Monday, March 28, 2011

March 28, 2011 - Surgery Is Scheduled

Time to bring you all up to date on my decision-making about the thyroid surgery.

Last Wednesday I drove up to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s satellite outpatient facility in Basking Ridge, New Jersey for a consultation with otolaryngologist Dr. Jay Boyle, who had been recommended to me by my lymphoma second-opinion physician, Dr. Carol Portlock.

Everything went smoothly at the Basking Ridge facility, which is in an impressive new building located a convenient one-hour drive from our home. After the usual filling-out of forms and a quick interview with an intake nurse, Dr. Boyle came right in and gave me all the time I needed to ask my questions.

I asked about whether I’d need to have the whole thyroid removed or whether a lobectomy (removing one lobe, or half the gland) would be a possibility. He said the scan results confirm there’s malignancy in both halves of the thyroid, so it all has to come out.

A follow-up radioactive iodine treatment is a possibility, but he wouldn't be able to say for sure about that until after the surgery.

Because it's a slow-moving cancer, we'd have a little time to think about it and choose a convenient date.

It’s highly unlikely that my thyroid cancer is in any way related to my lymphoma. Seems I’ve had a bad roll of the dice, two times running.

Dr. Boyle was very upbeat about the prognosis, as well he should be. Thyroid cancer is one of those rare malignancies that’s nearly 100% treatable with surgery. The surgery itself – while somewhat delicate, due to the thyroid’s location in the neck – is not very invasive, since the gland is very close to the surface. He explained there would be some stitches, but they’d all be internal and would dissolve on their own. A bright red scar, which he endeavors to hide as much as possible within naturally-occurring fold lines in the skin of the neck, would be visible for about a year or so, but would eventually fade so it’s only visible upon close examination.

An overnight stay in the hospital is a given, but nearly everyone goes home right after that and is able to resume normal activities in a few days. (I learned later, from one of the nurses, that MSKCC is starting to do some thyroid-removal operations as same-day surgeries.)

I do have a slight concern about a possible side-effect from the surgery, which is damage to the voice. This sometimes happens as a result of damage to one of the nerves that controls the functioning of the vocal cords, which are nearby. I explained that I may be more concerned about this than most patients, because I use my voice for a living. Dr. Boyle assured me that the national rate for this sort of complication is about 1%. “With me,” he said, “it’s a great deal lower than that.”

He dropped that statistic into the conversation in a matter-of-fact way that sounded in no way boastful (although I suppose it may appear that way, upon reading those words).

Afterwards, I spoke with one of the nurses about long-term issues, and she confirmed what I already knew, that I’ll need to take synthetic thyroid-hormone medication for the rest of my life. “If you miss a day or two, it’s no big deal,” she explained. “If you go on vacation for a couple weeks and forget to bring your pills with you, you need to find a pharmacy and get your prescription filled. Go six months without taking it, and you’re dead.”

Well, that doesn’t leave much ambiguity, does it?

I liked Dr. Boyle. There’s no doubt he’s one of the foremost thyroid surgeons around. While it’s a relatively simple operation, with a very high chance of success, why shouldn’t I go to one of the top-ranked surgeons, as long as he’s relatively close by and can fit me into his schedule?

It doesn’t hurt that he’s a Presbyterian, either. When he learned what I do for a living, he mentioned that he’s a member of the Westfield, New Jersey church.

A little while ago, I called Dr. Boyle’s office and confirmed a surgery date of Friday, May 27, at MSKCC in Manhattan (they don’t do surgery at the Basking Ridge facility). I’ll go into the city on May 2 for pre-admission testing.

I feel good about this, like I’m making good progress in dealing with it. As I said to someone else recently, when it comes to dealing with a new cancer diagnosis, it’s a real advantage to be a veteran.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

March 26, 2011 – New Follicular Lymphoma Treatment Guidelines

Here are a couple of big changes in standard treatment guidelines for follicular NHL. According to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, Rituxan plus Bendamustine (a single chemotherapy agent) is evidently replacing R-CHOP, the cocktail of Rituxan plus four chemotherapy agents I received, as the standard, first-line treatment. Bendamustine is more easily tolerated and doesn’t typically lead to alopecia (hair loss).

