Double post

We were at the hospital all day — Beth had her bone marrow biopsy; we should have the results from that Friday.

I made the double post because the WordPress phone app said the first one had failed. Oh well.

GVH skin ailments

We are down at the medical short stay unit today, and I believe Beth is going to have another bone marrow biopsy today, and a Chimerism test. But the nurse is not sure. (It would be the second time they didn’t know what was going on here.)

Last week Beth had some pretty bad rashes. Some of these seem to be healing. The photos here show some of this. She is still plenty itchy, but seems to be getting better.

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GVH skin ailments

We are down at the medical short stay unit today, and I believe Beth is going to have another bone marrow biopsy today, and a Chimerism test. But the nurse is not sure. (It would be the second time they didn’t know what was going on here.)

Last week Beth had some pretty bad rashes. Some of these seem to be healing. The photos here show some of this. She is still plenty itchy, but seems to be getting better.

20120117-090550.jpg

20120117-090653.jpg

One more week in the MSSU

We got the first weekend “off” since Beth began her treatments early in December. She got to stay home Saturday and Sunday, while home health workers (RNs) came to the house and took care of her treatment. It was the first time we didn’t have to pack into the car and head down to West Penn. She’s still got about another week’s worth of MSSU — she still needs to receive another five or six day’s worth of the antibiotic she’s been taking for her MRSA infection. That seems to be the big reason to get down there.

Too, she’s having another bone marrow biopsy tomorrow. From that will come the bone marrow tissue used to do the Chimerism test, which will be our first look at how the “graft” is doing. We have evidence that it’s working because her white blood cell count is way up, but doctors want to see how much of the old bone marrow is left — in theory, it can’t continue to grow or make leukemic blood cells because it should have been “destroyed” in the “conditioning” phase of chemo and radiation. But some of it may be left around. And of course, the “graft-vs-host” effect should be continuing to mop it up.

Generally, I take Beth down there in the mornings, and our oldest son Jeremy has been picking her up.

The transplant and initial complications are past; now we need to watch and pray

I’ve been putting up a lot of short posts (I’ve primarily been using my old iPhone), and now I’ll just summarize the events of the past couple of days. There are photos throughout the posts that appear down below.

Beth received her transplant, from 9:45-10:30 on Wednesday evening, December 14th. She received a very high number of stem cells (the range is 4 million to 8 million cells per Kg of body weight) — she had a young, strong donor, and she got the 8 million.

After the infusion of the new stem cells, she had a somewhat violent reaction, which lasted most of the night and the next day. Her fever went up to 103. Everyone’s initial response (all the medical folks) was that she was having an infection, and that is an appropriate place to look. Beth’s response was not common, but it happens. She seems to have settled down from that. They are continuing to give her two different antibiotics, Vancomycin, for staph infections, and Cefepime, which is good for pneumonia.

The next challenge will be that the effects of the chemotherapy (and I’m guessing they mean the Busulfan) really kick in on days 7-10. So we should be entering that phase now.

The purpose of the chemo was to destroy Beth’s existing bone marrow. This doesn’t happen all at once, but it happens over these 7-10 days. One of the doctors said that the existing marrow, while not yet “destroyed”, has been affected by the chemo and is not able to reproduce itself. And that’s where the new cells came in.

The new cells will begin to grow into new bone marrow. In the next couple of weeks, doctors will be looking for signs of engraftment, which occur probably during days 7-10 after the transplant. (These 7-10 days are different from the days 7-10 of chemo.)

30 days down the road, they will do another bone marrow biopsy and Chimerism testing to make certain that existing bone marrow is 100% donor and 0% Beth. If it’s something other than that, it would be a bad sign.

So we are not yet out of the woods. There is a 35% chance of relapse. But we know, too, that during the conditioning phase and afterward (by tweaking the response to the graft-vs-host effect – the effect by which the new tissues perceive Beth’s old marrow as enemy and continue to destroy it), the hope is that we achieve that 100% cure. But it’ll be a year or two before we know that.

