Monday, February 20, 2012

Revlimid, in retrospect

Now that my year-and-a-half experiment with Revlimid -- aka lenalidomide -- is likely done for good, I think it's appropriate to sum up what I've learned.

Blogs tend to blurt out information that gets disconnected after awhile; my training as a feature writer tells me to sum up and provide context. For those chronic lymphocytic leukemia patients considering Revlimid, I hope my anecdotal experience might be of some use, which is why I am writing this.

I say "anecdotal" with all the usual warnings, as in YMMV -- Your Mileage May Vary -- and with this drug, it probably will. 

Pills are small and easy to take, but this one is not, on so many levels. For a little capsule that's supposed to be an "immunomodulator," it can easily provide more grinding fits and challenges than regular chemo. In CLL, lenalidomide comes with a wide degree of patient tolerance issues. One of them ultimately derailed the drug for me, but until it did, this stuff was almost golden.

Today, it is being eclipsed by the buzz about kinase inhibitors with license-plate names: CAL-101, ABT-199, AVL-292, PCI-32765, and so on. These drugs are in trials with promising results; while they may end up being a first choice over lenalidomide for many patients, in some cases they may not. Revlimid is here to stay for CLL, and it is a useful option to have. I used it from March 2010 until November 2011, with three months off starting in March 2011.

Revlimid modulates the immune system. Somehow. And in people with weakened immunity, such as CLL, this can do a couple of great things. One, it can cut down on infections, sinus and otherwise. In fact, it has been suggested that low doses of lenalidomide can be given to older people -- not necessarily CLLers, just older people who tend to get sicker easier -- as a means of keeping the immune system more functional. I have been fortunate in my CLL career not to have been especially infection-prone, despite my immunoglobulins being in the tank for nine years. While on Revlimid I was infection free -- not even a sinus minus clogging up my yap.

Revlimid normalized my blood counts, and it has done this for a lot of people. My absolute lymphocyte count wasn't too high to start with, as most of my disease is located in my 11q-deleted lymph nodes. But at one point my CBC became picture-perfect, frame-able even. You couldn't tell by the numbers that anything was wrong.

And this is a really big deal -- while using Revlimid, my very nasty, recurring case of autoimmune hemolytic anemia resolved. From the moment that the AIHA was diagnosed in March 2007, until Revlimid put a stop to it, I was bedeviled by serious hemolysis and treatments that began to fail, one after another, until I was left getting pretty heavy chemo (Rituxan, dexamethasone, and cyclophosphamide) as frequently as every three months. And there was some question about how long that could continue before a splenectomy became a necessity.

Dr. Asher Chanan-Khan, probably the country's leading lenalidomide-CLL researcher, told me in an e-mail before I started the drug that he had seen two actively hemolyzing patients -- hemolysis means your macrophages are eating your own red blood cells, which they will continue to do until you have none left and die --  whose hemolysis resolved while on Revlimid.
My own experience has led me to prosthelytize on these pages more than once, and so let me shout it out again for all my AIHA fellow-sufferers to hear: Please, please, consider Revlimid, especially if you are finding that the usual treatments (steroids, rituximab) are failing. If it does for you what it did for me, you'll have enough red blood cells to do some serious dancing in the streets. After a year of Revlimid, my hemoglobin was back up to 15.1 -- the exact number it was at on the day of my CLL diagnosis in 2003. I turned Coombs negative and remain so at this moment.

Revlimid also reduced my lymph nodes to a noticeable degree. I would say -- and I am guessing, since some nodes are more palpable than others -- by up to about half. In a nodey guy like me, that is great news. It took a long time. But it was slow and steady. And in CLL, slow and steady is often all you need to win the race, or at least to stay where you need to be when in competition with the growth of the disease.

Now, here's a real Revlimd success story. I have a friend with 11q-deleted CLL who went into a Revlimid clinical trial as frontline treatment. His lymphocyte count had reached a half-million (that's not a typo). In the trial, patients are upped from 5 mg daily to 25 mg daily over time, if they can tolerate it. And my lucky friend proved able to tolerate it, and to get the benefit from the maximum dosage. 

