AML What’s Next

After cancer treatment ends, you will face a whole new world. Whether you are creating a survivorship plan or an end-of-life plan, nothing will be as it was before your AML diagnosis. You will confront new fears, new opportunities to help others, and new social and physical situations.

Let us help you refocus your hope on where you are today and boldly face this new phase.

More resources for AML What’s Next from Patient Empowerment Network.

On Recovering After a Stem Cell Transplant

As a transplant survivor and peer volunteer, I have met with over 150 transplant patients. The most common question I hear concerns what recovery looks like. People want to know about timelines, precautions, complications, medications, benchmarks, and much more.

I can only answer these questions from my experience, and no two outcomes are the same. But I’ve read and heard enough other stories to know where mine is typical or exceptional, so I can also place my story in a broader context.

In June of 2016, I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. I underwent induction chemotherapy and achieved a temporary remission. In October of 2016, I received a double cord blood stem cell transplant. I fully recovered and have returned to all my prior activities, so mine is a very positive story. Along the way, however, there were several memorable challenges.

Prelude to a transplant

My initial treatment required a five-and-a-half-week hospital stay. It was one week for the traditional “7+3” chemotherapy regimen, and another four and a half weeks to monitor and treat the inevitable infections that followed in the wake of chemotherapy-induced immunosuppression.

My diagnosis was routine for my providers but shocking for me. I was asymptomatic and feeling perfectly healthy at my annual physical. But low white blood cell counts triggered a bone marrow biopsy that established my diagnosis. I was hospitalized the next day and started chemotherapy the day after that. My treatment was underway before I even understood my disease and its bleak prognosis.

When they told me to expect a 5-6-week hospital stay, I was dumbfounded. I quickly realized that I needed ways to cope with how my world had suddenly become very small and quite precarious. Over the ensuing weeks, I developed and honed several crucial strategies.

First, I relied upon mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. It helped me banish thoughts about the past and anxieties about the future, and to non-judgmentally accept and live in each moment as it unfolded.

Second, I did as much physical exercise as my circumstances would allow. My routines included stretching, isometric exercises, extensive hall walking, squats, lunges and pushups. I did it mindfully, and these routines structured my days, increased my energy, and lifted my spirits.

Third, I was a pro-active patient. I cultivated good communication with my doctors and nurses. I asked lots of questions about my treatment and became a collaborator in decisions about medications, dosing, and deciphering and treating the many infections and side effects that came my way.

Fourth, I maintained my robust sense of humor. Sharing jokes and witty banter with my medical providers broke the ice, resolved the tension, and humanized our consults. It also gave friends and family a way to relate to me as the person I’d always been rather than the patient I’d recently become.

Fifth, I relied on a supportive belief system. For some, that’s religion. For me, it was a secular worldview based on my social science background. It encouraged me to learn about my condition and fostered a practical, problem-solving orientation to all the challenges it posed.

Finally, I wrote my story from the very first week. I sent detailed reports about my status and reflections as a cancer patient to a large group of email correspondents. Writing for others forced me to understand my journey so I could articulate it for them. This writing became a psychic survival mechanism (and a subsequent memoir).

When the time for transplant arrived, I packed a bag, grabbed my laptop, and took these coping strategies with me. As doctors cured my body, these strategies sustained me throughout everything that was to come.

The Transplant and Hospitalization

Like many patients, I was admitted to my transplant hospital one week before the actual procedure (day -7). I underwent conditioning chemotherapy and full body radiation. Upon my transplant (day 0), I was told to expect another three to five weeks in the hospital before I could be safely discharged.

Days 1-7 were uneventful except for some moderate nausea due my prior chemotherapy and radiation. I got some relief from a drug called marinol that allowed me to eat regular meals during this time. As my counts hit bottom, I was closely monitored for fevers and infections. Even so, I felt good enough to do daily exercise, walk on a treadmill, do yoga, and be as active as possible while confined to my room.

On day 8, my doctors said I was doing so well they were thinking of discharging me in a couple more days – much earlier than expected. But then I developed an infection and a recurring fever that spiked every twelve hours for several days and delayed my discharge.

By day 19, my infection and fevers had resolved, and I went home under the watchful eye of my caregivers. I thus left the hospital in just under three weeks since transplant – much quicker than the 3-5-week hospitalization I had been told to expect.

A Memorable Month at Home

From day 20 to 50, the plan was for daily clinic visits to monitor counts, treat symptoms, and assess progress. On day 21, a bone marrow biopsy revealed that one of my donors was 99% engrafted, which was an unusually early and complete success for a cord blood transplant. With engraftment underway, we then watched for signs of graft-vs.-host disease.

During this month (day 20-50), my caregivers were essential. They drove me to daily clinic visits for blood draws, provider consultations and needed treatments. From day 20-26, I received daily transfusions of platelets and several transfusions of red blood cells. Several more transfusions as well as injections of growth factor medications to spur new white blood cells followed throughout this month. After the second week, however, they reduced my clinic visits to fewer and fewer days each succeeding week.

That first month at home (day 20-50) was also when I felt the side-effects from my treatment most keenly. The lingering impacts of chemotherapy and radiation, the engraftment process, and multiple medications produced several memorable symptoms. There were aches and pains from the engraftment itself that I treated with ibuprofen, and ongoing bouts of nausea that I managed with marinol. I was also taking about 20 scheduled pills a day, including prophylactic antibiotics, anti-viral and anti-fungal medications, anti-rejection medications, and several pills to manage side effects of these medications.

My most memorable symptom during this period was a staggering level of fatigue as my body underwent this transformation. I was sleeping eight to nine hours a night but still required lengthy naps in the late morning and late afternoon. I couldn’t stay awake for more than four hours at a time and was totally exhausted by nightfall.

On day 39, routine blood work detected a cytomegalovirus infection. It’s one of many critters that can reside in our gut our whole lives unbeknownst to us. But with immunosuppression, the virus can become active and pose serious danger. It is usually well controlled if detected early and treated quickly, so I was immediately put on a more powerful antiviral drug to address the infection.

The virus drastically reduced my white blood cell count while the antiviral medication added further immunosuppressive effects. For a few days, I had additional fatigue, aches, chills, and nausea. When the virus and anti-viral forces fought to a standstill, they contemplated admitting me back into the hospital for several days of IV, antiviral treatments. Instead of re-hospitalization, however, the compromise treatment was an outpatient infusion of IV immunoglobulin to boost my white blood cell count while the antiviral medication gradually tamed the virus. With that, I continued my recovery at home.

