Thursday, January 03, 2013

Red cell rebound

I knew I was feeling more energetic recently when, after going up and down the stairs moving a dozen cardboard boxes, I didn't feel especially winded.

Contrast this with not all that long ago, when just getting myself up the 14 steps was challenge enough.

My latest CBC confirms what I suspected -- some six weeks after finishing Round 5 of bendamustine and rituximab, my red cells have recovered to the levels they were at before marrow impaction by CLL forced me into chemo.

With a hemoglobin of 13.3, I feel like a new man, or at least not an old one. After living for more than a year with steadily declining red counts that put me in the 7s at one point, I realize now the subtle effect that growing anemia can have. At a hemoglobin of 11 I can feel almost normal, but lacking the energy edge of 13. At 9 I can function, but need a nap and am loathe to take on physical projects. At 7, well, it's a strain to climb the stairs.

Platelets are at 134, about where they were when all this began. Absolute lymphocytes are at 1.8. Lymph nodes are significantly reduced and my weight is in the low 170s, where it has not been in two decades. I look a lot less pregnant -- sorry folks, no alien baby will be bursting forth this year.

So, my initial verdict on BR is that it worked pretty well on me. Considering that I am ten years into this fight and have had multiple treatments, it was reassuring to see that I responded and responded well.

I'll be paying a visit to CLL expert Dr. Thomas Kipps next week and will be curious about his take on my response, as well as the state of my abdominal lymph nodes via a thorough physical examination. 

I'll also ask him about possible maintenance treatments and/or treatments at relapse, including what may be available in clinical trials. One thing I am certain of is that I do not want the disease to get out of hand as it did in 2012; B-R has not been easy and there is no guarantee that I will respond well to it in the future. 

My local oncologist is floating the idea of Campath, aka alemtuzumab, for maintenance. He's aware that it doesn't do much on nodes larger than 5 cm, which I may still have somewhere. And since bulky disease has always been my problem, I am a little loathe to go this direction.

What's more, Campath is severely immunosuppressive, killing off T cells as well as B cells, and leaving some CLLers with all the immunity of your average AIDS patient. I have had pretty good quality of life when it comes to avoiding nasty infections, and I am not disposed to open myself up to juggling pneumonia, shingles, and who-knows-what-else.

The extensive rash I wrote about in my last post has finally gone away with the help of a two-week course of oral dexamethasone. The biopsy came back as "hypersensitive dematitis" with no sign of CLL infiltration. Which is what I figured before the dermatologist punched holes in my skin.

My oncologist thinks the rash might have been an allergy to Rituxan, perhaps less so an allergy to bendamustine. But no one knows for sure. 

So I have one last question for Dr. Kipps: Is it worth doing the last round of B-R, and doing it more than a month behind schedule? My tendency is to go for it, if this is my best shot at using it to nail down the best remission possible, perhaps without the R, just to stay on the safe side of any possible rash. 

Meanwhile, I still have more boxes to move. It's the simple things in life that count and it's good to feel like a human being again.