By the end of his two-year stint, his counts had normalized, what nodes were left were barely palpable, his hemoglobin was high, and a bone marrow biopsy showed improvement. Platelets were a bit low, but you can't have everything, and he's been told they should recover. He had found himself an excellent way to start out controlling his CLL without burning any bridges. He has had treatment, but not chemotherapy, which sets up disease resistance. From all indications, he can go on to do any other treatment out there, or take advantage of a new treatment that comes along, and he can expect it to work as well on him as if he had never been treated. (And, of course, he can always do more Revlimid at relapse.)

That is great news in the Second Chance department, which is so important in CLL,  and which cannot be understated. Preserving a second chance is what I was trying to do with single-agent Rituxan back in the days before Revlimid. That turned out not to work. Once you've done single-agent Rituxan, you have diminished your response to future treatments. It's not a free ride. But since Revlimid is an immunomodulator and works on totally different principles from chemotherapy, it does not appear to set up disease resistance. (Not that it won't make changes in the immune system, and only time will tell if there's something important about it that researchers and patients have been missing so far.)  But if I were starting out and needing treatment, I would seriously consider Revlimid for the Second Chance reason, as well as for its potential to do the job in the blood, nodes, and marrow that needs to be done.

And if I had been through the chemo mill, and was pretty much out of Second, Third, and Fourth chances, I would also look into Revlimid. There are some CLLers out there who have been kept alive for years now with daily doses of Revlimid. Fate has allowed them to tolerate it, and it works as well on the nasty 17p-deleted CLL clones that are left after the Chemo Wars as on the "nice" ones you tend to find more of at the start. For these people, Revlimid truly is golden.  

Dosages are tricky. Not everyone can tolerate 25 mg. Celgene, the drug's maker, has recommended that as a routine matter, CLLers not be given more than 10 mg daily. Some patients are coasting along at 5 mg, in maintenance. Some can tolerate 10, some higher. Some can't tolerate it at all.

In my case, doses as low as 5 mg have caused problems. I'll get into that in a minute. Suffice it to say that the higher the dose you can take, the more the drug will probably be able to do for you. Finding that right dose, and watching out for symptoms that could indicate drug intolerance, requires a great deal of patience. It helps to have a doctor who has used the drug in CLLers, or at least in those for whom it was originally intended, patients with MDS. You need to be aware of your body and on top of symptoms if you are going to experiment with it, and let's face it -- in CLL, Revlimid is still experimental.

Revlimid can also make you feel kind of out of it. Before I get into more serious tolerance issues, one thing my friend and I both noticed, and that some others have noticed, too, is that lenalidomide can bring a certain dullness to your life. I wouldn't say fatigue, necessarily. But this drug is the enemy of multi-tasking. It can lead to a lack of focus or sharpness. You can operate heavy machinery, you can go to work, you can do all the things you normally do, but somehow you do these things slower, or somewhat more detached, or in a somewhat foggy world involving less concentration. This is not a good-time, party drug. When Marilyn and I flew back East for my step-mom's big 70th birthday bash, I stopped taking Revlimid a few days before. I knew that if I were off of it, I'd be enjoying the party and making conversation. If I were on it, I'd be sitting in a corner trying to remember who so-and-so was from a distance. Suffice it to say that lenalidomide is no help with libido, either. While not everyone reports these sorts of symptoms, It's ongoing use could lead to a somewhat lower quality of life in some respects. That's not enough to make it not a choice, but it's potentially part of the experience (and for some it does get better over time.)

Revlimid can lead to serious clotting issues. This is one of those things that Celgene is very up-front about, and that the nurses who dispense the drug are always reminding you of.

