Hot Mess, The Heartbreakers, and Hamilton Bound

It’s been a hell of a couple of weeks, both physically and emotionally. I started my new oral chemo, Xeloda and Tykerb, on June 5 and it is officially kicking my ass. The nausea and vomiting that has been dogging me since early this year has amped up as an expected side effect of these new drugs, as has the need to spend way too much time in the bathroom. Plus a new one – lip blisters! In short, I’m a hot mess.

Dr. K has reduced the dose of Xeloda to try and combat some of this, plus added some more symptom relief meds. We’ll see how that works and if we need to tweak the formula a bit more. We are headed out of town tomorrow for a much anticipated trip to Chicago, so it would be great if my body started to cooperate.

Thanks to the generosity of a family member (who shall remain nameless as they value their privacy, but who we appreciate and love so much!), we told Cigna to go fly a kite and paid for my denied brain MRI out of pocket. The results were mixed; there were no brand new metastases detected, but the scan did show that many spots previously treated with gamma knife are growing larger again, much like the spot I had laser ablated in March. This growth is likely due to radiation necrosis, but can cause swelling and other cerebral havoc depending on location and size.

Because of my symptoms and the location of one of these much enlarged spots near the blood brain barrier, Dr. Chiang referred me to Dr. Becker, a neuro-oncologist at Yale, to talk about the possibility of leptomeningeal metastases (LM). We met with him Monday and liked him a lot – he seems very methodical, knowledgeable, and empathetic – a good addition to the “brain trust” we already have on the case. Once we return from our trip, I will be going in for a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to check my CNS fluid for signs of cancer cells. If I do have LM, there are a couple of different drug treatment options that the team will have to discuss, but we will cross that bridge if we come to it. Mentally, we are putting that whole scenario on hold until we get back from our trip.

There were a few bright spots this week. On Wednesday evening, we went to Hartford to see Joe Walsh plus Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, thanks to a wish grant from “Do it for the Love” – an awesome charity that sets up live concert experiences for people dealing with a terminal illness. We had front row seats with a stellar view and were happy to have the company of Cas & Spencer at what turned out to be an incredible concert. I won’t bore non-fans with endless video clips but you can check out my Instagram or Tim’s Facebook if you’d like to have a listen.

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Before the concert, with a photobombing security guy. Thank you Do It For the Love Foundation!

 

Now, it’s on to Chicago & Milwaukee to visit family and friends and see Hamilton (squeeeeeee!). Can’t wait to see some old friends and show Tim around my home state. Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers for a safe and healthy trip.

Chemo Changes

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Cigna has now denied the second request and appeal from my neurosurgeon for a brain MRI to assess for new growth given my daily nausea. That means we won’t be getting a look inside my noggin until early July, the three month post-surgical mark, when they say they will cover it. I could open a patient appeal with Cigna, and/or go to the state board that regulates health insurers and file a complaint, but by the time I spend the mental and physical energy on that and it winds its way through institutional bureaucracy, it will most definitely be well past July and a moot point. I’m saving my sanity and strength, and accepting their decision for now. Life is literally too short.

But we aren’t ignoring the problem. My oncologist Dr. K has suggested a change in chemo to attack any cancer growth in the brain in a non-surgical manner. As I’ve mentioned in the past, most chemotherapies and immunotherapies aren’t helpful in treating cancer spread to the brain because they do not cross the blood brain barrier, the protective three-part layer that surrounds the brain. But some clinical studies have found that the drug combination of Xeloda and Tykerb, two oral chemotherapies, is able to cross that barrier and shrink brain metastases in some women with my type of cancer (HER2+). So I will be making the change as soon as the new drugs arrive from the specialty pharmacy.

I’m a little nervous about saying goodbye to Herceptin and Perjeta, since they’ve worked so well from the neck down for 18 months. But over the past 14 months we’ve treated 25 brain metastases with gamma knife and one of those again with laser ablation, so it feels like this change in strategy is smart. If Xeloda and Tykerb can work some magic up there, at least for a little while, we’ll be in good shape.

ronaldMCDandmeThere are a few cons to the treatment switch. First of all, it isn’t as gentle on the system as my current immunotherapy. I may experience some hair thinning or loss again (just when I was creeping past the Ronald McDonald phase of hair regrowth…sigh). And there’s the usual long laundry list of possible side effects that most chemos have – gastrointestinal chaos, hand/foot syndrome, white cell depletion, etc. But there are medications to combat those side effects and it’s worth it if it works to stop cancer in my brain. It will also be nice to be able to take treatment in pill form instead of getting infusions every three weeks.

Whole brain radiation remains another option for me if my July MRI shows new metastases. But for reasons I’ve talked about previously, I’d like to save that as a last resort.

I’ll keep everyone posted on how the new routine goes. We are getting really excited to go on our trip to Chicago next month – the first in several summer bucket list adventures – so I’m hoping it’s a smooth road!

Much Ado About Pretty Much Nothing

 

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Shirt cred to my sister, Marlo.

