The Rest of His Life

We had our post-treatment conference with Jack’s oncology team last week. Each family unit was given an Off-Treatment binder.

binder

Right inside the binder is an Old Irish blessing:

May the road rise to meet you
May the wind always be at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields.

We were given information on long-term follow-up guidelines, which includes the following:

  • Introduction to Long-term Follow-up
  • Emotional Issues after Childhood Cancer
  • Health Promotion through Diet and Physical Activity
  • Education Issues after Childhood Cancer
  • Male Health Issues After Childhood Cancer
  • Dental Health
  • Kidney/Bladder Health
  • Liver Health
  • Bone Health
  • Avascular Necrosis
  • Skin Health
  • Heart Problems Following Treatment for Childhood Cancer
  • Cataracts/Eye Problems after Childhood Cancer
  • Peripheral Neuropathy
  • Raynaud’s Phenomenon
  • Reducing the Risk of Second Cancers

Jack will continue with post-treatment check-ups for the rest of his life – he’ll be seen every month for the first year, then every 2 months for the second year, every 3 months for the third year, every 6 months for the fourth year, and then yearly after that. He will get blood tests run at every visit. Every 5 years he’ll also get an echocardiogram to monitor his heart for abnormalities that may show up.

Due to both the cancer itself and the treatment for it, Jack is at greater risk for developing all kinds of things, and the oncology team reinforced the fact that any time Jack goes to see a new doctor, that physician needs to be informed about exactly what type of treatment Jack received and how much. We were told that MOST physicians will need to be educated by us or Jack because most will not have ever treated a childhood cancer survivor.

In September (six months post-treatment), Jack will start the process of being re-vaccinated for everything he already received pre-diagnosis.

Kaiser sent a referral for a full neuropsychological evaluation with an outside psychologist. We’ve scheduled appointments for that after the school year ends since the testing takes 6-8 hours. It’s split into four sessions over about a month’s time, and the results will hopefully give us some insight into how Jack’s brain has been affected by cancer treatment and guidance on how to help him in school and life.

Now that treatment is over, a lot of our focus is on dealing with the emotional impacts of the last three years. We have an immediate problem to address, which is to figure out how to get Jack’s lab draws done. We were unable to acquire a blood draw last week because of the extreme anxiety and panic Jack experienced when we went to the lab.

Now, let me be clear: this is beyond fear – it is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Jack went into the lab armed with all kinds of tools to help deal with the pain of the needle (yes, we had the Buzzy!), but once he was in the lab chair and the tech started to prep him, something took over in his brain and he went rigid, started shaking and thrashing, and crying and screaming. He couldn’t hear anything we were trying to say to him, could not process our words, and could not be held still even with two of us trying. I put the Buzzy on his arm, and yet he kept screaming, “I need the Buzzy!” He just couldn’t even feel it – he was somewhere else entirely. The experience was a lot like his night terrors – we were powerless to help him and the lab techs ultimately decided it was not safe to try to stick a needle in his arm.

It’s heartbreaking to see Jack going through this. It’s also necessary to monitor his blood counts because if the cancer was going to come back, it’s prime time for it to do so now that the chemo is leaving his body. (According to the Dana-Farber Institute & Boston Children’s Hospital, between 15 and 20% of children who are treated for ALL and achieve an initial complete remission will have the disease return.) He still has complaints about feeling unwell from time to time and a CBC is the best way to see what is going on with him.

So we’re in search of a therapist who can help us. Unfortunately, this is not covered by our insurance. Kaiser has great mental health classes, but when it comes to long-term or intensive therapy programs, they are sorely lacking (they even have to refer patients outside of the system for the neuropsych eval, something that they do for every childhood cancer patient). Continuity of care only goes so far with them. It’s on us to figure out the best, most expedient way to get help without going broke. (And what if therapy doesn’t work? What then?)

