From one chemo to another

I had hoped to go the full six, 28-day cycles with paclitaxel, the intravenous chemo I was on as part of my treatment for the breast cancer that’s spread to my bones and is in my bone marrow, affecting my body’s ability to produce healthy blood.

That would have taken me to early/mid February next year. Frustratingly, my cancer had other ideas. I’m now no longer on paclitaxel and I’m due to start a different chemo – eribulin – on Wednesday this coming week. 

Yes, I was annoyed and frustrated and angry and sad and, yes, I swore a huge amount out loud to myself once the results of the half-body PET CT scan that sealed my fate with regard to paclitaxel had sunk in. I got the results on Tuesday this past week. I’m not going into detail but they showed “progression of the skeletal metastatic disease” and “nodal and widespread metastatic activity… suggestive of disease progression”. The paclitaxel session I was due to have two days later was duly cancelled.

A few days on, I’m more settled but I’m still also massively pissed off.

Of course it could be worse. However, most of you know that I’m a great advocate of the sentiment “just because it’s not worse doesn’t mean it’s not shit”. It is shit. Every time a drug in your limited treatment arsenal stops working is shit. That said, there’s still no visceral spread and there are no concerns regarding spinal cord compression. There are options and there is a plan. That plan is eribulin (brand name Halaven).

My tumour marker level had tumbled during the first and second 28-day cycles of paclitaxel almost to an all-time low since my secondary breast diagnosis in Spring 2019. When my tumour marker level is falling, it tends to mean the cancer is less active. It had edged up a little during the third cycle but it was still very low relative to where it had been when I started on paclitaxel in mid-August.

The fact that the marker had gone up at all was disappointing, but not disastrous. I’d also been experiencing some pain in a couple of joints on a sporadic basis. On a positive note, the results of the spinal MRI scan I’d had recently had come through, showing no change from my previous one, in July. It was decided when I saw the consultant at the end of Cycle 3, on Wednesday 17th November, that I should go ahead with Cycle 4. I had the first session a couple of days later, on Friday 19th, following the now seemingly standard blood transfusion. On Thursday 18th, I had a half-body PET CT scan, which covers from the top of your head to above your knees. As with the MRI scan, my last PET CT scan had also been in July.

It’s fair to say things started to get a bit messy on the Wednesday night (17th). I awoke with considerable pain in various joints on my left hand-side at various points during the night. It largely eased after I took some strong pain killers. It happened again the following two nights, although the episodes on Wednesday were by far the worst.

Things were largely ok during the day. I’d signed up as a volunteer at my local Parkrun on Tooting Common in southwest London at 9am on the morning of Saturday 20th. I was due to be one of the barcode scanners at the end of the run. I felt wrecked but I wasn’t in pain so I went along and did that. I’m glad I did. I’ve had so much out of Parkrun; it’s good to give back.

To cut an even longer story short, some pain returned on the Saturday morning after I got home from Parkrun. I’d run out of strong painkillers and I was exhausted but couldn’t sleep. I ended up being admitted to the hospital where I’m being treated and kept in overnight while they sorted out my pain meds. I was not screaming in pain or anything like it but it was not pleasant. I was discharged on Sunday afternoon, by which time I was absolutely fine. I left with copious amounts of both strong and very strong painkillers.

I cannot fault the care I received in hospital but it was all rather frustrating as I’m pretty sure I could have resolved the matter at home had I not run out of my usual painkillers.

On the Monday, I was contacted by the superbly efficient clinical nurse specialist who’s a critical part of the breast cancer team at the hospital. She said she and the consultant were fully aware I’d had an overnight stay and that the consultant would like to see me the following day. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the results of the PET CT scan were already through. Those, together with the pain-related episodes, meant it was time to move on from paclitaxel. 

With Tuesday came a detailed review of the scan results and my signing the consent form to start eribulin.

So what is this new treatment? 

