GLOW. It’s a fantastic Netflix series I binge watched the entire first week of July. Little did I know, while I was watching lady wrestlers battling it out in the 80’s, there was a battle going on right next to me…
It was Graft versus Host. Jeff’s New Immune System versus Jeff.
Jeff and I were totally under the impression that we were in the clear by July. The more dangerous stages of GVHD normally occur in the first 100 days and he had avoided it. Or so we thought.
GVHD occurs when immune cells identify the body as something foreign. You actually hope for a LITTLE bit of GVHD, because the cell’s ability to recognize what’s foreign is what fights the cancer. If your new immune system is too similar to your old one, it won’t know to fight the cancer.
This is why GVHD has a higher chance of occurring if your stem cells are from an unrelated donor. Jeff’s stem cells came from his sister, and they were a complete HLA match (jackpot!) but GVHD also has a higher chance of occurring when stem cells are given female to male (or vice versa). ISN’T THIS ALL EXHAUSTING? But wait, theres more:
All allogeneic stem cell transplant patients are given drugs to suppress the new immune system. They’re slowly weaned off so that the cells have time to get familiar with their new body and not attack it. Here’s a gif representation:
IN THE BEGINNING THE CELLS ARE LIKE THIS
BUT AFTER WEANING OFF IMMUNE SUPPRESSANTS THEY CAN GET LIKE
Jeff’s new immune system seems to have qualms with his digestive tract specifically. It’s preventing him from absorbing protein, which didn’t sound so terrible at first – big deal! We’ll go to GNC and get some Muscle Milk, solve this here and now. Except it doesn’t work like that (but I, a non intellectual, was willing to try it). The lack of protein becomes a big problem because protein begets albumin, which is what keeps water in your veins. Without albumin, things (your organs, specifically) can take a quick turn.
The first thing doctors do when they realize you have GVHD is give you a very high dose of steroids and cross their fingers and hope it works. It only works for about 30% of patients. When that doesn’t work (like it didn’t for Jeff), photopheresis is the next option. Here’s what it looks like:
The photopheresis machine has a very nonthreatening sound to it – like a Cessna during taking off.
Jeff had a new access line placed into his chest so that they could run his blood through this machine. The photopheresis machine separates the immune system cells and – for lack of a better word – sunburns them so they become less cranky. They then circulate the cells back into his body. He does this 3 times a week, for 2 hours at a time, and it takes weeks to see an effect. This is rough because sometimes the GVHD is so acute that people can’t wait weeks to see results. There has to be something better than this, right?
Jakafi is the drug’s given name but I prefer to call it Jafar.
Jakafi was originally created for Polycythemia Vera, a slow growing blood disorder. The pill works by lowering your blood cell counts (it’s essentially chemo). Researchers found that it’s effective on some GVHD and so it was approved for off label use only in the last couple of years.
So we waited for the drug manufacturer to approve Jeff’s use of Jakafi, then we had to wait for insurance to approve the cost. This took a week and it often takes much longer. This is a huge issue when each pill costs around FOUR HUNDRED DOLLARS. Jeff takes 4 of these a day. A nurse dropped one on the floor yesterday and I nearly threw up.
Jeff is on day 12 of Jakifi and it can take weeks to work. Each day in the hospital stretches into the next. I find it ironic that the only thing that gets Jeff’s mind off of everything is watching back to back episodes of HGTV shows when we’ve had our fill of acronyms this year.
Every day we risk a life threatening infection by continuing to wipe out his immune system to control the GVHD. Because of this, numerous antibiotics and antifungals are given daily via IV. This puts incredible strain on the kidneys. There has to be perfect balance, so nurses and doctors are working around the clock to keep his body running. It’s a lot like a symphony. The most expensive, anxiety inducing symphony. It’s like the symphony they hired to record the score for JAWS. And for now, all we can do is “wade”* it out.
*I’m so sorry, but not sorry for this.
There’s only one thing people want to talk about less than cancer and that’s the ICU. Shortly after my last blog post in February, my husband ended up there. I always thought being sent to the ICU was the “beginning of the end”, but I was wrong. The Intensive Care Unit saved Jeff’s life. Now I want to sing their praises. Literally, with ‘Private Eyes’.
“I.C.U. and you see me… They’re watching you.” How comforting! They’re watching out for you. So closely.
Let me back up and tell you how we got there.
Something no one warns you of is how, post chemo, your veins can get a little…leaky. I don’t want to be too graphic (novel) here but did you see the first X Men movie? Do you remember what Magneto did to Senator Kelly? Do you know how much I hate myself for using this reference? Senator Kelly went from 70-ish% water to 100% water and that was the end of him.
Chemo can cause fluids to go to places they aren’t supposed to go. Sometimes the fluid will cause your legs and feet to swell. It can also end up somewhere dangerous, like in your lungs. Sometimes the water will go straight past your kidneys and your body will believe you’re dehydrated, causing you to drink more water. The cycle continues.
