Weekly Update #88

It feels like everyday in the last two weeks since I last wrote could be an entry of its own, but that’s not quite true. What is true is that it has been an overwhelming whirlwind of activity and I’m not quite through it yet.

I decided to go with the trial at MD Anderson (MDA) after consultation with my medical team and my family. My medical team made it clear that I had several good trial options that it would make sense to try (with the MDA one being a little better) and that what I should consider heavily is who I wanted to treat me. I have nothing negative to say about the clinic in San Antonio, but I had such a great connection with the trial doctor at MDA. Weighing heavily in favor of Houston is also that I have friends here who I stay with and visit with, making it a far less lonely prospect than San Antonio where I have no connection. And finally, the history at MDA, even though it wasn’t 100% positive experiences, gave me a level of comfort that I lacked in San Antonio.

I am glad that I did have that prior history with MDA, because it truly is like a machine here that you get on and go wherever it takes you, and it ma have scared me enough to back out if this were my first time here. Appointments show up on your calendar and you get what you get and you don’t get upset. And then they’ll disappear and be rescheduled for a different day with the same department but somehow a different building? I found the scheduling part left me feeling unmoored, waiting to find out what was planned for me and mostly without the ability to give input. One thing on my side was that my trial coordinator was the one who knew everything I needed scheduled and how the process was going, so I was able to get some updates from her.

She was also able to help me out with my only scheduling dealbreaker – please let me be home on my daughter’s 9th birthday. I had a blood draw that was technically supposed to be that day, but she found the note in the protocol that said it could be done the day before. I do all this cancer treatment so that I can show up and be a mom to her, and I so appreciate that my coordinator saw that – those are the things that make you feel like a person and not just a patient.

It is exhausting to detail all the tests I’ve done, but I want to have it here for people who read this and want to know about trial life, and for myself to look back on. Last week I made a day trip for blood work and a set of EKGs and an eye check up, all to check that I was good for the study, and an x-ray to prove that the port I had inserted at another facility is real. I am glad I had that eye exam because it turns out that my prescription has changed a ton in the last year and I need new glasses. I came back this week for a COVID test (negative) in advance of a lung biopsy. That biopsy attempt went poorly and I had a panic attack on the table. So a second biopsy, this time with anesthesia, was scheduled for the following day. Oh, and then I had a CT. I had to spend the night because of the anesthesia, which was a good rule, I truly was in no shape to drive. I finally got to go home and spend one night in my own bed and with my family. And then the next evening I came back because I had to be at the hospital at 7:30am today.

And then there’s today. More blood work and EKGs and eye check ups. A visit with the doctor to make sure I was ready to start the trial. And then boom, the trial itself. It is fascinating to watch happen, so many moving parts that have to be precisely orchestrated. Pre-chemo blood draws timed just right before the chemo starts and then a line of EKG and blood draw folks outside because their tests need to be done within a set number of minutes after chemo ends, but with a definite hierarchy that I am not privy to. At one point I had both elbow veins accessed plus my port and the little sticky pads for EKGs all over me for later. One elbow vein is for blood draws, they do them at a different site than where the chemo is infused. And my port wasn’t working so they had to access an elbow vein instead (3rd time for that poor baby today), but left my port accessed so that the port specialists could give me some anti-blood-clotting agent. It’s been 3+ hours and they haven’t arrived, but their window doesn’t close for another 40 minutes. After that it will be too late for today and I’ll instead deal with it next time.

This is so long and I’m sure so indicative of how wearing this process is. I’m feeling better now that its underway. And my moment of joy from the past two weeks is sitting on the couch with my dad and stepmom, listening to my daughter play piano for us. I had a lovely visit with them, and hearing her play, the proof of her hard work and the thing that she loves, fills me to the brim with joy.

Weekly Update #87

This week I went to MD Anderson to talk to their clinical trial team. I expected it would go like my visit to another clinical trial team a week before – get examined and leave with some trial options to discuss later – but instead I consented to a trial then and there.

