All posts by ariakerstein

As if a dream

Oncologist: Are you ok? Where are you?

Ari: (panting) Sorry. I’m out of breath. I just ran up a hill. You’re calling 20 minutes late and I was getting really anxious – had to burn some energy…

Oncologist: Well I have your PET results. Excellent news. The scan shows there’s no metabolic activity at this point. Keep running up those hills.

Ari: (dumbfounded, stunned) …What?

Oncologist: Yeah! Congratulations. You should be very happy. 

Ari: (dumbfounded, stunned) …how can this be?

Oncologist: Well I don’t know. It could be that we didn’t wait long enough on the last scans and the drugs were still working. They must have still been in your body and there was activity still happening. There’s still tissue there but it’s not active. It’s an amazing result.

Ari: (dumbfounded, stunned) …So…you’re saying this is complete remission?

Oncologist: Yeah, right! That’s what I would call this.

I collapsed onto the sidewalk. People on their phones were stepping around me. I took in the news – disbelieving. I told him I had so many questions but didn’t want to ask them right now. I wanted to let it sink in.

As I’m writing this post I still don’t believe it. I called Michelle. She started crying: a pause, then “come home now”. I lay there for probably 10 minutes, staring at the naked branches of a tree above against the grey sky. I melted into the sidewalk, hands on my head. Just staring.

Counterfactual histories

Let’s consider for a moment how things would have likely played out had I gone through the original recommendation to push ahead with standard second-line treatment. Recall that I had 3 oncologists aligned on this path just weeks ago.

Well, I’d have started in January with 2 rounds of harsh, platinum-based chemotherapy. Roughly 9 weeks later I’d be doing the scan (that’s about now). And assuming the chemo didn’t worsen anything, that scan would have shown complete remission. And we would of course have attributed success to the second line chemo! And since remission is the signal to proceed to the second part of treatment – the autologous stem cell transplant – that’s exactly what I’d be prepping for now. That’s another 3+ months treatment, assuming it worked. I’d be commuting to Stanford most days, or staying in-patient. I’d definitely be neutropenic, likely experiencing complications (as seems almost inevitable with that procedure), and probably not seeing much of my family with all the logistics. I’d have inflicted an incredible amount of damage on my body.

Only to be right where I am now.

Not just that. I’d be another data point thrown into the pool suggesting second line treatment is effective, nudging the broader treatment decision space just a bit in the wrong direction for the next person.

I’m forcing myself to contemplate this and it’s hitting me hard.

Stay vigilant

I still have this nagging thought that something in my psyche set the foundation for the cancer to take root – toxic soil of the immune system? A positive scan should not be a signal that it’s ok to let my guard down. In fact it’s the opposite – I feel compelled to double down on whatever I’m doing, to remain vigilant in guarding against slippage to old habits and routines.

In terms of how this could possibly have happened all I can say is, who knows. My primary oncologist thinks the chemo was still working after the scans. Maybe – I think that’s a convenient narrative. I spoke to another doc on my panel a few minutes ago and she mentioned that spontaneous remission is rare but it does happen. It’s not something she would ever offer to patients as an expected outcome (she said she’d want to study me from a medical perspective out of her own curiosity), but there’s no reason not to believe the PET scan. False positives can happen but false negatives aren’t a real issue with these tests. Most likely is that it’s spontaneous remission of Follicular 3a cells. Mechanisms for that remain unknown.

My view is it’s a confluence of factors that led to the cessation of activity. I also think it’s probable that it was a combination of factors (not just genetics) that led to the initial growth. No, I’m not exactly blaming myself for getting cancer. I am suggesting that perhaps my system wasn’t properly tuned to handle a genetic predisposition. I don’t find this narrative dis-empowering, that my psyche may have had something to do with, say, activating some genes that would have otherwise stayed quiescent. Quite the opposite.

The illusion of control can help in these kinds of situations. And conversely a perceived lack of control hurts. Indeed, if it feels like all control resides outside of oneself, that’s just a quick hop to learned helplessness, a liability when battling cancer (those rats fare worse than control). The immune system is like another brain that we aren’t close to understanding yet. So that requires picking up weapons we may not fully understand how to wield!

Since it tends to come up a lot in conversations I’ll thumbnail sketch some of what I’ve been doing (with little to no detail as I don’t have the time here). Maybe I’ll discuss in more detail in a later post if there’s interest. What I can say is I was pretty methodical about making specific changes since chemo ended, some prior. I can only speak to what I’ve been doing and make no claims about efficacy of anything specific. Those changes in combination may have had no effect, or they may have been essential. It’s clear that they didn’t hurt. Take this for what it’s worth, n of 1. With that:

Mental

  • Focus on mindfulness, meditation, being present. Still a work in progress but a big area of growth for me.
  • Be positive. It’s a bit like that trick of biting the pencil to force a smile. It actually is shown to elevate mood though you’re getting there from the outside-in, mechanically so to speak. At no point did I feel despair. I worked hard to make this so.

