I was laid off again yesterday

And today, as they say, is the first day of the rest of my life, again.

Most recently, I was unemployed roughly from June 2009 through February 2010. That was a difficult time to be unemployed. The economy was a wreck, and would remain so for a couple more years. (Some will say it’s not much better, and that’s true).

I’m up early for the day – it’s about 1:50 am as I write. I hardly know where to begin. I’m thinking “Dun & Bradstreet” lists; I’m thinking “Eloqua” – I’m tagging this post “Eloqua” because I consider that to be the primary job skill I’ve picked up in the last few years. My hope is that it’s not an insignificant one.

Eloqua is “database marketing” and “marketing automation” rolled into one. I’m a member at http://www.ritesite.com – which I haven’t used for a while. I’ve been told “LinkedIn” is now a fabulous resource. I’m going to check it out. My hope is to morph this site into a job search site. Whatever that means.

For those of you who have come here, looking for news about my wife and her struggle with CMML leukemia, I guess you could say “no news is good news”. There is no sign of the recurrence of the disease. There are some annoying things going on.

For a while I had a series called “Vampire Bride”. She was getting blood transfusions on a fairly regular basis. As it turns out, with blood transfusions, iron accumulates in your body, and it can be damaging over time. So now they are “bleeding” her – taking a pint of blood out each week, (and I think they need to do this eight times), because the iron levels in her blood are too high. (What about “Geritol”?)

Plus, her immune system is brand new. So she has NO immunities built up. And so, she has managed to catch virtually every cold and bug that has come down the pike this winter.

Very high on my list of concerns will be to provide health care coverage for her. She’s a veteran, and she’s in the VA system, but moving to the VA system would force her to lose her current medical team – Dr Rossetti, Dr Jalil, and their whole group at West Penn Hospital. They saved her life, literally, and Beth is still in need of this ongoing type of treatment. They are familiar with her case. My hope would be to see it through.

On my end, it’s a whole different world. Eloqua is a whole new “job skill”. “Marketing automation” is a whole new world. The world of “social media” is completely new, since the last time I looked for a job.

For now, “job-one” is to craft a quasi-kind of plan, which can go out the door once the bullets start flying.

A little bit of graft-vs-host

One writer with CMML wrote that she was on “decitabine 5 days a month for 9 months now. I am in remission but must stay on the chemo”. Later, she said she was “still undecided whether to go with the SCT [stem cell transplant, or bone marrow transplant] or just stay on the chemo.”

I’ve posted on several occasions something that I called “an account of a successful bone marrow transplant”. That individual had the transplant on June 21 – some four months ago. Now, here’s what he’s going through:

Recovery is still ongoing. Last week’s blood test showed increases in white & red blood cells but a decrease in platelets. Doctor wants me back in this week for another blood test. I’m also experiencing some lower bowl discomfort. Doctor prescribed some Prednisone and Dicyclomine. I’ve also removed all dairy from my diet and I feel much better. The possibility exists that there could be a little “Graft vs. Host Disease” (GVHD) going on but, it could also be the prophylactic drugs I take every day causing havoc with my digestive tract. Good luck with the doctors and your decision. Personally, in my case, I looked at chemo as a band-aid and the transplant as the “fix”…but that’s me.

One of the reasons why they go for a “10/10” match on the DNA (HLA) is to try to manage the “graft vs host”. You want some of it, for the “graft vs leukemia” effect. But you don’t want so much that the new tissue (stem cells and blood) rejects its new host body.

What’s the greatest danger? (Part 2)

“Transplant is the only cure”
Once the decision has been made to go with the bone marrow transplant or stem cell transplant, an entirely different set of dangers arises from those faced because of the leukemia. In principle, the existing bone marrow is destroyed, and so the leukemia is destroyed. There is a significant possibility that it will return, but that danger is down the road.

The goal of this transplant is to completely eradicate her old, damaged bone marrow, and to replace it with new healthy and growing marrow that is capable of producing untainted blood cells. There is a great deal of danger in this process. Sometimes it seems to me that this is a case of “the cure is worse than the disease,” except the disease, CMML leukemia, is very bad indeed.

To eliminate the old bone marrow, Mom is going to be put through a regimen of “intense chemotherapy” (and note that the regular old kind of chemotherapy is bad enough for most people), with chemotherapy drugs with names like Fludarabine, Busulfan, and Thymoglobulin. These are still so far down the road that I haven’t yet looked them up. Then there are two day’s exposure to “total body irradiation”.

All of this will occur over a period of 6-8 days prior to the actual “transplant” (which in Mom’s case is then an infusion or a “graft” of stem cells from a non-related donor). In this process, not only is her bone marrow destroyed, but her immune system is destroyed.

