Saturday, July 18, 2009

There's no toxin like Cytoxan

Well, there probably is, but new lyrics are running through old songs in my post-chemo haze. “There’s no business like show business” is the tune, and I suppose that having had a round of RCD last week was getting down to business, so that’s why it turned into a rather annoying song looping through my head.

RCD is Rituxan + Cyclophosphamide (aka Cytoxan) + Dexamethasone, which is a protocol used by Dr. Kanti Rai and his group to combat autoimmune disorders, such as AIHA and ITP, in CLL patients. I, of course, am graced with the AIHA (autoimmune hemolytic anemia), a side effect of CLL gumming up the immune system, which periodically leads to bouts of hemolysis, in which macrophages destroy my red blood cells.

I had a variant of RCD for three rounds at the end of 2007 -- click on "AIHA" under "Posts by Topic" on the right for the whole saga --
which held me pretty well. But it did not involve the same steroid program as used in the protocol, which is 12 mg of dex given over seven days. I entered treatment then in a severe hemolytic crisis, made worse by the failure of my hapless Dr. O’Leary to see the depth of the problem, which necessitated a change of doctors in the middle of the red blood stream. Fortunately for me, my beloved Dr. Belle had just resumed her practice. For a couple of weeks there, I was on my own, doctorless, taking 72 mg of methylpredisolone daily in a desperate attempt to slow the loss of hemoglobin, which fell to 6.6 at its worst.

As we began the treatment
s — first with a little vincristine, which we quickly dropped due to side effects — we stepped down the methylprednisolone. The Cytoxan was doing the work.

Well, chronic disease is chronic disease. And like an annoying, insistent, door-to-door missionary, CLL is always capable of ringing the bell. It did that again shortly before Christmas 2008, which I wrote about here. I was put on 4 mg of dex, upped to 8 mg when that stopped working so well, to control the AIHA over the holidays, then given Rituxan and Cytoxan in January to nail it.

Readers know that Dr. Belle and I hav
e been experimenting with treatments since then, starting with the rather useless R-FFP. I noticed that my red counts were beginning to head south again at some point not too long after R-FFP concluded, so seeking to nip hemolysis in the bud, we did a week of pulsed dexamethasone (four days of 40 mg/day — quite a dose, but similar to what is given to ITP patients) and one round of standard-dose 375mg/m2 Rituxan. It did wonders, for a month, but while the numbers held, the nodes began to creep back. Then we decided to try more pulsed steroids -- this time, a gram of methylprednisolone by IV on one day, plus that standard-dose Rituxan.

The theory, which has been demonstrated in studies, is that there is a synergy between the methylprednisolone and Rituxan that seems to be more powerful than that between Rituxan and dex. But, then again, there's the real world of the particular patient. I have had a lot of methylprednisolone since
my AIHA diagnosis in March 2007, with the resulting time to grow refractory to it. We tried the pulsed dose recently to see how I would respond, this being a sort of trial run at the idea of maybe doing R-HDMP.

Well — surprise, surprise — just a couple of weeks afterward the red counts began to show a subtle drop again, I was alerted to this by more-orange-than-average urine (hemolysis warning sign No. 1) that I have described in the past. The conclusion: methylprednisolone is not going to do much for me, and neither is Rituxan along with it.

The RCD protocol no doubt involves the “D” for a reason, and this time we followed it close to religiously, other than my starting the seven days of dex a little ahead of schedule to keep the hemolysis in check over the weekend. I am pleased to report that Friday’s CBC shows a remarkable recovery of the red counts — heck, my hemoglobin went from 12 to 14 in a week, and the overall RBC jumped from 3.91 to 4.43.

Some conclusions

Part of the purpose of this post, which I am dashing off during what is laughingly referred to as a “day off” around here, is to put forward some insights on steroids, AIHA, and treatment based on my experiences. They come with that anecdotal warning, as well as that internet adage, YMMV:

AIHA patients often face a progressive order of attempting to control the condition. First steroids are usually given, but those can cease to work. Rituxan may be next (or may be given with the steroids), and th
at can cease to work. At that point, you’re looking at heavier-duty chemo. R-CVP is similar to RCD but involves vincristine, which can lead to neurological problems and which by my experience should be avoided unless truly necessary. RCD is gentler and (for me, so far) quite adequate to the task.

It does involve Cytoxan, which is a venerable old toxic drug used in many cancers, and which may be somewhat better than average at getting at 11q-deleted CLL, which I have. Cytoxan (good PDF here, and yes, the more powerful the drug the more fire you play with; this beggar can't be as choosy as he used to be) gives me few side effects, at least that I can see or feel anyway. Lord knows if it's setting up some mutagenic condition that could lead to another cancer, or to further disease resistance on the part of my CLL clones, but remember that line about beggars.

I don't lose my hair, but I don’t have much left to lose anyway. The drug tends to destroy rapidly-reproducing cells, taxing the stomach lining, but it has not given me nausea, only the desire to eat bland food for a few days. I do get GERD
, which I find to be easily controlled with Prilosec OTC.

Speaking of food, with all those steroids as well as the Cytoxan, be aware of your glucose. I avoid sugary, carby things as much as possible during the treatment window and I have no hint of diabetes. Still, my glucose, when tested, goes higher than the norm.

I also get more easily fatigued by the changes the drugs wreak in my body, especially when Cytoxan is part of the equation. I have lost at least 15 pounds in a week, much of which appears to be lymph node weight. (People say I look wonderful after chemo.) The neck nodes, which were brought down nicely by the pulsed steroids without the Cytoxan, were brought down much more dramatically with the Cytoxan. I have a lot of abdominal nodes, and for the last couple of nights have been able to sleep comfortably on my stomach — a sign that progress has been made in these unseen areas, too.

