Starting iv chemo and celebrating a special 21st birthday

A lot has happened since my previous post on 7 August.

The bottom line health-wise is that I have moved onto a new line of treatment, intravenous chemotherapy involving a drug called paclitaxel. I had my first treatment session on 23 August and my second session yesterday.

Life-wise, our younger son has turned 21 and it has been a real joy to be able to celebrate this milestone.

We thought I might be catching a bit of a break on the cancer front. However, blood test results from a few weeks ago showed that, overall, things really weren’t going well in terms of my bone marrow function. In addition, the important CA 15-3 tumour marker had gone up again, meaning the cancer was more active than it had been recently.

The situation was complicated but the consultant concluded that it was time to come off the treatment I’d been on for almost four months – a combination of two drugs called everolimus (Afinitor) and exemestane (Aromasin), taken once daily in tablet form – and move on to the next line of treatment, iv paclitaxel.

I knew it was coming and I understand the rationale for changing. We really need to get a grip on the bone marrow issue and we can’t ignore potential tumour progression. However, I’d hoped it might not happen for another few months. We’d discussed the matter at length and the consultant knew how keen I was to hold off iv chemo for as long as possible.

There were various reasons for this.

One reason is that I’m now tied much more to the hospital. I’m on a 28-day treatment cycle, with treatment sessions on Day 1, Day 8 and Day 15. Each session takes about two hours. You also need to have blood tests done before each of the three sessions of each cycle, etc, etc, etc.

Another reason is that I know this drug. I had it as part of my treatment for primary breast cancer way back in Autumn 2015. It had a very good effect on my cancer then and we obviously hope it will this time too. However, it is also responsible for the “chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy” – essentially nerve damage – that I have in my feet that even now can stop me from sleeping. During the day it’s not so bad, but it is there. We’ll keep a very close look-out while I’m on paclitaxel now for signs of additional damage. It would be too bad if the treatment worked well but again brought with it this distressing and, it has to said, potentially debilitating side effect.

Then there are all the other common side effects, including likely hair loss. I didn’t like losing my hair last time. If I lose it this time, I don’t think I’ll like it any better.

All in all, I think I can be forgiven for feeling rather nervous about starting this particular treatment again.

Despite my concerns, though, now that I have started treatment, I’m desperate for it to work and for me to stay the course. It’s not as if the previous regime I was on was a breeze. In fact, at times it was hideous, but you put up with a lot when you know there are limited options ahead of you, each potentially more toxic than the previous one.

Discussing it all with the consultant on 11 August, any hopes I had that my husband, two young adult sons and I might fly off to Spain in late August/early September went flying out the window. Following right behind were plans for a trip to my home city of Glasgow that I’d hoped to take before going to Spain. Other trips were and are – as of today, at least – still planned, potentially for later in September and certainly for October.

I’ve had dozens and dozens of appointments with doctors since my diagnosis of primary breast cancer in the summer of 2015. I’ve cried at only a few. This was one of those. It felt like we were definitely moving into new territory and I was feeling very sorry for myself.

The transition to chemo and the weeks preceding the move have been really quite traumatic. This may not be a complete list but they have involved tiredness and extreme fatigue, a lack of appetite, dry mouth, insatiable thirst, being tested for diabetes, sore feet, badly disturbed nights, joint pain that I’ve been told is not related to the bone mets, dental discomfort, a 2am trip to A&E with a high temperature and suspected serious infection (nothing was found), a couple of blood transfusions – and me feeling very, very low and dejected.

This is the fourth line of treatment that I’ve been on since I was diagnosed in April 2019 with secondary – incurable but treatable – breast cancer. When I was diagnosed, it had spread to my bones, with “bone marrow involvement”, meaning it was impairing the ability of my body to make healthy blood.

More than well over two years on, the various drugs I’ve been on have managed to keep the cancer from spreading outside of my bones and into, say, my liver, or my lungs, or my brain. I would say I have been largely healthy, despite experiencing some quite nasty side effects and, of course, despite having the illness in the first place. However, the real and serious problem at present is bone marrow suppression. We know the cancer itself is causing at least some of this but it doesn’t help that the treatments themselves can also cause your haemoglobin and neutrophils to fall. For those of you who are interested in the detail, my platelets are also not in a great way – that’s a new development and a new concern.

The plan initially is to have four 28-day cycles of iv paclitaxel, assuming it works and I cope with the toxicity. The number of cycles could be increased to six if things go exceedingly well. I’m not second-guessing anything. I’ve already had to have a one-unit blood transfusion and several neutrophil boosting injections between the first and second sessions.

Let’s hope things settle down, that I’m not afflicted with additional peripheral neuropathy, and that I can make the most of the two-week breaks between cycles.

I’m to have blood tests tomorrow before seeing the consultant for a mid-cycle debrief. They’ll take an additional vial of blood for a “cross-match”. This is when they test a patient’s blood against a donor’s blood to check that the two are fully compatible. This happens regularly now when I have my regular blood tests done, “just in case” I need a transfusion. I’m getting used to it.

