I Quit Tecfidera. Until I Quit Quitting Tecfidera.

I have a long history of quitting. I quit cigarettes decades ago. At least a dozen times. When cigarettes hit the intolerable price of $1.30, I reached my tipping point. I never bought another pack. From what I hear, cigarettes are considerably more expensive in the 21st Century. My being a quitter must have saved me a fortune.

When I reached my tipping point to quit Tecfidera, it had nothing to do with money. Thankfully. My copay was $0. No one should have to quit an MS drug because they can’t afford it.

My quitting Tecfidera had nothing to do with any conviction I can beat MS through exercise and diet (see photo of my Monday morning breakfast: spinach, husband’s grilled swordfish, asparagus, onion, radish.) I’m doing everything I can, but I don’t expect any cosmic reward. As my dad often says: Life isn’t fair. Chances are, Gentle Reader, you breakfasted on something like half a bagel with cream cheese —foods I’ve  forbidden myself from eating—and your immune system merely thanked you for it. My immune system may have thrown a hissy fit over such a meal. Or not. I’ve past the point of taking such a risk.

I quit Tecfidera because I didn’t understand how it worked, or if it worked, or if it would work for me. (Thank you, A., for researching the chemical processes.)  I could tell Tecfidera made my skin furious if I didn’t take an aspirin first. I avoid food that makes the MS monster mad. Why would I take a drug that makes the MS monster mad?

I quit Tecfidera because every time I considered I might quit, I felt at peace. The rest of the time, I felt…flummoxed.

So I told Dr. Z  I quit. I told my husband I quit. I told the drug company I quit. Nobody gave me any guff. Then I called the NIH.

You’ll need some backstory. I’ll be the first to admit I am a terrible blogger. For years, I’ve ignored basic blogging etiquette, such as adding a photo to a post, or including a provision for comments. For a long while, I’d let my domain name lapse. I could never be bothered to comment on MS blogs that I find inane and boring. Or even comment on ones I find fascinating. I dropped out of Facebook, so I no longer pulled in those followers. Gentle Reader, it’s a wonder you made it here at all. You must have a genuine interest my story, and I thank you. Which is why I apologize for having violating a basic norm in storytelling, which is to tell a whole damn story—beginning, middle and end.

A few months ago, I’d had this idea I would take you through one day in the life of an MS patient visiting the NIH for a clinical trial. I created a new category on my blog: “TRAP trial.” I wrote a few posts.  This series got as far as about 9:45 am, EST, in my day of the life in the TRAP trial. And then a cataclysmic event occurred in my actual life with MS—maybe my drug was dropped?—and I posted about how everything was upended. And didn’t look back. I never wrote the post I’d planned about meeting up with the nurses who have literally held my hand through my MS trials. Or the post about meeting the brilliant woman, young enough to be my daughter, who has developed an app that allows me to perform clinical MS tests myself from the comfort of my own home. I never wrote the post that explains how Dr. Bielekova persuaded me to join the TRAP trial in the first place. And I never introduced you to the indomitable Dr. W. This is some shabby storytelling, indeed.

Let me begin to make amends by introducing you to Dr. W. She has quite the reputation. This is a woman who worked her way to the top on the not terribly level playing field of NIH, where, to this day, only 22 percent of tenured research scientists are women.

When my NIH nurse discovered Dr. W would assume my clinical care, the nurse told me I’d been assigned a neurologist who works only when she wants, and only on projects that interest her. That’s pretty badass.

Meeting Dr. W was like witnessing a 60’s era Katharine Hepburn stride into clinic. There was a hint of horse stable residue clinging to her expensive yet practical shoes. Dr. W springs from a Kentucky pedigree, and bonded with me over her knowledge of Cincinnati. Every subsequent time I’ve seen her, she refers effortlessly to minute details of conversations we’d had months before. Either she is a prodigious note taker, or she doesn’t forget a thing. I suspect the latter.

When I called Dr. W to announce I’d quit Tecfidera, the script didn’t run as it had when I’d rehearsed it on all the other players in my various MS spheres.

Once she got over her surprise that I was on Tecfidera in the first place—she’d been favor of Ocrevus—she insisted I get on “some MS drug” and stay on it.  Even Tecfidera would do. It was the only way I could rejoin the TRAP trial.

