Thursday, January 06, 2011

Electra & AML: Diagnosis and the start of treatment

(See all posts related to Electra's ongoing treatment)

So, since most people likely to be reading this know me in the real world, most of you probably know my girlfriend Electra as well. We've been together for about two and a quarter years thus far and though we've had our fair share of bumps and issues, things are good. However, the end of last year saw a significant piece of bad news come our way. On December 31, 2010, Electra was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML), a rare and aggressive-though generally treatable-form of bone marrow cancer. She is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatment at an oncology and haematology ward near where she lives.

This posting is the first in what will undoubtedly become a series of posts as treatment progress. I'm doing this for a few reasons. One is to document the process as it happens. I have faith that we will emerge happy and healthy at the other end of treatment (I'll explain why in a minute), and I'd like to have a record of the ups and downs as this obviously represents a significant and life-changing event for her, and to a lesser extent myself. Secondly, I'd like to be able to keep everyone who loves and cares for Electra informed of her status and progress. I will be in touch with many of you over emails, phone calls, facebook and the like, but this is an easy way to broadcast to everyone who wants to stay informed, without inundating everyone with countless emails and calls. Finally, I feel there are things I need to get down. call it self-indulgence, catharsis or venting, I just feel I have things I need to get off my chest.

This entry will be a little haphazard, but I'll try to keep things organised as best as possible. You'll have to excuse me if I ramble a bit, my thoughts are somewhat discombobulated at the moment.

Timeline: diagnosis and treatment
Once the process of diagnosis started, things moved quickly. Very quickly. But in reality, this has probably been building for quite some time. Electra has, for several months, felt a general sense of ill-health. Sometimes, this was a non-specific sentiment of "I just feel off", but there were some specifics. She had a throat infection which was wiped out by antibiotics, but kept coming back. She'd have long periods of low energy and lethargy. She bruised easily and they took quite some time to heal. Symptoms like this are frustrating, because the picture is so clear in hindsight, but impossible to pin down at the time. We just assumed she was having a run of bad luck and catching every bud that went around; the fact that she worked with children (a demographic not know for its strict adherence to WHO/CDC biohazard regulations) merely served to reinforce the idea that she was merely unfortunate enough to catch every little germ that floated by. We figured she'd get past each infection and slowly build up an immunity to working with kids (something I might point out never has to be done when one works with computers!)

But it all came to a head this December. We'd travelled to Vietnam and Malaysia at the end of November, returning early in December. Right before the trip, Electra had come down with a sore throat, which her doctor believed to be tonsillitis. It had lingered but eventually she seemed to get past it on her own. But while in Vietnam, it came back with a vengeance. We were able to take advantage of a glaring public policy oversight in Vietnam which allows for the purchase of antibiotics without a prescription. While a terrible idea from a public health standpoint, it was convenient for us, and the antibiotics wiped out the tonsillitis again. However, on returning to the UK, the sore throat came back a third time. This time her doc took some blood to check for Mono (aka Glandular Fever). And that's when it started to get real.

The initial scan showed some odd results and a diminished blood cell count. Enough so to warrant another test; this latter test was performed on Dec. 24th-blood taken in the morning and tests done by the afternoon. This speed worried us as such expedited service can often indicate a high level of concern. Unfortunately, Electra had left her phone in the car, not understanding that mobile phones are actually mobile and should be all but surgically implanted into oneself at all times. Her GP told her there were some anomalous results and to schedule an appointment for Wednesday the 29th, the first day the practice would be open after Christmas. We went in first thing on the 29th and were informed that there were some strange results including "blast cells", malformed blood cells that can indicate leukaemia, though they can also be indicative of many other less-scary conditions. But this was our first indication that something serious might be amiss.

The GP referred us to a haematologist (blood specialist) for the morning of the 30th. He told us that for someone of Electra's age, leukaemia was the most likely concern, and scheduled a bone marrow biopsy for that afternoon. A strange and unpleasant procedure, this was completed as scheduled and we went home to worry. Results were to be ready by the next morning (New Years Eve). At 10AM on the 31st, our fears were confirmed. Electra was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML), an aggressive form of bone marrow cancer. She was to start treatment that night, an equally aggressive schedule of chemotherapy.

Say what you will about the NHS. But in two days we went from an unusual blood test to a diagnosis and commencement of treatment. When there's something big, the system works. But it doesn't give one much time to contemplate.

What is AML?
Acute Myeloid Leukaemia is one of four major types of leukaemia (which can be any combination of acute or chronic and myeloid or lymphoblastic). It is relatively rare, especially in people under the age of 60 or so, but isn't entirely unheard-of. It is fast-acting and without treatment "universally fatal" (in the words of the consulting haematologist/oncologist).

Instead of the creation of normal blood cells (red and white blood cells and platelets), bone marrow in an AML patient produces malformed cells called blast cells. These are harmful to the body because they can reside in the bone marrow and inhibit cell production, as well as circulating through the body. Mostly though, the damage comes because normal cells are not produced in sufficient quantities.

The positive side is that AML is-from what I understand-fairly treatable. My father, a GP in Canada described leukaemia as one of the "big wins" in the cancer research community. 10-15 years ago success stories were few, but now, with the right chemotherapy, barring any complications, remission is often achieved and

What is chemotherapy? What specific therapy is Electra undergoing?
Chemotherapy is basically like poisoning yourself to save your life. It looks harmless, just like any other bag of clear fluid, but in essence, chemotherapy is some of the most advanced poisons we've ever devised. I should be clear that what I'm going to describe is based on my understanding from the haematologist; I am by no means an expert in the field.