Bone Marrow Biopsy Today

Watch this space for details, although I suspect that, given that this is now Beth’s 4th one of these, there will not be very much exciting happening. We’re headed down to West Penn’s Medical Short Stay unit, which is essentially a floor full of outpatient single-day hospital rooms. She’ll have a blood test and we’ll get some lab results; the biopsy is at 10:00 am, and again, Beth will go under “conscious sedation” or what’s otherwise known as a “twilight” sedative. She slept through the last one – it became painful a day later as all the sedatives wore off. While she experienced a tremendous amount of pain at some of her earlier bone marrow biopsies, she came back from the last one with no complaints at all.

See also The Papacy’s Missing Link

We are now scheduling the “pre-testing”

We got a call yesterday from the Transplant Coordinator – they want to have Beth come in now for some “pre-testing” – they want to check her heart, lungs, have another bone marrow biopsy. Since we have a regularly-scheduled appointment with Dr. Rossetti on Monday, we’re looking at going in and having some of this done on each of the next two Mondays.

Beth is about half-way through her sixth cycle of Vidaza – they always seem to kick her butt. The way things are going, this could be the last one. No word yet from the Donor. We may hear something Monday.

City Reformed Presbyterian Church

I just received a copy of the City Reformed Membership Letter for this month, and I saw that my family and this blog are mentioned, concerning my wife’s illness. So I thought I’d take a few minutes to give a brief overview of my wife’s condition and the needs that Pastor Matt was speaking about.

In June of this year, my wife Bethany was admitted to the hospital with an extremely low hemoglobin level – it was 5.7, when a normal level is about 12-15 g/dL. She underwent extensive testing and a bone marrow biopsy – there are many things that cause this type of severe anemia, but the biopsy came back positive. It took a while to come up with a definitive diagnosis, but what came back was “chronic myelomonocytic leukemia” (CMML), a very rare form of the disease that shares both “myelodysplastic” and “myeloproliferative” (MDS/MPD) characteristics.

A larger version of that process may be found here.

CMML, as a disease, is primarily something that older people get (median age is something like 74), usually as a result of a treatment from a prior cancer. Probably as a function of that, the prognosis is not for a long life (12-24 months).There is more information about CMML here for anyone who is interested.

Beth has so far received four “cycles” of a drug called Vidaza, which is part chemotherapy, and part therapeutic. It has the ability to “interfere with the leukemia process” and actually enable her body to return to somewhat normal blood levels. This hasn’t happened in Beth’s case, and she’s had to have numerous blood transfusions to bring her hemoglobin level back to tolerable levels. I have tagged entries about this under the tag Vampire Bride.

According to the medical information that’s available, “Bone marrow or stem cell transplantation appears to be the only current treatment that alters the natural history of CMML.” Interestingly, the brother of Dave Faith, an elder at City Reformed, went through this procedure several years ago and is doing fine.

Currently, my understanding is that the process of finding a donor is fairly far along, and there are four potential donors who are undergoing a final type of screening. (For anyone interested in this process, please visit http://www.marrow.org for more information). Once a donor is selected, we should begin the transplant process within the next six weeks or so.

I mentioned above that this is something that older people get. Beth was diagnosed at age 50 – she served in the Iraq War and was “in country” from April through September of 2003. A number of Iraq War veterans have come down with leukemia, and we believe that she was exposed to benzene, a known carcinogen, or other cancer-causing agents during her service at that time. Beth was recently featured in an article about this in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

* * *

The City Reformed membership letter mentioned several of our needs. Our financial needs are summarized under the “Donate” button in the right hand column. As well, once Beth begins the transplant process, she will be a full-time inpatient at West Penn hospital for a week or two, and for the first 30 days after that, we will need to make daily trips to West Penn’s “Short Stay” (daily outpatient) unit.

Given the commute schedule (I’m going to try to get to work as often as is possible during this time, with an eye on our finances). During that time, we may need some help with the daily commutes, one way or another. But at this point, I don’t have any idea what that will involve.

We’ve also been approached about having meals prepared for us, and I believe that will be very helpful to us once we enter into the transplant schedule.

I want to say that we all are tremendously grateful to be a part of the City Reformed congregation. The response from Matt and the deacons, as well as other folks we know, has been overwhelming. We are most grateful for your prayers and concern and help during this very difficult time.