We weren’t on a FaceTime call, so she couldn’t see my facial expression drop vis a vis a hangdog Spenser Tracy after receiving a tongue-lashing from his whip-smart leading lady. While I have already demonstrated I can persuade just about anyone else of the diminishing returns of taking MS drugs after the age of fifty, I didn’t even try to argue with her.

I told Dr. W I would go back on Tecfidera.

I would rather quit quitting Tecfidera than quit the TRAP trial. Barring a new cataclysmic event interrupting my life’s narrative, I promise I will devote the next post to explaining why this Lab Rat thinks it’s worth it to resume Tecfidera and scurry back into the TRAP.

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Flummoxed (Part 3 of ?)

I get a phone call from my youngest sister, PYT, a.k.a. Pretty Young Thing, just as I am flopping down in the driver’s seat after a lightweight workout with my toys at the gym.

PYT has three Young kids, four and under, who are competing with me for her attention. I win. Intermittently.

I tell her I’ve capitulated. I’m taking my new MS drug just as the doctor ordered, thirty minutes after an aspirin. “I splurged and got myself the kiddie kind.”

“The orange ones? The chewables? The ones that taste like mom loves you and everything is going to be OK?”

“Exactly.” Oh, it is great to talk to someone who knows precisely what the aspirin summons—not only the specific taste, but the specific aura our mother would convey while doling it out.

Now that I take Tecfidera after an aspirin, and a meal with a bit of fatty food—I love my avocado, I love my coconut milk—I don’t get a rash. Or an allergic reaction. Whichever. Dr. Z. had warned me it might take weeks for the rash to stop flaring up. The rash had stopped immediately.

And yet. I don’t trust the lack of rash. You know those times when your room is a mess and your mom has threatened to inspect and you shove all your miscellaneous underwear and books and socks and chewed pencils under your bed, and it’s still a mess but it’s a hidden mess? Well, PYT and I never did that. The hidden mess was our middle sister’s speciality.  (She’s the pragmatist of us three.)  Our  messes were always flagrant—out in the open. And no, we never got points for honesty. But we’d always thought we ought to. Go ahead, roll your eyes. This is not a sentiment I’m proud of.

Am I the same person now? Hell, no. I suspect I’m not the only person with MS passing (less and less often) in public as able-bodied while actively concealing I’m a total hidden mess.

PYT knows me, the past me, the one who’d railed against the hidden mess. She gets my reservation that maybe taking the aspirin is just the same as shoving a mess under the bed. Does the aspirin genuinely alleviate my body’s resistance to the drug, or does it just push the resistance under the surface, where it can’t be seen?

We ponder this distinction as my four year old nephew explores the new paint he’s created by reconstituting dried out markers and as his twin sister mixes that paint with an entirely unacceptable color and as their younger brother decides it’s time to pee.

We wonder if the new drug is even worth it, given the conclusion of the meta-analysis of over 28,000 MS patients from 38 clinical trials that most current DMTs (Disease Modifying Treatments) are fairly useless for the average patient by the time they reach my age. We ponder Dr. Z’s point that I might be an “outlier” — which sounds kind of cool — unless “outlier” means that without drugs I might be the one to get hit with an exacerbation that could permanently disable me further. His distress over this possibility is nothing to dismiss. I’ve looked around his waiting room. Not everyone with MS has the luxury of describing themselves as a hidden mess.

I share the latest conclusion about the three types of MS—which is that relapsing/remitting, secondary progressive, and primary progressive MS are not three different diseases, but rather, three phases of the same disease. The FDA approved DMTs may prevent relapses, but do nothing for other processes known as “compartmentalized inflammation,” which do not show up on MRI’s.  These are the messes under the bed, so to speak. Or more specifically, the messes inside the cells.

We speculate that maybe all those years I had credited Zinbryta for stopping my MS attacks, the change could have really been more of function of my slipping insidiously from relapsing remitting MS into a more progressive phase of a disease, where the breakdown can’t be detected by the MRI, but rather, by the lumbar puncture.

“It’s like a vicious dog that hasn’t bit anyone in twelve years on a muzzle, and I’ve credited the muzzle. But maybe the dog has just mellowed out with age.”