For the first 30 days or so after the transplant, there is a danger that the graft will not “engraft”, that is, it will completely reject her system, but that risk is controlled with drugs, and it’s minimal. The larger possibility is that, with her depleted immune system, she will suffer from an infection. It can be bacterial, or viral, or fungal; she will likely develop “mouth sores”, she won’t be able to eat, and she’ll experience nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. There are dangers of liver and kidney damage, and also pneumonia, which can be a killer.

There are drugs and antibiotics to deal with these. But still, the first 30 days is only the beginning.

When the “graft” becomes “engrafted,” there is a whole new set of dangers. Mom will have no immune system, and in essence, the “graft” will be in charge. The “graft” will have its own immunities, and they will have their way with her. There is a danger that they will reject her, in large and small ways. This is called graft vs host disease (GVH).

True, some of this GVH effect will do a clean-up job on any leftover bone marrow or leukemia from the old regime. In fact, “graft vs host” is what provides some of the magic of this transplant process. It’s often the final nail in the coffin of the leukemia.

Unfortunately, it’s also a killer in its own right. There are two phases: “acute”, while the actual “graft” is still moving around in there, and also “chronic”, beginning at approximately 100 days after the transplant, when the “son of graft” cells are taking over.

In all, the GVH period can last up to a full year or more. Symptoms may be as mild as a skin rash, but GVH can also affect major organs, and I have a friend whose wife died from GVH complications some two years down the road.

The good news is that, if Mom makes it down the road that far, there is an excellent, excellent chance that she will have beaten the leukemia and can look forward to a normal life span. There may be some lingering GVH symptoms – we’ve encountered a couple of people who can’t make tears.

But that’s a relatively minor thing to live with, compared to leukemia.

What’s the greatest danger? (Part 1)

My son John asked me this morning, “what’s the greatest danger that Mom is facing?” That’s a pretty good question, and here is my answer.

The first and greatest danger she faces is the leukemia itself. Mom’s bone marrow is damaged. Given that her damaged bone marrow is producing damaged cells, this is the root problem.

In all of us, our bone marrow produces “baby blood cells” called “blasts”, which then differentiate into the other types of blood cells: red cells, white cells (there are various types of white cells), and platelets.

However, Mom’s damaged marrow produces “blasts” that are damaged within their genes. These genetic damages, or defects, then become reproduced, and the primary symptom of this leukemia is to produce an overabundance of “blasts” which build up in the blood and bone marrow. If enough blasts build up, you get what’s called AML, or “acute myeloid leukemia”. This is the disease they first thought Mom had – with 20% “blasts” in the bone marrow, Mom would have been diagnosed with this.

And one of her earlier pathology reports came back saying “acute myeloid leukemia is indicated”. This is sort of a catch-all category of leukemias, with many sub-classes. Mom’s particular subclass is CMML, or “chronic myelomonocytic leukemia” which is characterized by the excess “blasts” in the bone marrow and blood, but it has its own characteristics as well.

AML may be described as “blasts gone wild” – they simply over-run the blood and marrow and overwhelm the person’s system, causing death.

One key danger is that Mom’s CMML will morph into the more aggressive form of AML. But the CMML, as is, is sufficient to kill her within an average of 12-24 months.

And we’re seeing a little bit of that happen right now. While the disease is being “controlled” with the Vidaza, we see that her blood levels continue to fall, generally (though some of them tend to moderate). But in all, her red blood cells have never moderated at all – they simply continue to fall all the time. And without the many transfusions she’s had, she’d drift off into severe anemia, and eventually, it would overwhelm her.

These are the first and biggest dangers that Mom is facing.

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. 🙂

We may learn something today

We have an appointment at 1:45 today with Dr. Rossetti, our usual monthly appointment with him. My hope is that we’ll hear some good news about a donor, and possibly a schedule for the transplant. So today I’ll go in and work from about 6 am till 10 am, and then take Beth to her Vidaza treatment at 11:30, and then out to West Penn.

One of the women I work with has a mother-in-law who has had a mild, chronic version of leukemia since 1988. Over the years, she had no treatment at all for it; now she is in her 70’s and it has increased a bit and so now they’re bringing her in for chemo.

The danger always is that these “pre-leukemias” (MDS, CMML, etc.) will progress to AML (“acute myeloid leukemia”). That’s when it’s really aggressive.

Beth has gone the other way. They’ve beaten down her leukemia function, but in the process they’ve seemingly hollowed her out as well. She had some difficulty walking up the three steps to our bridge last night. She has 20% bone marrow, instead of the usual 50%. And all her other blood levels are just bumping along at a very low rate.

