My, oh my, How My Blogging Has Changed

When I first created Ms. Lab Rat, it was all about me. I didn’t think to read other blogs or comment on them, because I’d thought I had the big answer. I was participating in a clinical trial for an MS drug that seemed to have stopped multiple sclerosis in its tracks. I’d gone from having a really severe case of relapsing remitting MS to an MS in remission, and to a large degree, my life was restored to me. I’d figured, as soon as this drug hit the market, the MS community would be transformed. Everyone would board the Zinbryta rocket ship and we’d all blast off into recovery. That’s not what happened. Zinbryta, which was so helpful to me, caused a few cases fatal encephalitis in others, and was pulled from the market.
I was left with no answers. Just questions. Like, what drug would I turn to next? Or, could I treat MS exclusively through diet? I started reading other blogs, and learning so much about the incredible resourcefullness and resilience in the online patient community. These days, I value my time as a reader and commenter as much as I do as a blogger. I am thankful for all the other bloggers out there who are getting out of bed each day (or not) and taking the time to share their struggles and strategies. Faithful readers and commenters, I am grateful to you, too!
It’s been a journey.

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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.

 

 

 

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.

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just my luck

 

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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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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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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