We got some good news from my recent CT scan: the targeted chemotherapy drug sacituzumab govitecan hziy, otherwise known as Sasquatch, is working! The scan shows that the involved lymph nodes have shrunk significantly, 80 percent by my oncologist’s estimation. Some of them appear to be almost gone.
I have something called “stranding” and some swelling in my upper left chest and shoulder. The “stranding” is a kind of ropy tissue that they think is scar tissue from where Sasquatch killed cancer cells, radiation-induced fibrosis (RIF), or some combination of both. The same with the swelling–they think it is inflammation associated with the healing process, and/or lymphedema associated with fibrosis. As long as it doesn’t get worse, they aren’t concerned about it, especially since the adjacent lymph nodes have shrunk. It may be taking the drug a bit longer to work on some of the tumor growth in my skin, since both cancer and prior radiation have negatively impacted blood flow and the lymphatics there. Hopefully ongoing work with my lymphedema therapist will improve the stranding over time.
It is such a relief to get good news! I’m grateful every day that Sasquatch received expedited FDA approval when it did. For now, I’ll stay on the drug and continue with the same dosage schedule. My medical oncologist will get some more information about research into the efficacy of alternative dosing schedules when he (virtually) attends a medical conference on breast cancer in mid-December. After that, we’ll know more about whether and how we might change my regimen going forward.
It was literally this same week last year when I had a punch-biopsy of my skin and then had to wait on the results. I was days away from a big 50th birthday celebration, and finding out the cancer was back for a third round was devastating. There won’t be a big party this year–just Steve and me at home, a small cake from my favorite local bakery, and a couple of Zoom calls with family and friends. But we’ll be celebrating this much better news, and that’s the best gift I could have hoped for!
Those of you who followed my CaringBridge blog (or are on my personal Facebook page) know that when I was diagnosed a second time, I started wearing #sillysocksforstrength to encourage myself and others who were fighting battles unseen. I still wear my silly socks, and these are the ones I chose for my appointment yesterday:
This third time around, I upped the game a little by adding a pair of combat boots. I still have mixed feelings about all the language of fighting and battles we use when we talk about cancer (you can read more about that here if you’re interested in my thoughts on the subject), but the various talismans of joy, silliness, and strength I’ve adopted buoy my spirits. So here’s to vintage hats, silly socks, and kick-ass boots–and good news and good medicine!
Hello, friends! It’s been a while. There’s much to tell you, so I’ll jump right in. Lots of wonderful things have happened since I last posted in 2017, but I am sorry to report I’ve had not one but two recurrences since then. We discovered the first one in December of 2018, in lymph nodes just under my upper port scar by my right collar bone. I’d actually found a bump in July of that year and thought (hoped) it scar tissue, then asked my GP about it in September. She ordered an x-ray (what I needed was an ultrasound, but I didn’t know that) and said all was fine. It wasn’t until my December oncology check-in that I had an ultrasound and surgical biopsy, and I re-entered treatment from January to May 2019.
My husband Steve and I took a wonderful trip to Ocracoke Island in late May 2019 and had an amazing adventure in Scotland in July. In late October 2019 a small rash appeared just above the crease in my left armpit, and I started having issues with lymphedema again. A biopsy in late November confirmed that the cancer had metastasized to the lymphatics of my skin, and I re-entered treatment the day after Christmas, December 2019.
I wrote about the first recurrence on a Caring Bridge site; I was teaching and working through daily radiation, and I wanted to be able to give updates without feeling like I had to be “writerly.” If you are interested in the details of that time, please look me up there. When the cancer returned again late last year, I was so overwhelmed and sad that all I could muster was writing in my journal, for myself. Honestly, I think I was tired of this being the story I had to tell. To complicate matters, a couple of months into treatment (a combo of immunotherapy and Abraxane, a new form of Taxol), along came the coronavirus. There’s been a lot to process, and it’s only been in the past few weeks I’ve felt able and desirous of opening that process back up to others. I hope sharing my story is helpful, especially now that so many are faced with health challenges and the deep uncertainties they bring. So, here we are.