When I first started reading about Vidaza, I was under the impression that “The expectation is that the Vidaza will reduce her overall ‘risk level’ and strengthen her body for ‘conditioning’, which will kill most if not all of the cancer-causing function”, as I wrote at the time.

In a randomized controlled trial comparing azacitidine to supportive treatment of MDS, around 16% of people receiving the drug had a complete or partial response—blood cell counts and bone marrow morphology returning to normaland 2/3 patients who required blood transfusions before the study no longer needed them after receiving azacitidine (emphasis added).

So Beth is not among those who has not needed the transfusions. She’s needed them. The Vidaza is killing the cancer-causing function, but on the other hand, it doesn’t seem to be strengthening her at all.

This will be something to ask Dr. Rossetti today.

Account of a successful Bone Marrow Transplant

I may have posted some of this before, but there’s new information at the end, and it’s worth the telling.

At one point this past summer I logged into the discussion board at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. There are a lot of different types of leukemias, and CMML is one of the more rare ones. I came upon a thread entitled Looking for others with CMML.

(One writer writes, “There are so few people in the world with this disease, it is very scary”. Which is true.)

Most of the way down the second page of the discussion was a writer named “g-papaul”, who identified himself this way, with a post dated June 19, 2011:

I’m a 60 year old sales professional male getting annual physicals with blood tests. I was Diagnosed with CMML in Feb. 2011. My GP knew it required an oncologist and got the ball rolling. I’m from the Harrisburg, PA area and went to the best local oncologist I could find. The oncologist is affiliated with Johns-Hopkins, Baltimore, MD. My initial consultation with a transplant team at J-H was the end of March. March-April May were transfusions of blood and platelets as needed determined by my weekly blood draws at the oncologist. I also received 2 courses of Vidaza in preparation for the transplant. I was admitted to Johns-Hopkins on 6/13. On 6/15 started a 5 day run of Busulfan. Today 6/19 starts a 2 day run of Cytoxin. On 6/21 is the Bone Marrow Transplant from my donor brother. Then, 2 more days of Cytoxin. I start down the road to recovery and hopefully cured.

So he’s already into the “conditioning” phase – “intensive” chemotherapy, with the purpose of destroying the existing bone marrow, and two days away from a bone marrow transplant. Beth is due to follow a path like this one. He made several more postings. On July 8 we saw this:

I’m currently on DAY 17 after BMT. The BMT was uneventful and sort of just like getting another few units of blood. I rested for 2 days and then received 2 more days of Cytoxin. During the last day of Cytoxin you start to walk through the fires of hell. They start initiating bags of antibiotics, anti fungal anti microbials. I keep getting low grade fevers. They tell me it’s normal. Not all experience the same side effects. These drugs hit everyone differently. … I constantly feel like I have the flu. Just have to deal with it until around July 12. That’s the day projected to be the day my own marrow will be producing healthy cells.!

Later, he said:

The chemo side effects are all they say they are. … You feel like you got run over by a bus! Have to stay positive since they only last about 2 weeks. Then the miracle begins…Day 18 after transplant. Blood counts start appearing 50 here, 110 there and keep growing. Not by leaps & bounds but by 20-30 points. Several transfusions of red cells and platelets. A little rash here & there (a little GVHD is a good thing)…

I may have posted this much of his story already. Since that last posting, there was not another comment from him until yesterday. And here’s the key … here’s the thing we’re looking forward to:

I felt it was time to offer a follow up to my BMT to cure my CMML. I was released from Johns-Hopkins on August 19th to go home. Home…a wonderful place to recuperate. No more IV drugs that tear you up. Only a few in pill form to prevent various infections. We had a whole house HEPA filter system and a reverse osmosis water system on our well water installed. I DO NOT leave the house or go in the basement without an N95 mask. If I’m going to the store or doctor I wear disposable gloves too. Wash hands frequently. I finally started eating the last week of August after 6 weeks of eating nothing. I lost 80 LB and feel great…. The diet has been expanding but not my waist line. I’ve learned to eat all over again. I will not return to 290 LB!!! There are positives out of this ordeal. My Osteo arthritis is gone. (They said it could be temporary or long term). I don’t need Blood Pressure or Cholesterol meds anymore. I don’t need to sleep with a C-PAP machine. All of the anti bacterials & fungals fed me IV cured my athlete’s foot and one nail infected with a fungal infection…they rebuilt me! I currently visit my local Oncologist every 2 weeks for chec ups. He says the recovery is text book.

There’s not a lot of good medical news about CMML. But here’s anecdotal evidence that the process works, and works well. There are a couple of differences with our situation. Most notably, this individual has a related donor. But it’s a very hopeful story.