With paclitaxel, it was a 28-day cycle. Each cycle consisted of three iv treatment sessions. These took place on Days 1, 8 and 15, with blood tests the day before each session and then again at the end of each cycle, followed by a meeting with the consultant on or around Day 28. Each treatment session took a couple of hours or so, with the first session of each cycle taking an additional hour or so as this was when I received my monthly infusion (also intravenously) of the bone-strengthening drug, Zometa (zoledronic acid). The standard number of cycles one has on paclitaxel if things are going ok is four but this can be upped to six.

With eribulin, it’s a 21-day cycle, with each cycle consisting of two treatment sessions. Treatment is on Days 1 and 8. As with paclitaxel, there are blood tests the day before each session, to check that it’s ok for that session to proceed. There are also blood tests at the end of the cycle, followed by an appointment with the consultant 1) to go over the blood test results; 2) to discuss how you’ve been coping with the treatment; and 3) hopefully that you can go ahead with the next cycle.

Unlike with paclitaxel, there is no limit to the number of cycles of eribulin you can have. As long as you’re tolerating it well and it’s working, you keep taking it. The longest the consultant has had a patient on it is 13 months. Fingers crossed it works for me and that any side effects are tolerable – as they were, it has to be said, with paclitaxel. My feet feel better than they’ve been in years and I’m pleasantly surprised not to have lost all my hair. I was also feeling really well overall.

There are some overlapping potential side effects between paclitaxel and eribulin, but of course each drug also has some that are unique. Somewhat strangely, bone marrow suppression is a potential side effect of eribulin – but that’s also precisely among the things we’re trying to treat.

On the bone-strengthening drugs front, I’m switching from Zometa to denosumab (Xgeva). We’ve switched between the two before. The idea is that a drug that works in a different way will have a more beneficial effect. That, in essence, is also the idea behind switching to eribulin. 

Eribulin is delivered intravenously – that’ll be through my port – over a period of just two to five minutes. Denosumab is given as a quick injection – in my case to the abdomen – once every four weeks. It’s clear treatment sessions at the hospital will be much shorter than when I was on paclitaxel and Zometa.

With my haemoglobin level and resulting energy levels being largely low, I now rarely cycle and I don’t run at all.  Swimming has become my new favourite pastime. I don’t swim far and I don’t swim fast but I’ve always loved swimming and now I do it once or twice a week. I’d like to do it outdoors but I get cold very quickly and if I don’t have a way of getting warm immediately, I’m cold for hours.

This desire to feel the sun on my shoulders was in grand part behind my decision to escape to a beautifully warm and sunny – and beautiful – Cyprus for a week in early November. 

Yes, you read correctly. Cyprus. Photo number one to the left.

And yes, you’re also right, my husband and I had indeed just been to Madrid.

The photo to the right was taken on the trip to Spain. It’s of me and two of my dearest friends, both of whom I met in Madrid in the early to mid-1980s when I lived there teaching English as a foreign language before coming back to Glasgow to finish my degree (in Spanish, what else!). We were in Madrid for a wedding; the woman in the middle is the mother of the groom.

My now husband and I met in Madrid in those same early days. We loved the city this time round as much as we’d always done.

And, yes, there is even more on the travel front. Before the Madrid trip, we had been to Tiree, a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland.

My husband and I were in Tiree with one of my brothers, John, his wife and my niece, one of their four children. We had a lovely week.

Madrid and Scotland had been in the diary for a long time. After months of coronavirus-related uncertainty – combined with uncertainty over how I might be feeling health-wise – we were delighted that we were able to do both trips.

Cyprus was an impulse booking, done the day before I had my port inserted on 1 November. I just Googled ”Where’s hot in Europe?” and Cyprus won.

I’m happy to say I swam outside every day of the Cyprus holiday in the sunshine, either in the pool or in the sea – indeed sometimes both on the same day!

There is little that can beat the feel of the sun on your shoulders drying you off after you’ve been swimming.

The sea was warm, the water was clear. It was an absolute delight. I went with one of my brothers, Peter. We took dozens of photos. The one above on the left is among my favourites. 