Sincerely,
John and Bethany Bugay

Please note: the “Chicken” entry nearby was a spoof of an academic research paper and presentation, and is in no wise representative of the other materials at this blog. 🙂

A clarification

In light of the relatively good news we had yesterday, which I’ve summarized here, there is a bit of clarification as well.

The real danger, early on, had been that Beth’s leukemia would progress into something more aggressive. But the bone marrow biopsy last week has basically shown that the disease has been controlled and beaten back to some degree.

That’s the good news. The caveat is that all of this is just temporary. We are in a kind of holding pattern. The disease is controlled, it’s not progressing, and Beth’s health is improving, but it is only doing so pending the arrival of a huge milestone, called “the transplant”.

Her bone marrow is still diseased on a genetic level. The Vidaza can’t (doesn’t) work forever; either the body adapts to it, or it stops working at a point. So at some point, her genetically-damaged marrow will continue to put out genetically damaged “blasts”, and in very short order these would again begin to overwhelm her system and possibly put her into aggressive leukemia. That’s just the way this one works.

So we’re waiting to hear from the transplant folks on the status of an acceptable donor, so we can move into the next (“curative”) phase of this. Only the transplant can get rid of her diseased marrow and put her on a path for a normal life.

Our doctor says that we will move ahead with the transplant just as soon as an acceptable donors is selected. I called the transplant coordinator at the hospital yesterday, and of the initial group of “10/10” matches, they are following up with four of them (one international!) to have more testing done. We should know something in a couple of weeks.

Yesterday’s news

“Normal marrow is 50%. Yours is 20%.” And that’s good at this point.

We learned a few things in our appointment with Dr. Jalil yesterday, though I’m not certain I understand it all. Dr. Jalil’s is where Bethany has been getting her Vidaza treatments. He had received a copy of Bethany’s bone marrow biopsy results, but he hadn’t had a chance to read them closely yet.

We did learn a few things. Large, trendy things, I guess you could say.

First is that the treatment seems to be working effectively. “As expected”. That is, while we have been watching Bethany’s blood levels go up and down, the general trend is that almost everything is going down.

Early bone marrow biopsies showed her being “hypercellular” – that is, her bone marrow was marked by extra tissue, and even some scar tissue. Now she is at about a 20% level of bone marrow. That is, yes, very low. Explanation: “the medication is controlling the disease”. (Blasts and monocytes, in aggressive leukemia, would tend to build up. That Bethany’s is so well cleared out is seen to be a good thing.)

For example, in an early biopsy, her blast counts were 10-15%; now they are 4%. Normal folks are at 5% blasts in their bone marrow (blasts are “baby blood cells” that grow up and differentiate. In aggressive leukemia, the blast number tends to exceed 20% to 30%, and they really “gum up the works”. So this level is good).

Beth’s monocytes are still hovering around the 10% level. That they have not gone higher is a positive thing. (They could have moved from 10% to 20%, but they didn’t.)

In short, the treatment kills both bad cells and good cells. And we have seen some good cell production in this.

Finally, I saw something I had noted in all of my poking around to learn things about CMML. I emailed Dr. Rossetti about it:

I believe I saw that Beth’s condition, once “dysplastic”, now more exhibited the “myeloproliferative” characteristics. Without knowing exactly what that means, I want to point you to this recent study (again, with the low number of patients from CMML), in a school of thought that may or may not be well accepted, that the shift from myelodysplastic to myeloproliferative properties is really a progression of the disease.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20371679
http://clincancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/16/8/2246.long

I realize that we are dealing with some pretty nasty stuff — it’s not quite AML, and the low numbers of blasts and other numbers are good. But I hope you can put this into context for us.

And he responded:

The two variants remain largely distinguished by the height of the white count. Beth’s white count is well controlled and her marrow is actually exhibiting lower cellularity than before. Thus, on a clinical basis, I do not think she is transforming.

While there are emerging data suggesting a continuum, this does not seem to be universal. At her young age, I would be inclined to the same treatment either way: first an MTI [methyltransferase inhibitor – Vidaza], then transplant. If at anytime we see evidence of progression, we may consider chemo. At present, I like where we are headed.

The good thing, then: there is no “progression”. Dr. Jalil summed it up: “We want to see the least number of bad cells.” That, he suggested, was the definition of healthy marrow. Even if it’s only at a 20% level.