Through the First 100 Days

From day 50 to day 100, I experienced gradual if uneven improvement. Clinic visits tapered to once a week or less. Bone aches ceased and nausea all but disappeared. Fatigue also decreased, and when I did feel tired, I could usually trace it to increased activity levels compared to my first 30 days at home. As I was able to reduce doses or eliminate some medications, my mind cleared and my energy increased. While I experienced minor rashes, dry eyes, and sinus headaches, there was nothing that required major medical treatment or raised suspicions of graft-vs.-host disease.

By day 58, I began experiencing neuropathy in my feet. This is a common side-effect of chemotherapy, but in my case, it has been blessedly mild. It mainly presents as numbness and tingling under the balls of both feet. I was told it might resolve within a year, but it remains the only side effect that has persisted and which I now regard as permanent. It has not responded to acupuncture or cortisone injections. My best adaptation has been specially designed shoes and custom insoles that take pressure off the sensitive areas and make the condition quite tolerable.

By day 60, I was having trouble lining up caregivers but still needed to get to weekly clinic visits. I had been prohibited from driving or being without a caregiver for the first 100 days, but that was no longer practical. I carefully began driving myself to clinic visits. By then, I knew how my medications affected me and so I delayed my antifungal medication and the blurry vision it caused until I safely returned from my outings.

On day 78, my oncologist recommended removing the “Power Hickman” central line that had served me well for almost seven months. It had been with me since the beginning of my treatment and had facilitated painless blood draws and countless infusions of blood, platelets, IV medications, and chemotherapy. But with the reduction in all these procedures, the risk of an infected line was becoming greater than the benefits of keeping it in place. An added benefit was being able to take a shower without wrapping my entire upper torso in Saran Wrap to protect the gizmo.

Day 100 was a significant benchmark for several reasons. I had another bone marrow biopsy that confirmed full engraftment and no residual leukemia. Reviewing my biopsy results, blood tests, and overall progress, my oncologist said my recovery to date was “as good as it gets.”

At this time, I was able to eliminate or reduce many of my medications. More importantly, I began to gradually taper my anti-rejection medication (cyclosporine) over the next three-month period. The gradual pace of this taper was meant to allow my old body and my new immune system to learn to get along with each other, restore full immunity, and avoid GVHD

By this time, I was feeling much better and was eager to return to my regular activities. Since my blood counts were all good, I asked my oncologist her advice. She provided a rather technical explanation of why I was still at considerable risk and needed to avoid crowds, continue wearing my mask in public, and follow other precautions.

My layman’s interpretation of her explanation was that even though I had sufficient white blood cells and neutrophils, my anti-rejection medication would still prevent them from fully activating in case of infection. So despite feeling better and having good counts, I needed to maintain precautions until my anti-rejection medication had run its course and my immune system was more functional and able to protect me in a germ-filled world.

Completing the Marathon

From day 100 to day 180, I continued gradual improvement and weathered some minor bumps in the road. My clinic visits were now spaced out every couple weeks, and I began to see other practitioners to assess some peripheral issues arising from my diagnosis and treatment.

Since my leukemia put me at risk for skin cancer, I saw a dermatologist who detected a small, basal cell carcinoma that was easily excised. I continue to see her every six months for full body skin checks with no further issues. My leukemia had also caused some retinal hemorrhaging that was diagnosed before transplant. A follow up visit during this period showed that all retinal issues had completely resolved with the eradication of my leukemia.

Even though I was now tapering my anti-rejection medication, its cumulative impact produced numerous unpleasant side effects. While I avoided the most serious ones, I nonetheless experienced flushing, hypertension, nausea, altered kidney function, neuropathy, weight loss, leg cramps, sinus irritation, abdominal swelling, and night sweats. I began a temporary regimen of blood pressure medication and rode out the other issues. To top it off, I also had a flare up of the cytomegalovirus, which once again was quickly detected and effectively treated with specialized antiviral medication.

On day 180, I had my 6-month biopsy which reconfirmed full engraftment and no residual leukemia. At this time, I stopped my anti-rejection medication and its unwanted side effects began to dissipate. I was also able to stop virtually all of my remaining pills with the exception of an antiviral medication which continued until day 365. With adequate immunity restored, I was cleared to do any activity I wanted with one exception: I had to avoid fungal sources of infection (yard work, turning over soil, fresh mushrooms, etc.) for the next six months because such infections are easy to contract and difficult to eradicate.

For me, this was a major psychological turning point. I accepted that I was actually better, resumed my “normal” life, and let go of lingering anxieties about my status. When my transplant oncologist said she didn’t need to see me for another six months, it was initially unnerving after such intensive monitoring. At the same time, it reinforced my sense that I had reached a major milestone in my recovery.

“As Good As It Gets” (and Some Cheap Advice)

After day 180, my care shifted back to my initial oncologist at my induction hospital. Monthly blood draws and bimonthly consultations gradually became less frequent. Four years out from my initial diagnosis, I now have blood draws four times a year and see this oncologist twice a year.

At year one and two (days 365 and 730), I returned to my transplant oncologist for my final two biopsies which found no residual disease.  At year one, they re-did my childhood vaccinations from dead viral sources; at year two, I received my remaining vaccinations from live viral sources.

There’s good reason to say my story is “as good as it gets.” First, I got into remission on the first round of induction chemotherapy. This does not happen for a significant minority of AML patients who require multiple rounds of chemotherapy or other treatments to attain remission.

Second, I had full donor engraftment in three weeks. Most patients achieve engraftment, but it typically takes longer or doesn’t happen as completely as it did in my case. In the worst-case scenario, a small percentage of patients never experience engraftment and face a very poor prognosis.

Third, I have had no graft-vs.-host disease. I had been told there was a 60-70% chance of acute (within the first 100 days) GVHD in cases like mine, but I had no symptoms that could be attributed to this cause. That reduced my chances of chronic (after the first 100 days) GVHD to 20%. Although it can appear years after transplant, I’ve had no symptoms as of this writing.

What is typical about my story are the various infections, unpleasant side-effects, and minor complications documented here. They are simply part and parcel of the disease, treatment, and transplant; few if any patients escape them altogether. But in my case, they were quite manageable with the excellent support I received from my medical practitioners and caregiver team. Thanks to them, I left my transplant hospital on day 19 and never returned.

Advice is cheap, so here’s my two cent’s worth. Even in the best-case scenario, recovery is so gradual that it’s hard to realize when you are actually making progress (especially when there are periodic setbacks). I learned to pay attention to even small steps of improvement and took heart when they occurred.

