Back on treatment, feeling mellow

Thankfully the break in my treatment for secondary breast cancer lasted only five days.

I saw the consultant on Tuesday to find out how my blood was looking after the blood transfusion and filgrastim injection the previous week. The answer was good and I was straight on to my second round of capecitabine oral chemotherapy that very evening.

I’d had blood tests the day before. The results showed that the transfusion and injection did what they were expected to do on the haemoglobin and neutrophil front respectively. My haemoglobin count was up by a whopping 36% (it has to be said it was rather low to start with) and my neutrophil count had almost trebled.

Apparently the rise in the haemoglobin level could be accounted for partially by the fact that I’d been doing a fair amount of cycling. More on that below. Also, we don’t know how much of the fall was due to the new treatment and how much was due to the cancer. Whatever the reason, my haemoglobin was at a decent level.

The consultant is as pleased as I am about the big fall in the tumour marker level. The details are all in my previous post but, after just one cycle of capecitabine (two weeks of daily tablets), it had fallen by almost a third. While the chemo had a negative effect on my bone marrow function, it also clearly had a marked anti-cancer effect. The sooner I got back on treatment the better, the consultant and I agreed. The only objective of the breast cancer that’s already spread to my bones and infiltrated my bone marrow is to grow and spread further and cause even more havoc. You don’t want to leave that untreated any longer than is absolutely necessary.

I’m on the same dose of capecitabine as during the first cycle – 85% of my maximum possible dose, three tablets on the morning and four more 12 hours later. Because there was such a dive in my haemoglobin during the first cycle, I’m to have a blood test half way through this second cycle to check how things are going. So it’s back to the hospital – I’m lucky to live so close – first thing on Wednesday this coming week to have blood taken. The consultant will call me later that day, hopefully to say it’s ok for me to continue with the second week of the tablets. If things have gone awry again… well, we’ll face that bridge if we come to it.

I should have been back at the hospital on Thursday for my monthly injection of the bone strengthening drug, denosumab. However, the consultant brought the appointment forward so I wouldn’t have to make yet another trip to hospital that week. Instead I had the injection at the day treatment unit when I went to pick up my capecitabine tablets a couple of hours after having seen the consultant.

The consultant again emphasised the need for good foot care given the fact that a common side effect of capecitabine is the dreaded palmar-plantar or hand-foot syndrome, where your hands and feet can become red and sore and swollen. This, I’ve just found out, is caused when small amounts of chemo leak out of your capillaries, affecting, most commonly, the skin on your hands and your feet. Nasty.

So what does good feet hygiene entail?

To start with, plenty of moisturising, and, basically, socks at all times – even at home. Yes, really. No padding about bare-footed in the house, to lower the risk of getting small cuts that might get infected. No wearing flip flops or sandals that have that a strap that goes between your toes in case the friction caused by the strap causes the skin, which is likely to be fragile, to break. Given that I’m not prepared to walk round the house in trainers or shoes, that leaves me pretty much with the option of that footwear which is de rigeur for Young Folk but pretty much a criminal offence for anyone over the age of 30 – sliders and socks!

IMG_20200627_183057200We used to laugh at our dads for wearing socks with sandals but now it’s an art form. Even if it does become the norm for me indoors, I’m not sure I could ever own it quite to the extent our elder son is doing in this photo!

On the coronavirus front, my thoughts are now turning to when I might be able to go up to Scotland and see my mum and my brothers and their families. That would be very nice indeed. Our younger son gets access to his second year university accommodation in Leeds at the beginning of July. He’s keen to go up sooner than later to settle in and spend some time with his new housemates. I can’t say I blame him. A plan is forming; we could drive together up to Leeds, drop him off then drive on up to Scotland.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself but it’s nice even to think that I might get to see my mum again soon. I haven’t seen her since November. She’s in a care home in Glasgow that thankfully has managed to keep the coronavirus at bay, but she’s struggling with the lack of contact. My brothers up in Glasgow have been as brilliant as ever. They’ve “visited” regularly and talked to her, sang with her and played games with her through a slightly open window but it’s hard on everyone.

Going on a trip – if and when it happens – will be weird. Everyone’s experience of the pandemic is different but it has made a lot of people’s lives much smaller in a geographical sense.

In my case, my policy of “not shielding but being careful” and working from home means that until a couple of weeks ago I hadn’t been inside a building that wasn’t my own house for more than three months – excluding the hospital and the odd cafe for a takeaway coffee or cold drink when I’d been out for a walk or out on the bike.