Nutrition. I should say at the outset that when it comes to nutrition, that nobody really knows. There’s so many competing theories, and such a scarcity of compelling data to support most of it. Also, few folks ever bring up the obvious point that all nutritional advice may not be right for everyone. Taken together it seems likely that (at minimum) our divergent genetic, epigenetic and gut bacteria profiles play a significant role on our individual metabolic output. This is a separate post for sure. It’s worth bearing in mind that the placebo effect is strong and real. So nutrition may fall into that bucket. But the beauty is that it may not matter! Even if you knowingly take a sugar pill to help some ailment it still can work. I wouldn’t rule that out. Anyway, I’ve implemented some practices into my lifestyle that have at least a modicum of data supporting them (and that literally, pass the smell test), specifically:

  • Intermittent/fasting until noon, and no eating after 8pm. The idea is to reduce the feeding window to 8 hours/day to limit supplies to the ‘cancer army’. Some rat models suggest this has an anti-tumor effect. A less fancy way to say this is that I skip breakfast. I’ve fasted a few days for 24 hours but haven’t gotten carried away.
  • Sip green tea (all day) – 5 cups minimum. Steep it ’til it’s bitter (8-10 min) to release all the catecheins, especially the most potent one called EGCG. Note that other teas, (e.g., black) are less helpful due to effects of oxidiation.
  • Lots of turmeric in food (sautee in olive oil, black pepper activates).
  • Eat more vegetables. Lots of stir fry including cabbage, carrots, garlic, tomato. Lots of shredded cabbage-based salads.
  • Eat less protein than usual. I think I require less than I did before. Following my body’s lead here. I mostly skip protein at meals if I don’t crave it. Used to think I should always have it in meals. Nonsense.
  • Pescatarian diet and minimal dairy (if so, high quality cheese). Some studies positively link dairy consumption, meat with lymphoma. I’ve eaten a bit of meat if my body felt like it needed it, once a week if at all and mostly Friday night for Shabbat. No harm done.
  • Consume minimal white/refined carbs and close to zero sugar. This one hardly seems controversial. I will buckle for butter croissants though.
  • Overall I’ve been eating less. I don’t feel worse for it. In fact I feel better.

Physical

  • Workout every day – whatever modality. It’s just hygiene, like brushing teeth. Not worth over complicating it with various fads.

Community

  • I haven’t spoken enough about this. I’ve gotten so much positivity from all sides that it’s hard to believe all that energy didn’t help. If I had to pick one element only and point to that as the cause of this outcome this would be the one. It’s all about the people and the love. That’s what matters in the end. It’s unfortunate that it sometimes takes an event as horrible as cancer to deepen bonds between us. But it’s better than not having it happen at all. I feel blessed.

What’s next, how am I feeling? 

I’ve been very clear to de-couple my emotions from outcomes towards maintaining emotional stability. That’s been essential to my well-being. But it works both ways, buffering the highs as well as the lows. I kind of wish I felt elated. I don’t feel all that much just yet. For peace of mind I’ve already left messages for the remaining members of my panel of oncologists to ensure we’re all aligned.

For now I’m letting this soak in and taking some time to process. It doesn’t feel real. For all the thought and considerations about battling this thing, I haven’t allowed myself to go to the other side, to a place of being healed (or whatever you’d call remission). It seemed too out of reach.

That work starts now.

The rainbow outside my door after getting the news. How appropriate – yes I’ll read into it!

Leaving Kauai; pattern interrupt; the scan

Back in SF!

So was 10 days in Hawaii relaxing?
Kind of. If you think it was sleeping in and pina coladas on the beach all day you’ve got the wrong idea. We definitely had lots of quality downtime with the kids, which really was the main point. Still, 10 days with 3 kids and no babysitter or school does not produce a beautiful tan (the chemo is likely still lingering in my body so I was vigilant about limiting my photon exposure anyway… I was the guy with long pants and running jacket on most of the time). But it was a necessary pattern interruption on the ‘big C’ and we did it the right way – no regrets. I think the kids really enjoyed themselves. I know I did.

PET/CT scan

It’s done. I had the scan yesterday afternoon. I expedited the schedule by a few weeks to coincide with my return. The outcome will determine whether I’m headed back to treatment right away or not. I’ll find out results today or tomorrow.

If the tumor is not progressing that will be a strong signal that indeed we’re looking at Follicular lymphoma and that (I think) it’s somewhat stabilized. It’s a bit odd to think that’s what I’m hoping for, but given a choice I’ll take an immediate future of ‘watching and waiting’ over some of the treatments I’ve lately been contemplating. Regardless I’ll circle back with my panel of docs to ensure alignment, especially if the scans are anything but super clean.

When I arrived I pushed for an answer as to why this time we were doing a ‘whole body’ scan (as the order indicated) versus what I had last time which was ‘eyes to thighs’. It’s not a big difference from a radiation exposure standpoint but more a question of principal. Why the difference? Anyway I was able to get a hold of the oncology nurse before going in. Her explanation was that because I’m now post-treatment they order whole-body. Good enough – at least it wasn’t an oversight.

While pushing back for an answer I got to talking with the tech that was running the equipment. I was asking more details about radiation exposure. The last tech I spoke with indicated the radiation exposure from a PET wasn’t especially high. When I mentioned this the tech laughed that this was ridiculous. So I asked if he had any way of putting these various scan types all together as I haven’t seen a clean comparison across all procedure modalities? He did a few minutes of searching and showed me exactly what I wanted to see in a handwritten table on his phone. I copied the values and cross-checked them. Here’s a table breaking it down. I normalized against some common benchmarks: the number of dental x-rays, flights across the US to put it in perspective. You can see the top row shows PET/CT as the equivalent of living 8 years in the US, taking 5k dental x-rays, or 800+ flights across the country.

For those interested in radiation exposure for various medical procedures this table shows the equivalent amount of background radiation a person would get living in the US (not at altitude which adds 1.5 mSv/yr) by procedure type. The last 2 blue columns normalize procedures to other contexts.

As we got talking further I was horrified about a story he told me. To summarize there was a PET/CT center in southern California in which the amount of isotope injected into patients was consistently 30% too high – and this happened for several years. Concerning as the radiation exposure would be, the real issue was that tumors might show as more active than they were, which could be interpreted as showing more progression than actually existed! Sometimes you just don’t want to know how the sausage is made.

With that he left. I sat in dark silence for an hour as the radioactive isotopes penetrated my cells.