Here’s one example. Around day 40, I ran up a flight of stairs at home and became short of breath. I initially found this discouraging, but then I realized I hadn’t even run up a flight of stairs since my diagnosis, and that this was progress not regress. Recovery happens through small, incremental changes that eventually culminate in qualitative improvement. It helps to be aware of these small steps as they occur; you may even want to record them in a weekly journal to fully appreciate them.

Finally, some clichés bear repeating. Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Moreover, it’s a marathon on an obstacle course of potential complications. Don’t hesitate to ask for help from your doctors or accept assistance from your caregivers. It’s not a burden; it actually makes them feel better when they can help you out. Finally, cultivate patience, resilience, and fortitude as you go the distance. It will serve you well.

Cancer Survivors: Managing Emotions After Cancer Treatment

Since the 1980s, doctors have tried to describe the stages cancer survivors normally go through. Most divide them into a version of the three stages described below:

Acute Survival (Living With Cancer) – Covers cancer diagnosis and any subsequent treatment. During this time, patients will undergo treatment and may be invited to participate in a clinical trial to study new cancer treatments. Sometimes services are offered to patients and their caregivers to address emotional, psychological and financial problems.

Prolonged survival (transient cancer): Post-treatment period during which the risk of recurrence is relatively high. Many patients are relieved that treatment has ended, but are concerned that they will not visit the oncologist regularly. During this stage, patients often visit the oncologist two to four times a year, depending on their circumstances.

Permanent survival (living after cancer): survival after treatment and long-term. Although two out of three survivors declare that their lives have returned to normal, a third affirms that they continue to have physical, psychosocial or economic problems. During this stage, most survivors are cared for again by their GP. Ideally, they have developed a long-term follow-up plan with the oncologist for their regular doctor to implement.

Social and Emotional Repercussions of Cancer

In addition to the physical effects of cancer, survivors experience psychological, emotional, and spiritual consequences. Many of them affect quality of life and can manifest many years after treatment. Here are some of the most common problems cancer survivors face:

Fear of Recurrence

Many survivors live in fear that the cancer will return at some point. In some cases, a major event, such as the anniversary of the diagnosis or the end of treatment with the oncologist, can trigger these feelings. Fear can be good if it encourages you to discuss your health changes with your doctor, but it can also cause unnecessary worry. Knowing your own body will help you distinguish between normal changes and more serious symptoms.

Pain

Grief is the natural result of loss. In cancer, losses refer to health, sexual desire, fertility, and physical independence. To overcome your pain, it is important to experience all of these feelings. Support groups and psychological assistance can help you deal with these problems.

Depression

It is estimated that 70% of cancer survivors experience depression at some point. Depression can be difficult to diagnose in cancer survivors, since the symptoms are very similar to the side effects of cancer treatment, such as weight loss, tiredness, insomnia, and inability to concentrate. In a 10-year follow-up study, symptoms of depression have been found to be associated with shorter survival, so seeking treatment for depression is essential.

Body Image and Self-esteem

Cancer survivors who have suffered amputations, disfigurements, and loss of organs such as the colon or bladder often have to overcome their problems to relate to themselves and to others. A negative body image and low self-esteem can affect the survivor’s ability to maintain relationships with their partner, which will have important consequences on their quality of life. Good communication is essential to maintain or regain intimacy after cancer. Consult a doctor if problems persist.

Spirituality

Many survivors feel that life takes on new meaning after cancer and renew their commitment to certain spiritual practices or organized religion. Research indicates that spirituality improves quality of life through a strong social support network.

Survivor’s Fault

Some people feel guilty about surviving cancer when others don’t. You may be wondering “Why me?” Or reevaluate your goals and ambitions in life. If you have a prolonged feeling of guilt, a psychotherapist, a member of the clergy, or a support group can help you express your feelings.

Relations

Possibly the biggest challenge cancer survivors face is how others react to their disease. Friends, coworkers, and family members may feel uncomfortable when discussing the diagnosis of cancer. They can keep silent, avoid you, or pretend that nothing has happened. Others may use humor to try to distract you and not think about your situation, instead of offering to talk about your problems. Cancer can be a long-lasting disease, so it is essential to overcome communication barriers.

Social and Work Life

Social and professional reintegration can be accompanied by many fears: concern about being exposed to a higher risk of infection, lack of enough energy to reach the end of the workday and anxiety about not being able to think clearly due to the so-called “neurological impairment by chemotherapy “or memory loss. In overcoming a life and death situation, many cancer survivors feel alienated from people who have not had the same experience and turn to other survivors for support and friendship.

You may be reluctant to reveal to your bosses and colleagues that you are receiving cancer treatment for fear of being treated differently or even losing your job and health insurance. This creates an atmosphere of uncertainty that contributes to emotional stress. Again, honest communication with your colleagues will help you overcome these feelings.


About the author: Diane H. Wong is copywriter at write essay for me service. Besides, she is a professional nutritionist. So she is going to start writing her own blog. It can help her share her knowledge with others.

10 Ways of Thriving After Cancer

First and foremost, “surviving” cancer is amazing. After all, cancer is one of the deadliest diseases in the world! So, if you are a survivor, you are indeed worthy of praise. 

There are many types of cancers out there. One thing that they all have in common is that they are a result of uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells anywhere in a body. Early detection of cancerous growth results in a good prognosis as there is nearly no definitive cure for any form of cancer at its late stages.

Again, whether yours was at its late-stage or not and you survived, you are a winner! At this point, you should hold no reserve about cancer resurfacing and instead THRIVE. 

Now that you have survived cancer, the next step is reintegration back into society and doing the best you can to thrive while doing so. 

1. Battle your fear & anxiety head-on 

Long after getting cleared of cancer, survivors have to fight an emotional battle of fear and anxiety. No matter what the medical reports say about their health status, there is the seemingly never-ending fear of the cancer returning. 

This emotional turmoil is insurmountable and almost never avoidable unless you normally just have a strong will. You must quench this fear so that you can thrive.  A chat with your doctor is vital. Disclose whatever concerns you have about your health. Your doctor may even schedule frequent testing and care plans to make you feel better. 

2. Be devoted to your physical therapy sessions 

Cancer is usually for the long term. So, when the health providers eventually manage to get rid of all the cancerous growths, you may be left with a physical limitation like immobility. Such a physical limitation may make life less enjoyable, thus your doctor’s statutory recommendation for physiotherapy.

 Be dedicated to treatment sessions and work closely with the physical therapist as well as your loved ones. Don’t be afraid to ask for continued support as you heal.

3. Try a new hobby 

Don’t rush to get back to your old self before cancer. Try to enjoy the process more by finding new sports or leisure activities that fill your time. 

