Saturday, April 27, 2013

April 27, 2013 — A Pretty Good Pipeline

With all the ecological concern these days, pipelines don’t have an especially good name. Surely they’re a mixed blessing. They deliver all sort of things we can use, but they can pose terrible risks to the environment.

Here’s one pipeline whose value everyone can agree on. It’s the pharmaceutical research pipeline. I saw an article today directing me to an online brochure detailing just how many new medicines are in the pipeline for blood cancers.

From the brochure: “Pharmaceutical research companies are developing 241 medicines for blood cancers — leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma. This report lists medicines in human clinical trials or under review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The medicines in development include 98 for lymphoma, including Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which affect nearly 80,000 Americans each year.”

The brochure includes this chart (click to enlarge), which details the complex process each of these drugs must go through before they’re ready for prime time:

Most don’t make it: not even to clinical trials. Out of many thousands of promising compounds, only about 250 get real scrutiny as possible clinical-trial material. Of these, only five get tried out on real, live patients.

Four out of these five drugs turn out to be ineffective, or deliver side effects that are just too intolerable. That leaves just one chemical compound out of 5,000 to 10,000 that makes it through clinical trials into production.

This, of course, is why new drugs cost so much. The companies have to set aside enough money to pay for all those failed experiments. Patents allow the companies exclusive manufacturing rights for only a limited number of years. Once that time period has elapsed, the generic manufacturers start selling their own inexpensive knock-offs (and, of course, their research and development cost are negligible). The original manufacturers drop their prices to compete, and begin looking to whatever new formula is next coming down the pipeline.

It’s a complicated system. I wouldn’t want to be the accountant who figures out the financial risk and tells the company executives how much they need to charge. But I am glad to know this process is taking place — and that the outlook for new blood-cancer medications is so promising.

With every new drug that emerges from the pipeline, my prospects for living out a normal lifespan, even with my lymphoma — now quiescent, thank God — look better and better.

Friday, April 12, 2013

April 12, 2013 — In the Gray Area

From time to time, I take advantage of educational conference-call opportunities that are made available by some of the leading cancer research and patient-support organizations. This afternoon, I listened to one that featured Dr. Owen O’Connor of Columbia University and Dr. Bruce Cheson of Georgetown University, both of them lymphoma specialists.

I’ve heard Dr. Cheson numerous times in the past (that's him to the left). Dr. O’Connor was a new name to me (see below for his photo).

The program was sponsored by

Often, my chief take-away after listening to such programs is to feel reassured that I’m pretty much on top of the subject of recent advances in lymphoma treatments. That, in itself, is encouraging.

Today, though, I actually heard a few things I hadn’t heard before. Or, if I did hear them before, they didn’t register with me.

The first has to do with the vexed question of what sub-type of NHL I actually have. My initial diagnosis was for small B-cell lymphoma, which is usually understood to be an indolent form of the disease (as is the relatively common follicular lymphoma). My second-opinion from a pathologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York, however, identified a significant number of large cells (more dangerous, but also more susceptible to curative treatment), which set me out on the chemotherapy journey on which I embarked in early 2006. The new diagnosis at the time was “diffuse mixed large and small B-cell.”

As a result, when I attend lymphoma educational conferences where they ask participants with B-cell NHL to break out into workshop groups, some follicular and others large B-cell, I never quite know where to go.

Today I heard Dr. O’Connor speak of the fact that, when it comes to diagnosis, there is often a significant gray area between high-grade (somewhat more aggressive) follicular lymphoma and diffuse large B-cell. He also said there are well-documented examples of “histologic transformation of follicular lymphoma,” which means that a patient’s disease actually changes fro one form to another.

I’m not saying that happened to me, necessarily. It’s just that it highlights how the pathology reports that doctors often present to patients with such certainty are sometimes as much an art as a science.  Dr. O’Connor pointed out that, in the case of some patients, if you were to present the same pathology report to ten different pathologists, as many as three or four of them may differ from the others with respect to grading of the disease.

That would put me squarely in the gray area, it would seem. It also means I’m likely always to have difficulty deciding which workshop group to join.