PYT chimes in, “And maybe the muzzle has been annoying for the poor dog.”

PYT and I are both dog lovers. We aren’t fond of muzzles.

I say, “Maybe we just have to be realistic about my MS. It’s a progressive disease. Slowly but steadily, I’ve been progressing. The drugs that work to stop relapsing remitting MS can’t do a thing about the kind of progression I’m experiencing inside my cells. Maybe it’s time to stop fooling ourselves by my taking a drug that only helps for an early stage of MS. I might be way past that phase.”

PYT says, “It sounds to me like you have taken your last Tecfidera.”

My flummoxed feeling is lifting. I starting to feel like myself again. (Talking with a sister will do that.) I share the last thing Dr. Z. said to me, “I will support you even if you don’t want to take any medication.”

His unconditional support means so much. PYT warns me that our mother and my husband will resist my urge to give up the medication. “As they should. They love you. They want to protect you.”

Protect…me? When we were growing up, I never cast myself as the damsel in distress. But that’s the role MS has forced me to play my entire adult life.

 

 

 

Flummoxed (Part 2 of ?)

I find it super uncomfortable to read articles in scientific journals. Even articles about MS. Even articles about MS illustrated with lots of pretty graphs. Maybe…especially articles about MS. These are articles I have to understand as though my life depended on it. Because it does.

You know how some people publicly (and most people privately) grouse about how higher math is irrelevant for most of us after we get out of school—so why make students suffer? Well, I wish I’d paid more attention when I was taught statistics. Turns out, I need to understand them in real life. I wish I’d had a semester or so learning to become a fine print detective, that the teacher had made terms like  “de facto” feel like shiny keys to hidden treasures. I wish I’d not learned to gloss over any text in the form of an equation like this one:

IDPDrugversusPlacebo=100%(1(1IDPDrugversusIFNβ100)(1IDPIFNβversusPlacebo100)).

Because no one is going to tell me the stuff I am learning by reading research articles in Frontiers in Neurology. Stuff like: “Higher efficacy treatments exert their benefit over lower efficacy treatments only during early stages of MS, and, after age 53, the model suggests that there is no predicted benefit to receiving immunomodulatory DMTs (Disease Modifying Treatments) for the average MS patient.”

I admit, I haven’t been going to enough MS Society events. But all too many of them are paid for by pharmaceutical companies, who may have a conflict with informing you that, after you reach a certain age,  their drugs are no longer particularly useful. (Not to mention, some of their drugs are not particularly useful at any age.) I don’t know about you, but I know an awful lot of people over the age of 53 who are taking a DMT (Disease Modifying Treatment.) These treatments can cost in excess of $7k per month. Very few of these people seem particularly well. More than a few complain of side effects from their medications. What would they think about this article? Have they been enduring pills/injections/infusions that are doing them more harm than good? Have I?

I’m not going to be too hard on myself for having trouble navigating the facts as presented. At one point, I’d sent a link to my son, who majors in math and economics at Vassar. My heart leapt when he messaged me back. Then I saw he was messaging with a question, not an answer: “Does this thing have cliff notes?”

When Dr. Z returns my call, I am stuck on one particular paragraph, which distinguishes higher efficiency drugs from lower efficiency drugs. I notice the drug I’ve lost access to, Zinbryta, is classified as a higher efficiency drug. Whereas Tecfidera, the drug that is causing my skin to redden and prickle, is classified as a lower efficiency drug. I’ve downgraded! Nobody likes a downgrade. And nobody likes their skin to prickle and burn.

IMG_0124

Dr. Z tells me he’d gotten the picture my friend Monica had taken of my angry skin. I ask him if it looks like an allergic reaction. The fine print that came with the drug was very clear on one thing: “Do not use Tecfidera if you have had an allergic reaction, such as welts, hives…”

I want him to use the word, “hives.” Instead he asks, “Did you take aspirin thirty minutes before you took the medication?”

“Like you told me?”

“Yes.”

“No.” I hadn’t wanted to mask the effect of the drug. I’d wanted to know exactly what my body thought of it. The reaction had been fairly unambiguous, I thought. Didn’t he?

He says rash is a common side effect, one that would generally recede after the first few weeks, or could be averted entirely if I were to take an aspirin beforehand.

