No Cancer.

I met with my surgeon yesterday. She inspected the pretty scar she’d left me, and we agreed that it was healing very nicely. She told me those suspicious looking cells she’d extracted had turned out negative for carcinoma.
I mistook this for good news. No cancer. No worries. Right?
Wrong. The surgeon asked me if I wanted to know the results of my Tyrer-Cuzick Breast Cancer Risk Evaluation, then ducked out of the examining room before I had the chance to answer. She returned with a four page document that concluded with results she and I read very differently.
She’s the surgeon. She’s got the medical degree. I’m the patient. I’ve got the MFA. I’ve never been good at math.
The results were as follows (capitalization theirs):
“Ten Year Risk:
This woman’s Risk (at age 50): 11.0%
Average women (at age 50): 2.7%
Lifetime Risk:
This woman’s Risk (to age 85) 39.9%
Average woman (to age 85) 11.4%”

Maybe I’m a glass-is-half full person, but even if I wasn’t: the ten year prognosis glass is 89% full. That’s pretty darn full.
The surgeon immediately offered me a medication I could take to fill that glass to 100%—a medication, she swiftly added, that could only be taken for five years.
“No medication,” I said. “I take enough medications.”
“If you want to reduce your risk to zero percent,” she offered, “you can get a double mastectomy.”
I didn’t say, “And lose that pretty scar you left me?”
I didn’t roll my eyes. For while I did think her suggestion was crazy, I understood she was coming from a crazy place, witnessing women being brave because they have to be, as they fight for their lives, and all-too-often lose. I took it as a kindness, really, that she didn’t want me to join their ranks. I don’t think she’s an opportunist, trying to make money from some ounces of my flesh. I went along and booked my appointment for another mammogram in six months.
And then I went about my life. I took my “Freedom from Falls” class in the morning. I ran the writer’s workshop at the Senior Living Center in the afternoon. I told the writers my odds. These writers are in their seventies, eighties and nineties. They’ve seen a lot of life. They’ve seen a lot of death. They all agreed with me: those odds looked pretty darn good. I drove home. I did not update my neurologist. I did not update the NIH. I did not update my blog.
I wanted one day of those numbers looking pretty darn good.
If I go ahead with my plan to switch to Ocrevus for my MS medication, those numbers would go up. There’s a bullet point on the Ocrevus site under “WARNINGS AND PRECAUTIONS”
“• Malignancies: An increased risk of malignancy, including breast cancer, may exist with OCREVUS”
What would my surgeon’s Tyrer-Cuzick Tool have to say about Ocrevus? What will my neurologist have to say?

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Two Letters

twoletters

After many years of dosing myself with Zinbryta on the 15th of the month, yesterday marked Day One of my negotiating multiple sclerosis without the aid of a monoclonal antibody.

My disease has toned down quite a bit since I started taking the drug. Has my MS been mellowing with age—or with medication? That’s been the seven thousand dollar a month question: What is me—and what is the drug?

In a parallel but hopefully irrelevant experiment, my visits to the breast cancer folks inspired me to ditch my deodorant. It took a day to learn that without deodorant, I stink.

It was easy enough to replace the brand I’ve depended on for decades with an equally effective brand that is untainted by propylene glycol and aluminum, ingredients that are potentially carcinogenic yet remain as blandly ubiquitous as the pink ribbons protesting the persistence of breast cancer.

Will replacing one monoclonal antibody with another be as easy as swapping Secret’s “Protecting Powder” for Desert Essence’s “Tropical Breeze?”

The nurse at my neurologist’s office warned me it might take up to six weeks for my insurance company to approve a new MS medication. I chose to see the potential benefit of the delay—I have been noticing that my wounds tend to heal a lot slower on Zinbryta. Perhaps I’ve been lucky to have a mass removed from my breast just as my immune system is getting weaned off an MS drug.

And yet I could not ignore the risk a six-week interval poses: the stakes are a lot higher going off an MS medication than going off a deodorant. MS is opportunistic, and tends to spring into action whenever the body is vulnerable. Perhaps undergoing surgery was the worst thing to do while getting weaned off an MS drug.