Even aside from the immediate problem of getting Jack to be able to take blood draws, there are clearly emotional scars that need addressing. We’ve tried play therapy with an outside therapist and then short-term CBT within Kaiser and had limited success. Some healing simply takes time, but he will still need professional help to learn how to process his experiences and be less controlled by his anxieties.

So, treatment is over but life after cancer stretches before us. It’s a new journey – a better journey than the previous one, but not without its own challenges. Thankfully, Jack is a fierce and determined survivor.

TigerJack

“He’s watching us all with the eye of the tiger…”

Try Not To Worry, She Says

I spoke with Jack’s oncology office yesterday and they let me know that his chemotherapy doses are being increased again.

Back when Jack got sick last August, the chemotherapy was stopped altogether until his immune system started to recover somewhat. Then he was restarted at less than half the dose he had been on previously. It has slooooowly been ramping up over the last eight months. He’s now on about 40% of the full dose of Methotrexate and 70ish% of Mercaptopurine.

Well, now he is apparently going from 40% and 70% all the way up to 100%. I was told that a recent test showed Jack’s thioguanine metabolites were low. I have no idea what that means, but apparently it’s indicative that he should be able to handle the chemotherapy increase (at least for the Mercaptopurine – I’m still waiting for additional answers on the Methotrexate).

I’m not so sure he can handle it, though. Jack’s health has been relatively stable over the last few months but with each dosage increase he’s needed an adjustment period even though the increases have been miniscule. But now the dose is basically doubling. For instance, he’s going from taking 4 chemotherapy pills on Monday nights to 8.5. (That’s just chemo – there are the three other medications he’s taking to manage side effects, putting the total number of pills on Monday nights to 13.)

His dose of sodium bicarbonate (which is supposed to help with the acidosis he’s had for months and months) was also increased this week. The acidosis seems to get worse in relation to the increases in chemo, and yet the oncologist says that this new increase in chemo “shouldn’t” result it the acidosis worsening. Considering that history has shown otherwise, I have no idea what to think about this response.

Anyway…I’m scared. I know partly I’m more emotional than usual because of the pregnancy, but also the multiple trips to the ER last year and the crazy amounts of antibiotics and the unexpected hospital stay are all things I absolutely don’t want to repeat. I know Jack doesn’t want to, either. I know this is likely the best way to keep the cancer away, but I also know it increases the risk of other scary problems like infection. Jack’s oncologist is either not good at explaining what the treatment adjustments mean or she’s lying, neither of which inspires confidence. We deal with frequent complaints of stomach pains, difficulty breathing, and other weirdness in Jack’s body, but right now it’s manageable. I’m not confident it will remain manageable after doubling the chemo.

“Try not to worry. Things are going well,” she said.

But I do worry. Even if things are going well right now, that doesn’t mean they will continue to…

Frustration With Kaiser Oncology

Jack’s health has (thus far) improved since he received vancomycin for the latest bout of c.diff. He was noticeably more energetic and all around happier within days of starting the antibiotics. It had been quite some time since I’d seen him run his mouth a mile a minute and run and jump all over the place. It was refreshing (and, yes, a little exhausting).

Jack’s ANC numbers, which climbed immediately upon his treatment being suspended, are still very high – the highest they’ve been in the last two years. They have remained high due to the fact that he is taking very, very small doses of maintenance chemotherapy since his hospitalization in August last year. In fact, the oncology team has expressed more than once that they are concerned about the low dose. The worry is that it’s not enough to keep the cancer at bay. But since August, every time the dose of 6mp and methotrexate are increased, his white blood cell counts plummet so the increases have to be made very conservatively.