I counter that even if this was a side effect, and not an allergic reaction, I just wasn’t sure the side-effect of this drug could ever outweigh the benefits of a low-efficacy therapy.

He says, “You’re talking about that paper again. Let’s remember that you may not need a high efficacy drug at this point in your disease process. You might be past the inflammatory phase of your disease. But you are not out of the woods yet. I have patients in their seventies and eighties getting relapses. I wouldn’t want that to happen to you.”

I don’t want that to happen to me, either. I promise I would give Tecfidera another chance. I would try taking the aspirin 30 minutes before the drug, as he had told me. And wait and see.

 

The TRAP Trial Begins with the Lifting of a Magic Latch (Part 5 of Ms Lab Rat’s Latest NIH Adventure)

At the close of my most recent installment of my chronicle of a Day-In-The-Life of an NIH Lab Rat, I was about to enter the phlebotomist’s cubby.
You notice I then abandoned the narrative for blog posts about light subjects such as breakfast and…biopsies. Needles. I just can’t get around them.
Gentle Reader, I am not so fond of needles. You would think, after over twenty years of self-injecting medications—once a month for Zinbryta, once a week for Avonex, once a day for Copaxone—I would be jaded by now. I am not. I squirm when I see an injection on TV. (For me, the most memorable moment of the very memorable movie Traffic occurred when the daughter of the anti-drug Czar smiles drowsily as she shoots drugs through a needle into her arm. I have yet to smile drowsily while injecting. It’s a goal.)
As I took a seat in the phlebotomist’s chair, I couldn’t help but notice a thank you note strategically posted across from the hot seat. Had I been a strategic blogger, I would have taken a picture of the note so it could later serve as the featured image of this post. But that’s not the person I am, nor the person I want to be. There was a brief period of time when I used to collect experiences for my blog. Once I realized I was collecting experiences instead of experiencing experiences, I backed off. So that’s my excuse for why there is no photo of the thank you note, or even a transcript of it. I can only offer you a paraphrase. The note went something like this:

Dear Mr. So-and-So,
Our son has undergone intolerable challenges. Somehow you managed to make the whole ordeal fun for him, and we can’t thank you enough for being a light in this very dark time.
With gratitude,
Mom and Dad of a Very Sick Vulnerable Boy

This note comforted the hell out of me. And put me on notice that I’d better not be wimpier than the Very Sick Vulnerable Boy.
By this point in my fairly vast experience with a wide variety of phlebotomists, I’ve learned that most are ordinary people, whose needles puncture flesh. But there are a few phlebotomists—a select few—whose needles create the sensation, not of a puncture, but of a lifting of a magic latch. So far, the phlebotomists I’ve encountered at the NIH fall into this latter category of elite magicians.
I did not ask this fellow to tell me more about this note he had on display. I’ve found, the hard way, that it’s best not to get personal with a health care technician when they are about to get to work. One time I asked a nurse, How was your weekend—a
seemingly innocuous question—and tears sprang to her eyes. The next thing I knew, she was telling me how her little boy had been out riding his bicycle right on their block when he got hit by a car. She then connected electrodes to the wrong place on my foot, and I endured 15 minutes of non-therapeutic electric shocks. Served me right.
So no, I did not ask this phlebotomist to tell me more about the little boy in the note. I was rewarded for my reticence. He told me—they all tell me—that I have good veins. And then he magically extracted blood from those veins, without my feeling a puncture, but rather, a lifting of a magic latch.

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We Interrupt this Narrative

I’ve been meaning to construct a nice, orderly narrative of my most recent visit to the NIH, one that didn’t jump around in time too much, but I’m going to interrupt this account at the point right before I meet my phlebotomist—Who wouldn’t want to delay getting pricked?—by announcing I have just now learned I have a new diagnosis—severe osteoporosis. Which I never would have tested for had I not joined this latest NIH study, which recommended a dexa scan.

I can’t afford to get too worked up about this. I’ve got an hour until I leave for my first day of teaching Artist as Reader. I know half my students from previous classes, and they give me great hope for the future. We are going to make art in response to the screenplay of Get Out, my current favorite move, The Sympathizer, my current favorite novel, and Don’t Call Us Dead, my current favorite poetry collection.

