Friday, April 04, 2014

My beloved soulmate, David, died on March 6.

I'll post details when I'm emotionally able.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

The road ahead

I've met with my transplant/CLL doctor, Jose Leis, at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix. He was pleased with my response to Ibrutinib -- dramatic shrinkage of abdominal nodes -- and laid out the course I will be following in the coming months.

For a transplant to have the best chance of success, he emphasized that I need to go into it with nodes no larger than 5 cm. I have a couple of abdominal masses that are well in excess of that, even after eight days of Ibrutinib. Dr. Leis pointed out that Ibrutnib can take a couple of months to reach its maximum effectiveness. So he wants me to stay on it for a few months before we even begin to think about transplant. 

I will likely have a CT scan at the end of that period, and it is possible my disease will be restaged. The hope is that Ibrutinib will do the heavy lifting and get those nodes down. I'll be seeing him once a month, and as we cross various bridges, we'll adjust things as we have to. It's possible that we may add Gazyva (obinutuzumab), the new anti-CD20 monoclonal, at some point, especially if the lymphocyte count in my blood rises dramatically, which is what can happen when Ibrutinib kicks the errant B-cells out of the nodes.

Meanwhile, a donor has been found. Somewhere out there is a man in his 40s who is, as Dr. Leis termed it, a 9.5 out of 10 match. The one allele where there is a mismatch, the DQ, is not clinically significant, according to the doctor. A six-month hold has been placed on the donor, which means he's reserved for me during that time. Let's hope he avoids flying anvils.

We discussed the prospect of Ibrutinib controlling DLBCL without a transplant. Dr. Leis told me this is unproven territory, and my tendency is to go for a transplant, with all the attendant risks. I will never be healthier than I am now, and DLBCL is not CLL. It can kill me, rapidly, and I can tell you from experience that it would be a horrible death, with tumors choking off the body's organs within a month or two. I don't want to die in a hospital, loaded with painkillers, living in a daze.

With most varieties of CLL, time is not of the essence. With aggressive Richter's and resulting DLBCL, the opposite is true. CLL can lead to a certain complacency, but aggressive DLBCL demands action. (The doctor pointed out that DLBCL arising from Richter's is often more aggressive than de novo DLBCL, which arises on its own.)

So things are going my way at the moment. Of course, as Dr. Leis pointed out, there is still a long road ahead, and there's no guarantee that something won't go wrong. But I feel that I'm in good hands, and on the right track. I'm looking forward to a couple of months during which I can gain my strength back following January's chemo, and be in good shape for a transplant.

At least so far, let my story be an example of what can happen when you don't give up. Marilyn was told by more than one doctor and chemo nurse since my Richter's exploded last April that I probably wasn't going to make it. 

Well, here I am, defying the odds. I am reminded of the bell curve. There's a good end of it, and that's where I want to be.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Getting Ibrutinib

Update: Ibrutinib has just been approved by the FDA for CLL, which should make it widely available to CLL and Richter's patients.

I have been on Ibrutinib for just six days now -- 420 mg daily -- and the effect has been nothing short of extraordinary. An abdominal lymph node mass that I keep track of has shrunk considerably and I have lost 14 pounds, most of it edema caused by the swollen nodes blocking things up. My belly has gone from looking about seven months pregnant to about three.

This good response is particularly welcome since Ibrutinib was my last, best hope in terms of therapy to reduce and control my post-Richter's aggressive lymphoma, DLBCL. The smaller the tumor burden when it comes time for transplant conditioning, the better. And if I can enter the transplant with nodes under 5 cm, my chances of success are greatly improved. 

As you may know, Ibrutinib has shown excellent results in clinical trials in both CLL and DLBCL. It's not approved by the FDA for either disease yet, but when it is approved it will no doubt be a game-changer.

But what if you need it now?