The day after my surgery, I got a call from a nurse from my insurance company. I usually regard such nurses as corporate spies. I have no dearth of interactions with health care professionals, or with human beings in general, so such calls do not fulfill an unmet medical or emotional need. But this time around, I did have a need. I decided to play nice. I discovered this nurse was actually more informed than most of the nurses the insurance companies had sent my way. When I found myself searching for the term, “monoclonal antibody,” she supplied it for me, and tactfully assured me I had nothing to worry about when I complained that my facility with language felt somewhat impaired after the general anesthesia. When I told her about the anticipated delay in getting my new medication approved, she promised she’d see what she could do to expedite things.

She was as good as her word.

Two hours later, I got a call from my neurologist’s office. The new drug, Ocrevus, had been approved.

On March 16, Day One of my life beyond Zinbryta, I received two letters from my insurance company.

The first letter denied coverage for Ocrevus.

It’s funny how seeing a letter on stationary can feel more convincing than on one’s own memory. I was tempted to check my calendar, just to confirm that I did indeed have an upcoming appointment for an Ocrevus infusion. Instead I opened the second letter.

The second letter was dated on March13th, the day of my conversation with the insurance nurse. It was a notification of approval.

Thank you, insurance nurse!

I’m so glad I took her call.

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Over. Next. And Best of All: Now.

A few weeks ago I heard some sage advice in a podcast by the indefatigably creative Norman Lear. He said that two words have served him well in his long life: “over” and “next.”

I’ve been trying those words out lately, and they really do add a lot of clarity.

As of yesterday afternoon, my surgery is over. What a relief that is. The surgeon scooped out those weird cells she was worried about, and now those cells are hers and not mine. Phew. She left her initials on my chest, above a pretty half moon scar.

My husband spent the whole day in the hospital with me, and drove me home to my first meal in twenty hours, which probably wouldn’t have had to be exquisite for me to appreciate it. But his meal was exquisite. He played us Miles Davis all night. Bliss.

exquisite

Today has wound up being one of the best days of my life. My student Barb showed up this morning with Italian wedding soup, which was utterly delicious.

barbsoup

I’ve been inundated with phone calls and texts from friends checking up on me, delaying my progress in updating this blog.

What comes next? The results come next. I don’t expect they will find any cancer, but if they do, that would handy to know, because the next MS drug I want to take seems to be associated with a slight uptick in breast cancer. I’ve chosen to switch from Zinbryta to Ocrevus. Dr. Z., my local MS doctor, has worked with Ocrevus since 2012 and has seen good results; in some cases, Ocrevus has not merely slowed disability—it has ushered in improvement. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to say I’ve seen improvement on Zinbryta. I am ready for this change.

Zinbryta is over. Ocrevus is next.

I’d like to add one word to the Norman Lear mantra of “over” and “next.” And that’s the Ms. Lab Rat mantra of “now.” I think now has been exactly the right time for me to have had this surgery. Zinbryta may have been great for tamping down the overactive immune response of my MS, but it’s been lousy at permitting me to heal. On Zinbryta, I’d had one skinned knee that took five months to close up.  I am glad I’m going to get a few weeks of reprieve between drugs that rely on super strong monoclonal antibody action. My half-moon scar will need this time to heal.

Thank you for reading!

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Lab Rat Plot Twist: Zinbryta Pulled Off The Market

I was on the line at the post office when one of my local MS doctors, Sandra Parawira, called to give me the news before I heard about it through the media.
Zinbryta, the MS drug that has staved off my MS attacks for the last 12 years, had just been pulled off the market. A few Zinbryta patients in Germany, and one in Spain, were found to have developed encephalitis. Sandra urged me to come into the office to visit with her on Wednesday. If her concerned tone of voice hadn’t done enough to convey the urgency of the situation, the immediacy of my next appointment in her busy practice surely did.
But was I worried? Not particularly. I have NPR to thank. On my drive to the post office, I’d been listening to an interview with a medical researcher on Science Friday. The researcher, Dr. Kang, was promoting a new book about “cures” throughout history that had done more harm than good. As I listened to Dr. Kang recount Marie Curie’s fondness for the radium which would later kill her, I’d idly wondered which of the drugs or supplements I was currently taking would later be exposed as a toxin. Five minutes later, I got the call that the drug I’ve credited for giving me my life back has been taken off the shelf.
While I have my doubts that a drug I’ve taken safely for 12 years was about to give me encephalitis, I am still seeing this change as an opportunity. Many new players have entered the MS landscape in the 12 years I’ve been on Zinbryta. Perhaps the drug I’m assigned next will improve my life as drastically as this one did.

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