Don’t call Ms. Lab Rat dead. Osteoporosis is just another bump in an admittedly bumpy road. If I hadn’t been ordered to take a bone scan, I certainly wouldn’t have. And I wouldn’t have learned a kind of important new feature of my ever changing body. 

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Breakfast Break: MS Style (part 4 of Ms. Lab Rat’s Latest NIH Adventure)

When we last left off, I, Ms. Lab Rat, was sniffing the sickly scent of powdered sugar as I passed the by-now stale gingerbread houses on display in the secular cathedral that is the NIH (National Institutes of Health.) I had time to kill before my Phlebotomy appointment, so I took the elevator to the second floor cafeteria, which has an excellent salad bar. And discovered I was too early for salad.

Here’s the deal with my new Wahls-inspired MS diet: the foods I used to associate with breakfast are off the menu. No processed foods, no gluten, no grains, no milk (bye bye breakfast cereals,) no eggs, no cheese (bye bye omelets.)

Here is a picture of what breakfast looked like for me today: IMG_9271

You’re looking at bok choy and garlic escargot simmered in homemade chicken broth, topped with kimchi and dulce. The Wahls Diet calls for the consumption of four servings of leafy green veggies a day, at least four servings of colorful fruits and veggies, a meat, a touch of seaweed, a bit of something pickled. The Wahls Diet is also very very big on homemade bone broth. So this breakfast covers pretty much all the bases. (If I were a true purest, there would have been a little knob of organ meat floating around in the bowl, too. But that’s the thing about the Wahls diet. Or maybe any diet? You can always feel you’re not quite up to par.) This breakfast was yummy, by the way. But this kind of breakfast is not easily obtained on the road. Not even in a hospital. (By the way, what’s up with hospital food? Why are there so many unhealthy choices? Topic for another blog.)

Here’s a fuller, indeed cluttered picture of what breakfast looked like for me today, when I tell the whole complicated story of my MS maintenance:

IMG_9272

You are still looking at my pretty bowl of healthier-than-thou breakfast food. You are also looking at the supplements required for the clinical trial of the Wahls Diet:

5,000 IU Vitamin D3, 1 t cod liver oil, 5000 liquid vitamin B12, 1 mg folate, multi-vitamin.

Then there’s all the stuff I have to take for my funny bladder:

AZO, macrobid, and some other antibiotic I’ll be finished with at dinner.

Then all the stuff I choose to take for my self-designed Ms Lab Rat trial:

3x 100 mg Biotin (which I am hoping will eventually fix my bladder problems and get rid of three of the items above), 500 mg Hemp oil, local hemp oil, glorious hemp oil (which has helped me sleep and dream after many sleepscarce, dreamless years), 5 mg Lithium (which I thought was doing a fine job as a mood stabilizer, though I just learned that what I take isn’t anything like a mood stabilizing dose. So let’s call it my placebo.)

This is a lot to keep track of. When I graduated from the Swank Vs. Wahls clinical trial, I got a certificate (no joke) and a private viewing of a 20 minute video of Dr. Wahls that just served to delay the seven hour drive ahead of me. No t-shirt. The only remotely useful thing I left with was a booklet to help me keep up with all the details of living in a Wahls Diet world. (I had rallied hard for an app, but there isn’t one. Yet.)  For a few weeks afterward, I kept filling in little circles every time I popped another supplement, or finished another serving of leafy greens. But eventually I ditched the booklet. I want to feel a little less obsessive, a little less persnickety. Either that, or I’d already assimilated all the expectations. My brain had become the diet app I’d been asking for.

The morning of my TRAP trial, I realized I was not going to get a Wahls breakfast, or Wahls-ish breakfast before my blood draw. I guzzled a “green” drink I purchased from a vending machine and took the elevator down to Phlebotomy. A lovely woman handed me a white stub with a number. As I glanced down to read 32, she called, “Thirty two.” It was the Christmas holiday. I was the only patient in the waiting room. I filed past untouched trays of cookies and two pots of coffee and entered the orderly hive of numbered white cubicles, wondering if I’d recognize my phlebotomist. I had been there many times before.

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Teetering on the Verge of TRAP (part 3 of Ms. Lab Rat’s Latest NIH adventure)

I didn’t jump into the TRAP trial eagerly.