Generally, the news continues to be encouraging. Both doctors emphasized that, in the world of B-cell lymphoma, there are a great many treatments to choose from in the event of relapse. Here’s hoping I’ll never need them, but in case I do someday, it’s good to know there’s a choice.

They also made me feel like the R-CHOP treatment — harsh as it was — was, indeed, the most appropriate choice for me at the time. One of the callers in the question-and-answer session was wondering whether it’s best for a newly-diagnosed follicular lymphoma patient to start off with Rituxan only, rather than more traditional chemo agents. Dr. Cheson was quite clear that, the younger the patient is, the more important it is — all things being equal — to start with the harsher treatment first. Not only are the benefits likely to be longer-lasting with traditional chemo, but older patients are more likely to have difficulty tolerating it. So, it’s better to use it while you can, as a primary rather than a refractory treatment, while you’re relatively young.

I’ve often wondered, as well — especially as I speak to other patients whose disease is quiescent and who are pursuing long-term maintenance Rituxan treatments — whether watchful waiting continues to be the best course of action. Dr. Cheson put my mind at ease in that regard, by repeating news of some research studies I’ve already heard about. Specifically, these studies have found that, while maintenance Rituxan treatments may cause longer remissions, when everything is said and done, the overall survival rates of those who have had these monthly IV drips is no better than those who have not.

Anyway, it was a productive and reassuring hour to spend — even considering the ambiguity that goes along with living in the gray area. Thanks to the good folks at CancerCare for putting on such a useful program!

Saturday, April 06, 2013

April 6, 2013 — Newly Diagnosed? Tips from the Lymphoma Club

I found a great website today called the Lymphoma Club, which includes a helpful page containing tips for those newly diagnosed with lymphoma. This list is a bit long to absorb on one reading — 27 tips in all — but it’s well worth having a look at.

I’ve rearranged some of them into what I’d consider my Top 10. So, they’re renumbered, with the most important at the bottom. Where I thought a couple of the originals overlapped, I’ve combined them. I’ve added my own comments after each one.

10. Get organized.  Consider a binder. 
Or a series of computer files. Or whatever works for you. But you’ve got to have some kind of system for managing the tsunami of data you’re about to get hit with — some of it electronic, some of it paper (lab reports, prescription scripts, etc.), much of it stuff you’ve never heard of before. Start keeping an overall calendar of your treatment: you’ll be surprised how fast the weeks and months go by, and before you know it, you won’t be able to remember how many CT scans you’ve had, and when. Get in the habit of keeping a current medications list.  You’re going to be asked for that information more times than you could possibly imagine (mine lives in my smartphone).

9.  Find cancer support groups (ask your cancer center or search online).
For whatever reason — pride, idolatrous self-sufficiency, reluctance to deal with the weird reactions we ministers get from some people outside the church setting — I waited way too long to do this. The time to start going to a support group is BEFORE you think you need it. From the day of your diagnosis, you’re a cancer survivor. So, you can be sure there’s more than one group out there where you’ll be welcomed like you’re family, and (just like that old sitcom theme song) everybody knows your name.

8.  List ways family and friends can help you (chores, rides, cleaning, etc.).
This is a biggie. If you hear that little voice inside your head, saying “But I don’t want to impose on others,” speak sternly back to it, saying “GET BEHIND ME, SATAN!” (That’s a biblical allusion, for those unfamiliar with it.) You’ve got cancer. You need help. There’s absolutely no glory in trying to go it alone. Get used to it.

7.  Have a trusty advocate  join you during appointments to take notes and help  ask questions.
Remember that tsunami of information I mentioned above? This is one essential way of managing it. The necessity of bringing a friend or relative with you goes way beyond just sorting out a lot of medical jargon. You see, there’s a very common emotional reaction that’s especially strong at the time of diagnosis and just afterwards. You’ll be having a perfectly rational conversation with your doctor, and you’ll say to yourself, “No need to write that down, I’ll remember it,” then five minutes later as you’re walking out to the car, you’ll say, “Now did the doctor say my cancer is large-cell or small-cell, and which one is more treatable?” This has nothing to do with your intelligence, nor your memory power. It’s a species of denial. No matter how much you may imagine you’re cool, calm, collected and handling this pretty well, the reality is, you’ve just learned something that’s rocked your world, so your subconscious is saying, “That’s enough, I’m outta here!” You need that second set of ears, especially now.