I couldn’t stay in the water for long at any one time as I’d only recently had my port inserted. The wounds from the two incisions from the procedure were healing well and while I wasn’t concerned about getting them wet, I didn’t want to overdo it.

Before I had the port inserted, I thought I was ok with the chemo nurses taking several attempts to find a decent vein through which to administer chemo or blood transfusions. Since I’ve had the port inserted and we’ve now used it several times, I have to say it is a game-changer. It makes things so much easier.

The procedure to insert the port only took some 40 minutes. However, with the pre-procedure preparation and the post-procedure monitoring, I was at the hospital for the best part of the day. The procedure, which is done under local anaesthetic, was the weirdest experience. You feel the sensation of cutting, pushing and shoving – but no pain. The port stands out from my chest; it looks weird but I’m totally fine with it.

Several other events have happened in my life, not relating to my treatment or travels. On my last day in Cyprus, I awoke to the news that the 57-year-old husband of one of my best friends back in Glasgow had died very suddenly and unexpectedly the previous night. A day or so later, the husband of my beloved aunt and godmother in New Jersey died, of advanced prostate cancer.

It’s easy to say, but this first tragic event in particular illustrates why worrying about one’s own mortality – or indeed about the mortality of sick parents, friends or relatives – is so futile. Enough sad/bad things happen that aren’t even on the radar. Be concerned, yes, but try not to over-worry. Events such as these will happen regardless. If anxiety about your or someone else’s future is becoming overwhelming, please seek help. And let the people you’re worrying about know you love them. That should make you and them feel better.

I’m hoping to go up to Glasgow for my friend’s husband’s funeral later this month. It will depend on how I feel after starting this new chemo and on the ever-changing situation with regard to the never-ending pandemic. 

In the meantime, I’ll be booking regular swim sessions at the two local leisure centres to which I’m fortunate to have access. I may also be on the lookout for another break that involves winter sun and warm seas. If you have any ideas, let me know!

To finish, fingers crossed eribulin works for longer than either paclitaxel or indeed the drugs I was on before that. I’m not aiming for or expecting anything, but more than just a few months would be very welcome.

The busy business of living under lockdown

Another four weeks gone by, another round of treatment started.

Last Wednesday, I had the usual blood tests – plus a couple of additional ones that I have every so often. The following morning, I got the all-clear to go ahead with treatment in a phone call from the oncologist, so off I went to the hospital later that day.

I had my temperature taken and was given a face mask before I could enter the oncology day unit, which has been re-sited to a stand-alone building away from the main hospital buildings to reduce the risk of patients catching or spreading the coronavirus. I had my various injections (fulvestrant, denosumab and filgrastim), was given my next 28-day supply of abemaciclib tablets and an extra filgrastim injection to give myself mid-cycle to boost my white blood cell production and headed home again.

That’s cycle #13 under way with the core drugs I started on a year ago now. On 23 April, I passed the first anniversary of my unofficial diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. Official confirmation came shortly after that the primary breast cancer that I’d been treated for almost four years earlier had spread to my bones (mainly my spine) and was also in my bone marrow.

There were a couple of changes but no big surprises on the blood test front. The relevant tumour marker has gone up as it has done every month since November. And while my red blood cell or haemoglobin level varies by the month, this time it had dropped to slightly below the normal range for the first time since September. It’s been going down since February or March. That unsettles me. I feel fine largely, but maybe that explains why my running has become little more than a brisk walk! I need some excuse so I’ll take that one.

During the phone call with the oncologist, I decided to take the opportunity to ask her to talk me through every possible drug treatment option from here on. She did, in great detail. It seemed like a good idea at the time but I spent much of the following day really out of sorts thinking about the enormity of it all. Plenty of good things happened that day but overall I would not describe it as a good day. Days like that are allowed every so often.

It’s been an eventful few weeks, despite lockdown.

For starters, I had a week off work. It’s been super busy and it was good to get some time off, especially so when it coincided with some fantastic weather here in my little part of south west London.

