Sunday, November 21, 2010

First, the good news

When last we left off on my Revlimid journey, I was planning to increase my dosage from 10 mg daily to 25.

The hope was that the higher dose would bring even more beneficial results, especially in terms of lymph node reduction. The plan was to increase the dose in two-week increments, as is done -– if the patient can tolerate it -– in a clinical trial at the leading center for Revlimid research, Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, NY.   

All went well in the beginning. I did 15 mg for two weeks and then moved to 20. That lasted for four days, after which I was able to answer the question, “Why isn’t every CLL patient on 25 mg?” 

That’s also the “bad news” part of the story, which I will explain in detail soon. But first, there are some other things that deserve to be in the spotlight.

The big picture is that the more I use Revlimid, the more I am convinced of its usefulness. I’m in my ninth month of it, and despite the challenges involved in getting used to the drug and managing symptoms that arise, I have benefited greatly from it.  My autoimmune hemolytic anemia is gone, my blood counts are normal, and the lymph nodes are in retreat.

Tumor flare masks lymph node reduction

One thing I’ve had a hard time figuring out all along is whether the lymph nodes are reducing and by how much. You’ll recall that I had terrible tumor flare in the beginning. After doing the Revlimid Shuffle -– two steps forward and one step back -– my doctor and I  were able to calibrate the dosage so that the flare was no longer an issue. If it was there, it wasn't obvious.

Some time ago, when I was off Revlimid for five days, I noticed that my nodes got smaller. After I stopped 20 mg, I was off Revlimid for 16 days. The nodes again reduced, and kept on reducing over the entire period, which confirmed my earlier experience. This tells me that low-level tumor flare is continuous when I am on the drug, and that when I am off it the nodes recede toward their real baseline. (This is all good; tumor flare is generally considered to be evidence that the drug is working.)

To determine the actual progress I’ve made these past nine months, I would need to be off Revlimid for several weeks, after which I would need to undergo a CT scan to compare to the one I had when I started.

Since that’s not going to happen anytime soon, I am left with the second-best option, namely self-groping and educated guessing. By that measure -– and being conservative in my judgment -– I’d say the nodes are one-quarter to one-third smaller. 

As someone whose disease has become node-based over time, and who probably has more disease bulk that 99% of CLL Revlimidians out there, I cannot tell you how important it is to see such progress. 

And seeing is believing. You know you have CLL when you keep a folder of photos on your computer called "My Neck." Looking back at old photos, I can see that my neck is now as slim, on a consistent basis, as it was in 2004. The abdominal nodes are no doubt worse than they were in 2004, but I look less pregnant than I did nine months ago and have lost about 10 pounds since then. 

B2M test is a useful measure of whether Revlimid is working

Over the course of my 7-year CLL career, my B2M, or beta-2-microglobulin, has gradually risen. B2M is a protein shed by CLL cells into blood serum; the more CLL cells there are reproducing and dying, the more your disease is proliferating, the more B2M they put out. So, as a rule, the higher your B2M, the more active your disease. 

If your B2M is below 2.0, you’re considered to have “the good cancer” behaving itself. When your B2M gets past 4.0, MD Anderson says you have “the good cancer” behaving badly, which means you have less manageable, progressing disease.

Looking back on my case history, I think B2M has been an accurate measure. It was 2.2 at diagnosis in 2003, 3.0 by April 2005, 4.9 in January 2007. It has been lower, usually just after chemo has concluded and the disease is in some kind of remission. But in times of no treatment it has risen over the years, finally finding a plateau in the 4s since 2007. In June 2009, my last B2M before starting Revlimid, it was 4.5.

But there is a big caveat when it comes to B2M, During treatment, when tens of millions of CLL cells are being torn to pieces, that B2M protein can also increase in the blood. So in some cases, a high B2M is not cause for alarm. It’s a good sign.

Which brings us to August 30, when I had my first post-Revlimid B2M test. The result was a jaw-dropping 8.8. Things had been going so well. Did this test mean that the disease was progressing anyway?

After my two weeks of 15 mg and four days of 20, the B2M was 11.1. This is so high as to be almost laughable, if not also a little scary. But was it possible that the higher doses were causing more anti-disease activity, which was being reflected in the test?

Two weeks later, after I was on and off the drug and ultimately back on 10 mg, the test came out at 8.8 again.

All of which tells me that my B2M rose with treatment, increased with the higher dosages, then decreased when the dose did. At least in my case, the high B2M seems to be evidence that Revlimid is working, and is therefore jaw-dropping for a good reason.

Au revoir, Arzerra

My treatment began as the “OL Protocol,” modeled after one currently in trial at MD Anderson. The “O” is for ofatumumab, aka Arzerra. The “L” is for lenalidomide, aka Revlimid.  Arzerra is an anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody, much like Rituxan, perhaps better in some ways. MD Anderson had reported that patients treated with rituximab and Revlimid did somewhat better than patients treated with Revlimid alone.

But there has been debate about this all along. Revlimid appears to downregulate CD20 on the surface of B cells, which logically means that anti-CD20 monoclonals should have a harder time working when Revlimid is present. Alternate sequencing strategies –- say, have the Arzerra first, then do the Revlimid -– have been suggested as potentially being more effective. It’s important to remember that Revlimid is still new in CLL, its mechanism of action is not completely understood, and that we are in the trial-and-error phase.

Whatever the reason, except for one brief burst of node-reduction in May, the Arzerra never seemed to do much for me. Perhaps it’s because my CLL cells had little CD20 on them to begin with, which could be the result of using Rituxan over many years. Or maybe the stars weren’t aligned properly. Following my last Arzerra infusion in early September, my oncologist and I concluded that the Revlimid was doing the work and that the Arzerra was just expensive window dressing. So we’ve stopped it, and I’m on the “L” protocol now, which we are devising as we go along.

It appears that, so long as I can tolerate Revlimid and it continues to provide benefits that outweigh the risks -– more on that next time! –- I will be taking it for the foreseeable future.