I think I’ll need yet another set of bloods done the day before my third treatment session of this first cycle, which is scheduled for 7 September.

To say it’s been a tough few weeks – physically and emotionally – would be a huge understatement. Through it all, ordinary life goes on. Today, for example, I’ve felt great. I wrote this blog and this evening I went out on a three-mile walk. Earlier on, I had a nice chat on the phone with one of my brothers. Yesterday, between having bloods done in the morning and my chemo session late afternoon, I did a few hours’ work. I’ve been taking a bit of a break from work recently.

I’d been feeling so wretched that I hadn’t been meeting up so much with friends. You feel less like making plans to socialise in case you have to cancel at the last minute. A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I feared we’d have to pull out of at really short notice a lunch date in central London with friends we hadn’t seen since last summer. We’d really been looking forward to it. I’m so glad we made it – not just for the company, which as always was excellent, but to experience the zaniness of the place we had lunch. The photo is of Cath and me, somewhat over-excited in the sci-fi toilets; each pod is an individual loo!

Some days, I really haven’t felt like getting out of bed – especially when I’ve slept particularly badly that night. I do, though, one always feels better for it. On those days, even picking up the phone when someone calls to chat can be a real challenge. Friends and family know the situation well enough not to be offended.

It can’t be easy for my husband but, throughout this whole thing, he has continued to be an absolute rock.

Among all the turmoil, our younger son turned 21 – a real highlight and milestone for any family. Family-wise we did a couple of low-key things – not on the day itself as he was off in Cornwall with friends. After the year many young people have had, we loved thinking of him mucking about in the sea and on the beach and enjoying big wide open spaces on the very day of his 21st. We have no doubt whatsoever that he was feeling the parental love and affection from a distance.

I think I deserve a medal for the most quickly and imaginatively cobbled together birthday cake – a slice of malt loaf with a candle on top! A few of our son’s friends popped round one evening soon after his birthday for drinks before heading out to a party. I decided they should sing happy birthday to him. They duly obliged. You can’t say I don’t make an effort!

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.

Salted peanuts, citrus fruits and vinegar – they’re all back on the menu!

I am both relieved and happy to report that the two dreadfully painful mouth and tongue sores that I’d had for the past couple of weeks have gone.

The sores were a side effect of one of the two new drugs that I started taking just over three weeks ago for the secondary breast cancer that’s in my bones and bone marrow.

I made it very clear in my previous post just how awful these sores were. These past few days, though, I’ve been eating salted peanuts again – a favourite snack to accompany a pre-dinner drink. Not just that, I had an orange earlier today for the first time in almost three weeks. Finally, I am happy for my husband to start putting vinegar in the salad dressing again! 

Everything is back on the menu. At least it is for the moment. Mouth sores can come and go while you’re taking this drug – everolimus (Afinitor) – so we’ll enjoy this mouthsore-free period for as long as it lasts. I’ve been mouthwashing assiduously with the two rinses the oncologist prescribed for me. I guess I’ll continue to do so as a preventative measure.

Also this past week, I had the stitches taken out from the two wounds I have from the skin lesion removal procedures I had a few weeks ago. The wound on my right calf has healed beautifully but the one on the sole of my right foot has not. There has been a certain amount of discomfort associated with the “non-healing” and it means I’ll be off the tennis courts and off the bike for yet another couple of weeks. 

In case you’re wondering, yes, it was indeed painful having the stitches removed, especially those in my foot. I had to ask the nurse who was removing them to stop two or three if not four times so I could take a breather. In the end, the nurse had to call in one of the doctors – an expert in stitches removal apparently- to finish the job.

How painful was it? Well, as we all know, pain is very hard to measure objectively. However, I suspect that if it had been a person very close to me who’d been having this done, he might have fainted! He knows who he is – it’s not hard to guess his identity! – and he’s ok with me writing that. I did check!

I was due to get the results of the biopsies they did on the removed tissue on Thursday this past week, but instead I got a phone call to say the report’s not available yet.

Away from the medical stuff, we’ve been continuing to enjoy the easing of the pandemic-related lockdown restrictions. 

We’ve been out and about, enjoying the late Spring. Indeed we had a very eventful experience just a couple of days ago, during a trip to the beautiful space in southwest London that is Richmond Park.

I can’t remember the last time I was in the park without my bike; regular readers of this blog will know that it is a great place for cycling.

This time, however, my husband and I were on foot. We were going specifically to see the annual display of camelias, azaleas and bluebells in an area of the park called the Isabella Plantation. (There were lots of other flowers too, but I’m afraid my flower-identifying knowledge is extremely limited.)

Walking though the park after we’d seen the flowers, we came across a family of Egyptian geese.

When we first encountered this charming group, there were eight goslings and the mother was trapped inside a small enclosure in the park (photo on the left).