How do I feel?

Truth is I’m less worked up about it than I would have thought – despite that I can almost already hear my oncologist on the phone delivering yet more bad news. And I’ve still been having nightmares – different forms each night since before leaving for Hawaii. I won’t bother going into details but to say that in some I emerge victorious, others end inconclusively. These are clearly the subconscious processing of a mind grappling with high uncertainty.

Still, for some reason I’ve been feeling optimistic about things lately – regardless how the scan goes. Not sure I’d call it faith but I certainly don’t feel like a helpless victim. I believe that focusing within my circle of competence has been helping allay many of these fears/anxieties (sketch). I’m getting better at explicitly identifying where energy expenditures are helpful vs. useless.

Re-patterning 

One goal of mine is to break in new patterns of being and commit them to habit. I’ve started to think about my immune system as a child I need to care for (and what’s one more kid at this point!). I’m trying to be intentional about coddling it because it’s fragile and I’ve perhaps been unkind to it. Hawaii was the tip of the spear on this path.

If anxiety has a negative effect on immunity – and I think there’s sufficient quantitative/qualitative data suggesting this is so – then it’s worth asking the question of what causes anxiety. When I put this question to myself it was clear that thoughts cause stress. That seems so obvious when in black and white; it’s not the event itself but the thoughts surrounding it that cause stress. Thomas Jefferson said almost 200 years ago:

How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened?

So which thoughts specifically? For me it’s future-oriented thoughts, e.g., What might happen, will the scan be good or bad, how bad is this diagnosis? etc. Anxiety for me is about getting caught up in scenarios, “what if’s” and ‘should’s‘. I have this tendency to observe scenes in the third person, objectively as a bystander. If nothing else it’s a pleasure blocker. So what’s the solution?

Be present. Here. Now!

To be present is to circuit-break anxiety. I don’t think that being truly present can co-exist with anxiety, in the same way that you can’t simultaneously hold multiple conversations at once. If I’m grounded in the here and now then none of that matters. When I feel the sinking feeling of waiting for this test I try to bring it back to the present moment. I’ve heard this so many times, to focus on the breath etc., but only on this trip did it actually sink into my bones.

There was a moment on the last day. I decided to get out of the house before anyone was up while still dark. I went for a jog beneath a crescent moon peaking out from behind silver pre-dawn clouds. I was running alongside the ocean along Kauai’s perimeter, an ant edging a jar lid. I stopped and looked out, taking in the magnificence. Truly paradise. I looked out over the black rocks with the type of deep stare I get when totally immersed in a thing. I would do it as a kid all the time. When your eyes find a focal point it becomes clear how energetically expensive eye saccades are. The focus was slow, deep and constant. I stared for a long time and felt one with the scenery; nature looking on herself. I was simply the observer to that exchange. Peripheral events didn’t matter – a truck in the distance, morning roosters, etc. Another word to describe it: absorption. Nothing really happened in that time but to say it was obvious this is an optimal state of being and one worth actively cultivating.

That kind of awareness is like focusing the sun’s rays to a single point to light a fire. In this way being present seeds a positive feedback loop that leads to seeing -> to knowing -> to loving -> to calmness; and back again to being present. It’s taken me this many years to really get it. I’m still working on doing this more and infusing it into my daily life to the highest degree. I see cultivating an ability to turn it on like a switch as a worthy, life changing challenge. It’s been really interesting to play with this, like a new brain gear.

One good gut-check I’ve been doing each day to find out if I’m actually present is with washing the dishes (or whatever chores). When I’m present it’s meditative. My future-oriented/anxious/distracted self tends to dislike chores like the dishes because (I think) I should be doing so many better things. But not really. The best thing to be doing, is the thing right in front of you. Right now. Fully and with love.

Not trying to be a Jewish 80’s rapper so much as protect myself from the sun. With Michelle – I think this is one of the only pictures with both of us together.
Lua at the pool!
Same activities, different location.

To Kauai!

Bruised 

Every morning for the past month I’ve gotten out of bed feeling like I was beaten. My back takes a very long time to feel close to normal. I’m constantly stretching and twisting it waiting, hoping for some vertebrae to pop into position. Regardless what the cancer is doing (something, nothing) there is still a tumor behind my intestines the size of a tangerine. I have to assume that is the root cause. I did a week of yoga to test the theory that perhaps it’s muscular, but there’s really no change since then. Yoga is great but only if I’m in the right head space for it (like listening to Pink Floyd), I basically spend the entire time wishing that Shavasana (or, “corpse pose” in English, typically the last pose in a class).

Also as of a few days ago I’ve noticed some fluttering in my intestines on the right side. It’s not painful but perceptible. Impossible to say if it’s related but I’m on high alert for anything untoward.

Finally, I went to the doctor for my toe the other day. She said I could cut half the big toenail which would be about 5-7 days recovery, or I could just wait it out. I wasn’t going to do it. Nope, going to Hawaii without a big bandage on. I agreed to bring antibiotics in case it got infected on the trip.

It’s a marathon, that never ends

I’ve run the Boston marathon 3 times. I’ve been reflecting on those races lately. Specifically about how I approached them, untrained as I was. This is not a complement by the way, but a critical observation. In 67% of them (2/3) I put my head down and just did it. I ran smart races but there was nothing to savor in them. If I’m really honest with myself they were hardly memorable.