A recap of this latest round: as the coronavirus pandemic intensified in the spring, we discovered through a CT scan on April 15th that the immunotherapy I’d been on since late December wasn’t working as well as it needed to; the cancer had spread to a few additional lymph nodes. That was a big blow. I received no treatment for several weeks while we waited on some test results that could give us insight into other treatment options. One of the hardest parts about the current recurrence is that, as my oncologist says, we have a front-row seat: with the cancer being in my skin, I could see it, while we waited, as it progressed across my chest and down my abdomen. I began to experience increasing pain and swelling and began having problems swallowing, leading to several endoscopic dilations. It was all terrifying.
I had a consult with my oncologist the first week of May to discuss the test results and next steps. Because of the coronavirus, only patients were allowed in the cancer care facility, so Steve could not accompany me. I shook with anxiety. I can always tell if the news will be good or bad by my oncologist’s demeanor when he enters the exam room. That day he entered smiling and appearing almost…chipper? Steve was on speakerphone. “You seem cheerful,” I said to Dr. K. “Why are you so cheerful?” “I am,” he replied. The FDA, he said, had just granted expedited approval to a targeted-chemotherapy drug that had been in clinical trials for the treatment of advanced triple negative breast cancer. The approval had been given on April 22nd, little more than a week prior. It was particularly miraculous news given that the test results we’d been waiting on hadn’t turned up any good options. But I could start the targeted chemo drug sacituzumab govitecan-hziy, which they’d come to call “Sasquatch” acround the office, within the next two weeks.
My first dose was on May 20th, coincidentally the day Steve and I adopted two black-and-white kittens who we named Herzchen (German for “little heart,” as he has a heart-shaped spot on his back) and Finn (after Huckleberry, as Finn is a bit of a rogue). Herry and Finn have been good medicine, too. I’m still receiving Sasquatch, which has a two-week on, one-week off dosage schedule. It can be a beast, as it impacts three out of four weeks every month, but the side effects are fairly predictable, so I’m slowly learning to work with the uneven patterns of my days. Treatment day is always rough; I’m at the cancer center at least 4 hours and receive 7 drugs alongside Sasquatch to help with side effects. I usually feel pretty crummy that evening as my body processes the influx, then I’m powered by steroids the day after, have two down days, and then start to feel good again.
It’s a lot to manage, and I’ve lost all my hair again, including my eyebrows, which I really miss. But Sasquatch seems to be working, and every day it gives me is a gift. Conventionally, metastatic breast cancer cannot be cured, only treated into remission or no evidence of disease (NED). While that is technically still true, new targeted treatments like Sasquatch and the ongoing development of various immunotherapies are changing the game so quickly and dramatically that we simply don’t know what the future holds. Cancer, like HIV, is becoming something many people live with long-term, managing it rather than eradicating it.
It’s not easy to adjust to the idea of chronic illness, or to live in a space of such deep uncertainty, and the mental and emotional work it requires is one reason it’s taken me so long to write publicly about my experiences. I remind myself that we all live with that uncertainty every day, even if most don’t have constant reminders of it. And COVID-19 has now shifted mortality to the forefront of many people’s experiences. The pandemic has added a whole other layer to my own processing, but that’s another essay for another day.
I have several things going for me—the cancer, though it’s metastasized, is still pretty much contained in the lymphatic system. The science keeps staying just one step (one week!) ahead of me, and new treatments keep emerging. I have an incredible support system and one heckuva smart medical oncologist heading up my health-care team. All things considered, I feel good. I’m cuddling kittens, making art, and writing again. Steve and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary in September with a trip to the beach, and I’m on sabbatical currently and finally getting rolling on some creative projects. It’s not always easy, but it’s a beautiful life.
I haven’t, at this point, decided on a regular blog schedule, and I’m cutting myself some slack on that “writerly” thing. I hope to post again soon. Until then, be well, wear your mask, and safe travels through this unpredictable world.