The father was outside the enclosure, unable to help. Both adult birds were clearly distressed – there was lots of squawking and heavy breathing. 

As it turns out, I was instrumental in facilitating the release of the mother, upon which the family hotfooted it towards the nearest pond (photo on the right). It’s a long story but the “rescue” was enabled by the actions of two helpful but distinctly underwhelmed members of the Metropolitan Police who had the misfortune to be in the area at the time!

The pond was about a ten-minute waddle from the enclosure. We followed, taking photos. It was all very cute and exciting.

A happy ending, you may be thinking. Sadly, it wasn’t so. On the way to the pond, disaster struck! To my horror, a big crow swooped down and snatched one of the goslings. As a result, only seven of them made it to the pond. In just a few seconds I went from feeling like a hero to feeling responsible for the death of a gosling. Nature can indeed be cruel.

As for the flowers in the Isabella Plantation, what can I say other than that they are an absolute delight.

In other developments, we’ve booked another couple of trips away over the next month or so – one to Manchester with friends and one to Wales to stay with some very good friends. We’ll catch up with some relatives while we’re in Manchester and, in Wales, I’m very much looking forward to seeing my teenaged goddaughter. That is despite the fact that she has said that, as well as looking forward to seeing me too, she “can’t wait to beat you at chess”. Mmm.

May 17th is an important day in England in terms of the restrictions easing. Museums and art galleries can open again, you can once again eat inside at pubs and restaurants, hotels can fully open again and you can stay overnight with relatives or friends. I’ve already bought tickets for a couple of exhibitions, one of which I’ll enjoy with an old friend who’s coming to London for the day the week after next. Also, tomorrow evening, I’ll be eating inside, at a (hopefully well-ventilated) pub restaurant, with friends, for the first time since last summer.

I’m well aware that we’re far from being out of the woods on the pandemic front – variants of concern, localised spikes in cases here in the UK, the tragic situation in India, etc. However, I’m determined, safely, to make the most of our newly returned freedoms while we have them. I’d like to have been able not to write the last four words in that previous sentence, but I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that restrictions will come and go depending on how the situation evolves. That said, I tweeted recently that I intended to “carpe the sodding diem” out of this summer. That’s still my plan, the pandemic and my health allowing. 

I am, of course, also well aware that we still don’t know how much protection the vaccines give to people such as myself who have compromised immune systems. I won’t be diving in for big hugs with all and sundry and I think I’ll be steering clear of full-capacity cinemas and theatres for some time to come. I did feel uncomfortable on the London Underground the other day; while almost everyone was wearing a mask, it was much busier than it’s been in the past few months.

Back to medical practicalities. I’m less than one week away from finishing my first 30-day cycle of this new line of treatment. On Wednesday I go to the hospital for blood tests and a chest x-ray; the latter is to see whether there’s any damage to my lungs (another potential side effect). I see the consultant on Thursday for the blood test and x-ray results and to discuss how things are going.

This latest treatment consists of a combination of two drugs – everolimus and exemestane (Aromasin). I take one tablet of each every day. It may still be too early to tell whether they are having an effect as it can take some time for this to show. Other than the mouth sores, the only side effect I’ve noticed is the odd night sweat, similar to those many women get when they’re going through the menopause. They are not pleasant – who wants to have to change out wet nightwear at 2 or 3am? Finally, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear my haemoglobin level has dropped further.

We shall see. For now, though, I’m off to suck on a lemon.

Mother of God, the mouth ulcers

Spoiler alert: This blog includes multiple gratuitous references to a recently concluded and very popular UK TV series about police corruption.

Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the wee donkey, if it’s not one thing, it’s another.

The pain I’d been having periodically in my joints disappeared overnight when, a fortnight ago now, I started on my first cycle of the new treatment I’m on for advanced breast cancer. Also – and what a relief – the pain I’d been having in my feet for the past few months eased up massively. Now we’re sucking diesel, I thought. Then wham, I get blasted with two horrendously painful mouth sores – or more precisely one mouth sore and one tongue sore – within days of starting the new drugs. God give me strength.

Mouth sores are a very common side effect of everolimus, one of the two drugs I’m now on (Document A in your folder). I’ve written before about how painful cold sores can be (Document B in your folder). Well mouth sores are like that, except they’re on the inside of your mouth and they’re even more painful. Just when you’d started to sleep well again as a result of the throbbing in your feet having eased off, you wake up at 4am from the pain of these mouth sores. The discomfort when eating is such that I’ve had to tell the boss, who does most if not all the cooking in our house, to stop putting vinegar in the salad dressing. Mother of God.

Has it been so painful that I’ve sworn? No comment. Or cried, even, from frustration as much as pain? No comment.

I’d been given mouthwash to prevent mouth sores from developing and/or to alleviate the pain once they do develop. I’d been following the instructions to the letter, to the letter, I tell you; who knows, maybe they’d be even worse if I hadn’t been using the rinse.