In essence, chemotherapy destroys the cancer cells throughout the body but with major collateral damage: it also wipes out the body's immune system. Neither is 100% wiped out by the treatment, there are always some residual cells. The hope is that the immune system bounces back faster, and can go to work on the remaining cancerous cells.

With each successive course of chemotherapy, more cancer cells are destroyed, but there will always be some remaining cancer in the body. The goal of the therapy is to decimate the cancer population enough that the body can naturally eliminate all the remaining malformed cells through its natural processes. In fact, we all have malformed cells in our body; but for those of us without cancer, there are few enough that our body's defences eliminate them.

To use an analogy, a normally-functioning body is like a society: there are a few bad seeds, but a well-trained police force can ferret them out and keep their influence from spreading too far. On the other hand, in a cancer sufferer, it's more like Detroit, or Moss Side (in Manchester): the malcontents have taken over and the only remaining solution is to nuke the entire area from space and hope that the good seeds repopulate more quickly and establish order.

Electra's treatment involves four cycles of high-dose chemotherapy. Each is 10 days long, and involves three standard drugs and one highly-targeted experimental drug as part of a clinical trial. After the administration of the chemotherapy she has a 4-6 week recovery period. The start of this period (and the latter half or so of the chemotherapy application) is the dangerous time. This is what's known as the nutrapenic phase, during which her immune system will be largely suppressed. She is therefore susceptible to all sorts of nasties including bacteria, viruses and fungi. Therefore, antibiotics, antivirals and antifungals agents (plus antihistamines and god knows what else) will be applied as needed, her vitals monitored very closely and her food and surroundings carefully controlled. As her immune system starts to rebuild, some of these precautions may be relaxed, and she may even be allowed to leave the hospital for a few days (fingers crossed!).

How's she doing?
Overall, pretty well. Chemotherapy is obviously very taxing on the body and we are as yet in early days, so things can change. Electra is a stronger than she's normally able to admit to herself and I know she'll fight this, but it's not going to be an easy struggle. At the moment, she's very tired, not only from the medication, but also from adjusting to life in a hospital-it's hard to get a good night's sleep with an IV in your arm and a whirring machine 30 centimetres from your head. Not to mention the pokes, prods and checks from the nurses. But she's adjusting.

Otherwise, there are some time when things seem more dire. She'll get cold, nauseous, dizzy or all of the above. These times are scary, but the nurses and doctors are well-prepared for this and their confidence is reassuring. The arsenal of medications at their disposal have so far been successful in getting her back to feeling alright and I think they will continue to do so.

The biggest challenge is to overcome her natural sense of "I don't want to cause any trouble". This means that I have to browbeat her into reporting everything to the nurses-every bout of nausea, chill and shiver, every pain or dizzy spell. It means that she has to be open with visitors when she gets tired. Although visiting is great and cheers her immensely, it can also be quite tiring and there may well be a point where she needs to rest but is too polite to say so. Fortunately, her adaptability shines through here and she's become good and doing both of these things. It's hard to get someone so giving to think of themselves, but she's learning.

How am I doing?
Also pretty well. My work has been excellent; I've spoken with my line manager about this and he's been amazingly supported, something for which I'm very indebted to him. I'm currently working remotely from Electra's house and visiting her in the evenings; when her mother comes next week I'll return to the office and devise a strategy for this. I know that I have to balance my caring for Electra and supporting her with my work and my life. Six months is a long time and I cannot spend every single day there. Fortunately, with her parents, her friends and her colleagues, she will be well tended.

I characterise my outlook as cautiously optimistic. I'm not naïve enough to think that we're out of the woods (hell, we're just on the inbound edge at this point). Infection is a real risk and complications do arise. But Electra is young, healthy (you know, aside from the whole cancer thing) and has a good support system. We also seem to have caught this early. So with all that being as it is and the progress being made on the research front, I am very confident she will beat this and I will help her in any way I can.

What I need to do, though, is the same thing I've asked of her: to take some care of myself. So far, I'm not sleeping a lot. And it's really starting to catch up with me. I cannot give her the care she deserves under those circumstances, so I need to stay on the right track (and maybe not write blog posts until 1:30AM for that matter). I also put myself at risk of infection which would mean I couldn't see her at all, which helps nobody.

But again, I'm optimistic. I'm ultimately a creature of pattern and adaptation and I simply need to find the right balance. Also get back into the gym and get rid of this Christmas spare tire, but that's neither here nor there.

What's the plan?
So what do we expect going forward? What's the plan, what's the hope, what's the fear? Well, as I say, I am confident that we can beat this, but make no mistake: it will be a slog. This is our Stalingrad: a slow battle of attrition, won by inches and at great cost. It will be hard for Electra and hard for her friends, family and other loved ones. But we will break the back of this cancer and come out all the better for it.

This blog will be a good forum for tracking progress; I intend to update it as often as I can as more information arises. Use the keyword "Electra+AML" to locate all related posts, or subscribe to the RSS feed. These posts should also be imported automatically into facebook.

But I will also be trying to live a somewhat normal life much of the time: back at work in Guildford and at play in London. I may be leaning on some or all of you for my own support and will also likely try to organise some visits and support for Electra. In the meantime, if you wish to send something, please email/call/text/facebook message me and I'll give you the appropriate address. Cards, balloons, chocolates, etc. are all good; flowers are not due to infection risks. There is of course no obligation whatsoever. She has phone signal in her room and will shortly have internet access we think, so love and thoughts are always appreciated. But please remember the fatigue: calls are more draining than texts, for example. Visits are welcome, but there will be good and bad times depending on her energy, fatigue and immunosuppression levels. Please feel free to contact me at any time and I'll advise.

Thanks to everyone who's read this far; this is a long crappy road but the destination is worth it and I know you will all help us get there.

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