Also, other than going on long bike rides, I hadn’t been travelling much further than a two-mile radius from the house. The only car journeys I’d been on until very recently were to the hospital, which is less than two miles away. I really should cycle there but I still can’t bring myself to lock my bike up at the hospital. I have PTSD from April 2019 when my bike got stolen outside the breast cancer centre on the very day my diagnosis of advanced breast cancer was confirmed. (Note to self: “You really need to get over that. Just make sure you have decent locks.”)

I know there are lots of issues and challenges regarding the loosening of lockdown restrictions. For me personally, it’s been a joy. Playing tennis in the sunshine with friends you’ve been keeping in touch with through WhatsApp or the odd Zoom call. Meeting up with friends on the common at the bottom of our road to share socially distanced coffees or cold beers or Prosecco on picnic blankets. Stopping off for cold water, a cup of tea and a chat at friends’ houses on the way back from bike rides on scorching hot days. And, more recently, an even bigger change, and all the more pleasurable for it – suppers with friends in their back gardens. One was local; the other I drove to. If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, we’d have taken public transport and probably got a taxi back; I’m not ready for either yet if I have the choice. I’m still being careful, like any sensible person.

IMG_20200627_134204830_HDRI’m four days into this second round of oral chemo and I’m feeling good. I’m writing this sitting on the sofa, feeling mellow and enjoying the view – of flowers inside and out, bike sheds and bins, and blue skies and clouds.

In my previous blog, I said I was going to put that blood transfusion  to good use by going on a long bike ride. Father’s Day dawned last Sunday, the weather was beautiful, and off my other half and I went – on a beautiful, flat and slow 100 kilometre cycle from home in Balham in southwest London into the leafy lanes of Surrey and back. It was my husband’s first 100k ride. Flat or not, that is a fair distance for anyone. I‘ve done a fair few rides of that distance and more, but I‘d be lying if I didn’t admit to being amazed and grateful that, with all this shit going on inside, I can still manage it.

We got back just in time to have showers before settling down to the classy Father’s Day supper our two boys had prepared while we were out. It was pretty much a perfect day.

Moving to oral chemo: different treatment, different approach, fingers crossed

It was pretty clear to me even before I got my latest blood test and scan results that I’d got as much benefit as I was going to get from the treatment I was on for advanced breast cancer. I more or less knew that when I had my next meeting with the oncologist, I’d be moving to a new treatment.

That was indeed what happened. On direction from the oncologist when we met at the end of May, I agreed to stop the treatment I’d been on since I was diagnosed a little over a year ago, skip the next possible treatment and move on to an oral chemotherapy drug called capecitabine. The treatment I’d been on didn’t involve chemo.

A change had been on the cards and while it’s disappointing to know that one’s exhausted the first in a finite number of potential treatments, at least it wasn’t a surprise or a shock. 

This new treatment is in tablet form. IMG_20200528_183239668

You take it orally but it’s still chemo, as you’re reminded by the yellow warning sticker on the box the tablets come in telling you that the contents are cytotoxic and should be “handled with care“.

On to the rationale for moving on to capecitabine, which is also known by its brand name Xeloda. 

Well, there is no sign of any cancer outside of my bones and nor is there any sign that the cancer that’s in my spine is pressing on my spinal cord, where it could do serious damage – positives among the negatives. Things have progressed, though. There are new “skeletal lesions” in certain areas including in my pelvis and sacrum and in my right hip and left collarbone. In addition, my bone marrow is “more infiltrated”.

There are two aspects to my disease. The breast cancer for which I was originally treated for in 2015/16 has spread, or metastasised, to my bones. “Bone mets” weakens your bones and this in turn increases the risk of fracture among other things. It can also cause immense pain. As if that weren’t enough, the breast cancer has also “infiltrated” my bone marrow and so reduces my body’s ability to make healthy blood. Both aspects need to be managed in parallel. 

We’d known for months there was increasing cancer activity. Monthly blood tests had shown that levels of the relevant breast tumour marker (CA 15-3) had been rising since November. My bone marrow function remained stable, though, and rising tumour markers weren’t enough on their own to prompt a change of treatment. Also, the scans I’d had in November and February hadn’t picked up any meaningful or actionable change.

More recently, though, the blood test results overall had been showing a “continued though minor deterioration”. Among other things, my haemoglobin level had been falling. Despite this, I’d been feeling fine but over the past couple of months I’d become increasingly aware that certain physical exertions were leaving me breathless or were becoming too hard even to do.