So, instead of getting mopey and worrying over cancer resurfacing, try knitting for a change, go golfing, try swimming! There is nothing too small or too big to try, and the main goal is to get you taken by any activity other than sitting down and getting paranoid. 

4. Consider returning to work

A defining part of getting reintegrated back into society after cancer is a career. If you were working before cancer, going back to work can help redefine your life. 

If you weren’t, try finding a new skill or going job-seeking. This gives you a sense of normalcy, but even better, it occupies your time! Remember, one of the most important ways to thrive after a battle with cancer is to not dwell on the past and simply enjoy the moment. 

5. Find intimacy with your loved ones 

There is nothing better than speaking to people who genuinely love you. Such emotional talks are sure to renew your confidence and help you build strong emotional support. If you are dating or married, it’ll help a great deal to bear your thoughts before your partner. Keeping it all inside won’t help and may even make you distant from them. 

6. If possible, start exercising

Numerous benefits accompany exercise. These range between boosting your physical endurance to giving your mental health a much-needed boost. 

Aside from that, nothing beats that sense of accomplishment that comes with completing an exercise session every day. Before starting an exercise regime, tell your doctor; and you may have him refer you to a physical therapist with knowledge of care for cancer survivors like you. 

If you are strong enough to exercise independently, start small with home workouts and build your way up to going for a walk at the park and then the gym. 

7. Make A List of Your Fears

This is on emotional terrain. Write down your deepest fears about life after cancer or what you think may prevent you from enjoying this new phase. This may include fear of the cancer returning, fears about your health overall, concerns of satisfying your partner in bed like you once did, fears of losing your job or doing poorly at it, and many more others. 

No matter how many they are, penning these fears down on paper can help you tackle them. After writing, you may even discover that some of these are so insignificant and shouldn’t be any trouble. Either way, you are tackling these problems head-on. 

8. Let go of the past 

This is an essential task if you want to thrive following a battle with cancer. Letting go of the past may be harder for people who have been fighting bouts of cancer over a significant number of years, but there is indeed nothing better than finding a new you. 

Cancer puts a dent in your mental health, so it may pose a challenge to let go of your history. If this is you, speaking to a counselor or even your doctor will be beneficial. 

9. Accept that there are going to be bad days 

It is a part of living to have good and bad days. As a cancer survivor, you can’t escape this, and you may even be more vulnerable, having battled one of the world’s deadliest diseases. As you strive to get back to normalcy, you have to realize that not every day will be good and that the process may be a lot harder than you expect. 

An optimistic attitude and never giving up are crucial to overcoming the dismay or depression that may set in when you’re not successful at something you try to do. You can also create a backup plan for such days e.g., take a walk with your partner, go to the cinema, etc. 

10. Share your experience with support groups 

There is nothing like working closely with people who have had similar experiences with you. Whether they are still battling cancer or not, speaking to others about your own experience surviving the disease will give them a ray of hope. It will equally do you a lot of good. 


Resource links: www.aicr.org, www.curetoday.com, www.inovanewsroom.org

AML Research: What’s New in Treatment?

AML Research: What’s New in Treatment? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 AML expert, Dr. Jessica Altman, discusses the future of AML research, and new learnings that continue to improve current treatment approaches.

Dr. Jessica Altman is Director of the Acute Leukemia Program at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. More about Dr. Altman here.

See More From The Fact or Fiction? AML Series


Related Resources

Misconceptions in Clinical Trials: What’s Fact and What Fiction?

AML Treatment Options: What’s Available?

AML Treatment Treatment Side Effects: What’s Fact and What’s Fiction?


Transcript:

Patricia:            

Are there any new treatments on the horizon that you can talk about, Dr. Altman?

Dr. Altman: 

Absolutely. So, I love to talk about new therapies in AML. Until the last couple of years – it had been 40 years since we approved a sustained treatment in the marketplace in AML. We had been treating the disease the same. And over the last couple of years there have been a growth of therapies. We’re now trying to sort out exactly when we’re using one over another. We also have clinical trials where we’re combining novel therapies for adults with either newly diagnosed disease or relapsed and refractory disease. 

We are in an era of looking out at antibody therapy in AML – that’s one of the new waves of treatment. We are still exploring targeting therapies in the sense of inhibition of FLT3, IDH, and other mutations. So, it’s an era where there’s lots of excitement, and I’m hopeful for our patients.

Patricia:     

Yeah. Tell me what makes you most hopeful about the future of research in this area, and treatment?

Dr. Altman: 

So, I think that’s a great question. I think the fact that we now – the deeper the understanding we have of the biology of the AML, why AML happens, what mutations drive the disease, and then how to target those mutations with individual therapies is what excites me the most. So, our basic science research has exploded, and that occurs at a very quick pace, and that’s allowing us to develop therapies at a much faster rate than I would have anticipated before.

Patricia:

What a wonderful way to end our chat. Thank you so much, Dr. Altman, for taking the time to join us today.

Dr. Altman: 

It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.

Misconceptions in Clinical Trials: What’s Fact and What’s Fiction?

Misconceptions in Clinical Trials: What’s Fact and What’s Fiction? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

AML expert, Dr. Jessica Altman, addresses common misconceptions patients have about clinical trials regarding treatments, regulations, and standards of care. Want to learn more? Download the Program Resource Guide here.

Dr. Jessica Altman is Director of the Acute Leukemia Program at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. More about Dr. Altman here.

See More From The Fact or Fiction? AML Series


Related Resources

 

How Is an AML Treatment Approach Determined?

 

Understanding and Managing AML Treatment Side Effects

 

Addressing Common Myths About AML Treatment


Transcript:

Patricia:            

What about clinical trials? What common misconceptions do patients have about enrolling in trials?

Dr. Altman: 

So, I think the misconceptions regarding clinical trials can be very masked. And I think it really depends on the intent of a clinical trial and the phase of the clinical trial. I think that a well-designed clinical trial is almost always the right choice for a patient with acute leukemia at any stage in their therapy. 

That is a bias as a clinical trialist. I think it’s the right bias, but it is still my bias. I think patients frequently worry that they’re being treated as a guinea pig, or they’re not getting an appropriate treatment. What I can tell you is the clinical trials that we and my colleagues across the country and across the world participate in are clinical trials where the patients are getting at least what we consider a standard of care for that phase of their disease, and they may be getting something in addition to that or something that is slightly different, but expected to have a similar response rate. 

We have this phrase in clinical trials, something called equipoise, that if there’s a randomization between options that we need to feel, as the practitioner and as the clinical trialist, that each option is at least as good as the other.  