2009 Boston marathon (bib: 2502). Running with my buddy Abe.

I attached to the goal and a time outcome and that was it. I’m too good at suffering through whatever it is I sign up for. In that regard being overly disciplined is a character flaw. The only time I remember much of that race was the one I ran poorly. I had shifted strategy midway, from a time goal to an experience goal. The reason was that I started the race too fast and blew all my energy, bonking hard around the 22 mile mark. I walked for several minutes (unheard of!) to see if I could regain my composure. It was that or quit and I was desperate. So, with the time goal out of reach I focused on enjoying the race and noticing things around me. There was a smiling kid on the sideline cheering me on. He was enjoying the race. I figured I was actually running the race so I should do the same!. And I did. One question planted in my mind then is how to move performance and pleasure to the same side of the ledger.  I’m specifically talking about the times where things are pushed to the edge of one’s ability (note: pleasure and performance co-exist just fine within one’s comfort zone). Here, how can I battle cancer while enjoying the process? It’s like a koan.

The solution? Love is the bridge. If you must do it then you must love it. The approach I’ve taken is to find a way to love the process, hard as it is. I’ve decided that for now writing is the best tool available so I’ve been using it to explore this terrain and share the experience. It’s been working reasonably well thus far.

And there is no real finish line. Yes, we have milestones but then there’s another one after that. The end becomes the beginning and the end – looping through an infinite yin/yang symbol – until it stops. So I’ve been trying to stay aware that while the upcoming scan is a milestone I shouldn’t fixate on it. While the outcome here matters (understatement) – it’s the difference between going back to work I love, or back into treatment – I’m trying to remain equanimous about it. I don’t control the damned outcome so energy going outside that perimeter of control is wasted. When my attention drifts outside that perimeter I pull it back in. I’ve gotten so many reps in that it’s almost becoming automatic; drift and yank.

What’s the value of more?

The other night I met a prominent CEO/founder friend for a drink. His company is running out of runway quickly and he was working 18 hour days trying to get funding. We remarked on how our situations felt stressful, stemming from uncertainty – NO!, stemming from uncertain outcomes with known timelines. By necessity our ego has built up various biases that provide a balm of certainty. The big difference is not so much that we’re actually living in more uncertainty than others (though we may be), rather it’s our heightened awareness of the uncertainty – it’s right in our faces. It’s a key distinction.

So I suggested an odd question we both found interesting. In fact, we both thought that if we had a single question to ask this would be the one. What’s the value of more? 

Isn’t it implicitly obvious? More days, years of life, or of business runway is obviously better than fewer. Ok, why? If you pull on the thread it’s hard to come up with a logical answer. Just because. Why life? Just because. Ok then. More is better and thus we should be sad that our lives (or business lifetimes) are not infinite. Indeed we should prioritize longevity above all else. QED, right?

Maybe. But a better argument hinges on the idea of compounding. Why is living longer better? Because you can do more good in the world. Actions and decisions filled with goodness can compound the good in the world and reduce suffering. And conversely evil can amplify, Hitler lived too long.

So, do more good. How? Here’s a non-exhaustive set of possibilities:

  • Have kids. Those kids will perhaps go on to have kids of their own and so on. I often look look at pedigree charts or family trees to convince myself of this power.
  • Spread kindness. Kindness compounds – kindness begets more kindness, rendering the world less scary.
  • Be better, do more. If one is a parent it could mean being more present and aware to raise kids more likely to to do more good of their own. If one is a manager it’s being a damned good one. If one is a friend/aunt/cousin/son-in-law – then do more. You are a mighty lever impacting the lives of your loved ones or subordinates.

Doing good compounds our existence, providing a clear answer to the question of “why more“. Being awake, aware and intentional matters as it helps us be positive models for others and reinforce the idea that the world is good. Call it the case for the Mitzvah (מִצְוָה‬, good deeds).

Don’t skimp

10 days in Kauai!

I booked these tickets to Kauai on learning I have cancer last year. It was my gift to myself and my family for completing 6 rounds of chemo. I didn’t say for beating cancer. The key point is the celebration was de-coupled from the outcome. I can tell I’ve matured because the younger me would think such an idea misguided. The younger me would have been ferociously planning and saving money etc. if the outcome was poor. He would be willing to trade his own experience and suffer through whatever it took for an outcome.

Screw it! It feels indulgent, but if ever there was a time for that now would be a good one. So I splurged. Did I need to book the presidential suite? Yes I did! There’s a time to scrimp and save. Now now. It’s about memory making. If you’re going to commit then do it right.

Mold grows everywhere. Nothing is perfect. Experiences don’t exist in isolation, for us to plug into like modules. There is no party that’s objectively good or bad but what we bring to it makes it so. We don’t just show up places to have ourselves magically transformed. It’s our intention and mindset that matters.

The plane ride to Kauai was pretty stressful. Lua was like a little animal out of her cage the whole trip. Kids were acting up, acting spoiled which boils my blood more than anything – I will not tolerate raising spoiled kids! I was getting stressed. Once we arrived the kids were hungry and generally intolerable. Not sure if I mentioned that I got my phone glass fixed about a week ago after having dropped it (in a moment of clumsy non-awareness) on getting the news that I still had cancer. As I was getting the kids into the rental car, multitasking while holding the phone I dropped it – literally onto a bed of sharp rocks – smashing it yet again.

But in a way it was great, seriously! I looked down utterly bewildered at my stupidity. I was reminded about my tendency to focus on doing over being. That outcome was a function of pure inattentiveness. Every time I now pickup the phone, covered in packing tape to keep the shards intact, I’m reminded to be present. Yank!

Chemolog: day 196

The scans 

Sorry, I left you all in a cliff hanger! My primary oncologist replied that I should sit tight and wait on the scans and not expedite things, that I would get all the radiation exposure without meaningful information if we did this earlier. So I’m waiting. The symptoms have basically stayed the same: still feeling consistent back pain but at least it’s not worsening. And I’m still sleeping too much, 9-11 hours/night. I’ve been unable to wake up before 7am which is very out of character. I’ve heard the effects of chemo can stick around for 6 months, so some lingering poison might be part of it. Also I’ve had mild underlying sickness from the kids. So I’m going to lay low and trust in the 4 aligned opinions for now. I’m picking my battles and laying low for now.