By now, if you've read CLL Diary, you know that clotting was my problem, and that this shifted the risk-reward scale in favor of abandoning lenalidomide. To recap, I have a family history of clotting troubles. My mother died of a pulmonary embolism at 57,  just two years older than I am now. Her older son -- my older half-brother -- suffered several strokes, one of which took his life this past July at the age of 66. I saw him become bedridden and incontinent, barely able to move one hand, hardly able to swallow, eventually surviving through a stomach plug. I saw him decline, both physically and mentally. One night, a few weeks before he died, in a moment of frightening clarity, he shouted something from the hospital bed that had been set up in his living room: "What a miserable existence!"

It is possible to live with CLL and have good quality of life. In the QOL department, there are many worse conditions to have, not all of them cancerous. Staring my brother's fate in the face, I was ever reminded that worse things could await me if I were not careful.

I had two transient ischemic attacks, aka mini-strokes, while on lenalidomide, and then a third incident that probably qualified as something of the same. The first incident came about four months in, while I was on 10 mg daily, and involved about ten minutes of aphasia, or language difficulty. It resolved completely, and I ignorantly chalked it up to "chemo brain" and put it out of my mind. 

The second attack came some some months later, after things had been going so well that my oncologist gave me the go-ahead to up the dose to 15 mg daily. We wanted to go in and get at those nodes. After a week or so, the same language difficulty appeared again, also for about ten minutes. This time I went to see the doc, and she put two and two together, and clotting issues took center stage.

Which is why, like my lucky friend, who underwent a supervised trial in which Coumadin was required prophylaxis, I would not advise anyone to go on Revlimid without also going on Coumadin, or warfarin. Even if you don't think you have a clotting problem, it is wise to guard against it. If it is good enough for Dr. Chanan-Khan's patients, it should be good enough for your doctor's, too. Like any prophylactic drug we CLLers take -- such as allopurinol, acyclovir, or Bactrim -- it is designed to guard against a problem occurring. And at a low dose, such as 2 mg daily, it should not present a problem for most people. It is insane not to do it, IMHO.

The third incident occurred in September of last year, and came and went over the course of a week. By that time, I was on higher doses of warfarin, which were not improving my clotting time much at all, and lower doses of Revlimid, such as 5 mg three times a week. I felt a transient numbness on the left side of my mouth, sort of the way you feel after you've been to the dentist and the Novocaine has started to wear off. Simultaneously, I also felt this numbness in my left hand. This resolved after about 15 minutes, but it came and went for short periods during the following week.

Finally, of course, there is the story of my lenalidomide gotterdammerung and the abscessed lymph node, catalogued a few posts back complete with messy photos. Despite a year-and-a-half of being on the drug (and sometimes off of it), resuming it at 5 mg just four days in a row caused such unholy tumor flare as to land me in the hospital.

Which leads me to a final point: Revlimid can do unanticipated things to the immune system. In my case, it appeared to goose it up over time. There was a three-month period, starting in March 2011, when I was off the drug. I was, in part, expecting to get a slot in a kinase inhibitor trial, which did not pan out, and I needed to be "drug free" for 28 days before starting the trial.

Just before resuming Revlimid after this hiatus, I came down with a case of hives. This was unusual, since my allergies don't usually take that form. It resolved with Benadryl (speaking of Zombie drugs) and I went on to restart Revlimid at a general course of 5 mg three days a week. Over the course of the last summer, I was constantly getting hives, several times a week. Move me to a spot with a new allergen, and it would start. Let me get a little sweaty in Arizona in the summer -- which is impossible not to do -- and the the hives would come again. It was all easily controlled; in fact I began taking Allegra every other day just to keep it away. But something in my immune reaction was more hair-trigger, way more prone to act quickly than it had been in the past.

My theory -- and, again, this is anecdotal guesswork -- is that Revlimid, which had rewritten my immune system in some good ways, also rewrote it in some more dangerous ones. A recent paper by Dr. Chanan-Khan and others discusses mechanism of action at some length, and basically points out that lenalidomide works best when there are lots of NK and T-cells present. (The latter, little marvels, also surveil against squamous cell skin cancer, another problem I've had, and something common to CLLers; Revlimid appears to have kept a lid on those, too.)