It was intense getting to that consent and it turned out to be an illustrative process. When the doctor came into the room she told me a little about the trial, said she would have me chat with the study coordinator, then she’d come back and answer questions. Then if I felt comfortable I could sign the consent form. Going through the trial with the coordinator was great but I still did have questions. Unfortunately when the doctor returned she handed me the pen to e-sign my consent, told me I should get a flu shot and she’d have her nurse do it, and then she left. I had thought that at some point I would get to ask my questions but the moment for that just never came.

I burst into tears then, overwhelmed, not knowing what was coming next in the trial and still with concerns about the side effects. While sitting there I got a text from the trial coordinator, giving me her number. I wrote back saying I still had questions and she called me to try to answer them. I began sobbing on the phone to her and she told me the doctor would be right back in. The exchange we had when the doctor returned was amazing. I was really scared because some of the side effects will make it so I can’t drive and no longer allow me to be independent. I’ve gotten through the past 5 years by being independent and it terrified me to imagine losing that. The doctor really heard my concerns, addressed them with science, yet never negated them or told me they were dumb or invalid. Then she gave me her cell phone number. At that moment, I was in with her. I trusted her that she would listen to me, wanted to hear my concerns whenever they came up, and that she would help me without minimizing the emotional toll this process takes.

That said, I still do not know for sure that I will go with the MD Anderson trial. I do still have choices in San Antonio and need to chat with my home doctors to rank them. The experiences in the two places would be very different. MD Anderson is a machine where appointments just show up on your calendar, you have no idea with whom or why, no visitors are allowed unless you need mobility assistance, but it also has amenities like a cafeteria and a hair salon and a room with a gorgeous view of Houston. Also I have people in Houston. San Antonio is going to be getting called to find out when an appointment is most convenient and visitors being able to join the infusion center when it’s quiet and potentially needing to get support from outside the clinic. I have no idea where to grab a bite or find a hotel, though these are solvable problems. I don’t know anyone in San Antonio that I could call on for assistance there. It is a lot to weigh and I am letting myself feel overwhelmed by it; it is going to shape what my next few months look like.

My dad and stepmom get into town today, having driven 2,000 miles in an RV to see us. I will doubtless have follow-up appointments at some clinic next week and it will be nice to bring my dad with me; we’ll have to see if we can sneak him in.

My joy for this week was a lovely birthday. It was the day I was in Houston, but I ended up feeling safe there and then came home to a quiet and perfect night with my family. I’m 37 now and this birthday, like each of the past 5, was hard-fought for.

Weekly Update #86

There is so much news from this past week! And my mood is far better than it was last week, when I just felt sad.

On Tuesday I went to San Antonio to visit with a site for phase I clinical trials. We started the process of assessing if I am a good fit for the trials, which includes giving samples and having ECGs done. I also had a physical exam by the doc, which included testing the strength in my limbs. It matters that I am well enough to handle the rigors of a trial and so far it doesn’t look like my underlying health will exclude me. I left with 3 trial options to look over and an appointment to come back in two weeks and discuss them. For the trials I got the huge informed consent documents which include the treatment protocol and how often I’ll need to be at the clinic as well as anticipated side effects and info on the confidentiality around my info.

One thing that is interesting to me is that somehow the definitions of phase has shifted and there are now phase I trials that are not dose exploration, where they find the highest tolerable dose, but dose expansion, where they have more people on that dose and see how they do. A dose expansion trial is much more interesting to me than dose exploration, as I have discussed before.

I also received a phone call from MD Anderson this week setting me up for an appointment with the clinical trial team there. The good news is I get to skip the bureaucratic step of visiting my “current” doctor there. The bummer news is that I will have to be there early in the morning on my birthday. I am trying to see it as a gift that I have this opportunity, but really the gift is that I will get to have socially distant lunch with one of my best friends who happens to live there.

My joy for the week is that I decided to take a measured risk last weekend and rent a house in town with 3 friends who have been as COVID-careful as me. It was so restorative to see their whole faces and hug and laugh together and eat well and just not feel on guard. The house we rented was a trip, filled with original artwork of varied styles and themes. We had a really lovely time and I came home with so much energy after having my soul refilled a bit.