Additionally, about 4 days ago I got an ingrown toenail on my big toe. It’s been pretty painful but not a big deal. I emailed my oncologist, asking what I should do. I finally got a reply today. Though I’m not neutropenic I still need to deal with this. The main issue is that lymphoma is a problem with the immune system. As such infections need to be taken seriously, even if I’m not currently neutropenic (which I’m not). So today I’m headed into urgent care to see what they can do.

And I got the upcoming scan setup. I was able to finagle a bit and it’s scheduled for 3/5, right when I get back. It’s like something out of a bad movie. I can see it cinematically: lush Hawaiian landscape fades out as the camera pans across the shimmering ocean, gently waving palms at dusk. Cut to clinical scene with harsh fluorescent lights glaring on me, as I’m dressed in an ugly medical gown.

Bad movies

Glued to awful movies

Over the weekend the kids had friends over and they watched ‘Ninjago’ (it’s awful on so many levels – I don’t have the patience to discuss here). I can’t believe I’m a parent that allows this stuff in my house. I cozied up with them, eating my homemade popcorn if only to snuggle a bit. One of the subplots revolves around a tense father and his son relationship, akin to the one in Star Wars. When it was over the other kids went to the room but Lev stayed back, lying on the sofa. He was obviously holding back tears, his tiny body has no room to hide large feelings. I sat with him for a few minutes rubbing his back. He put his arms around me, squeezing hard, his smooth cheeks on my neck. Then he started wailing. We probably stayed for 10 minutes like that. He didn’t tell me what it was about, but I know it pertains to my health; these feelings and concerns have to come out somewhere.

After that episode it occurred to me there hasn’t been much crying or discussion around my condition lately. We’ve focused on nuts and bolts (e.g., daddy goes to the hospital today, daddy will be tired for the next few days) after the initial conversation. I’ve tried to keep things smooth around the house to whatever degree possible and to avoid putting unnecessary anxiety on them. Now I wonder if that was the right move, or if it’s just percolating inside them. Maybe we should talk about it more? The last thing I’d want is some unhealthy long term response because we smoothed things over in the short-term. Monitoring this vigilantly.

And to be clear, sadness is a very appropriate response to life. Even if things are great. That doesn’t mean one should mope! But in my opinion reflecting on it helps bring gratitude for what is, and a sense of urgency make things happen. We should strive to be well-calibrated to reality. I appreciated Lev’s openness with his feelings as he struggles to understand them. It seemed really healthy.

Helping others

And it’s been nice to continue getting some feedback on the blog (it’s emotional rocket fuel for me to keep it going). Seems to be causing some nice ripple effects and I’m pleased that this crazy journey can in some way be helpful to others. Here’s my favorite piece of recent feedback. Randi – thank you for sharing this and thinking of you as you get deeper into treatment (and hope this gives you a small boost for whenever you catch up!).

I was connected to your blog through my massage therapist in Rhode Island who is friends with your sis, Ilana. *Thank you* for your blog and for your intimate thoughts and feelings. It has been so comforting and validating for me. Must admit that I haven’t gotten too far in the reading. I am at September, 2018… Oftentimes I will read, reread and read again because the words resonate so much with me. So because I am not at February, 2019, I am not sure where you are in your journey, and I don’t want to “cheat” and read ahead. I hope you are doing OK. You are helping fellow cancer patients, like myself, to *push* ourselves on a spiritual, emotional and physical level. On days when I just don’t feel like pushing, I think of you.

Meantime I’ve joined a few Lymphoma Facebook pages to both get some questions answered, as well as to support others going through this. All the info I’ve been learning seems to be coming in handy to that end. Knowledge should never go to waste.

Getting healthy; more fear of progression; nightmares

Visiting colleagues & getting back to physical health

I biked to SOMA the other day for the second time since diagnosis. It felt great to do my work commute, if only to convince myself for a few minutes that things are back to normal. Also it was good to see I could still do it!

Visiting the team. I’m privileged to work with such wonderful, talented (and good looking!) people. They’ve been amazing through this journey.

I visited with my very impressive colleagues at Tophatter (think eBay, but much faster). It was invigorating to spend a little time catching up on all the projects I’ve been missing. Many of us congregated in the communal kitchen area for several hours – I definitely dragged worker productivity down a good 50%! But it was worth it. I was reminded of the a privilege it is to work in one of the epicenters of technological innovation on the planet. More fuel!

In other news I’ve had my mom in town for a few days which has been great for the kids. They love their ‘damas‘. As a quick aside she is the one that actually kicked off the whole conversation that I should get that mystery mass checked out last year which, very foolishly, I ignored for weeks. She also secured my Dana-Farber connection. Recall it was this connection that recommended the second pathology report. So in a real way I wouldn’t be in the favorable position I’m in right now without her help. Love you mom, I know it doesn’t always come through but you’ve been essential to the good fight I’ve been waging. And all this has enabled my to try and spend more healthy time with the kids.

Spending quality time with the kiddos. Saul’s chess game is getting strong!

Anyway, I bought a 7 day package at a yoga studio the other day at Michelle’s suggestion to see if that helps with my back issues. Since my mom is here, she watched the kids while Michelle and I did a yoga class together. We hadn’t done something like that since before kids and it was physically helpful, emotionally invigorating and a great way to connect with each other. My back felt ever so slightly better this morning. I’ll be taking advantage of this and getting my yoga in as I prep for Hawaii next week.

It’s just what the doctor didn’t order, though I wish he did.