Frankly, the oncology team seems frustrated. Jack tolerated much greater amounts of chemo for almost two years and they really don’t know why it’s suddenly a problem. And it sounds to me like they aren’t fond of the fact that they don’t have an explanation for what is going on (the test for 6mp sensitivity comes back normal, but he has symptoms of sensitivity to it anyway). The commentary from the oncology team is confusing and, often, seems to deflect the blame toward my kid or me…

“We think labs are being drawn too often.” – to which I replied that I am drawing them when they ask me to…

“We think this is school avoidance.” – so you’re saying that a psychological issue can wipe out white blood cells? Are we just ignoring the two c.diff infections now? Are you saying he caught it on purpose in order to get out of school? And we’re manufacturing the fevers somehow?

“The majority of kids on these medications do not have these problems.” – okaaaay…but my son DOES so what do we do now?

“We really don’t think this is related to any sort of relapse.” – I asked the question ONCE but you keep feeding me that line out of nowhere, so it kinda has me thinking that’s EXACTLY what you’re worried it is related to…

On Tuesday Jack was feeling unwell – he had pain in his stomach, his chest, his head and eyes(???), his hands and feet – all of which were unrelieved by Tums and Tylenol. It was two days post-6mp-increase and the day after an increased dose of methotrexate. I emailed our case manager to let her know how it was going – a warning in case this is the sign of another downhill slide of white blood cell counts – as it seemed pretty clear to me that the pain was related to the increase. I asked for nothing – I just wanted to keep her posted on his condition.

Here’s the reply I received:

“I’ve reviewed your concerns with Dr. Goodman and we are reluctant to validate the increased chemotherapy is the cause since the dose is still extremely low.

Looking back, from October 2012 to August 2013 he was taking approximately 3 times his current dose without any of these similar issues. I do not feel we can attribute his complaints of transient pain to an increased oral chemotherapy dose.

If you think nausea is playing into this, you should try Zofran once at night with his oral chemotherapy and again in the morning to see if this alleviates some of his complaints.

I would also like to emphasize that the overwhelming majority of kids tolerate full doses of these medications without complaints. The most common complaint is nausea on days (usually the morning after) when kids take their oral Methotrexate, but even that is not very common.

Ellie didn’t bring in Jack’s pain diary at the last visit. I recommend you and Joseph commit to keeping a pain diary (you can use a simple google calendar – it doesn’t have to be complicated!) for Jack’s pain and bring this into his next visit.

Please feel free to call if you have any concerns or questions about this email.”

I still have yet to respond. I don’t know how. I am trying (and failing) to not feel offended by the tone of the message.

My son’s care is in the hands of this oncology team and yet they are so dismissive of his experience. Not only that, but they don’t seem to know what they are talking about – I’ve done enough reading to know that others DO have these issues with 6mp and methotrexate (it was easy enough to find parents talking about the same thing going on with their kids when I did a google search) – or they are just straight up lying to me. I don’t understand why they would do that, though.

I’m hopeful that Jack remains fairly stable (he has felt much better since Tuesday) and glad he’s been doing much better overall. Still, I wish our oncology team was better at instilling confidence in the treatments they’re using. I wish they didn’t alienate us like this and instead tried to offer some support or even a little sympathy!

Perhaps Kaiser’s relatively low premiums don’t pay for things like concern for quality of life, though.

Hope Versus Belief

It was a bad week. It was somewhat expected – for some reason, bad shit tends to happen surrounding my birthday. Every freaking year (the most famous year being when my brother went to jail and David lost his job). So when I heard on the Friday before my birthday that my brother had physically assaulted my mom, I knew this year would be no different. Still, I hoped it would be and all week I adjusted my birthday plans, trying to counteract the crap being flung at me.

Let’s see how that worked out, shall we?