There’s also a change in the NCCN-recommended treatment for relapsed follicular lymphoma: Rituxan maintenance and chemotherapy followed by radioimmunotherapy.

If I were presenting as a newly-diagnosed NHL patient today, I don’t know if this new first protocol would apply to me; nor do I know, were my NHL to come back with a vengeance, if the second option would be what Dr. Lerner would order up. That’s because my initial diagnosis was not follicular, but diffuse-mixed-large-and-small-cell. The small-cell type I now have has many similarities to follicular lymphoma, but it isn’t exactly the same.

Still, it leads me to wonder if this news story is significant for any treatment I may one day need.

It’s interesting for me to hear that both Rituxan maintenance (that’s Rituxan administered not only along with chemotherapy, but also on its own, as a monthly maintenance infusion over a couple of years) and radioimmunotherapy (Bexxar or Zevalin) are moving up in the medical world. I've written about both of these in the past, as I've become aware of discussions about their possible usefulness. Now these treatments seem to have moved to the head of the pack - at least for follicular lymphoma.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

March 22, 2011 – Another Cancer

It’s official: I have to undergo cancer treatment again. Only this time, it’s not for lymphoma. It’s for thyroid cancer.

Ever since my chemotherapy ended, I’ve been having routine scans every 3 or 4 months to monitor my NHL. Two scans ago, a PET/CT scan flagged an area at the base of my neck as a possible malignancy. Then, an ultrasound turned up a nodule on the left side of my thyroid gland.

It was too small to biopsy. Dr. Jay Sher, the endocrinologist I consulted, recommended “watch and wait.”

Several months later, I had a follow-up PET/CT scan. The nodule had doubled in size, to around 1.5 centimeters. I contacted Dr. Sher, who sent me for another ultrasound, then a needle biopsy.

The results are now in: papillary thyroid cancer. I learned the results not from Dr. Sher, who didn’t phone me soon after receiving the results, but from our family-practice physician, Dr. David Cheli, who called late last week. He’d received a copy of the pathology report and phoned to tell me what’s in it. He reassured me that this form of thyroid cancer is highly treatable.

A few minutes later, I called Dr. Cheli’s office back and asked them to fax me a copy of the pathology report, and I’m glad I did. If I hadn’t done that, I would have waited a long time to learn of the details. Dr. Sher’s office staff told me on Wednesday they’d received the pathologist’s narrative report, but he didn’t actually call until yesterday – and then, only after I’d left two messages for him and faxed his office my own copy of the pathology report, as a back-up.

On the phone, Dr. Sher was upbeat and jocular. This is the most treatable of all cancers, he told me. “We just pop your thyroid out, you come back a little later and take a pill, and you’re all done.” Absolutely nothing to worry about.

Around here, it seems, it’s harder to get through to an endocrinologist than any other kind of doctor. (Medical Student Alert: if supply-and-demand makes a difference to your career choice, maybe you ought to think about endocrinology).

Dr. Sher told me he often works with a Dr. Sean Houston, an otolaryingologist who does the actual thyroid surgery. He suggested I phone Dr. Houston and set up a surgery date, then let him know when it’s going to be.

Dr. Lerner had mentioned a Dr. Alexander Shifrin, a well-regarded local surgeon who does a great deal of thyroid operations. I mentioned Dr. Shifrin’s name to Dr. Sher, but he suggested Dr. Houston instead, explaining that all his patients go to him, with very good results.

My situation seems so cut-and-dry, with a clear treatment protocol and a very optimistic prognosis. I actually thought for a minute or two about not bothering with a second opinion, but then I reminded myself of my own advice to so many others. Yesterday, I called Dr. Carol Portlock’s office at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, then faxed them a copy of my pathology report.