Still, nightmares

I used to reserve the word nightmare for something terrifying that lasted a while. The line between nightmare and non-nightmare was obvious. But I don’t know where to draw that line anymore, it’s so blurred.

For example, take last night. In it there was a scene in which I was flagged by those around me as Jewish (‘vermin’, to be executed) by the Nazi-like society in which I somehow lived. To cut a very long and winding story short I watched the executions happen to others, not me – yet. But they were catching on to me and closing in. Instead of gas chambers (so 20th century) the destructions were personalized. Folks were put into scuba-like apparatus and would inhale the vapors while staring directly, unblinkingly at me. I remember the staring directly at me part since it was so vivid and peculiar. Folks would count the breaths and they would lose consciousness after 8 breaths, plus/minus two, while scientists stood by with clipboards. I remember deciding that I’d prefer to swim to my death if it came to that. Better to have the illusion of freedom than certain confinement if the outcome was to be the same.

In another dream (or scene, hard to say if they were connected) I was actually swimming in the expansive ocean. Then suddenly the surface breaks and it caves in a giant waterfall with the destructive power of a hydrogen bomb. I’m instantly sucked into the great ocean depths, falling for seconds (another peculiarity, remembering that). But it didn’t kill me. The deafening roar of massive waters rushing past fills my head. But I was still, miraculously, in the world of air. I was inexplicably living in this hostile and environment thousands of feet beneath the ocean. How else to describe this but that I was in a state of complete surrender. And I was just waiting – at any moment the tides could shift and consume me – was it a matter of seconds? Enough to hatch an escape plan? Or should I just savor my last moments?

These kinds of nightmares used to affect me deeply. But now I look on as an observer, mostly amazed at the stuff my subconscious comes up with in attempts to make meaning. The underlying content is of course a reflection of my current position and is so thinly veiled as to barely require interpretation. No, what’s frightening to me is the lack of impact such stark dreams elicit; I don’t think I’m numb but sometimes I do wonder.

These upcoming scans are clearly causing some anxiety. That extra energy seeks manifestation. I suspect dreams are the lowest energy solution for such expression to occur given that (it seems to me) the ego shuts down in that state. That anxiety can bypass whatever defenses my ego has devised – cortical Maginot lines. The fear of cancer progression is real. Still processing.

 

 

Symptoms?

I’m slated to get these scans done early march. That is, unless I ‘feel symptoms’. Simple, right?

There were three symptoms specifically that I noted just before my diagnosis last year: blockage (constipation, due to the tumor’s location in bowel area), a specific kind of dull back pain due to the tumor pressing on nerves (not unlike pregnancy I suppose), and fatigue. Put me down for 2 of 3 in the past couple weeks. I’ve been on edge as I monitor. For example in the past week I’ve slept 12 hours at least three times – unheard of for me except if I’m sick. The most troubling piece is that every time I stand up I feel this dull pain in my lower back/pelvis area. The only time I’ve felt this type of pain was last year just before my diagnosis. And I’m constantly feeling my abdomen for evidence of tumor. The other day I realized that this might be for naught. It occurred to me that since the tumor is now placed somewhat differently that perhaps it could be growing in different locations – perhaps more towards the back than the front.

These are not encouraging developments. But they’re also not quite enough to get me over the edge to expedite the upcoming scans. There are rational explanations. Lua (2 years old) has been having sleep regressions since moving her in with the boys (yes we did that a few weeks ago and it’s been mostly amazing, dumb luck I think). Anyway that might have something to do with the sleep/fatigue. For example last night I was up for two long stretches from 2am to 3:30. Also I’ve caught whatever has been going around recently from the kids – mild, but still. I’ve been exercising more to build up my strength and I want to believe that’s the cause of the back issues but I really don’t think so. I’m going to try doing more active stretching and light walking etc. to verify it’s not just a muscular thing.

Regardless of these explanations there’s also trepidation (I don’t want to say fear since that doesn’t quite resonate as I’m not deluding myself). I can tell that monitoring this is definitely eating up some mental cycles. I want to enjoy a few weeks of relative normalcy and minimal stress before very possibly jumping into more intense chemo/treatment. The thought of doing another biopsy in case of a poor scan is not palatable right now. Also, and it sounds trite to say, but we’ve had tickets to Hawaii since last year (I booked them just after getting my diagnosis) coming up end of April on Saul’s school break. We haven’t had a family vacation together in quite some time and it feels necessary. Recall our December family holiday was interrupted by my surgery.

I’ve emailed my doctor about this to see how he would think about it, the obvious question is what’s the downside to just doing it now? I haven’t heard back yet but to answer my own question: 3 months is not a long time as far as these things go, hence expediting would increase the likelihood of a false negative result (meaning that the scan doesn’t show meaningful progression because we didn’t wait long enough). That would not be good.

I’m trying to be honest about what I’m feeling, if only to convince myself not to be willfully blind about this. Obviously if this is aggressive then I’ll deal with it immediately. My trigger event at this point is that if these ‘symptoms’ persist or worsen for another week I’ll likely press the issue and move to expedite the scans.

 

Creating pause

The fear and anxiety come in waves. Most of the time I’ll feel fine. Them BAM!, that cold rush of reality overcomes me… I have cancer! And I can tell my mind wants to go in that direction, to charge with that energy. It’s like a strong-willed child pulling a feeble adult towards the shiny thing. A moment later it’s like I have a backpack filled with rocks reminding me about gravity. Then, the complexity of all that I MUST do, should have done, should be doing NOW rushes in. I’m nearly overwhelmed.