This is what happened to Jeff. He hadn’t been eating well post transplant yet he also hadn’t lost any weight for weeks which was confusing. We didn’t know he was carrying around 20 pounds of water weight around his organs. They warn you that transplant patients can lose or gain weight because of changes in metabolism, so we chalked it up to that. It’s an incredibly insidious thing. More insidious than the amount of Insidious sequels that exist (give it a rest Hollywood). Even now, with Jeff no longer retaining fluid and eating enough to feed a family of four, he’s still losing weight. Most of our conversations are like this now:
So, one morning Jeff wakes me up with chest pain that’s a 5 out of 10 and it quickly progresses to an 8 out of 10 and I call 911. When we get to MD Anderson they do some scans and his lungs are full of fluid. They do a thoracentesis, which is just a Harry-Potter-mythical-creature-sounding word that means they took the fluid out of his lungs. They did this by – how do I explain this technically – punching a hole in his back and putting a suction tube in it. They got a couple of liters (!!) out and he was able to breathe without the chest pressure… temporarily.
That’s when his lab results showed abnormal kidney function. It suddenly plummeted. Our doctor came in to tell us he’d like to send us to the ICU but that it was “precautionary” – not that he needed it immediately, but better safe than sorry. I remember thinking, “this is what they tell everyone I bet”. I was numb. Jeff wasn’t protesting. I knew that was a bad sign.
Let me be honest – the walk to the ICU feels BLEAK. It’s always tucked away from the higher traffic floors. There’s even a special elevator to get to them. There are less windows, if any. The rooms are small and cramped with all sorts of machines. There’s only a recliner, unlike on the regular floors there’s at least a bench to sleep on. I’m actually still confused by this, considering the ICU seems like the place you’d be much more likely stay overnight as a caretaker.
As a side note: I am a terrible sleeper and I can’t sleep unless I’m completely flat. In the ICU I ended up shoving my suitcase in between the recliner portion and the ottoman so I could lay down. It worked perfectly. I highly recommend.
It was around midnight when they transferred us and I couldn’t help but pay attention to every single detail. Patients hooked up to breathing machines, unable to move. The doctor asked me to go to a waiting room while Jeff had an arterial blood pressure line placed in his wrist. It seemed painful and he seemed so out of it (they wouldn’t give him pain medication for fear his blood pressure would get dangerously low). I was so worried that I lasted in the waiting room for about 10 minutes before I was right back outside of his room. He could look out at me through the glass doors while they did the procedure, but I knew I was blurry to him without his glasses on. I just kept making a heart with my hands at him like I was in a stupid Taylor Swift music video.
It was all I could do and I LOST IT. I moved around the corner where Jeff couldn’t see my blurry figure and collapsed on the floor. His nurse happened to just be coming out of the room to check on the dialysis machine when he saw me. He stopped, knelt down and said, “Everything is going to be okay”. He got right back up, helped me into the room, and then assisted another nurse in lining up the 100 or so clear bags needed for the dialysis machine (I wish I could explain what these were for, but I have no idea. Still today I’m convinced dialysis machines run on magic).
I found the nurses in the ICU to be the most empathetic, strong, tactful people in the hospital. They were always aware, walking a fine line with their interactions: not too jovial because the place is a constant reminder that people die, but also not despondent because people are trying to cling to any trace of hope. This just a small layer on top of their many daily actions that make a difference between life and death.
I don’t know how much time I spent thinking about the lives of ICU nurses. It’s amazing what the brain does when simultaneously in trauma and void of stimuli. I don’t even remember Jeff looking as sick as he did at the time. I was like the Shallow Hal of health. I’m pretty sure this was my brain’s way of protecting itself.
Jeff remembers very little of any of this. I had spent most of my time worried about the amount of pain he was in to later find out that his brain was also protecting him. The extreme stress on his mind and body took him to a dream like state where all he remembers is thinking he was on a train with me.
Over the next two weeks Jeff had:
- a groin catheter placed for dialysis
- a drain placed in his heart for pericarditis
- his picc line replaced
- an endoscopy and biopsy to check for GVHD
- around the clock breathing treatments
I made a lot of Top Gun references. It was my excuse to call him Goose.
After his kidneys normalized, we were transferred back to the transplant floor where we spent another two weeks. We were discharged from the hospital in mid March after a full recovery. What transpired was something known as Multisystem Organ Failure and when it happens after transplant it is, more often than not, the cause of mortality. We’d been on the lookout for something like sepsis, not something as simple as excess fluid. We now know how important it is to carefully monitor fluid intake and output after chemo, but especially after myeloablative conditioning.
Jeff and I celebrated with a big ceremony on May 13th – it was the goal line we’d set at the start of transplant. Because of MD Anderson’s ICU team’s care, we made it. We are day +160 post transplant.
Before I had personal experience with chemo, movies and TV led me to believe that the nausea was the most traumatic part of it. Apart from losing your hair – but, wigs! Fun! Right, Samantha!?
In reality, what Jeff experienced was a myriad of things. He refers to this cluster of uncomfortable side effects as a “hangover times ten”.
TYPES OF CHEMO
There are many different types of chemo and they all look different. The first chemo Jeff was given was Doxorubicin, which chemo patients call the red devil (thanks for giving it this super chill, non threatening nickname!) because it looks like bright red Kool Aid.