As for the sleeping tablets I was prescribed at my last appointment, I’ve used them twice. The first time I didn’t notice any difference; the second time I slept for nine hours (getting up once for the loo and half-waking when my husband got up). Now we’re cooking with gas, I said to myself when I realised how long I’d slept for.

You’re monitored closely during the first month or so after you start on everolimus because of the potential side effects. The monitoring involved a mid-cycle review yesterday with my oncologist where we discussed how things were going and she gave me the results of the MRI scan of my liver that I had recently.

As I’ve said, for various reasons the consultant wasn’t convinced that the metastatic breast cancer I have in my bones and bone marrow hadn’t spread to my liver. Now many of you reading will know that I’m a bit of a grammar pedant. I would therefore like to point out that this is one situation where two negatives don’t make a positive. The consultant didn’t necessarily think the cancer had spread but there was enough concern that it might have done that she thought an MRI scan was merited. It came back clear; no spread to the liver at this time. Pleasing news.

We also went through the results of the blood tests I’d had done the previous day. My tumour marker is continuing to rise and my haemoglobin level has fallen slightly. The rising tumour marker means my cancer is active; it’s early days, but one hopes the drugs I’m on will dampen down that activity. As for my haemoglobin, if the level falls much more, we could be looking at another blood transfusion. I’ve already had two since I was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer two years ago now (Documents C and D in your folder). I’ll have blood tests and see the consultant again in two weeks’ time, at the end of this first cycle of everolimus (brand name Afinitor) and exemestane (Aromasin). We can but hope but it seems unlikely that I’ll get as long as out of this line of treatment as I did from the other two. I was on the first line for a year and almost a year with the second.

I’ve been prescribed a stronger, steroid mouthwash. Let’s hope that between that and the one I’m already using – and also the ice lollies and chunks of chilled melon and the home-made mouthrinse of salt and bicarbonate of soda – they help alleviate the discomfort from the two sores I currently have and from any future ones that might appear. If the mouth sore situation doesn’t improve, it’s possible we’ll reduce the dose of the everolimus tablets for the next cycle.

For the purpose of the tape, the consultant and I once again discussed future scenarios, with me voicing concerns I had about various things and asking questions that deep down I knew were impossible to answer in any definitive way.

As for the lesions I had removed a few weeks ago from my right calf and the sole of my right foot, I get the stitches out next Tuesday and I have a teleconsultation a few days later when I’ll find out the results of the biopsies they did on the removed tissue.

I’m looking forward to getting back on the bike and to playing tennis once the stitches are out. Running had become quite difficult for me (Document E in your folder) so I’m not sure I’ll start that again, despite that fact that Parkrun – the free, timed, mass-participation, volunteer-led 5k run that pre-pandemic took place on Saturday mornings in parks around the UK and indeed in many other countries – is meant to be starting back in June. I ran my 100th Parkrun in January 2019 (Document F in your folder) and managed one more before the very first lockdown two months later. Despite my doubts about running, I would definately (😉) like to do at least one more Parkrun post-pandemic.

For those still in the dark over what TV series I refer to at the start of this blog and from which I’ve used multiple lines throughout, it is, of course, Line of Duty. I was helped by the fab bingo card that some joker put together.

None of what’s been going on cancer-wise has prevented me from enjoying the gradual lifting of the pandemic-related restrictions. That said, the novelty of meeting up for a drink and a meal in beer gardens when the temperature is in single digits is starting to wear off somewhat. Bring on May 17th, when we can socialise inside again. Rather excitingly, the boss and I have booked two nights away at the beginning of June. It’s only an hour or so’s drive from the house but we’ll catch up with friends we haven’t seen for many, many years. It’s the first of many UK-based trips we’re hoping to be able to make over the next few months and beyond.

Briefing over, readers. As you were.

PS Thanks to the friends who contacted me after I posted the original version of this to point out a couple of obvious Line of Duty-isms that I’d missed! They have been duly added.

The next phase

I saw my oncologist on Wednesday last week and we were finally in a position to decide what my next treatment would be.

I won’t go into the details regarding why it took a while for us to work out what the options were as it’s quite complicated. Suffice to say that on Friday night I started on my third line of treatment for the secondary breast cancer I was diagnosed with in Spring 2019. The other two lines each worked for around a year before the cancer – which has progressed but is still confined to my bones and my bone marrow – found a way of outwitting them. I’d be more than happy to get anything near a year with this treatment I’ve just started. As with any treatment, though, there’s no guarantee it will work at all.

The drugs I’m now on are everolimus (brand name Afinitor) and exemestane (Aromasin). They come in tablet form and I’ve to take one of each, once a day. One has to be taken with or after a meal, so I’ll take both after our evening meal. I will also still have Zometa, the bone-strengthening dug I have monthly via iv infusion.