I read a couple of books. I got my summer clothes out and had a bit of a wardrobe clear-out. I polished four pairs of shoes that were sorely in need of cleaning and I replaced a pair of shoe laces that had needed replacing for at least a year. I prepped the garden for some plants I’m hoping will be delivered this week or next. I thought I’d mastered making flapjacks, but then promptly burnt the next batch.

I’m in the category that I’m terming “vulnerable but no longer shielding” – my oncologist said last month that she was happy for me to go out for exercise. I decided I could safely do socially distanced cycling, so in that week off I went for a couple of longish bike rides, through a beautiful and largely deserted central London. Being out on the bike felt very good indeed.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve also had a clear-out of my “memory box”, which in my case was a suitcase. It was a joyous thing to do and I highly recommend it.

There was the odd photo; not many though – the boxes and files of photos are  another thing entirely.

There were dozens and dozens of cards. Mother’s Day cards. Birthday cards. Christmas cards. Valentine’s Day cards. Wedding cards. Postcards from friends and family. Letters from old boyfriends. Dozens of cards and letters from my now husband. Wedding invitations. Orders of service from funerals. Letters from my brothers when they were away travelling, from Sri Lanka and Australia.The two cards I received from friends asking me to be godmother to their children.

There’s a letter from my late dad from when I was living in Spain in the mid 1980s. That’s one to keep – my dad never wrote. There’s also a cutting from a Spanish newspaper; it’s a photo of me on my now husband’s shoulders at a march in Madrid from around the same time (see below). Ticket stubs from dozens of concerts, going back to when I was in my final years at school the late 1970s. The ticket from my first flight. My first pay packet, from 40 years ago – four hours work in a grocer’s at 74p an hour. My first proper job offer in London. Exam certificates and indeed exam papers, that I couldn’t possibly answer now.

image
Madrid, December 1984

There are also medals and certificates from various 10k runs and the odd half marathon done over the years. My fastest recorded time for a 10k run, in London in 1993 when I would have been 29 or 30, was just under 50 minutes. Not brilliant, but not bad. It would take me more than half an hour longer at my current speed.

I was brought up a catholic and there was also the certificate from my first holy communion when I was seven and the rosary beads I had as a child. It seems really strange to me now that I kept these. I’ve been lapsed for so long, but perhaps there’s something in the saying “once a catholic, always a catholic”.

I came across an English project from secondary school. I got an A*, which came with a comment of “very competent”. For an A*? That seems rather harsh. I don’t recall feeling anything other than pleased at the time but I’m outraged now! Surely an A* deserved very good, or even perhaps excellent.

And then there’s the certificate thanking me for having been a blood donor. I gave blood 22 times in the UK before a gastrointestinal complaint I had nearly ten years ago meant I could no longer donate. I remember being gutted at having to stop. I loved giving blood – it made me feel part of something bigger. I donated 23 times in total. My first donation was at a mobile unit that had pitched up at the campsite I was staying at in the south of France for the summer between first and second year at uni. The incentive was that they handed out free sandwiches after you’d donated. None of us there had much money so it was a no-brainer! As you can see, I have the certificate from that too.



I’d gone to France on the train from Glasgow with a friend from uni after seeing a notice for summer jobs on the student union notice board. We ended up selling apple donuts (no hole in the middle) and ice creams on a nudist beach for six weeks. It was an interesting experience to say the least. I’d turned 18 just days before I left for France and was still pretty naive – I was less so by the time I came back! 

I’m going to get on my high horse here and say that if you don’t give blood and there’s no medical reason preventing you from doing so, you need to have a word with yourself. Having a genuine phobia of needles also gets you off the hook but just being a bit nervous around needles or can’t be bothered really doesn’t cut it. Say you get sick and you need, for example, chemo or antibiotics via a drip, or indeed, a blood transfusion. Are you going to refuse on the grounds that you don’t like needles? No, I didn’t think so. Do it, it’s your civic duty. You won’t regret it. Incidentally, I’ve had all three procedures I mentioned. That’s incidental, though; I’ve always felt strongly about this.

Other things have happened.