Patricia:

That kind of goes back to the vetting of treatments before they go to a clinical trial. Tell me a little bit about history. How can we make patients feel more comfortable?

Dr. Altman: 

I want to make sure that I understand the question.

Patricia:

So, how thoroughly are treatments vetted before they go to a clinical trial?

Dr. Altman: 

Great. So, the way that agents get into early phase clinical trials and then later phase studies are these are compounds that have been studied in the laboratory, then studied in small animals, then larger animals. And then, frequently, a drug is started in a patient with relapsed and refractory Acute Myeloid Leukemia and found to be safe – that’s what we call a Phase I study. 

Once we know the right dose and the associated side effects from an early phase clinical trial, later phase studies – i.e. Phase II, where the goal is to determine the efficacy and response rate is conducted. And then, if that appears and looks like it’s promising, a larger, randomized, three-phase study is frequently conducted, where we compare a standard of care to the new approach. 

Patricia:

So, patients should be comfortable that the clinical trial that they’re going through has been thoroughly vetted, has gone through multiple stages before human trials occur?

Dr. Altman: 

That is accurate in terms of compounds get through animal studies, and then depending on the way that the trial is being connected, will then be studied in patients either with relapsed or refractory disease or very high-risk disease. But it’s also very important to mention that these pharmaceutical companies and physicians are not making these decisions alone. 

The clinical trials are all reviewed by scientific review committees through the cancer centers, which are other investigators making sure that everything appears appropriate. In addition, there are institutional review boards at every university whose goal it is to keep patients and research subjects in well-done clinical trials safe. That is their primary goal. And the IRBs – institutional review boards – are very involved with making sure that clinical trials are appropriate and that the conduct of clinical trials is appropriate.

Addressing Common Myths About AML Treatment

Addressing Common Myths About AML Treatment from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

AML expert, Dr. Jessica Altman, discusses common myths surrounding available AML treatment options, stem cell transplant and how leukemias are classified.

Dr. Jessica Altman is Director of the Acute Leukemia Program at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. More about Dr. Altman here.

See More From The Fact or Fiction? AML Series


Related Resources

What is Targeted AML Therapy?

Fact or Fiction? AML Treatment and Side Effects

AML Treatment and Side Effects Program Resource Guide


Transcript:

Patricia:            

Dr. Altman, let’s talk about some AML treatment myths floating around. I’ll throw some stuff out there, you let me know if you’ve heard this. “Leukemia is one disease.”

Dr. Altman: 

So, I have heard that. Leukemia is actually a number of different diseases, and it’s very heterogenous. There are acute and chronic leukemias. The acute versus chronic really depends on a couple of factors. The biologic factor is the presence or absence of 20% loss or more in the bone marrow, but that also coincides with how patients present clinically. Acute leukemias tend to present more acutely, more rapidly. And chronic leukemias tend to be a bit more indirect. And the treatments are very different for those entities. 

There are also myeloid or lymphoid leukemias, so there’s Chronic Myeloid Leukemia and Acute Myeloid Leukemia and Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia and Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. So, those are the four major categories. We’re talking about Acute Myeloid Leukemia today. Within Acute Myeloid Leukemia, there are multiple different types of Acute Myeloid Leukemia that are really now best categorized by history – patient history – and the molecular and cytogenetic abnormalities of the disease. 

Patricia:

Now, we’ve already learned about a bunch of them. So, “There are limited treatment options” is definitely a myth. Correct, Dr. Altman?

Dr. Altman: 

So, we have had a major growth of the number of treatment options available for Acute Myeloid Leukemia really in the last couple of years. It’s been a very exciting time for practitioners and for our patients that we have now a number of new therapies. So, there is not just one treatment available. In fact, the conversation regarding treatment options becomes quite extensive with patients and their families, because there are choices. And that’s why consideration of goals in the intent of treatment becomes even more important. 

Patricia:

Here’s another one: “Stem cell transplant – the only chance for cure.”

  Stem Cell Transplant, also called a bone marrow transplant, is a procedure in which healthy blood stem cells are used to replace damaged or diseased bone marrow. This procedure can be used to treat certain types of blood cancers.

Dr. Altman: 

Okay. So, that is also a myth. There are certain types of Acute Myeloid Leukemia where stem cell transplant is the most appropriate treatment once the disease is in remission if the goal of the patient is of curative intent. Stem cell transplant is not appropriate for every individual, and for some types of Acute Myeloid Leukemia, stem cell transplant is not considered. 

Patricia:

What kinds of things do you think about when you’re considering a stem cell transplant with a patient? 

Dr. Altman: 

So, again, I go back to patient goals and understanding their goals of treatment. A stem cell transplant is among the most medically intensive procedures that we have. It is also not just a treatment that occurs over a short time. While the actual transplant is a relatively limited hospitalization and the administration and infusion of stem cells and preparative chemotherapy, it is something that can continue to have side effects and alterations in life quality that can persist for months to years afterwards. 

So, that’s one aspect of things that we talk about regarding stem cell transplant. And really understanding what the benefit of transplant is in terms of a survival advantage, versus what the risk and the cost in terms of toxicities are. And that’s the basis of a lot of the conversations we have.

Patricia:

Sure. Here’s one more: “AML patients require immediate treatment.”

Dr. Altman: 

Sometimes AML patients require immediate treatment, and sometimes they don’t. And that depends on the biology of the disease. How high is the white blood count when the patient comes in? What are the best of the blood counts? Is the patient having immediate life-threatening complications of their acute leukemia? 

And there’s some forms of acute leukemia that require immediate therapy to prevent complications, and there’s some forms of acute leukemia who present an extreme distress from their disease, but there are many patients who present with acute leukemia, and we have time to get all of the ancillary studies back – the studies of genetics and the molecular studies1 – to help further refine the conversation, and further design an appropriate treatment strategy. 

Patricia:

What else? What do you hear from your patients that you feel is maybe a misconception or something they’re not quite understanding about the AML?

Dr. Altman: 

So, I think one of the biggest things that I would like to mention is that response rate and cure are not the same. So, it is possible for one to be treated for Acute Myeloid Leukemia and the disease to enter remission, and yet still not be cured of their disease. 

Acute Myeloid Leukemia is a disease that frequently requires additional cycles of treatment or a stem cell transplant after the initial induction therapy to be able to have the best chance for a long-term cure. So, response and cure are not the same thing.

Fertility Preservation in People with Cancer

This podcast was originally published by Cornell Weill Cancer Cast, on March 22, 2019, here.

Valerie share’s her story for AML Awareness Month

This video was originally published by CancerCare on June 17, 2016, here.