THE MEDICAL STAFF WILL LOOK TERRIFYING
Nothing rattles the nerves of a first time chemo patient like seeing the nursing staff bring over a chemo bag like it’s a scene in the movie Contagion. Everything is labeled hazardous to boot. The nurses handle so much chemo a day that they simple cannot be exposed at all to it, so they wear gloves, a gown, and a mask.
Chemo hasn’t advanced in a very long time, so if you can find any comfort in this, just know that the chemo you are about to receive has likely been used to cure many people since the 1950s.
Jeff only had nausea once, on the first day of chemo, and that was because he hadn’t been prescribed a high enough dose of Zofran. Zofran got FDA approval in the 90s and it’s incredible. I also can’t hear the name without going, “ZOLTAN!”
Zofran completely gets rid of nausea for Jeff. That being said, all bodies are different. Some people respond better to a medication called Phenergan, or an anti nausea medication supplemented with something else like a sedative called Ativan. If something isn’t working for you, don’t be afraid to try things until you do. There’s no reason to be miserable. Even if you’re a masochist, it’s not worth spending the little energy you have (it’s needed for healing!) on tolerating a side effect.
WAIT FOR IT…
You don’t feel the effects of chemo immediately. I remember the first day of Jeff’s chemo. We watched the liquid move out of the bag, into the IV line, and slowly up into his port, watching as if it would hit his chest and he’d suddenly morph into a werewolf.
The most he felt was brain freeze from all the ice he was eating to deter mouth sores. It was anticlimactic. A few days later we saw the effects. It always happens around the same time white cell counts bottom out.
OTHER COUNTS WILL DROP, TOO
Expect hemoglobin and platelet count to drop along with the white blood cell count. This is normal, but low hemoglobin and platelets require transfusion if they drop below a certain amount. Every hospital/doctor has a different number requiring transfusion, but for MD Anderson it’s Hemoglobin under 8.0 and platelet count under 20.
These are THE WORST. If you’ve ever had a cut in your mouth or a canker sore, it’s like that but imagine about 70 of them in your mouth at one time. You can’t eat, so be prepared to have smoothies. And not with too much fruit because – guess what – fruit juice irritates the sores. FUN.
I call mucositis mouth pain on cocaine. The mouth sores were bad during the initial chemo but Jeff didn’t have mucus production. After myeloablative chemo (the most intense chemo) Jeff required suction at his bedside. The bucket would fill almost daily. It’s intense and does not subside until your white blood cell counts recover.
Clearing out mucus production is constantly like this:
And leaves you talking like Christian Bale as Batman for a couple of weeks after.
You hear a lot about chemo but not about the other medications that supplement the chemo. You may also have to take:
STEROIDS which cause HUNGER
Some chemos require steroids because of their T Cell repressing qualities. Steroids make you very emotional and hungry. Hangry or, as I call it, Chemotional.
When our doctor first gave my husband the steroids, I was the one he gave the warning to. “This could make your husband irrational. We’ve seen people throw things at their spouses.” His advice was basically to duck. Apart from eating an entire sleeve of cinnamon rolls at 6AM, Jeff never did anything completely irrational. He did get into an argument with someone he didn’t know on Facebook that I might have instigated circa Trump election. Jeff on steroids was mostly just like me on my period.
NEUPOGEN / NEULESTA which cause BONE PAIN
Once you’ve had chemo you’ll have an injection in your arm or stomach with a bone marrow stimulant. This will help your body quickly get new white cells in action. The quicker your white cells rise, the less likely you are to have an infection. It’s important to avoid infections at all costs. Also see: face masks below.
OPIOIDS which cause CONSTIPATION
All of the pain management drugs cause constipation, including a lot of anti nausea drugs. Chances are that if you’re having chemo you’re going to take something that causes constipation. Sure, it isn’t fun to talk to your doctor or anyone else about, but the consequences are serious. I talked to a stem cell doctor who lost three young male patients from bacteria introduced via enema. Medications used to counteract constipation (such as colace and miralax) do not have an IV form. If you have mucositis and can’t swallow, this leaves you vulnerable. Regularity is so important that you’ll go from someone who’s never peed with the door open to being like
Ports often get tangled or kinked inside the body. Something as simple as a cough can coil the line inside the chest. Having to go in and have the port fixed is nerve wrecking, but it’s a common occurrence I’ve found in patients. Having procedures done to correct the port might happen a fair amount during your treatment. Jeff had a port inserted and then about a month later doctors had to do a procedure where they went up through the groin to pull a kink down. Then, after additional issues, the port had to be removed and another one placed on the other side of his chest. Very scary when you’re dealing with low blood counts because, again, risk of infection.
(not this kind)
Infections can be deadly. No night out to dinner or the movies is worth risking organ failure. That’s why, even when Jeff’s white cell counts were normal, he’d wear a face mask out at all times. We also took extra precaution and kept our distance from people who were around lots of other people. Children were no-nos. Think about all of the other children a kid comes in contact with at school and then those germs/bacteria are brought into your home at the end of the day. What I’m saying is – bathe your kids in Purell.
Don’t risk shaking hands. Remember to disinfect your cell phone. Be nice to people…from a distance.