6. Get educated. Know the details of your cancer diagnosis but don’t spent too much time online.
This is information-tsunami management, part two. To some extent, how you do this is an individual thing, but there are so many advantages to doing it — taking charge of the situation and becoming your own advocate — that this one makes my top-ten list, hands down. There’s a wealth of information out there, but the trick is separating the wheat from the chaff. Start with a good book on the details of your disease (I recommend Living With Lymphoma by Elizabeth M. Adler, a microbiologist and lymphoma survivor - Johns Hopkins, 2005). As for the internet, don’t be afraid to troll for useful information online — it’s not so much the amount of time you spend online, as where you go to find your information. Start with highly-reputable sites like the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, or the National Cancer Institute, or the websites of world-renowned cancer hospitals. Then, move slowly outward from there (but always following links from these trusted sites). If you have any experience at all surfing the net, you already know it’s the Wild West out there when it comes to documentation and accuracy. It’s so very easy to wander down one of those electronic rabbit trails, and before you know it, you’re reading about how to cure lymphoma by wearing a crystal around your neck. Know, also, as you cancer-surf, that we all have a common defense mechanism that leads us always to jump to the worst-case scenario. All we need do, sometimes, is glance at a list of possible symptoms, and we’re quite sure we’ve got every one of ‘em. (The defense-mechanism angle is that our subconscious irrationally imagines we can protect ourselves from pain by inoculating ourselves with that same pain, even if there’s scant evidence for it; one of the reasons we have doctors is to protect us from such craziness).  Oh, and the other, similar tip about learning to read a lab report is absolutely correct. Learn what the most important of those little abbreviations on your CBC (complete blood count) mean, so when one of them shows up as elevated, you don’t flip out. Sometimes an elevated count is a big deal, but more often than not, it’s just normal variation.

5.  Feel free to seek a second opinion.
I agree with this as far as it goes, but I’d be much more emphatic. (Deploy megaphone.) GET A SECOND OPINION, STUPID! (Put away megaphone.) Sorry for the “stupid” moniker, but I had to get your attention. It doesn’t matter how much you like and trust the doctor you start with, cancer research is such a huge and complex universe that no single individual could ever be familiar with it all. If your oncologist is any good at all, he or she will have absolutely no problem with your seeking a second opinion, and will probably encourage it. On the other hand, if your oncologist bristles at the suggestion and starts bragging about his or her own medical credentials, then RUN, DON’T WALK to another doctor who better demonstrates the spiritual gift of humility. It’s exactly that sort of fall-in-love-with-yourself pride that leads doctors to overlook important details. Nowhere is this more crucial than in your all-important pathology report. And, do you know what? Your pathologist is by far your most important doctor you never meet. (The pathologist is the one who looks through the microscope at your biopsy slides and identifies your type of cancer cells, carefully counting how many of them there are, which determines the whole course of your treatment.) When you go from your local physician to an evaluation at a major cancer center (or, if you start with a major cancer center and go from one center to another) you get a new pathologist’s opinion along with it. You may well stick with your original doctor after getting the second opinion — or not, it’s up to you — but even if you stick with the original doc, he or she is going to be grateful that you presented the second opinion, which makes diagnosis and staging easier. (IF the doctor’s any good, that is — see “humility,” above.)

4. Pick an oncologist, one you feel comfortable with.  Preferably an expert in your type of cancer.
You DO have a choice. It’s your cancer, so you have a right to find a doctor you have confidence in. Whether it’s your first stop or a second-opinion consultation (see above), I HIGHLY, HIGHLY recommend checking out a National Cancer Institute (NCI) comprehensive cancer center. These are the cancer research hospitals that have access to the most up-to-date research findings and are able to point you to clinical trials, if that’s called for. If it’s a long journey between your home and a comprehensive cancer center, then consider working through a local oncologist who has strong ties with one of those centers (that’s what I do). And by the way — this is also real important — the mark of a good cancer hospital is not, I repeat, NOT how much money said hospital spends on TV advertising. The most prolific advertisers among cancer-treatment hospitals are certain for-profit institutions who garner impressive treatment results by cherry-picking the most treatable patients on the front end, discouraging those whose prognosis is less positive. (You won’t find these big advertisers on the NCI’s list, and there’s a reason for that.) This is ethically questionable behavior on the part of those who most stand to profit financially from that sort of approach. As with anything else that's driven by the profit motive, caveat emptor.

