Monday, January 3, 2011

Visit to Dana Farber

If you wrote to me last time around, please know that I read and appreciated every single email. It really lifts me up. The last round of chemo knocked me down hard and I couldn't answer emails or write anything. And then, when I started feeling better again, the kids started school vacation and it was like being on a moving train -- I just couldn't jump off. Plus, it was kind of fun to pretend for awhile that I wasn't a patient.

I took an extra week off chemo during the holiday. I cannot believe how good I feel from just one more week off! I feel like I have more patience (though my husband disagrees, but whatever, I feel good). I got to visit family, go skiing with the kids, take the dog out for walks. It was great!

And, I was able to consult with another oncologist, this time at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. I had spoken to my regular oncologist about options for treatments -- should I continue on this every two week cycle? Should I stretch it to every three weeks since my numbers are good? Should I take a "chemo holiday" to let my body recover from all the chemo? What are the risks and benefits from any of these paths?

I always think that another smart mind is helpful, plus I'm interested in working with someone who views cancer more as a chronic condition than a fatal illness. So, I was lucky to be able to pull some strings (thanks, Julie!) and see Julie's oncologist at Dana Farber.

Dana Farber is a sobering place from the moment you pull up. I see weathered women in wheelchairs and on oxygen and cannot help but wonder if that will be me. I see children going in for treatments, and my heart breaks into a million pieces. And, while I like to deny it, I have to face the truth that I am part of this group.

Every single worker I encountered at DFCI is unfailingly nice and helpful. The valet patiently explained how their system works. It's no different than any other system, but he still explained it nicely and didn't treat us like we were idiots.  The woman who checked me in didn't even imply that I was incompetent for forgetting my Dana Farber card; she simply smiled nicely and handed a new one to me. The person taking my vital signs was upbeat without being annoying. 

The waiting rooms are PACKED. I guess that says something about cancer in our society. Still, the other patients were nice, and some of them were chatty. The Pittsburgher in me enjoyed that. 

The doctor (we'll call him Jay) was running late, but I was glad to see him. He reviewed all my written records on-line through the inter-hospital system, and my rock-star radiologist husband had all my radiology studies organized on disks so that Jay could view them. Given the detail Jay recited about my case, I have to assume that my own oncologist keeps fantastic and detailed notes. 

I forgot to ask my oncologist for my CEA number last week (the blood number that I track to get some indication of how the treatments are working). So, I said to Jay, "I think that my numbers look pretty good. Do you want to look at the trend?"
Then, while he was accessing the trends, looking at the screen, he said, "Your CEA looks good at 1.6." 

Now, I never saw his eyes move from the screen, and I tried to keep a poker face, but he was paying close enough attention to my body language to then say, "You didn't know that, did you?"

I was very impressed.

Jay asked questions about how I am handling the current chemo treatments, both physically and emotionally, and did a quick physical exam. Then we had a conversation.

Jay was direct with me, and optimistic without sugarcoating things. He can talk in decision tress, which is how I think, so communication felt easy. Here is the basic bottom line, as he described it, or at least, how I heard it:

"Blood numbers look good, so it is possible, unlikely but anything is possible, so it is possible that all the cancer cells are gone. (BTW, I LOVED that he entertained that possibility at all. Loved it.) If that is the case, you are doing chemo needlessly.
Or, there could be some cancer cells in there that we can't see, hiding out. If so, you could continue to do chemo and try to knock those out.
Or you can take a break, let your body recover from chemo, and we could monitor you every two months. There were two studies done, basically showing that longevity is not impacted by a break like this, and overall quality of life is better.
Or, you could spread out the treatments to every three weeks, but I wouldn't recommend that, because we don't know if that is as effective as every two weeks (my current regimen). So you might get all the side effects of chemo with questionable benefit."

He did mention that I should get PET CTs more often than I am, and I take total blame for that. My oncologist also recommends them more frequently, but I have no more accessible veins in my arm and only have one or two accessible veins in my hand, so I'm very protective of those. Plus I hate getting all the radiation from that test.

So, here is my plan:
I will do chemo this week. 
I will schedule a PET CT asap
Then, based on the results, take it from there.

Wish me luck! And a good chemo week. And most if all, thank you for hanging in there with me.

Two other quick notes. 

1. Here is an article I wrote about treating cancer as a chronic condition:

Feel free to write comments there, even under a pseudonym or anonymously. It helps the owners of this blog, and it is interesting to me to read them as well. :-)

2. I'll close with this story: Last weekend, Tiron really wanted to have our caricatures done by this one artist guy. We don't know him at all (other than his work) and he knows nothing about my health. 
On the drawing, above my head, he wrote, "Don't Stop Believing." I know that it is from Journey, but I took it to heart.

Thank you for continuing to believe.

Love, Marie

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