So even before I got the results from the scans I had in mid-May, I knew things had changed. This time round, to no-one’s surprise, there was something to see.

Bone mets is hard to measure radiologically but there was enough change in the combined near full-body PET CT scan that I had compared to previous scans to be able to say for the first time that things were worse. According to the official report, “The interval change within the skeletal lesions in particular within the pelvis raises suspicion of disease progression.”

I’m in no pain so all this is happening without my having any awareness of it.

As for the MRI scan I had of my spine, “The pattern of marrow infiltration appears to be slightly more diffuse than previously and is concerning for progression.” It also confirmed “extensive metastatic disease throughout the visualised spine and sacrum.”

The blood tests confirmed that the tumour marker is still rising and that my haemoglobin level had indeed continued to fall. The former is not yet at the high level it was at when I was diagnosed in April 2019 although given the rate at which it’s been rising, it’d be there in a couple of months. As for the haemoglobin level, it’s near to what it was when, this time last year, the oncologist started discussing the potential need for a blood transfusion – which I subsequently had.

The results regarding the haemoglobin didn’t surprise me. Most obviously, just briskly walking up the two flights of stairs in our house to the loo had been leaving me breathless. (We’re lucky enough to have two bathrooms. At the moment, while we’re in pandemic mode, the one in the loft extension has been designated for my sole use.) 

Also, I’m playing tennis now that the courts are open and, while I love it, those explosive movements you make all the time have my poor heart pounding. FB_IMG_1591398352510As for running, I’ve more or less given up as I can’t even run fast enough to break a sweat.

Cycling is absolutely fine – you go at your own pace, you can stop and start when you want – and I’ve been doing plenty of that. The photo on the right was taken at the top of Reigate Hill in Surrey, half-way through a hilly, 40-mile ride with my husband a few days after moving on to chemo.

When I started treatment last May with abemaciclib (Verzenios) and fulvestrant (Faslodex), I was one of the first people in my situation to be put on this new combination at the hospital in southwest London where I’m being treated.

The most obvious next treatment was what I’d have been given had the abemaciclib/fulvestrant combination not been available then – a combination of two drugs called everolimus (Afinitor) and exemestane (Aromasin). While everolimus is also oral chemo, the combination is aimed at doing much the same thing as the drugs I’d been on, both over the past year and in the three years between finishing active treatment for primary breast cancer and being diagnosed with secondary – that is, stopping my cancer one way or another from getting the oestrogen it needs to grow. Capecitabine uses a different approach.

There was no reason to suggest the everolimus and exemestane combination wouldn’t work so I understand why the oncologist said things weren’t straightforward. However, to paraphrase in an extremely liberal way, I think her bottom-line recommendation was “let’s not faff about with more of the same and see instead if we can get a quick response with capecitabine”.

Depending on how things go, I could go back and try the treatment I’m skipping. Clearly at this stage I have no idea how likely that is but it is good to know.

There is another new chemo drug with a different approach again coming through the system for the treatment of a subtype of the type of advanced or metastatic breast cancer I have. It’s been available in the US for a year already and while it’s now used in more than a dozen other countries, it’s not yet approved for use in the UK.

This drug – alpelisib, brand name Piqray – should be approved for use in the EU in a couple of months. While that approval will be valid in the UK, a decision on whether it will be available within the NHS isn’t due until February 2021. You need a test to determine whether it might work for you and, like many cancer treatments, it can have extremely toxic side effects. However, if it can add an extra however many months to the length of time you’ll live overall, you’d probably want to at least give it a try.

With capecitabine, it’s a three-week cycle initially; two weeks on the tablets and one week off, with blood tests at the end of each three-week period. It can take time to find to right dosage.

If I tolerate capecitabine ok and it keeps things in check (remember we have the cancer in the bones and in the bone marrow to worry about), I’ll be on it for as long as it keeps working. Whether that’ll be weeks, months or years, we don’t know. It’ll be nine weeks before we can tell what effect it’s having in the first place.

In the meantime, I continue with the four-weekly injections of the bone-strengthening drug denosumab at the day treatment unit.

My appointment with the oncologist – in-person, with masks – was on the last Thursday in May. I started on capecitabine the very next day. Having seen the way things were going, the oncologist had me tested a couple of months ago to see if I was in the group of people whose bodies are unable to metabolise capecitabine and would be likely to develop very severe side effects. I wasn’t. It’s strange what you become thankful for.