Some exciting cycling plans I had for the summer have been scuppered, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. My diagnosis last Spring meant I had to give up on plans to ride a few stages of the Tour de France a week before the real thing in July as part of a big fundraising event known as Le Loop. My heart therefore skipped a beat in December last year when they released the route of the 2020 tour and I saw there were going to be two back-to-back flat stages. Flat is not usually a word you associate with the tour, and my interest was piqued. Each stage was 100 miles but I was feeling much fitter than I thought I’d be. I mulled it over for a bit and decided that if I were still well and suitably fit come July, I’d go for it. I wouldn’t have to raise any money as the money I raised last year would roll over.

No-one knew of my plans other than my oncologist, my husband and two boys, and the lovely people at Le Loop. My plan was to crack on with the training – quietly and without any of the fanfare that accompanied my plans last year – then do the event, completing what I saw as unfinished business. Anyway, like many charitable events and so much else, this year’s Le Loop has been cancelled, having initially been moved to the end of August. It’s disappointing, but for me what matters is that I felt well enough to at least consider going for it. There may be a chance to do it next year, or there may not. There’s no need to think about that at present.

I heard someone say on the radio the other day that no matter how inconvenient things were for them under lockdown, they were very much aware that they “weren’t the victim here”. That resonates with me. Of course it gets you down and you fear for the future, but I can’t feel too sorry for myself. Too many people are losing loved ones and there’s too much real suffering going on. As for the fall-out of it all, we have no idea.

My family’s safe so far. My mum is in a care home in Glasgow. That’s a big worry in itself but to date thankfully the home has managed to stay cononavirus-free. I haven’t seen my mum since last November. That’s also tough, but we know she’s well cared for and we’re relieved she’s well. Those of my brothers who live locally pay regular visits and chat to mum from outside, through the window of her room on the ground floor.

Here in London, somewhat selfishly, my husband and I are relishing having our boys back home. They were both away at uni, in their first year and having fun, and while it’s only right that they’d much rather still be away, their very presence makes us happy. They probably find us as annoying as you’re meant to find your parents at that age, but I hope they’re at least feeling the love. They’ve reverted to pre-uni status whereby they spend a lot of time in their rooms, but supper together is sacrosanct (we all take turns at cooking) and we have carefully negotiated film dates. I am regularly woken up in the middle of the night by the smell of baking. I can’t complain when the result the following morning is freshly baked chocolate cake.

We’re being careful with hygiene in the house and while the boys do go out, they haven’t been able to consider getting jobs, for example, as they’re being careful not to put themselves at risk in light of my situation. We’ve just now started looking at potential less risky employment options for them.

My husband’s well. The boys are well. I’m well (apart from the obvious). I’m working, I can cycle, I can run (just), we live next to a lovely common, we’re in touch with lots of people and, very close to the top of the list if not at the very top, my treatment is unaffected. This isn’t the case for a lot of people.

Also recently, I had a call from the GP, asking me to arrange a care plan in case I catch Covid-19 and need to be hospitalised. It wasn’t a shock to have to think about this. I’ve already made my end-of-life preferences clear in the context of having a terminal illness. It’s written into the power of attorney document I arranged last year. If I’m in the final stages of breast cancer, I told the GP, I want to go quietly and gently, but if I get Covid-19, do whatever it takes to keep me alive. Everyone should have a care plan. No-one wants to think about their own death, but the point is to make things easier for your nearest and dearest at an already very difficult time – should the occasion arise.

It’s time for my next set of scans. It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly three months since the last lot. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll have an MRI scan of my spine and a half-body (essentially from the top of my head to above the knee) combined PET CT scan to check for any disease progression. If they pick up what’s been causing the blood tumour marker to rise and there’s evidence the cancer’s spread beyond a certain point, we’ll be looking at moving on to the next appropriate line of treatment. That would be a big step. I’ll get the scan results when I next talk to – or possibly even see – the oncologist, at the end of April.

That’s more than three weeks away. That’s another three weeks to get on with the busy business of living.

Thoughts on dying… and living

There have been two high-profile deaths in recent weeks of UK celebrities where the individuals involved have died in very different ways. I’m trying to work out whether I think one way is preferable to the other.