When I first got a pamphlet from the National Institutes of Health advising me of my eligibility for a new study, I thought perhaps there’d been some mistake. This study was designed for people with progressive MS, the most serious form of multiple sclerosis, a most serious degenerative disease. That couldn’t apply to me. I was an MS success story. I was Ms. Lab Rat, the patient who had cleverly evaded a continued barrage of MS lesions by taking a fortuitous risk on an off-label drug. In over a decade of respite from new inflammation, neurologist after neurologist  told me I was doing everything right, told me I was doing great. None of them mentioned I was slipping into the progressive form of the disease.

And yet.

I myself had not been satisfied, had not felt I was doing everything I could to stop or slow the ongoing catastrophe that is MS. As much as I was grateful for the drug I was taking, I thought for sure that the drug had worked more efficiently when I first took it back in my late 30’s, when it was delivered off-label via IV infusion. The form of the drug that I later took for an NIH study, the form that eventually hit the market as Zinbryta, came in a little tiny vial, not a whopping big IV bag, and felt that much less miraculous. Sure, I was still avoiding MS relapses, but I was also no longer swimming for hours or taking long hikes. Or even short walks.

The cover of the NIH pamphlet asked, Is your MS progressing, in spite of treatments?

I wasn’t exactly sure.

Wouldn’t some neurologist have told me if my MS had become progressive?

One would think.

Would I have wanted them to?

Hell, no. Back in 2005, I fired a neurologist for telling me my MS was never going to get any better. Which started me on the search that led to Dr. Bielekova, who actually did make my MS get better, without ever making any promises that she could. She had prescribed the drug she was researching with great reluctance, because I’d been insistent. She’d warned me there was no guarantee of success. Yet it had been a success.

As I set the pamphlet down I saw Dr. Bielekova’s name was attached to the study. While I was still mostly in denial that the pamphlet could apply to me, I did have friends with progressive MS, friends who had lost their employment, much of their mobility, and in the worst case, much of their memory. Connecting them to an NIH study could give them access to some of the most nimble minds examining this insidious disease. I picked the pamphlet back up.

The trial proposed to measure the effects of four established medications, currently treatments for other diseases, to see if they could ameliorate the effects of MS. The drug that had changed the course of my disease had originally been used to keep the immune systems of organ transplant patients from attacking the transplanted organ; Dr. Bielekova had guessed that perhaps it could likewise be used to keep the immune systems of MS patients from self-attack. Clinical trial patients like me had helped to prove her theory correct. Apparently she was looking to repeat this success.

The pamphlet didn’t make any claims of how any of these four drugs might potentially help a person with MS. Instead, it went into detail about potential side effects. Which was all very above board. But not very tempting.

Furthermore, the timing of the pamphlet was off.

The pamphlet arrived in the spring, a time of hope. I had just enrolled in a clinical trial examining the effect of diet on MS. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a teaspoon of cod-liver here, a sprig of seaweed there, would be all it took to fix me? I could only do one trial at a time. Why not stick with the wholesome one? The one without potential side effects.

When I called the number on the pamphlet, I disclosed my participation in the diet trial right away. I explained I was asking… for a friend. The doctor I spoke with was unfamiliar to me, but warm and sympathetic. She urged me to let the NIH pay to fly me out anyway, just to keep  updated on my progress with Zinbryta. I had nothing to lose beyond a wee bit of spinal fluid, which I would easily replenish. If there were signs of progression, I would qualify for the study. If it turned out I wasn’t progressing, well, that would be good information to have.

And that was how I’d wound up back at the NIH late last June for a spinal tap.

The results came in during the July 4 holidays. I got a voice mail message that I did indeed qualify for the study. The unspoken implication was clear. I could consider myself as having progressive MS. My calls to the clinic went unreturned. I blamed the holiday. Then summer vacations.

I didn’t want to admit to myself that I was devastated. I decided to look on the bright side. While the Swank Diet I was on for my current clinical trial wasn’t yet working any wonders, maybe its competitor, the Wahls Diet, would do the trick.  And if neither diet reversed my symptoms, at least there would be TRAP to turn to. If only someone from the clinic would return my calls.

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