I was forced to make lifestyle changes from Day 1. For years on weekdays I’ve rarely eaten anything before 11am. However, I need to take these new tablets twice a day, at more or less 12 hours apart, within half an hour of eating. Given we have supper at about 8pm, I have to have had something to eat by around 9am. That really is not me but it’s amazing how quickly you adapt when you have no choice.

For breakfast on the first day, I had stewed prunes and yoghurt – a strange choice given that one of the very common side effects of capecitabine is diarrhoea. On that particular day, though, there happened to be some prunes in the fridge and, since I’m the only one in the family who likes them, I couldn’t let them go to waste. In fact, more than simply disliking them, my long-suffering husband can’t stand the smell of either prunes or yoghurt and refuses to be in the kitchen when I’m eating them! I usually drizzle some warm honey on top but he still can’t bear it.

The second day, a Saturday, I had a poached egg on toast. If I’m going to be forced to have an early breakfast, I decided, it may as well be nice. My resolve has petered out already, however; now I have a quick slice of toast and marmalade or jam, some fruit and a cup of tea, and I’m done.

Capecitabine can cause many of the same horrible side effects as other chemo drugs that are given via infusion. However, it works in a more targeted way compared with regular chemo and some of the standard side effects can be less severe. For good measure, though, there are some additional side effects that are specific to capecitabine.

On the hair front, I’ve been told to expect thinning but not loss. That’s something. I really wouldn’t have thought my hair could get much thinner than it is already but I guess I’m about to be proved wrong.

One of the more common side effects – that I’m looking out for and dreading getting – is palmar-plantar, or hand-feet, syndrome. IMG-20200528-WA0002With this, the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet can become red and  dry and flaky and sore and numb and swollen. It sounds horrendous and some people get it really badly. No-one needs that but for someone who plays tennis and cycles, it seems particularly cruel. I have already started moisturising my feet morning and evening in anticipation.

Exhausting one treatment and moving on to another is quite a sobering milestone psychologically.

Physically, ten days in on cycle #1 and I’m feeling fine. I wanted to write and post this before any side effects rear their ugly head. Once again, we can but hope for the best and see how it all goes.

Chocolate deliveries, bike rides, giraffes and scans

I have taken delivery of not one but two substantial amounts of chocolate over the past week or so.

How so?

I posted on facebook that I’d had to enlist our elder son to buy me some chocolate because my husband, who’s doing the shopping at the moment, eats too healthily and it just doesn’t occur to him to chuck a couple of chocolate bars in the trolley as he makes his way round the supermarket. It took a while, but at least now he does deign to bring home as standard a couple of packets of biscuits – but still no chocolate bars. 

Now I’m no addict, but I do have the odd bar on an ad hoc basis. However, I can’t currently indulge that habit while we’re in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic. My immunity is low as a result of the anti-cancer treatment I’m on and while I do go outside quite a lot now for walks and to exercise, I generally tend to not to go into shops. So no impulse buying of chocolate bars for me!

The photo I posted of me looking gleeful holding the bars my son brought back for me made a lot of people laugh and sympathise.

A couple of chocolate-loving friends – a huge thank you again, you know who you are! – were clearly feeling my pain to such an extent that they took things a step further and actually sent me supplies. We haven’t laughed so much in ages. My husband says he’s going to post that he’s got a craving for beer.

As you can see from the photo, I am now spoilt for choice. And that’s just one box.

I’ve given some away, the boys and I have been partaking, and the rest are “hidden for safe-keeping”, if you get my meaning. 

On the micro level things are still going largely fine on the lockdown front.

There are the chocolate deliveries for a start. Also, I’ve got most of this week off work and the weather is glorious. The roses in our garden have started blooming; they are gorgeous and there are dozens and dozens of buds, so it’ll only get more and more beautiful. Don’t look too closely or you’ll see all the aphids.

Yesterday I went out for a bike ride with a friend that involved seeking out and tackling the not insubstantial hills of south-east London, around Crystal Palace. There was blazing sunshine, there’s still far less traffic than there normally would be, and we enjoyed some incredible views over central London from the tops of the hills. 

We slogged up a fair few hills (with my friend overtaking me every time) and were rewarded with some lovely descents (with me doing the overtaking here). Before heading home, we bought some take-away coffee and chilled soft drinks and drank them in the welcome shade of a tree in Dulwich Park. It felt like we were genuinely on holiday.