It’s a beautiful 78 degree day here in Old Saybrook, which is doing more to improve my mood than just about anything could. Plus I’ve made it through the first half of May without a trip to the hospital (woot!). I’m realizing that it’s been over three weeks since my last update; I’ll try to do better to keep everyone in the loop so you don’t have to email/message/call/send smoke signals to ask what’s up.

More Head Games

After some back and forth with insurance, my neurosurgeon’s office is resubmitting the request for my previously-denied brain MRI. It’s scheduled for May 22nd, assuming it is approved by Cigna. Cigna did respond to my Twitter rant about the first refusal and offered a peer-to-peer physician review of my case with Dr. Chiang, so given that and the fact that I’ve had non-stop nausea for the past couple of weeks (a sign there may still be something going on up there in my noggin), we are fairly confident it will be approved this time.

Yesterday I saw a new neurologist at Yale who specializes in seizures and epilepsy. His role on my treatment team is to manage the medications that control my seizures. He’s keeping me on the same dosage of Keppra, the medication that I’ve been on since my first seizure back in February. He’s also prescribed a nasal spray that is supposed to help stop a seizure in progress if I take it in the early stages. I haven’t had a seizure since mid-March at this point, so the Keppra seems to be doing its job. I won’t be able to drive my car again until three months have passed since my last seizure, which puts us at mid-June. I’m counting the days (and hoping that the seizures are permanently behind us!).

And Life Goes On

For those who asked, Jasper did make it to prom and had a blast. While we didn’t have enough time to get a tux lined up, his stepdad took him out the night before the big event and bought him a suit (and even talked the manager into some on the spot alterations).

Mother’s DIMG_5818ay was lovely and I got the chance to see all the kids. I received many lovely cards and presents, including an incredible painting of Ollie, our blind Siamese cat, by resident artist Jasper (see photo). Also not pictured, but very much appreciated, was a two-person kayak with all the accessories (thanks Tim!). After some lessons from the kids, I can explore our Old Saybrook waterways via kayak, and knock that off my bucket list.

Next month is another bucket list adventure – our trip to Chicago to see Hamilton and to visit old stomping grounds. We will also be traveling up to the Milwaukee area for a stop at the Harley Davidson plant and museum, and a side trip to my alma mater, Marquette University. Tim has never really been to the Midwest aside from making connections at O’Hare, so it will be fun to give him the grand tour.

We’ll also be going to the Grand Canyon and Sturgis this summer, thanks to the generosity of friends, family, and kind strangers who donated to my bucket list fund in memory of my late father, Paul Ford. Tim and I have been overwhelmed by the support and kindness of so many. We will be sure to share details of our adventures here.

I also promise to post again with the results of my next brain MRI, or with a rant about my health insurance if by some chance it is denied a second time. Fingers crossed it continues to show good post-treatment progress and no new metastases.

Out of Gas…And Patience

My tank has been empty lately. I’ve had little energy or enthusiasm for writing, cleaning, dog walking, or even getting out to a movie. I’m not sure if this is post-op fatigue that is normal for a month after neuroablation, or if it’s related to the stomach bug I had (that may still be lingering), or if I’m just worn out from all this cancer bullshit.

Photo on 4-25-17 at 9.41 AM #2Whatever it is, I’d like to get myself out of this funk. So I brought the Macbook along to oncology today to force myself to write and I’m currently sitting in the chemo chair, getting my Herceptin and Perjeta infusions. My oncologist, Dr. K., is on vacation so we met with the oncology nurse today. She’s concerned about my white blood cell counts being a little low, so I’ll be back next week for more bloodwork to check on things and to get my Xgeva shot (a medication I receive every few months that keeps my bones strong).

I also had a CT scan of chest, abdomen, and pelvis last week, and a bone scan. All showed no progression of existing metastases and no new involvement, which is great. Three cheers for Herceptin and Perjeta getting me to another four month scan milestone with minimal side effects (mostly fatigue…but that’s what naps are for). From the neck down I seem to be doing really well.

But how am I doing from the neck up, you ask? Well, I was supposed to have another post-op brain MRI at Yale this Thursday to check my progress, but my health insurer (Cigna) has denied coverage. Cigna says I have to wait three months until they will cover another MRI of my brain, even though my neurosurgeon Dr. Chiang appealed the decision with her clinical rationale. So I did what people do these days to get their customerservicecustomer service needs met – I bitched about it on Twitter. Cigna’s social media manager emailed me within 5 minutes of the tweet and asked me to send them further details so they could “look into it.” We’ll see what becomes of it. It would be nice if the insurance companies would honor my own doctor’s recommendation over some random benefits management M.D. who has only a surface level understanding of my individual case or needs.

In completely unrelated and much happier news, Jasper came home from school yesterday and told us he’s been asked to go to junior prom with a classmate. Unfortunately, prom is this Friday and he doesn’t own a suit or sport jacket, much less a tux. But that’s a dilemma that’s fun to fix (although you should ask me how much fun I’m having when it’s Thursday night and we’re still running all over Connecticut looking for formalwear).