Sunday, May 06, 2012

Hurry up and wait

Those of us with chronic lymphocytic leukemia are familiar with the concept of "watch and wait," which means being a patient patient while your disease take its course. This can involve a certain degree of dis-ease (pun intended) as you and your doctor lurk about, waiting for just the right moment to begin treatment, should that become necessary. 

Of late I feel like I've been experiencing something called "hurry up and wait," which is what you do when your disease definitely needs treatment but you are waiting for the best treatment option to make itself available, which is supposed to happen Any Day Now.

"Watch and wait" drives Type A personalities a little bit crazy, which isn't really a problem for me. "Hurry up and wait," on the other hand, can be a bit of a challenge.

In my case, since the end of the Revlimid era last November, the CLL has taken a turn for the worse, compounded by departing doctors, insurance runarounds, and potential clinical trials that have proven to be trials in more ways than one. I've written about some of this, and am here to provide a little update now.

The good news is that Any Day Now there should be an opening in a kinase inhibitor trial with my name on it. I've been waiting on two such choices for a while. 

The first, which I'll call Trial One, almost came to fruition six weeks ago. In fact, I was all dressed up for extensive testing for a trial slot, only to arrive and find I had no place to go. Seems an "adverse event" in the trial of said inhibitor had just raised a big red flag at corporate headquarters and further patient accrual was being put off. All this happened in real time as I sat in my hotel, or in the Vietnamese restaurant adjacent to my hotel. Eventually I was sent home with the knowledge that while Trial One was probably out for the forseeable future, there was a Trial Two that would have an opening in another month, give or take.

And, so, here I wait at home, far from pho, disappointed but cautiously optimistic that I might make it into the second trial, in which no adverse events have been reported to date, at least that I know of.

You could argue that I am lucky the adverse event in Trial One didn't happen to me. It was an unexpected case of severe tumor lysis, apparently, which means massive, immediate die-off of leukemia cells that, uncontrolled, can damage the kidneys. Trials are called trials for a reason, and as much as we like to think of ourselves as intelligent, forward-thinking patients, we are also in fact risk-taking lab rats when we sign on the dotted line. So maybe I dodged a bullet by not making it into Trial One, which would not have been so disappointing had the principal investigator not been so genuinely enthusiastic about its potential to help me.

Now, I could go into names of drugs and names of doctors here, but what I have heard is second-hand, and I'm not in the business of reporting such things as absolute fact. This is a blog, not journalism, and there is a huge difference between the two that I still hold somewhat sacred, having worked in the news business back when double-checking the facts counted for something.

To keep my CLL at bay while waiting for trials, I have been taking huge pulsed doses of steroids every few weeks. My new local hem/onc calls it the "myeloma dose" -- 40 mg of dexamethasone daily for four days. The advantage is that it does reduce the nodes temporarily, and it has bettered my platelets a bit (they're now at 101) while perhaps also keeping my hemoglobin steady in the low 9s, which isn't so awful once you get used to it. Plus the steroids leave your system in under six days, and the prophylactic meds (antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals) also leave quickly, meaning that you can be ready to qualify for a clinical trial without a long delay.

Since 2007, I've had a fair amount of experience with steroids, about which I plan to write at some point soon. I think they're a good but problematic stop-gap, and nothing more. Steroids are a potentially useful component in any "hurry up and wait" strategy, but they're no way to live.

The late Dr. Terry Hamblin once pointed out that in end-stage cases he would prescribe steroids once a month just to keep the patient going, and I can see how, when all else fails, it beats the alternative. 

Fortunately, we now have more alternatives, such as the kinase inhibitors, as well as Revlimid for those who can tolerate it, not to mention the supercharged T cells being studied at such places as the University of Pennsylvania.

Which brings us to the real game to win here. I call it "slow down and wait." By that I mean, allow science to outpace your CLL by just enough that it can save your life. I feel like I'm cutting it close on this one, but there really is no other choice, except to go marching off to the Relapsed-and-Refractory Factory and await the end.

Call me irresponsible, accuse me of "dithering" in the face of my own unplanned obsolescence, but I am not comfortable with following a conventional wisdom that can change from one day, or week, or month, to the next. In CLL, action can mean progress, but it can also mean the illusion of progress. Doing something just to do something may not always be the most rational course. So I often find myself taking my chances with inaction.

"Slow down and wait" involves a certain amount of powerlessness, of accepting things you probably cannot change, among them the possibility that Fate might throw something at you, for good or ill. By making wise (or just plain lucky) treatment choices you might be able to control the disease long enough to buy more time, but there are no guarantees, since the disease can always take a turn for the worse at a whim. As to the pace of scientific progress -- and the availability of its fruits in your locale -- that is all luck, pure and simple. 

So far, I've been fortunate that science has done more since my diagnosis in 2003 than I, or perhaps anyone else, might have expected. My disease behaved decently until last fall, and now has settled into a new plateau, worse than it was but not getting worse, at least yet.

And Any Day Now, well, I hope to be trying a new treatment that might just control this thing. So I'm hurrying up and waiting in order to slow down and wait some more. Welcome to CLL.