But I know how to meet this feeling. We’re well acquainted. I meet it with a deep inhalation; a circuit-breaker. What else can I do? I’m getting a lot of practice at making that space, creating a pause. And I’m grateful for the practice since it helps push these unhelpful feelings away. This is definitely not an innate ability. No, this is forged from experience. And I’m getting lots of reps.

Sometimes I feel like a bubble floating through the great ocean, inevitably upward to the surface (sketch). Perhaps we’re all bubbles. And once we reach the surface we deposit our contents (soul? consciousness? nothing?) into the great unknown atmosphere. When I’m feeling overwhelmed I try to remind myself that being a bubble is rare and special. And that it’s a privilege to feel anything at all, even if it’s hard. It’s better than popping.

Calm before the storm

I’ve now got 4 doctors aligned on the ‘watchful waiting‘ strategy. I’m considering that a mini triumph given that 3 doctors were in agreement to jump immediately into intense chemo just a few weeks ago before the second biopsy results came in. I should right now be in the midst of treatment.

So that leaves me in an interesting place. I’m feeling good and regaining my strength. But storm clouds loom on the horizon. There’s a feeling among the doctors that this more aggressive form of follicular lymphoma will progress, it’s just unclear when. One of the keynote talks at the lymphoma society conference last weekend was about stress and cancer. There’s a name for it, it’s called the fear of (cancer) recurrence (or fear of progression, basically it’s the same thing the difference being if one is in remission or not) – that’s a good name. The speaker talked about how much anxiety these kinds of scans can elicit and how that can impact immunity, caregivers, quality of life and etc.The stuff we all know already but worth a periodic reminder. Reading through some literature on the topic it’s not clear that stress can cause cancer; the relationship seems clearer in terms of managing cancer once you have it. For example the National Cancer Institute (NCI) says explicitly,

Evidence from experimental studies does suggest that psychological stress can affect a tumor’s ability to grow and spread.

Imagine how stressed you might have gotten over something like a job interview, big exam or the SATs. You might have even gotten sick around that time (exam time always seemed to bring that on in school). The immune system is complicated (understatement) and anyone pretending to understand the relationship between one’s mentality and immunity is probably lying, except to say that positive beats negative. My friend Geoff sent me over Stephen Jay Gould’s excellent essay, the median isn’t the message on just this topic. The essay is Here’s a particularly germane excerpt:

Attitude clearly matters in fighting cancer. We don’t know why (from my old-style materialistic perspective, I suspect that mental states feed back upon the immune system). But match people with the same cancer for age, class, health, socioeconomic status, and, in general, those with positive attitudes, with a strong will and purpose for living, with commitment to struggle, with an active response to aiding their own treatment and not just a passive acceptance of anything doctors say, tend to live longer. A few months later I asked Sir Peter Medawar, my personal scientific guru and a Nobelist in immunology, what the best prescription for success against cancer might be. “A sanguine personality,” he replied. Fortunately (since one can’t reconstruct oneself at short notice and for a definite purpose), I am, if anything, even-tempered and confident in just this manner.

I’m feeling optimistic despite all this ambiguity. I’m making it a priority to maintain this attitude as best I can. This optimism is less about blind hope, that an impending hurricane will magically shift course. No, instead it’s rooted in confidence about the house I’ve built being able to withstand the storm. I’ve been challenged with hard things in the past (I don’t have time to go into them – maybe another time). And I’ve survived. In fact I can honestly say that after just about each major challenge things in my life have improved materially. That belief is now hardwired in me. Were any of those challenges this hard? No. Not even close. But at the time some of them did feel cataclysmic (despite being mere blips on the cosmic radar).

I consider those warmups, or simulations, preparing my mind to handle all this. In this respect I’m grateful for all the challenges I’ve experienced until now. It seems to me there’s a compounding effect to handling hard situations appropriately such that each experience carries over to inform the next one. Over time this sums to strong judgment, perhaps wisdom (not that I’m there yet). But these hard experiences are serving me well. I shudder to think what getting this kind of diagnosis might have looked like for me 20 years ago.

In fact these experiences are so important that I’ve started making it a practice to explicitly run through them again to remind me that I’ve experienced hardship before. I need constant reminding that I can do this. Data points.

The executor of instructions

Instructions from somewhere

The other night I looked at my kids as I put them to bed. I really saw them. It was one of those moments, all too rare, where the din of thought quiets just enough for truth to present. As if cleaning a dirty window. I looked on Lua, tucked into her “cornucopia” (wrapped in a large blanket, tapered to a triangle at her feet, the opening a bouquet with all her stuffies arranged around her head). We are small but critical parts of an infinite chain. Our actions ripple into the future.

How much did Michelle and I have to do with this girl’s creation? Everything – after all we are her parents. But also nothing. It feels hard to take credit. I did not design the alveoli to support oxygenation; nor did I invent the action potential that enables neural functions like thought and movement; I did not decide that 5 fingers is optimal for a hand design; and never-mind the immune system, too hard. No, I’m merely the executor of instructions.

Not only did I not invent the parts, but even if I did, to claim true ownership would be misguided. Universe is not static. Yet our minds long for unbending certainty. Ownership suggests permanence. But that’s not how things are; the linguistic sloppiness reflects a cultural fiction. No, we are stewards, maybe guardians, but not owners. This may sound like mere semantics but it’s not. Why does it matter? Because the relationship we have with things matters. This small re-frame matters. It makes the prospect of loss easier to process as it (whatever it is) was never ours to own. And appreciation becomes more accessible in that we’re serving something larger than ourselves.