On another bike ride, this time with my husband, we cycled past London Zoo in Regent’s Park and were delighted to see that the giraffes had come out for a stroll. There are two and there’s a sign there with their names on (I’ve forgotten their names*). Like everything else, the zoo is closed but we shouted over the gate and asked the zookeepers in attendance which was which. We don’t know, they told us excitedly, we’re from the other side of the zoo and don’t often get to see the giraffes. Their excitement was lovely to see.

On yet another ride into central London, we enjoyed great views of the river.

Those clear skies are good to see but they’ve come at a dreadful human and economic cost. We must never forget that.

Part of the reason I took time off work this week was that I was already taking time off to have scans. It’s that time again. I had a half-body PET CT scan this morning and tomorrow I’ll have an MRI scan of my spine. Both tests are to check to see whether there’s been any meaningful spread of the metastatic breast cancer I was diagnosed with just over a year ago. If there has been, we’ll be moving on to the next appropriate line of treatment.

I tell myself that I don’t generally get what’s known as “scanxiety”, ie worrying in the run-up to having the scans themselves and then again while you wait for the results (a week in this case). However, I really don’t think you can avoid it entirely.

You think it’s all fine then you realise you’re more argumentative at home than usual – and as those of you who know me are well aware, I’m pretty darn argumentative at the best of times. Or you’ll catch yourself doing too much forward thinking, dwelling on things you usually manage not to think about. Realising I’m doing this is usually enough to bring me back to the present. You just find yourself doing it more often than usual around scan time.

In this particular present, there’s a hedge that’s needs trimming out front. And afterwards, of course, there’s chocolate to be had as a reward!

* The giraffes are called Molly and Maggie, London Zoo told me in a reply to my tweet asking what their names were! I love Twitter when it works like that. Thanks to London Zoo for the reply!

Lucky or unlucky? It depends how you look at it

Understandably, a lot of people get upset when you tell them you’ve been diagnosed with secondary breast cancer. My boss was one of the first people I told, back in April or May. We chatted and she said, sympathetically, that I’d been so unlucky.

She and I both know how serious any type of secondary cancer is. If you’ve been diagnosed early enough, it will be treatable and can be controlled – in some cases for many years – but ultimately it’s incurable. What treatment does is buy you time. 

Instinctively I agreed with my boss. To find out at the age of 55 that your likely prognosis is in years not decades felt pretty unlucky to me.

Almost immediately, though, it occurred to me that that wasn’t actually the case. In fact, I said to her while trying to hold back tears, I’ve been incredibly lucky.

What do I mean by that?

Well, there have been some very sad and difficult times but, broadly speaking, I have not had a hard life.

I have an amazing partner I’ve essentially been with since I was 21. We’ve had and are continuing to have lots of good times together.

I have two lovely, healthy and seemingly happy young-adult children. 

Mum, my brothers and me

I had a happy childhood with loving parents and five great brothers. My dad died just a few years ago but my mum is alive and kicking and clearly loves me to bits. My brothers and I are all still very close. The photo here is from when I was up in Glasgow this summer.

I have two aunts – my dad’s two sisters – out in the US, one of whom is also my godmother. I’m very close to both despite the distance between us. I went out to visit them this past summer, thus the photo below. One of my brothers was there too, from Scotland, and while I know the term “joy-filled” sounds schmaltzy and cliched, I can’t think of a better way to describe the few days we were all together.

My husband’s parents, my in-laws, thought the world of me. We were lucky to have them in our lives for as long as we did.

Outside of the family, I have a godson and goddaughter I’m incredibly fond of. I got to see both of them this summer.

My lovely aunts and me

I have numerous wonderful friends and lots of different friendship and acquaintanceship groups.

We’re financially secure and I have great colleagues and a job I love.

I’ve been able to travel extensively, both on a personal and professional level.

I’ve been responding well to treatment; there was no guarantee I would. 

Physically, most of the time, I really don’t feel like there’s anything wrong with me over and above the standard things any 56-year-old female might expect to have. I’m cycling, running and playing tennis.

Other treatment options will be available once the specific treatment that I’m on stops working. I hope it’ll be a long time before that happens but I’m aware it could happen sooner rather than later.

So have I been lucky or unlucky? Maybe it’s not a question of one or the other. We’ve had our share of troubles and no-one would ever choose to have what I have. Regardless of how well I feel physically at the moment, living with an incurable disease is really tough emotionally. Among other things it’s hard not to feel guilty for bringing this upset into everyone’s lives. 

Healthwise, I can but hope for the best and take the coming months and hopefully years as they come. In the meantime, I’ll try to stay calm and be easy on myself, and keep appreciating and making the most of this life – lucky or unlucky – that I have.