Jack came down with the stomach flu on Monday. We spent 5.5 hours in the ER because Jack got a fever of 102 and became dehydrated from all the vomiting. Our experience in the ER was horrible. Cancer patients are supposed to be isolated from the general population…but that didn’t happen – we were told to sit in the waiting room and then the lady next to us started vomiting immediately. I put a mask on Jack and moved away from her. After an hour and a half, I had to call the oncologist on-call and asked what we should do – perhaps drive to another ER? Fearing we’d face the same kind of wait at the Oakland ER, the oncologist called to complain and we were moved to a gurney in a hallway. I later had to be asked to be relocated because a lady nearby started hitting herself violently and muttering under her breath. And nearly four hours into our visit, I asked David to call the oncologist again because we were STILL waiting for an IV and antibiotics – even though cancer patients presenting with fever should receive antibiotics within an HOUR of arrival. The oncologist chewed the resident ER doc a new one and we were given our own dedicated nurse within five minutes of that call…apparently the clinic is filing a report about the ER, as well.

poorrating

Jack has something to say about the ER visit.

Anyway, Jack started looking better immediately after getting IV fluids and antibiotics. He was doing well enough to go to school for a few hours on my birthday (Wednesday). I was feeling ill that day, so I stayed home and slept. I said it at the time and I’ll say it again – that was a decent way to spend my birthday. Nothing bad happened while I slept.

Thursday Jack woke up feeling ill again. His labs showed that he was neutropenic and we were told (with a sigh of concern) to stop chemotherapy.

Friday morning at 4:30am Jack awoke from a bad dream and started shivering uncontrollably. His temp hovered around 100 degrees. When I went back to bed, I warned David that it would likely rise above the 101.5 threshold (I had a work commitment that I could not miss). Right after Jack woke up for the day his temp spiked. He was on his way to the hospital by 8am. He was admitted and put on antibiotics for the second time that week. He was swabbed for the flu, RSV, and c.diff. The c.diff came back positive (probably acquired during that extended ER visit!) so he was put on a second antibiotic.

Jack’s ANC had somehow skyrocketed overnight, though – from 341 to 4,774. We don’t recall it ever being that high since his diagnosis almost two years ago. One of the oncologists at Kaiser said that was a high ANC for healthy people. His body is working hard to fight these illnesses. We are surprised – and concerned – that he actually has that ability considering that he is supposed to be immunosuppressed. But I guess a night off of chemo was all it took.

A bit of an explanation here: every time Jack’s ANC dips below 500, oral chemotherapy is stopped. When his ANC goes back up and the chemo is restarted, they start it at 50% of the highest tolerated amount before suspension. The dose is ramped up again over time as long as his counts stay over 500. This is at least the third time since August that Jack’s chemo dose has been suspended and restarted due to neutropenia.

Back in early August, pre-hospitalization, he was up to eight chemotherapy pills on Mondays. He is now down to two chemotherapy pills on Mondays. Two days a week, he takes no chemotherapy at all. That is not at all how it’s supposed to be to maintain remission during treatment.

Over the last four months, Jack’s body has become less and less tolerant of the chemotherapy he’s been getting for nearly two years. The doctors cannot seem to explain to me why that is. And it’s worrisome because he can’t consistently stay on high enough amounts of chemotherapy to be sure that any lurking cancer cells are held at bay.

In other words, every time chemotherapy treatment is suspended or doses are reduced, the probable success of the treatment is decreased.  And every time that happens, our worry increases. We worry when there are new symptoms with no apparent cause. We worry that so many of the issues Jack has had over the last four months so closely resemble the symptoms he presented with at diagnosis. We worry every time the oncologists shrug their shoulders.

Oncologists, don’t shrug your shoulders. My son has cancer and you haven’t seen these issues before? Go talk to other oncologists and FIGURE IT OUT.

Ahem.

When I mentioned on Friday to a co-worker that Jack was going back to the hospital, she tried to reassure me – “Jack is going to beat this.”

I hope that is true – I hope with all of my heart. But so much of this cancer journey has not gone as we were advised it would and so many things are left unexplained by our oncology team. So I’ll believe it when I see it.

Twist Me Up And Wring Me Out

It’s only Tuesday? I thought as I stared at the pill organizer. How is that possible?

The anxiety in my chest grew. But that’s what day the organizer told me it was. The next dose of medication was right there. My phone agreed that it was Tuesday, as well. I shook my head and sighed.