The point? That rational understanding (strict materialism, all is the sum of the parts) without a sense of awe is severely limited. It’s easy to get swept in the rushing waters of reality. Sometimes it’s worth stepping to the side and watching it from the riverbank. To get perspective. It’s humbling to consider myself the steward of these creations. It helps to come to terms with the fact that I do not control the full picture, outcome. That said it’s inspiring to know the degree to which things are controllable. It’s not all a hot chaotic soup of bits and atoms and no rules. Outcomes can be measured, rationally designed, predicted. Think of the complexity involved in a surgical procedure. Or in an endeavor like the Manhattan project. It clearly is possible to understand, to predict and to ship things that work well. Control is possible. But let’s not forget we are all taking the materials we’re handed: whether genes, molecules, atoms, words. We do not create entirely new parts; we remix.

Upside down is also true
Looking upside down at the world, like in a downward dog or headstand, is a pastime that I don’t get to do enough of. Cars pass by, impossibly attached to the road. People walk on the ceiling like bobbing creatures (try it, you’ll notice). It’s thrilling to have one’s notions of gravity disrupted at each moment. In doing this (admittedly) odd practice one gains an appreciation for the simple truth that we are upside down as much as we are right side up. Coming to grips with that fact is not something we’re in the habit of cultivating. On occasion I’ll do the same thing in the gym where I’ll monitor people’s posture and lifting technique, though upside down. It’s amazing how obvious the issues become if you do this – there’s no end of stooping, knee buckling and forward neck lean to be witnessed.

That perspective helps see where things are flawed. This is not a new trick. The old master painters used to do something similar – they would look at the painting in a mirror, to render it backwards, and the mirror would point out exactly where the rendering is broken. This is especially helpful with portraits where a nostril or eyelid being off just a millimeter is the difference between a smiling Mona lisa and a disfigured syphilitic.

Seeing things with fresh perspective has been helpful as I deal with this ambiguity.

Here’s a video from earlier last year doing rocket experiments with the kids. This was really fun teaching the kids about scientific methods (I’m at the table recording our proportions of various ingredients to see what produces the greatest lift – of course they lost interest in that part quickly). Our actions ripple into the future. We do the best we can with what’s in our control. Then we let it go. Rockets!

Lymphoma society conference; a holding pattern

Over the weekend I attended a conference hosted by the Lymphoma & Leukemia Society. Turns out my UCSF doctor was one of the speakers. So not only was I only able to learn a fair deal about Follicular Lymphoma but I was able to accost find him afterwards and speak about the updated diagnosis.

His perspective seems level-headed. He agrees with the watchful waiting strategy in the immediate term; 3 months from the last scan is reasonable. He would call the strategy aggressive watch and wait. In his view this disease is not obviously the VERY aggressive DLBCL, but it’s also likely not a Follicular grade 1 or 2, where you have the luxury of treating it as more a chronic condition. He also doesn’t quite buy into the dual-population theory that Stanford offered, instead suggesting to forget the grading for now and call it ‘Follicular X’ which he still thinks of as a high risk follicular. The high risk is of transforming to the aggressive type. In his estimation running a third biopsy won’t help clarify the picture. We’ll know more with the next PET/CT – that’ll be a more definitive data point. That scan will present one of the following 3 pictures:

  1. it doesn’t progress – which would strengthen the 3a grading and further support confidence in the strategy to ‘watch and wait’
  2. it progresses in a predictable fashion – which (I think) means we treat as follicular with some chemo but I don’t understand enough about this.
  3. it progresses in a new pattern, e.g., new disease. This would require another biopsy to understand the cellular composition. From there we would discuss options – likely a similar set of decisions to what I’ve been contemplating regarding standard of care vs. some form of clinical trial. We’re not there yet.

The other piece of ambiguity (as if there wasn’t enough) is that ‘3a’ follicular tends not to get included in most studies as it’s somewhere in the middle: not clearly aggressive like ‘3b’/DLBCL, nor is it clearly indolent like Follicular grades 1 or 2. So the treatment paths aren’t clearly defined.

I still have a few pieces that need shoring up – specifically follow on conversations with other doctors. Assuming no major new information comes to light I’m bought onto the strategy to wait a few weeks for a scan and not jump into treatment right away. Part of the reason I think this is I’m for the moment asymptomatic, I think. I’m trying to be as attuned to my physiology as possible so that I get the earliest possible scan should something feel different. I remember what it felt like (fatigue, back pain) before my original diagnosis. What’s unnerving over the past couple of weeks is I’ve been feeling some of that same back pain and fatigue. How much of this is psycho-somatic or remnants of the surgery I couldn’t say. I’ll remain vigilant on that piece.

The benefit of waiting: All else equal it’s better to wait and intersect my treatment plans with the drug innovation curve. This will largely depend on the disease aggressiveness (x-axis ticks purposefully left ambiguous).

The other part is that I’m bullish on the medical/drug innovations on the horizon. I think of it something like the sketch (left). Specific to CAR-T innovations I suspect toxicities will come under better control; targeting effects will improve by getting more specific and yet more varied (think e.g., targeting 2 cellular domains instead of just one); and the longer-term effects will be better described. In terms of the drivers toward innovation there are at least 3 drug companies engineering CAR-T cells somewhat differently and vying for a foothold on a massive oncology market. That, combined with fierce competition and the desperate patient need will drive this forward.

I also learned in this conference Follicular lymphoma is starting to get worked on, though is still in very early days. The reason it hasn’t been the initial focus is that it can be managed with other strategies whereas DLBCL options are much more limited. Fair enough.

So based on the conversations I’ve had thus far with my ‘panel’ my likeliest strategy for now is to sit tight a few weeks to find out more from the next scan, to let the disease tell us what it’s doing. I feel like I’ve taken ONE small step away from the ledge. And very soon I’ll step back up to it. As you can imagine this is all quite stressful (an understatement). But for whatever issues may be lingering in my genome, I can be grateful that a tendency toward despair isn’t one of them.