and track the spread of this virus that is causing such devastation and unimaginable heartache to so many. (On a personal level, next week will see the funeral of a good friend’s husband who died from COVID-19 just after Christmas. His death was heartbreaking on many levels.)

It seems heartless to carry on writing about my own experiences having just written those previous two sentences, but the case is that I reported having a runny nose on the Zoe app, as it’s known, one day last week. While a runny nose is not a symptom of infection with the virus, I, together with any other household members, was “invited” via the app to take a test. It was all very efficient. The test kits were delivered the day after we requested them, we posted them back the following day and got the results – negative in the case of both myself and my husband – 36 hours later via text and email.

I reckoned the results would be negative but, with transmission rates as high as they are, you can obviously never be sure. Our two boys are back at uni and so it’s just my husband and me in the house. I work from home so it’s been a few weeks since I’ve been out for anything other than to exercise or attend hospital appointments. In my husband’s case, it’s for exercise or shopping. I now exercise on my own; I’ve even stopped the walks with friends that had become such a regular and welcome feature of life.

I’m feeling well on the whole and another thing that I’m doing now that I don’t meet up with friends for walks is go out almost every day either for a run or a bike ride. The reason is that I have signed up to a bit of a mad challenge that involves running and/or cycling a total of 192 miles between the beginning of January and the end of March. I could do it all on the bike but I’ve decided to do as much of it as I can on my own two feet rather than on two wheels. Running is so much more challenging than cycling, at least it is for me given the pace at which I cycle. I run incredibly slowly but I guess it still counts as running in that I do overtake people who are simply walking!

There’s no way I’d be running if a friend hadn’t suggested we both sign up for this challenge. Even after having signed up, I’ve had to come up with an incentive to get me out running. I wanted to listen to Transmissions, a multi-episode podcast that I’d heard was really good – about the iconic Manchester bands from the 1980s, Joy Division and New Order. I decided I would only listen to the podcast while running. It was a good plan and it works both ways. I’m loving the podcast so much that I go out running so I can listen to another episode and listening to the podcast makes the runs easier.

This has been a good week for running. I’ve got the week off work, so I’ve got no excuse really. I’m in the category of people for whom work has never been busier and I worked part, if not all, of each of the four working days between December 24th and 31st. It has been so relaxing to have a big chunk of time off. The house is very quiet now that the boys are away again. We had a lovely Christmas together. It’s usually just the four of us anyway on Christmas Day so in that sense at least it wasn’t so different from other years.

The photo above on the left is of me on the 25th, relaxing on the sofa with two of my presents after an almost two-hour spin on the bike – out to Richmond Park, a favourite destination around seven miles away.

The photo on the right was taken in our garden by my husband not long after the bells on New Year’s Eve.

Hogmanay, as we Scots say, normally makes me feel quite melancholic. This year, though, presumably because of all the sadness that 2020 held, it felt important to celebrate and look forward – both because of and despite what the future may bring.