The paper, Tumor flare reaction associated with lenalidomide treatment in patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia predicts clinical response, is worth reading if you're thinking of taking the lenalidomide leap. It appeared in the May 15, 2011 issue of Cancer, which is published by the American Cancer Society. Now, here is where I teach you to fish. Most journals that usually charge for articles will provide one free for the personal use of a patient if you just write and ask. In this case, contact canceredoff at 

Tumor flare, the paper explains, predicts response in Revlimid. There is a two-thirds chance that you will encounter it. From the very beginning, tumor flare was always a challenge for me. It came on big when I first started the drug, then remained at a lower but tolerable level during treatment as the ongoing battle with the nodes was engaged. What happened at the end with the abscess was one for the record books. Again, just a guess, but I wonder if the Revlimid had created in me a condition by which my immune system overreacted when the Revlimid itself was re-introduced at a 5 mg sustained dose, higher than I had been taking for some time.

Talk about ironic. In many ways, I responded very well to Revlimid, perhaps a little too well. It created too much fire to play with.

But it got me through a rough patch when I needed it, and it saved my ass in 2010 and much of 2011, getting me in a bumpy fashion to the great hope of 2012, kinase inhibitors.

So, thank you Celgene. And if you, fellow patient, are in the right position to tolerate it, Revlimid could be an important option for treatment. Just consider that it may not be easy, and do expect the unexpected.

(A final note: readers will recall that I began my Revlimid regimen in 2010 along with infusions of ofatumumab, aka Arzerra. The Arzerra was stopped after September's dose as the Revlimid appeared to be doing most of the work; I was on (and off) Revlimid for another eleven months after the Arzerra ended, so I do not think it clouds the story much. The one thing it may have done is mitigate the tumor flare I experienced at the beginning; perhaps it also served to keep the immune-goosing effects of the Revlimid somewhat in check.)

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Some good news . . .

It looks like things may be working out for me after all, both in terms of doctors and treatments. After enduring the perfect storm of departing doctors, booming disease, and insurance headaches described in recent posts, there may indeed be calm in the eye of the hurricane. One might even say that change can be good, even though the circumstances leading to it have been just about as bad as I could imagine.

But I have learned not to count my chickens until they're in the house bawking, so the fewer details I go into now the better. In about another month, if all goes as I hope, I may have some good news to report here. In the meantime, I'll just shut up and deal with pressing matters at hand. Thank you all for your love and support and advice.

Part of the CLL journey is luck. . . . Luck in terms of the disease, luck in terms of its responsiveness to treatment, but also luck with being there at the right time when the right person or thing comes along. You may be less lucky in one area than another, but what counts is, somehow, that you muddle on through and also create opportunities for luck. 

Even in the darkest hour, do not stop trying, and do not be afraid to shoot for "yes" when only "no" seems possible.  When your life is at stake, there are no excuses for not going "all in" to find opportunities, even if it seems you don't have a lot to go "all in" with. You've got yourself, and you've got your loved ones, and that is everything. If you don't think you're worth the fight, or that they're worth the fight, then you have bigger problems than CLL.

I'm in my ninth year of dealing with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. I've changed my mind about some things over time, but two things seem as true to me today as when I started: One, deal with your emotional baggage going in, or start working at it then and don't stop until you have reached a clear place where you can get your game on and fight most effectively. Two, never panic. Do not let fear dictate rash action, no matter how pressing the need for action may seem. 

I'm going to add a third bit of advice now: Don't be afraid to put your eggs in more than one basket (I must have chicken on the brain today). Cast around, Look everywhere. Opportunity comes to those who seek it, and my guess is that success will ultimately come to those who are willing to give up everything (including time and money) for it.

And please keep in mind that you do need a good doctor, or good doctors, to help make things happen. You can only go so far alone, and there is a big difference between feeling that you are carrying your doctor, or that your doctor is carrying you.