Because of tumor lysis — C
LL cell kill, with all the dead cells making their way through your kidneys — it is important to stay well hydrated. I drink at least a gallon of water the day before, of, and after my treatment. (And I use allopurinol -– a commonly-given drug that helps control uric acid -– a few days before, and continue it as long as the cell kill remains.) Then I keep on drinking as much water as I can stand. Even with all that, Friday’s blood test showed my BUN was high, not untypical considering all the cell-kill my body had been through.

The water also helps protect your bladder from the Cytoxan, and you should go with the flow, pee whenever you need to just to keep the stuff moving through. Watch the serum sodium results on your metabolic panel, as well — this can dip, so you may want to consider drinking salty water or eating salty foods for a week or so after treatment.

Keep in mind also that steroids are immunosuppressive and that Cytoxan is immunosuppressive, so staying on prophylactic meds -- acyclovir, diflucan, Bactrim -- during this period are part of the tools of the trade of the appropriately cautious doctor and patient.

RCD (dex pills in photo below) works for me where Ritu
xan alone, and Rituxan with pulsed methylprednisolone (HDMP), do not.

I have been around the steroid block enough now to have some feel for how I react to them. Steroids are excellent though transient reducers of lymph nodes. But they come with enough bad side effects — osteoporsis for one — especially when given in smaller, long-term doses, that they should be used sparingly. (Big, pulsed doses appear to be safer, based on information from UC San Diego and elsewhere, but that's still powerful stuff going into your veins.)

I find that node reduction in steroid-Rituxan combinations still rests largely with the ability of the steroids. (The Rituxan helps more with the cell kill, providing a somewhat deeper, though still shallow, remission.) Once you add Cytoxan, the game changes, at least in me. The nodes reduce as much again as before, and the remission lasts far longer.

Another thing I have noticed along the way is that the mental effects of the 'roids (such as sleeplessness) seem more pronounced when I am on smaller doses than when I have undergone the big pulses. Methylprednisolone at 72 mg and less tended to make me worry things a little, but not at 1 gram. Forty milligrams of dex over four days had the mental effect of drinking water, but give me 12 mg and my brain shoots into overdrive, getting very detailed about things, and I have trouble sleeping. (It should go without saying that dose equivalencies among steroids vary greatly -- this converter can come in handy.)

I expect to be undergoing more rounds of RCD, then perhaps to have a CT scan to see where the nodes stand abdominally, where they are worse than neckly and underarmly, to coin some medical phrases.

Right now I look like a slimmed down picture-of-health, ready to absorb all those laudatory comments from friends and acquaintances who wonder what kind of a marvelous crash diet I've been on.


Anonymous said...

So far, you seem to be making good decisions. That is due to either intelligent planning, or luck.

My 11q on the other hand was not affected by cyclophosphamide (cytoxan), nor did my lymph nodes decrease in size.

This is a maddening disease. I feel terribly well, but my hematologist is increasingly frantic about treating me, and I guess she's right.

I do just hate to go into another clinical trial with all of the side effects possible (including heart attacks, strokes, seizures, etc.).

The 11q deletion carries with it a 'grim' or 'dire' prognosis. It is difficult to deal with those terms, and the median survival times. I deal with it by denying it. When you feel fine, that's easy to do, no?

Anonymous said...

I found that exercise is the best anti-depressant on the market. It is almost impossible to think of yourself as sick when you're flowing in motion, whether it be a brisk walk, or dancing, riding a bike, whatever. Lifting weights (even if only a few pounds) also tightens the muscles and affords a sense of well-being. These are mental effects, but as I've written here before, I also believe that exercise is keeping me alive and in long-term remission from an initial diagnosis, and then a relapse three years later, of stage IV CLL (the latter being ten years ago now).


Grateful said...

Glad to hear the good news!

David Arenson said...

We can plan intelligently until the cows come home, but a lot of this comes down to luck. I believe this more and more the longer I live with CLL and the more case histories I see.

A couple of thoughts:

11q is not a monolith.

There’s someone who posts to CLL Forum who also has the 11q deletion and has had it for many years. Her disease has been remarkably stable and she has not been treated. She sees Dr. John Byrd, who is in the forefront of this sort of research, and he has told her that in some cases they are finding 11q to be (my term here) “better than expected.” That doesn’t make it good, of course, but there is a spectrum, or bell curve to it. It appears that on the bad end it is indeed bad, and on the good end it is not as bad as perhaps initially thought.

I think the question is, how has one’s 11q deletion affected the p53 pathway – do you still have some ATM (programmed cell death) functionality? ATM is located on the long arm of chromosome 11, hence the tag of 11q. (It is not present on the short or “p” arm of the chromosome.) Monoallele deletion -- which is what I have -- means the relevant bit is broken off of the long arm of one of the set of two chromosomes #11. Biallele deletion means that both of the chromosomes 11 have lost the ATM gene. It stands to reason, and appears to be born out clinically, that the monoallele deletion is the half a loaf that is better than none; how long it will stay that day, given the vagaries of clonal evolution, is anyone's guess.


It’s interesting how much more energetic I have begun to feel a few days post-chemo. Losing the lymph node bulk freed my body of a lot of weight, as well as perhaps of a lot of work. I am much more nimble moving heavy boxes, running up and down stairs, doing the painting and fixing that needs to be done around here as we remodel. And I’m off the steroids, so it’s not that. I am “healthy” enough to begin to enjoy exercising again.

Anonymous said...

People here are probably sick of hearing me advocate for exercise, but it's one thing you can do for yourself to help fight the disease, it's natural, and all the side-effects are good ones. Anyone can get fitter, and by so doing he gets healthier. It's that simple.