Just My Luck

Here is the pivotal shower scene in the story I’ve told myself (and my gentle readers) about my struggle with MS:
It’s 2005. I’m in my thirties. I’m in the shower. I’m in pain. I’m sobbing.
I’ve tried MS drug after MS drug. None have stopped, or even slowed, the progress of my MS. The disease has conned my immune system into attacking my central nervous system. Each relapse creates new symptoms. Some symptoms, like vision loss, have proven to be transient, but some symptoms, like the numbness and tingling in my feet, have proven to be permanent.
For years, I’d held out hope for a knight in shining armor to save me from disease progression—in the form of a trial drug called Tysabri. My neurologist at Yale New Haven Hospital had enthralled me with stories of MS patients in his Tysabri trial actually experiencing disease reversal. Naturally, I’d asked him to sign me up.
Just my luck—I was thrown in the placebo group. My MS got no better.
After the Tysabri trial, I was assigned yet another ineffectual MS medication. My MS attacks continued. My Kentucky neurologist informed me “a black hole” had formed in my brain.
By the time Tysabri finally got approved by the FDA, I not only felt I needed this drug: I felt I deserved it.
I got one infusion of Tysabri. And then came the bad news. Some patients on Tysabri had developed PML, a potentially fatal brain inflammation. Tysabri had been taken off the market.
I wasn’t sobbing in the shower because I was afraid of PML. I was sobbing in the shower because Tysabri had been taken off the market. I had lost my chance to get better through Tysabri, or to die trying.
That’s right: I was feeling so desperate that it seemed a perfectly reasonable option to die of PML and suffer no longer from multiple sclerosis.
If this were a love story, Tysabri would be The One That Got Away. I did what anyone does these days when The One gets away; I toweled off and got online to find a new target for my hopes and dreams. And just like that, the drama took an upbeat turn.
The researcher I discovered online actually did put me on a drug that would stop my MS exacerbations, and dramatically slow my progression.
When I joined the daclizumab trial, I didn’t have to lose any time in the placebo group. Eventually, this drug, too, got approved for the market. But eventually this drug, too, got pulled from the market, after being connected (perhaps rashly) to some deaths from inflammatory brain disease.
This time around, there has been no weepy shower scene. There are more fish in the (metaphorical) sea these days than there were in 2005. I have options.
One of those options has turned out to be Tysabri: The One That Got Away. Tysabri has been back on the market for a while, ever since a blood test was developed to gauge a person’s susceptibility to developing PML. When I last met with my neurologist, he suggested I take this blood test. If the results looked good, I would have the option to give Tysabri a second chance.
Cue the music.
I took the blood test. Usually, the results take a day or two.
My results took over a week.
Guess what?
I’m one of those people who is susceptible to PML.
Just my luck.
And I don’t mean that in an ironic self-pitying kind of way. I mean it straight up. For a person struck with a horrible disease, I’ve gotten a lot of fantastic breaks, even when events looked bleak at the time. Especially when events looked bleak.
Let’s look again at that pivotal shower scene.
If I’d known I had narrowly escaped PML, I may not have been crying in the shower. I may not have been as motivated to do the Google search that led me to Bibi Bielekova’s innovative research with daclizumab. I may not have benefitted from twelve years on one of the most effective MS drugs yet discovered.
In a few hours, I meet with my local neurologist, Dr. Z. He’s been at a great big MS conference in LA, hearing all the latest innovations in the field.
Together, we will try to pick the best option for me.
I’m feeling lucky.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 295 other followers

just my luck

 

Advertisements

Risk Assessment

Dr. Z’s phone call got me out of bed yesterday morning. My local neurologist apologized for disturbing me at an early hour—but he knew he wouldn’t have any time to spare once he started his rounds for the day.
“It’s about Ocrevus.”
Of course it was.
I’d chosen Ocrevus at our appointment a few days before. I’ve been spoiled—I’d been on Zinbryta, one of the most effective drugs for multiple sclerosis out there, until it was pulled from the market. I didn’t want to downgrade. Ocrevus has an associated cancer risk; I’d asked Dr. Z if I could still consider it, even with the recent revelation of my elevated risk of breast cancer. Dr. Z had said the risk didn’t look too bad, nothing to inspire a black box warning; the numbers were more in the neighborhood of correlation than that of causation.
I’d left the appointment with greater clarity than I’d had walking in. Apparently, Dr. Z. left with a nagging feeling of uncertainty. And so he called the drug company (as only a conscientious doctor would do.) The company deferred answering his question, advising him to wait for their big product announcement in May. I am scheduled to get my first infusion in mid-April. Dr. Z thinks it would be reckless to start me on the drug without gathering all the information the company has collected about the drug through its first year on the market. He also thinks it would be reckless for me to wait additional weeks to get treatment. My last dose of Zinbryta was in mid-February. And my MS has proven to be fairly savage if left untouched by anything less powerful than a monoclonal antibody. He didn’t want me vulnerable to an MS relapse. He is a little too fond of telling me that I don’t have much brain left to lose.
Dr. Z suggested I try Tysabri next. Tysabri has been found to be fairly effective, though it comes with an elevated risk of PML, a potentially fatal brain infection. There is a blood test I can take to see if I’d be susceptible to PML. I don’t know which risk I will take if the blood test is positive. I risk a relapse if I hold out for Ocrevus and wait too long. I risk a relapse and potentially harmful side effects if I choose the wrong medication.
And yet, I am cautiously optimistic.
His phone call confirmed I’ve made one good choice already: I’ve chosen a neurologist with integrity. I also have a great resource in my neurologists at the NIH, who throughly answer my questions every time I find myself at a crossroads in this perilous landscape of multiple sclerosis. These researchers are working to make decisions like mine less agonizing. That’s a worthwhile cause, indeed.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 295 other followers

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?

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 295 other followers

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.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 295 other followers

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!

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 295 other followers