 

Resources For Survivors

This resource was originally published on Bone Marrow and Cancer Foundation here.

The Journey Continues

The Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation’s Survivorship Program provides resources that can address the needs of all bone marrow, stem cell, and cord blood transplant survivors, their families, and caregivers. Our goal is to provide education and support for people coping with the physical and emotional challenges of transplantation. Web accessibility to many of these resources means that no matter if you are at home, at a treatment center, or staying in out-patient lodging immediately following discharge, you are not alone; the survivor community is at your fingertips. The website will be an interactive community that serves as a meeting place and a shared resource for those who have survived a transplant and their families.

Transplant survivors tell us that while they felt well-prepared for transplant, many were very isolated in the days, weeks, and even months following transplant. The return to “normal” life takes a different path for each person; yet the shared common experiences can provide significant support and encouragement during the process. The Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation’s Survivorship Program will address the ongoing need for emotional and social support, provide education about transplant and side effect related issues, host online discussion forums about social, physical, and psychological concerns, and help you create a healthy new life.

Survivor Telephone Support Group

Survivor Telephone Support Group staffed by oncology social workers, provides bone marrow, stem cell and cord blood transplant survivors with a weekly scheduled telephone conference support group to share experiences and draw support from others. For patients one year or more post-transplant. For more information or to register, contact the Bone Marrow & Cancer Foundation at patientservices@bonemarrow.org or 1-800-365-1336.

Resources for Patients and Families

The Foundation offers several programs, such as Ask the Expert and SupportLine to help patients and their families make the connections they need and resources to find information to help allay their fears and better understand the challenges they face.

AML Genetic Testing: Could It Lead to a Targeted Treatment for You?

AML Genetic Testing: Could It Lead to a Targeted Treatment for You? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo

AML expert, Dr. Pinkal Desai, outlines the reasoning behind the necessity of cytogenetics and molecular testing when managing an AML diagnosis. Want to Learn More? Download Your AML Navigator Resource Guide, here.

Dr. Pinkal Desai is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and Assistant Attending Physician at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital. More about this expert here.

More From AML Navigator

Related Resources

AML Genetic Testing Explained

The Pro-Active AML Patient Toolkit

Key Genetic Testing After an AML Diagnosis

Transcript:

Dr. Pinkal Desai:         

So for patients who are undergoing molecular testing or any diagnosis of AML, both cytogenetics and molecular profiling are important, so they do not supersede each other. This is the conglomerate information that we need from the diagnosis to make important medical decisions. Usually the diagnosis would include: looking at the cells under the microscope by the pathologist; flow cytometry, which is a way to identify the subtype of leukemia; chromosomes or karyotypic analysis, which is to look at the individual chromosomes and whether they are abnormal in these leukemia cells; and the last one would be the molecular mutations, which would be single-gene profiling of the leukemia cells.

All of these are important, and it’s not that one can be omitted. They’re all part and parcel of the diagnosis of AML, and all of them should be done.  

So my advice to patients whenever this topic comes up of molecular mutations is always an unequivocal – there should be no question that this should not be done. The advice is plain and simple. This has to be done at diagnosis and, in certain cases, at relapse as well in order to figure out the best treatment possible. If they’re at a site or a clinic where this molecular testing is not available, then they should seek a second opinion to a site that would do this testing because in this day and age of leukemia, there is no treatment and diagnosis that can be done without all of these components in place.

In the old days, we didn’t have a lot of treatment in AML. It was either chemotherapy or hypomethylating agents, and that’s it. But now we have several drugs, five or six of them, that were just approved in the past two years specifically for leukemia and targeting some of these mutations. We have Midostaurin, Gilteritinib, Ivosidenib, Enasidenib, and I don’t want to go on and on about these drugs, but the most important thing is that in this day and age where you have so many drugs, how to incorporate these drugs into the management for patients, both upfront and in the relapse setting, it’s extremely relevant to do this testing, and this is highly encouraged and should be done as part of the diagnosis and treatment.

What’s Next in AML Treatment and Research?

What’s Next in AML Treatment and Research? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Pinkal Desai, an AML specialist, discusses research in-progress on MRD testing and pre-disease mutations in leukemia.

Dr. Pinkal Desai is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and Assistant Attending Physician at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital. More about this expert here.

More From AML Navigator

Related Resources

AML Genetic Testing Explained

Second Opinions in AML: The Importance of Moving Swiftly

Fact or Fiction? AML Treatment & Side Effects


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Transcript:

Dr. Pinkal Desai:         

So we at Weill Cornell are a big leukemia center, and we are leading a lot of the clinical trials in AML, both in the upfront and the relapse setting. There are several research initiatives that we are highly interested in. One of them is how to incorporate some of these targeted treatments, both in the upfront and in the relapse setting.

The most important one that we’re actively working on is to monitor these patients, so MRD testing, or minimal residual testing, is extremely relevant in order to figure out whether the treatments are working in the right fashion, and would you change treatment or would it impact the patient’s overall survival if some of these mutations persist or not.

And we are really interested in monitoring these patients and these mutations to figure out a plan which is targeted not only for the mutation but also for the specific patient, and that is one of the things that we are very interested in and doing at Cornell.

We’re also looking at pre-disease mutations. There are several mutations – this is personally my research interest as well – there are certain people who are at risk of developing leukemia; for example, people who are undergoing chemotherapy for other cancers, and the presence of some of these mutations before the diagnosis of leukemia would highly be relevant because if we’re monitoring some of these people and figuring out who can develop this leukemia and can you do something about it, so this is sort of more on the prevention aspect of leukemia or secondary leukemia, which is also something we are interested in at Cornell and ongoing research is for us.

But the most important things is obviously for patients who actually have the diagnosis of AML, the best available agents as part of clinical trials, the best way to monitor them and design treatments so that we can achieve the best possible results for the patient is what we are striving for at Cornell, and it would be extremely helpful for patients to enroll into these trials and contribute both to their own treatment outcomes and also to the AML community at large.

After Cancer, Ambushed By Depression

At some stage in all our lives there comes a time when feelings of sadness, grief or loneliness gets us down. It is part of being human. And after all, what’s more human than feeling down after such a life-changing and stressful event like cancer? Most of the time, we bounce back; but what happens when the blues stick around and start to interfere with our work, our relationships and our enjoyment of life?

Dana Jennings, whose writings in the New York Times about his treatment for prostate cancer, so eloquently captured the mix of feelings which cancer survivors face after treatment ends, wrote that while he was “buoyed by a kind of illness-induced adrenaline” during treatment, once treatment ended, he found himself “ambushed by depression.”