One of the drugs can cause painful mouth sores so I’ve been given a mouth wash to use to help prevent the sores occurring or to alleviate the discomfort they’ll cause if they do occur.

I’d been off treatment since finishing my final cycle of capecitabine – the oral chemotherapy drug I’d been on – at the end of the first week of April. It’s a relief to be back on medication, even if the drugs I’m now taking come with a horribly long list of common side effects.

I have to admit that not being on any treatment freaked me out, at least initially. “Should I not start another round of capecitabine while we wait?”, I asked the consultant. No, she said, adding that there was little point in taking a drug that has essentially stopped working. “You’d get all the toxicity but none of the benefits.”

As for my new regimen, everolimus is a targeted therapy that blocks cancer growth . Exemestane is an oestrogen blocker. As I’ve explained before, the breast cancer I have is the most common type in that it thrives on oestrogen. Even when when post-menopausal, they still produce a certain amount of oestrogen.

Some of the potential side effects of these two new drugs are very common. Some are specific to everolimus and some to exemestane but I’ll just lump some of them together here: pneumonitis (inflammation of the lungs); mouth sores; taste changes; the usual increased risk of infection; muscle and/or joint pain; fatigue; feeling low; diarrhoea and/or constipation (go figure); liver and kidney dysfunction; sleep disruption; back pain; headaches; hot flushes; and pain, numbness and tingling in hands and fingers. And that’s just the ones classed as very common, which means they affect more than one in ten people taking them.

Of the above, I really wouldn’t notice the sleep disruption as I’m already sleeping badly as a result of the pain I have in my feet, a side effect of capecitabine and also of the chemo I had back in 2015 when I was being treated for primary breast cancer. I’d also been having some joint pain although this has eased off in recent days. To be honest, I also think I’ve been sleeping slightly better too (more on that below).

“I have a feeling that things are going to be tougher from here on in,” I said to the oncologist after I’d signed the consent form for everolimus and listened to her go through the potential side effects. She didn’t disagree but did say she hoped we could get to a place where I was “healthy and happy” on these two new drugs. Let’s hope we can. I honestly would never have thought I’d be so well (as it were) over the two years since my diagnosis. If we can somehow maintain some of that, great.

The next treatment after this one may well involve weekly iv chemo (it’s not quite weekly as you get every fourth week off). This would mean a massive change in terms of quality of life so there’s good reason to hope this latest regime keeps my cancer in check for a good long while.

I’ve seen a lot this past week of St George’s, the hospital in south west London where I’m being treated.

On Tuesday, I went to have blood taken for tests before seeing the consultant on Wednesday. If any of you have wondered what blood tests are done, take a look at what was ordered for me on one occasion recently.

Also on Wednesday, after seeing the consultant, I had a chest x-ray. Given that everolimus can affect your lungs, doing an x-ray now means they will have baseline images to compare with those from the chest x-ray I’ll have after my first 30-day cycle of everolimus and exemestane.

On Thursday, I popped in to pick up some painkillers from the pharmacy, together with some low-dose sleeping tablets. I’m extremely reluctant to take them but not being able to sleep despite taking strong painkillers is no laughing matter. I have so far only felt the need to take them once but I guess it’s good to know they’re there. There’s no point being a martyr about it.

On Friday, I went to pick up the new drugs I’m on; one of them wasn’t in stock when I’d been there earlier in the week. After that I went straight to the Dermatology Department to have two moles on the sole of my right foot and one of my right calf removed. It was done under local anaesthetic. I’m bandaged up nicely and I’d to “take it easy” and have my feet up for the first couple of days after the procedure. I can go on walks but I’ve not to do anything more strenuous than that for at least two weeks, depending on how the healing goes.

The dermatologist who did the procedure reiterated that they were removing the moles for precautionary measures and that they weren’t expecting to find anything nasty when it came to examining the removed tissue.

It’s been a pretty tough few weeks on the health front. On other fronts, though, things have been great. It’s like I’m living two parallel lives.

Work, for example, continues to be challenging and rewarding. Socially, I’ve played tennis and I’ve met up with lots of different sets of friends now that some of the pandemic-related restrictions have been lifted. We’re still not allowed to socialise indoors so we’ve met in pub beer gardens, in roof-top restaurants, in people’s own back gardens, in parks and in the countryside. Lots more gatherings are planned over the next few weeks. The next big thing will be going to visit and stay with friends and/or family around the country that I haven’t seen in ages once that’s allowed.

The weather’s been good.

We’ve done the planned mini revamp of our garden.

It’s Spring. Everything is in bloom and there are lots of baby birds at the pond on Tooting Common at the bottom of our road.

Friday was a beautiful day and I went on a short bike ride before going to the hospital.

I cycled to and around our four local “commons” – Streatham, Balham, Clapham and Wandsworth – to remind myself of how lucky we are to have these beautiful open green spaces so close at hand despite living in the busy capital.

Our boys were home from uni for a couple of weeks and seemed to be on good form – remarkable given the year they’ve had.