I can’t wait until Friday.

Yesterday had involved an insulting call from the social worker at the clinic: “Um….hiiiiii. How are you today? How’s Jack? Um, I’m calling because Gina (the child life specialist) and I thought we should sit down and talk with you on Monday about…umm…Jack’s…school isssssuuuuues.”

My reply was something like, “Right, well, I know Gina thinks it’s school avoidance but I really don’t think that’s the case. Jack is very upset with himself when he can’t make it to school. And this isn’t new – it’s been going on since treatment started – it’s just that we thought it was normal due to the intense treatment. He was missing school then anyway. But treatment is less intense now and he still has these problems and he’s supposed to be able to go to school. In any case, I won’t be there on Monday – his dad is bringing him into the clinic. You can talk to him if you’d like.”

“Oh, well, okaaaay. Well, it’s you we’d like to talk to. So, um…alright. We won’t do that then.”

And then she (absolutely the least helpful professional I’ve ever met) droned on and on. She said some stuff about how special and smart and sensitive Jack is and at some point I just tuned her out. Sure, she WANTS to help…but she is completely inept. I could hear her grasping for the proper words to use when talking about Jack’s ‘issues.’ It was painfully obvious that she was stepping lightly. She was in parenting territory, something that she’s proven before that she knows nothing about, and I hadn’t even asked for her help.

Lady, turn back now. You don’t belong here.

A couple of hours later, I chatted with our nurse case manager about Jack’s lab results. They were good enough that he could the next day’s dental appointment, but the acidosis hadn’t improved at all over the weekend, so they instructed us to increase the sodium bicarbonate from two pills a day to four. And let me know that chemo can’t be taken at the same time as bicarb or anything else…which I hadn’t realized before.

Oops. I’d been screwing up the pill administration for…oh, almost two years now. Great.

Later that evening I took my 13-year-old cat to the vet and walked out of there $120 poorer and with no definite answers. ‘Cause that’s how I like to party.

So today, as I stared at the pill organizer and the bottle of antibiotics sitting next to it, I shook my head and sighed. Really, how could it only be Tuesday?

I gave Jack four horse-sized antibiotic pills. He actually chewed them all up without incident.

I was more than surprised.

I asked Jack to pick out his own DVD to watch at the dentist office (of course he chose Dr. Who) and off we went. It would be okay…I hoped.

The appointment went well, all things considered. He certainly yowled less than he did at his last appointment. His teeth got cleaned and x-rays were taken and that’s what matters, right? Not the stand-offish dental hygienist who clearly thought that the fact that he wouldn’t sit still was a discipline issue. Not the tears all over my kid’s face from being essentially trapped while he was poked and prodded in a sensitive place.

[Take a 7-year-old who isn’t a great brusher, add a blood disease and suppressed immune system that makes it dangerous to floss, and what do you get? An uncooperative dental patient.]

Halfway through the appointment, Jack complained of chest pain while laying in the tilted-down chair and it only got worse. We went to the store to grab some tums (I’m not organized enough to carry them with me wherever I go yet) and sit for a bit while I had a warm beverage to calm my rankled nerves. I had to carry Jack through the store and he slumped in his chair when we sat down. After half an hour, the tums still hadn’t helped.

So we followed up that dental appointment with a trip to the ER, where Jack got an EKG and a chest x-ray per his oncologist’s orders. They gave him Maalox and, after a while, his pain had gone from a 5 to a 1. They sent us home.

This morning in between staring at the pill organizer with consternation, giving Jack five spoonfuls of pills in nutella, and attempting to get us both out the door and emotionally prepared for the dentist, I’d forgotten to administer Zantac. I’d given him four antibiotic pills, two sodium bicarbonate pills, and one Diamox pill…but forgot the antacid, which is a liquid.

Ugh.

I bet tomorrow I’ll stare at that pill organizer and shake my head all over again.

***