Jennings’ words will have a familiar ring to many of us who have struggled with that unexpected feeling of depression and loneliness that creeps up on us after treatment is finished. For some survivors, depression kicks in shortly after diagnosis or at some stage during treatment; for others it may ambush them weeks, months or even years after treatment ends.

What Causes Depression?

Depression is a word that means different things to each of us; people use it to describe anything from a low mood to a feeling of hopelessness.  However, there is a vast difference between clinical depression and sadness. Sadness is a part of being human; it comes and goes as a natural reaction to painful circumstances, but it passes with time. Depression goes beyond sadness about a cancer diagnosis or concern about the future.

In its mildest form, depression doesn’t stop you leading your normal life, but it does make things harder to do and seem less worthwhile. At its most severe, the symptoms of clinical depression are serious enough to interfere with work, social life, family life, or physical health.

Incidence of Depression in Cancer Survivors

Research shows that cancer survivors are more likely than their healthy peers to suffer psychological distress, such as anxiety and depression, even a decade after treatment ends. Although estimates of the frequency of depression in cancer patients vary, there is broad agreement that patients who face a disruptive life   event like cancer have an increased risk of depression that can persist for many years.  While most people will understand that dealing with a chronic illness like cancer causes depression, not everyone understands that depression can go on for many months (and even years) after cancer treatment has ended.

The Challenge of Identifying Depression in Cancer Patients

Some research has indicated that depression has been underdiagnosed and undertreated in cancer patients.  This may result from several factors, including patients’ reluctance to report depression, physician uncertainty about how best to manage it, and the belief that depression is a normal part of having cancer.

Several of the characteristics of major depression listed below– like fatigue, cognitive impairment, poor sleep, and change of appetite or weight loss—are hard to distinguish from the common side effects of cancer treatment. This makes it harder to tease apart the psychological burden of cancer, the effects of treatment, and the biochemical effects of the disease.

Are You At Risk of Depression?

Depression can occur through a combination of factors, with some of us being more prone to depression than others.  Factors such as a history of depression, a history of alcohol or substance abuse, and a lack of social support can increase the risk of depression in both the general population and among cancer patients.

Even if a person is not in a high-risk category, a diagnosis of cancer is associated with a higher rate of depression, no matter the stage or outcome of the disease.

Distress over a cancer diagnosis is not the same thing as clinical depression – it is important to recognize the signs and get treatment. The first step is to identify if you are experiencing symptoms of depression.

Try answering the following two questions.

Have you, for more than two weeks (1) felt sad, down or miserable most of the time? (2) Lost interest or pleasure in most of your usual activities?

If you answered ‘YES’ to either of these questions, you may have depression (see the symptom checklist below). If you did not answer ‘YES’ to either of these questions, it is unlikely that you have a depressive illness.

Depression Checklist*

(Tick each of the symptoms that apply to you)

  • Trouble sleeping with early waking, sleeping too much, or not being able to sleep
  • On-going sad or “empty” mood for most of the day
  • Finding it hard to concentrate or make decisions
  • Feeling restless and agitated, irritable or impatient
  • Extreme tiredness and lethargy
  • Feeling emotionally empty or numb
  • Not eating properly; losing or putting on weight
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities most of the time
  • Crying a lot
  • Losing interest in your sex life
  • Preoccupied with negative thoughts
  • Distancing yourself from others
  • Feeling pessimistic about the future
  • Anger, irritability, and impatience

Add up the number of ticks for your total score: _______

What does your score mean?

  • 4 or less: You are unlikely to be experiencing a depressive illness
  • 5 or more: It is likely that you may be experiencing a depressive illness.

NB This list is not a replacement for medical advice. If you’re concerned that you or someone you know may have symptoms of depression, it’s best to speak to your doctor.

Depression – The Way Forward

It’s common to experience a range of emotions and symptoms after a cancer diagnosis, including feelings of stress, sadness and anger. However, some people experience intense feelings of hopelessness for weeks, months, or even years after diagnosis. If you continue to experience emotional distress from your cancer, it’s very important to know that help is available, and to get the help you need.

The first step on the path to recovery is to accept your depression as a normal reaction to what you have been through –don’t try to fight it, bury it or feel ashamed that it is there.  Think of your depression as just another symptom of cancer. If you were in physical pain, you would seek help, and it’s the same for depression.  There are many people willing to help you but the first step is to let someone know how you are feeling. Finding the courage to talk to just one person, whether that’s a loved one, primary care physician, or specialist nurse will often be the first step towards healing.

The psychological effects of cancer are only beginning to be studied and understood. In time, doctors will not only treat the body to kill the cancer, but will treat the mind which suffers the consequences of the disease long after the body has healed. When you’re depressed it can feel like you are barely existing. By obtaining the correct medical intervention and learning better coping skills, however, you can not only live with depression, but live well.

A Note on Helping a Loved One with Depression

Perhaps you are reading this because you’re concerned about a loved one who might have depression.   You may be wondering how you can help. For people who have never experienced the devastating depths of major clinical depression, it may be difficult to understand what your loved one is going through. Depressed people find it hard to ask for help, so let your friend or family member know that you care, you believe in them and that you’re there for them.

The best thing you can is to listen. Don’t offer preachy platitudes about things never being as bad as you think, or suggesting the person snap out of the depression. Our culture doesn’t encourage people to talk about their emotional pain. We’re taught to suppress our feelings, not to show weakness, to get over things quickly. Most people, when they feel upset, benefit greatly by talking to someone who listens with empathy and without judgment. Most of the time the person who is depressed is not looking for advice, but just knowing that someone cares enough to listen deeply can make all the difference.


*References: American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4th ed (DSM-IV). Washington, DC: APA, 1994; and, International classification of diseases and related health problems, 10th revision. Geneva, World Health Organisation, 1992-1994.

Facing Acute Myeloid Leukemia: Notes from a Survivor

In the spring of 2016, I was looking forward to a final year of teaching sociology before a retirement promising new adventures.  I felt great and had no reason to think I had any health problems.  When my doctor suggested some routine blood work, I readily complied.  When the results showed abnormally low white blood cell counts and he recommended a hematologist, I readily complied. When the hematologist ordered a bone marrow biopsy, I still readily complied.  When the results came in, my life changed forever.

The biopsy revealed that I had acute myeloid leukemia. Since this disease can kill within months, they recommended immediate treatment. The next day I checked into a hospital and started chemotherapy.  I received the standard treatment for this disease for the preceding 40 years: a “7 + 3” cocktail of cytarabine and idarubicin.  I spent five and a half weeks in the hospital dealing with various infections brought on by immunosuppression and patiently waiting for my blood counts to recover. As they did, I received the best possible news. The chemotherapy had achieved a temporary remission that bought me time to explore my options for longer term treatment.