In the first case, Gary Rhodes, a British celebrity chef, died very suddenly in Dubai, where he had business interests. He reportedly died of a subdural haematoma, otherwise known as a bleed on the brain. The point is that one minute everything was completely normal then a couple of hours later he was dead. He was 59. I’m 56.

The second case involves Clive James, a well-known author and broadcaster. He died at the age of 80, nearly a decade after he was diagnosed with incurable leukaemia. He’d expected to die much sooner and, in 2015, he admitted to feeling embarrassed at still being alive.

I used to think that dying suddenly – of natural causes, at a decent age – would by far be the best way to go. Much better, say, than after a long illness where for a long time you have a very poor quality of life. Naively, I only ever considered these two possibilities. The situation in which I now find myself – living with an incurable, life-shortening disease with a prognosis that’s in single figures but currently with a good quality of life – never came into it.

I say naively because, as Dr Leslie Blackhall says in a thoughtful TEDx Talk, a great many of us who are over 40 are going to die of chronic, progressive and incurable illnesses such as metastatic cancer, emphysema, congestive heart failure, cirrhosis or dementia.*

Anyway, what do I think now?

Well, it’s harder to answer than you might think. But I’m starting to think that dying suddenly is no longer as appealing as I once thought.

What my diagnosis of secondary breast cancer has done is allow me to reflect on things in a way that I think is only possible for someone who knows with complete certainty that her or his life is going to be cut short. It’s an incredibly hard piece of knowledge to live with but, over the seven or eight months since I was diagnosed, I have come round to thinking that, in some strange way, it’s something of a privilege.

I am not in any way saying I consider cancer to be a gift. I don’t and I want to be absolutely clear on that. For my family’s and friends’ sakes more than mine, I wish with all my heart that this were not happening. I’d much rather be carrying on oblivious. But I don’t have that option. What I do have is a clarity about life and living that – and I accept I may be wrong here – I wouldn’t think is possible to have under normal circumstances.

The only thing any of us really knows with any certainty is that at some point we’ll die, but it’s the one thing, for obvious reasons, we don’t talk about. I’m not facing anything that the rest of us won’t ultimately face. Among the chaos and sadness that my diagnosis has brought, I find that fact strangely calming.

It is, of course, entirely possible I will outlive some of the normal, healthy people I come across every day in all sorts of different situations. Sudden, unexpected deaths do happen, as we’ve seen with Gary Rhodes – not to mention the recent, awful killings on London Bridge. Also, I may not die of this cancer. Something else entirely could carry me off before that does. There are no guarantees on anything when it comes to life – except that at some point we’ll die. Remembering all these things helps to keep me grounded.

Finally, my diagnosis has given me an outlet for my writing. That’s something for which I have to be grateful. I write for a living but it’s only since getting my initial cancer diagnosis that I’ve written in my own time.

I write but I’m not a poet, and these beautiful words by Clive James just blow me away. They’re the final lines of his poem Event Horizon:

What is it worth, then, this insane last phase
When everything about you goes downhill?
This much: you get to see the cosmos blaze
And feel its grandeur, even against your will,
As it reminds you, just by being there,
That it is here we live, or else nowhere.

“You get to see the cosmos blaze and feel its grandeur.” Isn’t that just magnificent?

For me, the most difficult thing is the uncertainty of it all. But then none of us has any real idea of when our own “last insane phase” will be – or indeed whether we’ll have one at all or whether, like Gary Rhodes, we’ll come to our end unexpectedly and suddenly. With me, we do at least know that it’s highly improbable I’ll be here in ten years’ time, still banging on about my situation and, like Clive James, feeling embarrassed at having survived for so long.

If I am still around though, I’m sure no-one will mind too much.

On that note, Happy Christmas, everyone. Here’s to a 2020 filled with peace, love and adventures!

*I urge you to listen to the TEDx Talk by this palliative care doctor, on Living, dying and the problem with hope. Here’s the link:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=KQEWc3LVfyc