As a public service, let me tell you a little bit about my experience of not getting Ibrutinib, and then getting it. It comes down to standard of care -- your local oncologist may lack the wherewithal to get the job done, while a doctor at an institution that provides better care may have a better idea of how the system works and how to get the drug.

Ibrutinib (now also known as Imbruvica) was approved in November by the FDA for Mantle Cell Lymphoma, making it more widely available, including for "off-label" use. I had assumed that one needed to get into a clinical trial to get Ibrutinib. Dr. Droll, my local oncologist, thought maybe I could qualify for compassionate use of the drug. He assigned the task of inquiring to a research nurse in his office, and nothing happened. (He is part of a mid-level, multi-doctor practice, so it's not podunk, but not adequate to the task, either.) He was reticent to pursue off-label use, and my guess is this may have had something to do with the liability policies of his practice.

Meanwhile, January 1 rolled around and, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, I was able to get much-improved insurance through Blue Cross. On January 7, I went in for a transplant consultation with Dr. Jose Leis at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix. Dr, Leis also thought Ibrutinib might be my best option. How do I get my hands on it?, I inquired.

Dr. Leis simply wrote a prescription. Ibrutinib is available at a small number of specialty pharmacies. Back when I took Revlimid, I dealt with one of those -- Biologics, a specialty pharmacy in North Carolina. They would send me a new supply of Revlimid via FedEx once a month.

Well, Ibrutinib is handled in a similar way. In this case, the prescription went to another specialty pharmacy, Avella, which then contacted Blue Cross for approval. The helpful lady at the pharmacy explained that other patients in my situation had all been approved by my insurance, and after about four business days, I was, too. Et voila, a bottle of Ibrutinib was sent to me via FedEx.

No fuss, no muss, and it took about three weeks from the time Dr. Leis wrote the prescription. If you could truly benefit from Ibrutinib and your doctor is telling you it is impossible or nearly impossible to get, that's just not the case. 

One of the great benefits of my new insurance is being able to have access to a higher standard of care. For a patient in a tricky situation, such as myself, this makes an important difference. Dealing with a doctor and a staff who are on top of things, who haven't missed a beat, is a great relief.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Riding the Richter's roller coaster

As the title of this post implies, things have changed since October, when it appeared I had achieved a pretty good response to treatment.

Seven weeks later, in December, I began to relapse, and it has been a tough slog ever since. I could regale you with all the details -- and perhaps someday I will, when I get a chance, which could be coning up soon. The one image I would like to leave you with is New Year's Eve, which I spent in the hospital getting chemo under my old insurance. At the stroke of midnight, my new insurance kicked in. Which, I think, may make me the first person in the country to use their new insurance under the Affordable Care Act. 

As required by the law, my new insurance provides for stem cell transplants, which my old insurance did not (which means, by the way, that Barack Obama may save my life). And so despite the relapse, I have some good news:

I am on track for an allogenic transplant within the next couple of months at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, AZ under the care of Dr. Jose Leis. Mayo has found three potential 10/10 donor matches, a far better pool than I expected given my unusual Jewish-Irish background. 

The success of any transplant depends on the tumor burden going in, and mine has been big. But the Hail Mary chemo I have done (more R-EPCH) has set the DLBCL back. And I have been approved for Ibrutinib, which was Dr. Leis' hope and mine. Studies have shown it to be effective in cases of relapsed aggressive DLBCL, which is what I have. It doesn't work in all cases, but it works in many, so there are still miles to go until I sleep in terms of conditioning for the transplant.

Despite the exhausting roller coaster ride of December and January, I may soon find myself cooped up for 70 days in what they call a transplant pod, with nothing better to do than blog about my experiences -- including some important things I have learned in the past ten years.

My thanks to all of you who have written; I simply haven't had the time to respond personally -- or to write this simple post -- until now. The good wishes of friends and family help keep me going. Most of all, I have the love and incredible strength of my wife, Marilyn. This is our fight. And to paraphrase Churchill, we will never surrender. There have been many truly dark hours, but I see dawn ahead.