Their returning home was well timed as they – the younger one in particular – did the painting that was involved in the garden upgrade.

I’ve also had a haircut, using a voucher our sons gave me as a Christmas present. They bought it days before the latest lockdown that forced all hairdressers to close. They’ve only just re-opened. My hair hadn’t been that long for decades.

My husband continues to be amazing. I could not be more grateful.

Medically, I continue to be closely monitored. I have blood tests and a follow-up with the consultant in two weeks’ time, mid-way through the first cycle. Before then, though, I’m to have an MRI scan of my liver. The consultant wants to see whether anything suspect is happening there that might not have been picked up on the recent PET-CT scan I had.

Let’s see how it all goes. We have no other choice. In the meantime, we’ll get on with enjoying those parts of life over which we have some control.

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.

Fourth time lucky with the needle

I’m writing this sitting on the sofa feeling totally exhausted. I suspect my body is reacting to the fact that it took four – yes, four – attempts at the hospital today to find a vein into which they could inject the radioactive tracer for the PET CT scan I was to have.

We got there eventually but at one stage – I think it was during the third attempt – I started sweating and feeling queasy and I genuinely thought I might faint. I closed my eyes, rested my head in the hand that wasn’t being used for the injection, took some deep breaths and, thankfully, it passed. I felt sorry for the lovely chap doing his best to find a decent vein; he felt sorry for me, having to go through this. In the end, I had the injection through a vein in the back of my hand, the second attempt in that area.

Injection over, I then had to sit quietly for an hour while the radiotracer worked its way round my body before then spending half an hour lying on my back in the scanner with my arms stretched out behind my head, taking care to stay as still as possible for the whole time.

Scans and needles generally don’t bother me but today was taxing to say the least.

This was my first scan since starting on capecitabine oral chemotherapy at the end of May. It’s to measure how this latest treatment is working. That is, is it having the desired effect of stopping the secondary breast cancer that has spread to my bones and infiltrated my bone marrow from spreading further?

Until very recently, all the signs were positive. I’d moved from a three-week cycle comprising two consecutive weeks on chemo tablets followed by one week off to a four-week cycle of one week on followed by one week off and the same again.

My haemoglobin level was again within the normal range – albeit at the lower end – for the first time since April.

As for side effects, I was tolerating capecitabine well. I’d been feeling fine on the whole. Walking for miles, going on long bike rides, playing tennis. Also, no diarrhoea whatsoever; this can be a big problem. I’d been getting some tingling in the fingers of my left hand and my toes and the surrounding area of the soles of my feet had been feeling kind of numb – even more numb than usual (a side effect from the chemo I had as part of my treatment for primary breast cancer five years ago now, known as chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy). It’s undeniably annoying and irritating but it is tolerable. There’s still no pain from the cancer itself.

Importantly, the relevant tumour marker had been falling with each cycle of capecitabine. Until this latest cycle, that is. The number is not up by much, relatively speaking, but it’s still up. I can’t deny it was a bit of a body blow when the consultant gave me that particular piece of news at my clinic appointment with her last week. “I’m never going to be stable, am I?”, I think was my response.

Capecitabine is my second line of treatment and I started cycle #6 this evening. With the first line (see previous blogs), the tumour marker kept going down until it got to a certain level – at which point it started going up again and just kept going up. We eventually moved on from that treatment when scans showed signs that the cancer had progressed. Will it be the same with capecitabine or will we manage to keep that tumour marker subdued and hope this recent rise was a one off?

I get the scan results in a couple of weeks’ time. I’ll have another round of blood tests beforehand and will get both the scan and blood test results at the same time. We’re clearly hoping for no progression but we have to be on the lookout for what might be causing that marker to rise.

I could have had the scan next week, in which case there would only be a week between having it and getting the results. For various reasons, I chose this week, even though it means a longer wait.

Pandemic restrictions permitting, we’re planning some nice adventures over the next couple of weeks but I’ll no doubt find myself increasingly thinking about what the results might be the closer we get to the date of my next appointment.

I’ve had many, many experiences with needles in recent years – to have blood taken, to enable the insertion of a cannula so I can be given iv chemotherapy or iv antibiotics or blood transfusions, or, as was the case today, to have a radiotracer injected for a PET CT scan. In all that time, there have been very few problems. Regardless, you always have some degree of concern that it won’t go well, especially when you’re aware that your veins are most likely damaged from earlier iv chemo. This is as good an opportunity as any to express my gratitude to the fabulous phlebotomists and oncology nurses at St George’s Hospital in south west London where I’m currently being treated. I know it’s their job, but the care they show and the tenderness with which they treat you make things so much easier. 

As for the results of this latest scan, what will be will be. In the meantime, let’s take each day as it comes.

Note: This is my first post since early August. A lot has happened over the past couple of months and for a while I really didn’t feel like writing. It feels good to be in the saddle again. 