3. Continue to celebrate life in spite of cancer. You still have your identity. Don’t lose it. Participate in hobbies, live life and do the things you love to help keep you focused.
We’ve already established that a cancer diagnosis rocks your world. But that doesn’t mean you need to stand idly by and let it take over your world. Don’t let yourself become a cancer victim. Be a cancer SURVIVOR. There’s a huge difference, that has a lot to do with the degree to which you spit in cancer’s face and go on living your life, anyway.

2.  Find ways to relax and cope (yoga, guided imagery, music, hobbies, faith etc.). 
OK, I’ve elevated this to number 2, even though I have a major quibble with how it’s worded. Faith is not, I repeat, NOT in the same league as music, hobbies and the other items on that little list. There’s a common tendency in our non-sectarian society to label faith a “leisure activity” and lump it in with all sorts of more trivial  pursuits. A cancer diagnosis doesn’t just rock your world, it rocks your spiritual world. Whatever sort of faith you profess, this is the time when you most need to get serious about your faith-tradition and tap its resources. The benefit of doing that goes way beyond merely “relaxing and coping.” Your house of worship, if you have one — church, synagogue, meeting-house, temple, whatever — is the place to wrestle with the big questions, with help and advice from wise guides who have the life-experience and faith-experience to help you sort these issues out. (If you don’t have a house of worship, I advise you to find one.) Remember, houses of worship were in the healing business long before hospitals even existed. Nowadays, they perform their acts of healing alongside of, and in sync with, medical science, which means you get the best of both worlds. Your house of worship is also a great place to connect with friends who can, indeed, “help you” (see number 8, above).

And now, ladies and gentlemen, the number one tip for dealing with a new lymphoma diagnosis...

1. Take a deep breath and go easy on yourself.
Know that right now, today, is just about the worst time in the whole progression of your disease, whatever the ultimate outcome. Diagnosis is hard. (I’m not talking about it from the doctor’s standpoint, but from yours.) It’s hard because, in running the race for a deeper, more all-encompassing health, now is the time when you have to go from zero to a hundred in a matter of feet, not miles. So, treat yourself right, especially at this time. In the eyes of your Creator — not to mention those of your family and friends, and even yourself — you’re worth it. You really are.

Go ahead, now, if you’d like, and check out the other items on the original list. Most of them are pretty good, and very much worthy of mention. But these are my Top Ten, and I’m sticking with ‘em.

Finally, take a look at this short video, which comes from the same Lymphoma Club website. It’s guaranteed to lift your spirits and give you hope.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

April 2, 2013 – By Name

Episcopal Rector Gary Jones, a fellow cancer survivor, writes of a recent visit to his oncologist’s office that revealed to him a little bit of Easter.

Gary hadn’t been to the office for some time, and looked quite a bit different from when he had been going there regularly for his chemo treatments. His hair had come back, for one, but he also knew he looked and felt stronger and more fit.

He heard a nurse in an adjoining room call out his name, as the next patient to be seen.  “Gary Jones,” she said, in a deadpan, professional tone. But then, she recognized the name. “GARY JONES!” she cried, with laughter in her voice, and came running out to greet him with a smile.

Let’s have Gary continue the story himself:

“At first, she didn't recognize me, because she had never seen me with hair.  And besides, I had started weeping when I heard her calling my name.  I don’t know what happened to me; I just couldn’t help it.

But I recognized her.  She had cared for me for months.  She was my sister, my mother, my friend, my priest.  In the way that Jesus intended us to be for each other, I realized that she was my Lord, whom I recognized when she called my name.

Ubi caritas, Deus ibi est.  ‘Where there is love, God is there.’”

What a blessing it is to be recognized. And what a further blessing it is to be recognized by name! We honor one another when we welcome one another by name.

As Jesus honored Mary Magdalene, that Resurrection Day. And as he honors us, still.

Happy Easter Season!

(Gary is Rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.)