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 like 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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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.

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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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What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Bad Decision

Yesterday my friend Monica and I went kayaking on the Miami River. When you read, “kayaking,” you might get the impression we were paddling madly. We were not. We were just two women of a certain age, bobbing along on a still lake, dipping our paddles occasionally as we chatted.

Monica and I met at a yoga class for people with MS. We’ve both had MS symptoms for decades. We share the same neurologist, Dr. Z. MS gives us a lot to talk about. I told Monica how much I admired her decision to stay away from MS medications, despite Dr. Z’s recommendation to start one. I think she’s been managing her disease really well. Monica runs her own business. She can hike for miles. She can drive without hand controls. She can put on a sneaker while standing on one foot. If I could do those things, I’d consider myself pretty well cured.

Monica told me she admires me for being brave enough to try experimental medications. I assured her I haven’t been brave, only desperate.

I would be oversimplifying to present us as taking opposite tacks. If you were to draw a Venn diagram of our approaches to MS, you’d find a pretty big overlap in the center. We both do yoga. We both experiment with controlling MS through diet; me in a clinical trial, and Monica in the privacy of her own kitchen. We are both total strivers, still hoping to get healthier, not sicker, as though we weren’t aware we have a degenerative disease. What’s our secret? Delusion, we agreed, laughing. Every day, we push forward, not necessarily ignoring the bad stuff, but not letting that stuff define us either.

When I observed that we’d been under the sun for a while, we paddled over to a shady spot, being the proactive types who wouldn’t ignore the sun and overheat, thereby triggering our MS symptoms.

Monica took a picture of me in my rented kayak, wisely sheltering beneath an overhanging tree. I’d made a good decision, right? Nope. I’d made a bad decision. This morning I’d woken up itching.  Turns out, I’d been nestled in poison oak. I’m not saying I would have been better off heating up in the middle of the lake. But maybe I should have chosen to not shelter quite so deeply in the shade.

Here’s the thing about living with MS in these times: there are many treatment options to choose from, including the option to not medicate. Smart, conscientious people can labor over these options for days, or even years, yet make a choice with grim consequences. When I was a little kid, I used to think I’d eventually recognize the bad option when I saw one. Boy, did I underestimate the complications of this world.