Please don’t ask to see my feet

I have three pieces of good news.

One, after getting pretty positive blood test results on Tuesday, I started on round three of oral chemo that evening.

Two, I have had a post-lockdown haircut.

Three, in another very welcome development, it turns out that the seven cases of COVID-19 that had been diagnosed at the care home where my mum lives in Glasgow were false positives.

I had blood tests done on Monday, on Day 21 of my second three-week cycle of the capecitabine that I’m taking as treatment for secondary breast cancer. I saw the consultant for the results the following day. The relevant tumour marker level has fallen again by a huge amount. In just two cycles of chemo, it has more than halved. It’s only one part of the jigsaw but that’s very good news.

My haemoglobin count was fine; it has held steady since the blood transfusion I had around a month ago after my first round of capecitabine. My white blood cell count is also healthy enough, and within that, without any additional pharmacological support, my neutrophil count is ok too. Various other measures – to do with my liver, for example – are also fine.

At my appointment with her, the oncologist talks me through the results and asks how I’ve been. She has previously warned me specifically to watch out for two main side effects of capecitabine – diarrhoea and palmar-plantar or hand-foot syndrome, where your hands and feet can become red and sore and swollen.

No diarrhoea whatsoever, I report happily. “Hands and feet?”, she asks. Fine, I say, showing her my hands. My nails never recovered from chemo first time round and the treatment I was on for a year before I moved on to this current treatment made them even worse. They’re not at all painful but they are not pretty. That’s just my nails, though. My hands themselves are fine, with no sign of the dreaded syndrome. 

This is going well, I think. And then it hits me. “Please don’t ask to see my feet, please don’t ask to see my feet,” I think. I mustn’t give her any cause for concern, I think. My left foot in particular is a bit of a mess at the moment, with a couple of large and unsightly blisters at varying stages of healing (reasons below). What if she suspects they’re caused by the chemo?

Anyway, she doesn’t ask – at least not then. Next comes the physical examination. I undress to the waist and get on the examination table. The consultant does the usual (usual in normal times, that is; this is the first time this has happened since February), feeling for lumps and bumps in my chest and abdomen and getting me to take deep breaths in and out while she listens with her stethoscope. 

And then it happens. While I’m still on the table, she says “shall we have a look at your feet?” Shit. As I take my sandals off, I start wittering on about how she has to believe me when I say that the fact my feet are a mess has nothing to do with the treatment and everything to do with new pumps I bought and wore without socks and ended up with several big and really painful blood blisters and one popped and I had to cut away the skin because it was making it worse and that’s why it’s got a plaster on and I’m listening to myself and I’m saying to myself, “Maureen, shut up, just show her your feet” but I keep going and now I’m telling her – and the breast cancer nurse who’s also there – how I have a permanent flap of hard skin under my big toe as a result of a bunion-removal operation a million years ago that blisters really easily, and, really, really, this has nothing to do with the treatment.

I finally shut up. I take the plaster off to expose all. She looks and says, “that’s fine, it’s healing”, applies a fresh plaster, checks between my toes, and we’re done.

Next time, I’ll just show her.

Incidentally, these side effects can develop at any time while you’re on this drug. You can have been on it for months without any problems and then they appear.

Anyway, the end result is that I‘m on Day 3 of round three of capecitabine – at a slightly higher dose than I was on for the first two cycles. 

Everyone has a maximum dose based on their body surface area. I started on 85% of my maximum dose and now I’m on 87.5%. Ideally it would have been 90% but the tablets only come in certain strengths and that’s the closest they could get. It doesn’t seem much of an increase but these are highly toxic drugs and I guess you have to take things slowly. 

If there’s evidence that the capecitabine (also known as Xeloda) is working well  and you’re also tolerating it well, you can be switched from a 21-day cycle of two weeks on and one week off to a 28-day cycle of one week on, one week off, one week on, one week off. On this longer cycle, you have less capecitabine overall even at the higher dose and your body has more recovery time within each cycle. IMG_20200712_133309898You also have fewer blood tests and fewer hospital trips; you have four weeks at a time to live your life, as it were, rather than three*. You may also be switched if you’re not tolerating the three-week cycle well. Luckily it looks as if I might be in the former category.

In terms of knowing whether the drug is working, we currently have the CA 15-3 tumour marker level and other blood test results to go on. My first scan or scans to assess the full impact will be sometime in the autumn.

As for the haircut, it looked great when I left the hairdressers – all moussed up, blow-dried and straightened. It won’t last five minutes under a bike helmet, I thought. Having done several bike rides since, I have been proved right, but at least I know what it can look like!

I wrote about the COVID-19 scare at my mum’s care home in my previous blog post. A few days later, the seven people who had tested positive were retested and the results came back negative. To everyone’s huge relief, the original results were deemed to have been false positives. I’m getting closer and closer to deciding to go up and visit, even if it’s through a window. The fact that two friends have just very recently lost their mums has made me even more aware that this is something I have to find a way of doing, pandemic or not.