As I awaited the molecular and cytogenic data on my cancer, I was told to expect two possibilities.  If there was a relatively low risk of relapse, I might get by with additional chemotherapy. If there was a high risk of relapse, a stem cell transplant was in order. When the results placed me in an intermediate risk category, I had a tough choice to make. After researching my options, getting second opinions, gathering advice, and reading my doctor’s cues, I settled on the transplant.  My logic was that if I opted for more chemo and it didn’t work out, I would deeply regret not having the transplant.  If I had the transplant and it didn’t work out, at least I would feel as if I gave it my best shot and it just wasn’t meant to be. Despite the 15-20% mortality rate from the transplant itself, I was at peace with my decision to proceed.

My benefactors were two anonymous sets of parents who had donated their newborn infants’ umbilical cords to a transplant bank.  Once we found two good matches, the cords were shipped to my transplant hospital, the cord blood was extracted, and it was transfused into my bloodstream. These stem cells just “knew” where to go to engraft in my bone marrow and begin producing a healthy new immune system.  For the second time, I received the best possible news. Three weeks after transplant, one of my donor’s cells were 99% engrafted. With that result, I returned home for a prolonged recovery.

For the next few weeks, I faced daily clinic visits, blood tests, transfusions of platelets and red blood cells, growth factor injections, and lingering effects of my conditioning chemotherapy and radiation as well as the engraftment process itself. As the weeks turned into months, my recovery proceeded apace.  It eventually became clear that I could claim the best possible news for the third time, as my new cells and old body got along with each other and there was no evidence of graft-vs.-host disease.  Looking back over the entire process, my oncologist summarized it by saying “this is as good as it gets.”

Many people wanted to give me credit for surviving this disease. While it is tempting to claim such credit, I remain agnostic about whether anything I did had a material effect on my positive outcome. I think my survival was largely a matter of luck, chance, and random variation across AML patients. Nonetheless, there were several practices I engaged in throughout my treatment that deserve mention. At the very least, they brought me peace during a difficult time. And at the most, they may indeed have contributed to a positive outcome for which I am eternally grateful.

The first set of practices that sustained me was mindfulness, meditation and yoga.  To the greatest extent possible, these practices helped me let go of ruminations about the past or fears about the future and focus on the present moment.  Focusing on my breathing kept me centered as – like my breaths – each moment flowed into the next.  Maintaining a non-judgmental awareness and acceptance of each passing moment kept my psyche on an even keel.

Rather than extended periods of formal meditation, I simply sought a mindful awareness of each moment, hour, day and week.  I also went through a daily yoga routine even while receiving chemotherapy. Doing so helped me retain my identity as I weathered the toxic treatment and its inevitable side-effects.  In the evenings, I used a technique called a body scan to relax and prepare me for a peaceful sleep. The cumulative effect of these practices was a calm acceptance of circumstances I could not change alongside a serene hope that all would work out for the best.

A second practice involved being a proactive patient.  Perhaps it was my training as a social scientist that allowed me to bring an analytical curiosity to my disease and the treatments my doctors were deploying. I asked lots of questions during their all too brief visits, and they patiently responded to all my queries.

On several occasions, my proactive stance made a positive contribution to my treatment.  When I developed a nasty, full body rash, it took a collaborative conversation between me, my oncologist, and infectious disease doctors to isolate the one drug among so many that was the culprit. I identified it, they switched it out, and the rash abated. On another occasion, I was able to identify two drugs that were causing an unpleasant interaction effect.  I suggested changing the dosing schedule, they concurred, and the problem resolved.  The sense of efficacy I received from this proactive stance also helped me retain a positive mood and hopeful stance during my prolonged treatment.

A third practice involved maintaining a regimen of physical activity.  During my first, five-week hospital stay, I felt compelled to move and get out of my room for both physical and social reasons.  I developed a routine of walking the halls three times a day, trailing my IV pole behind me.  They tell me I was walking roughly 5 miles a day, and every excursion felt like it was keeping my disease at bay and connecting me with all the nurses and staff members I would encounter as I made my rounds.

When I moved to my transplant hospital, I was confined to my room but requested a treadmill that met the physical need for activity even as I sacrificed the social benefits of roaming the halls.  But throughout both hospital stays and later at home, I maintained stretching activities, exercise workouts, physical therapy routines, and yoga to keep my body as active and engaged as my circumstances would allow. These activities also gave me a welcome sense of efficacy and control.

A fourth practice involved maintaining my sense of humor.  I have always appreciated a wide variety of humor, ranging from bad jokes, puns and double entendre to witty anecdotes and stories to philosophical musings.  Cancer is anything buy funny, which is precisely why humor has the power to break through the somber mood and fatalistic worldview that so often accompanies the disease.  Using humor became another way of keeping the cancer at bay.  It was a way of saying you may make me sick and eventually kill me, but I’m still going to enjoy a good laugh and a bad joke along the way.

Alongside these practices I could control, there were also beneficial circumstances beyond my control that worked in my favor.  These included the privilege of being a well-educated white male that led to my being treated respectfully and taken seriously by all my health care providers.  In addition, my doctors and nurses consistently combined skill and expertise with compassion and empathy in ways I will never forget or could ever repay. And finally, my privileged status and excellent care played out against a backdrop of strong social support from a dense network of family, friends, colleagues and neighbors.

A final practice that integrated everything else was writing my story as it unfolded. Upon my first hospitalization, I began sending emails to an ever-expanding group of recipients documenting and reflecting upon my disease, treatment and recovery.  Narrating my story for others required me to make sense of it for myself.  The ostensible goal of keeping others informed became a powerful therapeutic prod for my own understanding of what was going on around me and to me.  While my doctors’ ministrations cured my body, my writing preserved my sense of self and a coherent identity.

I eventually sent over 60 lengthy reports to a group of roughly 50 recipients over a 16-month period.  This writing would eventually serve three purposes.  It was a sense-making procedure for me. It was a communication vehicle with my correspondents. And finally, I realized it could be a resource for others in the broader cancer community. With that insight, I did some additional writing about lessons learned and identity transformations and published the resulting account.

As I mentioned at the start, I will never know if any of these practices or circumstances made a material contribution to my survival.  But they maintained my sanity and preserved my identity during the most challenging experience of my life. Regardless of the eventual endings of our journeys, sustaining and nurturing ourselves along the way is a worthy goal in itself.