Sunday, December 04, 2011

A real pain in the neck

And I mean that literally. Yes, that's me, laying in the ER, just after a drain was put into my neck.

It all began with a lymph node under my left jaw that swelled up, and kept swelling and swelling, and swelling and swelling, until I could barely open my mouth. I've heard of CLL patients getting massive nodes before, but this was no ordinary CLL event. 

It turns out that a bit of bacteria, something in the strep family, got caught up in the node and caused an abscess. The CT scan at the ER pegged the node at 5.0 x 4.1 x 3.3 cm. But the way it was stretched over my neck, it felt much larger than that, and measured by touch more like five inches than 5 cm. It was crushing my neck muscles and salivary glands. Had it gone on for much longer it would have dislocated my jaw.

According to the ENT doc, such abscesses are not uncommon among the general population. (Who knew?) At first there was some concern that the abscess could have originated from a necrotic place within the lymph node, but cultures of the chocolate-brown pus showed a garden-variety strep. (The culture report states. "Mixed flora (multiple species present). Predominately Beta Hemolytic Streptococci, Group F.") Fortunately, blood cultures showed no bacteria in the blood, which would have meant sepsis, a much more serious condition and one that would have kept me in the hospital beyond the three days that I was there.
Mmm. Chocolatey brown pus in syringe at left.

I was admitted so that I could receive IV antibiotics, clindamycin, which I am now taking orally at home. The drain is still in my neck and will be there for at least another week.

I haven't been a patient in a hospital since 1964, so the whole routine took some getting used to. Who knew you could order meals at whim off a room service menu these days? Or that the nurse would strap air bags to your legs that puff up and down to prevent deep vein thrombosis? I caught up on my television viewing, even if I didn't get a whole lot of sleep.

I do believe there is a CLL-related cause to all this. Prior to the abscess, I was on Revlimid at 5 mg, for four days in a row. The tumor flare reaction was so incredibly way-over-the-top that my guess is the bacteria made its way into the node as part of that process. The tumor flare was so bad that I had to stop the Revlimid and go on steroids to bring it down.  It was the failure of the one node to go down very much -- and then its ballooning overnight once I went off steroids -- that alerted me to the fact that something unusual was happening.

Now 5 mg of Revlimid over four days is a baby dose, as these things go, and I have been on and off the drug for a year and a half without the monstrous flare I encountered this time. So why the sudden overreaction in terms of tumor flare? 

I can't say. What I can say is that a recent paper shows that tumor flare predicts response to Revlimid in CLL. That's a good thing in my case. But tumor flare like this???

There are a number of things going on that I'll go into later, but suffice to say that I may not be able to tolerate Revlimid to the degree needed to keep using it. I've been off of it since the flare, and until the abscess is gone and the lymph node heals, I can't do anything in terms of treatment that might put stress on the node.

In the meantime I lurk around the house like Frankenstein with one knob. Fortunately I work at home, where I can't scare small children.

This is how the tumor flare in my neck looked after four days of Revlimid, and the photo barely does justice to it; below is my neck in its more normal state some ten days later.