*It’s hard to keep everything in sync when you’re on treatments with different dosing schedules. For example, I have to go back to the hospital next week, just one week into my three-week cycle, for the other part of my treatment. That’s the monthly injection of denosumab, the bone strengthener that’s given to people like me whose primary cancer has spread to their bones, to reduce the incidence of “skeletal-related events” such as fractures, radiation or surgery to the bone, and spinal cord compression. Hopefully from next month I’ll be able to give myself that injection at home.

A quick update and it’s rather a mixed bag

Let’s start with the good news. I’ve no idea what its relative importance will be longer term but I’m a glass half full kind of gal and I’m happy to enjoy it for what it is, so here goes.

After just one cycle of chemotherapy, the breast cancer tumour marker that had been rising since last November has gone down by almost a third. 

The behaviour of this CA 15-3 marker is very much only one part of the overall picture. However, the fact that it’s fallen is a clear sign that the chemo treatment that I started just three weeks ago – oral capecitabine – is dampening down at least some of the cancer activity that’s going on inside my body. The level had been rising faster in recent months and while a reduction by a third only takes it down to what it was at the end of March this year, in proportionate terms that’s a big fall. That has to be a good thing. 

IIMG_20200618_142526718f I’m not rejoicing, it’s because that’s only one part of a substantially bigger and more complicated picture. Also during this first cycle of chemo, my haemoglobin count took a huge dive. Instead of picking up my second round of capecitabine tablets on Thursday afternoon so I could start taking them the following day, I spent upwards of four hours in the day treatment unit at the local hospital having a blood transfusion.

My haemoglobin count had been falling for a few months and this was one of a combination of factors that had led to my coming off the treatment I’d been on since my initial diagnosis of advanced/secondary/metastatic breast cancer in spring last year. I had known that if the level were to fall much more, a blood transfusion would probably be in order. That’s precisely what happened.

Coincidentally, it was almost a year ago to the day that I had a transfusion for precisely the same reason. Then, I was really taken aback when the consultant told me what she was advising. I had only recently had the diagnosis confirmed and being told I needed a blood transfusion really brought home to me the seriousness of what was happening. This time round it couldn’t have been more different. It wasn’t quite “hey, ho, let’s go“, but there was no drama, just an appreciation of the effort that’s going into keeping me as well as possible and a ready acceptance on my part that developments such as these are now part of my reality. 

There are two aspects to my disease. The cancer is in my bones, weakening them as it tries to spread further. It has also infiltrated my bone marrow, reducing my body’s ability to make healthy blood. Both aspects need to be managed, along with the side effects of the drugs. That’s what I mean about the fall in the tumour marker only being one part of the overall picture.

The bone marrow issue is a pretty big part of that same picture. Even if my haemoglobin count had been healthier, I wouldn’t have started round two of chemo. That’s because my neutrophil count too was below the level that’s deemed safe to carry on with treatment. Neutrophils are the white blood cells that fight infection.

The fact that capecitabine can also cause anaemia and neutropenia is an additional complication. It’s hard to determine precisely how much of what’s happening on the blood front is caused by the cancer and how much is down to the treatment.

As well as having the transfusion, I had an injection of the white blood cell booster, filgrastim. I’d been used to having this as standard under my previous treatment but we’d gone without during this first cycle so we could see how I’d manage on the neutrophil front under the new treatment without support. Not brilliantly, it seems.

So what’s next?

Well, for starters I get to enjoy the extra energy that comes from having two bags of healthy blood coursing round my body.IMG_20200618_155048864 There’s no denying I’m feeling perkier than I felt last week. There is, literally, more “blood in my cheeks” – a saying I’d never really thought much about until now.

On a more serious point, I go back for more blood tests on Monday to see how things are looking and we’ll see what the consultant recommends when I see her on Tuesday. 

Hopefully I’ll be able to go back on treatment. None of this is abnormal in the context in which it is happening. As with many powerful drugs, it can take some time to find the right dosage of capecitabine. I guess there might at least be a discussion around that. As it was, my starting dose was 85% of what it might have been.

As for side effects that I’d notice, I’m relieved to report that I’ve nothing to report. I have been aware of a little bit more tingling in my feet than usual but I can’t at this stage say that it’s anything other than the mild chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy I have from the original treatment I had for primary breast cancer in 2015. It can get worse in the heat and when I’ve been doing a lot of cycling. The weather’s been great and I have indeed been cycling a fair amount.

Talking of cycling, I’m planning on putting this transfusion to good use in much the same way as I did with the last one. It’s midsummer weekend and a long bike ride is on the agenda for tomorrow. When I’m out there, I’ll be even more appreciative than usual that I’m very much still in the saddle.

 

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.

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 at least nine weeks before I have a scan to determine what effect it might be having. In the meantime, the regular blood tests that I’ll be having will give us some idea.

Also 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.