Dr. Portlock’s assistant, Ernestine – one of the most friendly and efficient people I’ve ever had on the other end of a telephone line, bar none – explained that the doctor would surely want to refer me to a colleague in the thyroid department at MSKCC. That was exactly what I’d expected, but I figured it was best to start with my established connection, so as to get an internal referral.

This morning, Ernestine phoned back with the name of Dr. Jay Boyle, an otolaryngologist at MSKCC. I phoned for an appointment, and learned that he has an opening for a consultation tomorrow morning at their satellite location in Basking Ridge, NJ. Because that’s a much more convenient location than Manhattan, and because the next opportunity would be a week later in Manhattan or two weeks later in Basking Ridge, I jumped at it.

A flurry of phone calls later, and I’ve got all my ducks in a row to pick up my PET/CT disks from Dr. Lerner’s office this afternoon, and my pathology slides and ultrasound disks from Jersey Shore first thing tomorrow morning. From there, I’ll drive straight to Basking Ridge. They can't seem to locate the disk from my January 31 PET/CT scan, but that's not so important. It's the thyroid ultrasounds and the needle biopsy slides that Dr. Boyle will probably be most interested in.

Thank goodness, I know how all these systems work. If I’d been a cancer newbie, I’d never have been able to gather all that material together in such a short time (and I’m grateful to some very understanding people at Jersey Shore’s pathology department, who waived their usual 24-hour waiting period for getting pathology slides ready for release).

So, here we go again. Because of the highly favorable prognosis, I’m far less worried than I was at the time of my lymphoma diagnosis. If I have any anxiety other than the normal jitters about going into an operating room, it has to do with the delicate nature of thyroid surgery in general. I use my voice for a living, so I want to make sure any surgeon messing around near my larynx and vocal cords is very experienced indeed. Where and when I’ll go for the surgery remains to be seen, but the next few days will tell.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

March 11, 2011 - Needle to the Neck

Today I go to the Ambulatory Care Center at Jersey Shore University Medical Center for my thyroid biopsy. I have to say, I’ve been pretty nonchalant about the whole deal, figuring that even if there is a malignancy, the nodule is very small. My online research has reassured me that treatment of thyroid cancers is likely to be highly effective.

The one thing that’s given me pause is the thought of sitting there, conscious, while somebody sticks a needle in my neck.

They’ve told me they’ll numb the area – and I’ve had plenty of needles before, with my endless blood work – but this is the neck, and somehow that seems different from the inside of the elbow or even the area by my collarbone where my port is located.

Earlier, when I spoke on the phone with the scheduler from that department of the hospital, I asked if patients reported much pain from the procedure. “Everyone’s pain threshold is different,” she replied, cagily.

Well, isn’t that reassuring?

As it turns out, I’ve got nothing to worry about. Dr. Wahid Girgis, the interventional radiologist, comes into my little cubicle in the waiting area and begins by telling me, “Of all the procedures we do here, this is by far the easiest.”

I ask him if patients report any pain from the procedure, and he replies with a smile, “I haven’t had a complaint yet.”

A remarkably un-cagey response, for a doctor.

Turns out he’s right. They wheel me on a gurney into the interventional radiology room. I eye a hulking machine to my left, that hangs something resembling an overturned drum-head over an operating table, but it turns out they don’t need to use that contraption on me. The only thing Dr. Girgis uses the operating table for is to spread out his gear. A nurse wheels an ultrasound machine on a cart over to my gurney, and they get busy right there.

Off to one side is a “cytologist,” with her own equipment-filled cart. I ask the nurse what a cytologist is, and she says, “a cell specialist.” Turns out her job is to take a look at the tissue sample and make sure it’s got enough thyroid-nodule cells in it to send off to the lab, before they send me packing.

It’s all over in less than 5 minutes. I honestly say I can’t feel any pain, just a little pressure.

A band-aid on my neck, and I’m good to go.

Results are supposed to be here by Tuesday

More waiting. But, what else is new?