So, it turns out that there was a reason my body started craving more sleep.
I never in a million years thought this would turn into a cancer blog, although I suppose nobody really sees that one coming.
Despite my 5-6 days per week workout habit, my belly started expanding last summer, even though I was losing jeans sizes at the same time. I also noticed some strange changes including a decreased energy level during my workouts and throughout the day, and sheet-soaking night sweats. I vaguely thought it was a combination of some kind of gastrointestinal problem and post-40 aging issues, so I ignored it for a while.
Two x-rays, one CT scan, 16 vials of blood and a bone marrow biopsy later, I learned that I have a mixed myeloproliferative disorder, or post-polycythemia vera myelofibrosis. That combination of large words I had never heard before means that I have a rare blood disease that is trashing my bone marrow. The growing belly turned out to be the result of, as articulated in my medical chart by my big shot doctor, an “amazingly large spleen.” Turns out that the spleen tries to take over the job of manufacturing blood cells when the marrow doesn’t want to anymore, and eats up all the extra cells made as a result of the disease, enlarging in the process. So while I’ve lost weight, I also look a little bit pregnant.
So, here’s the thing. There is no real treatment for this disease, aside from the possibility of bone marrow transplant. But, BMT is risky, so not generally recommended unless it is clear that things are not going well. I am currently being treated with a mild dose of hydroxyurea, a chemo drug that keeps my high blood levels in check enough to alleviate some of the symptoms. This drug has blessedly few side effects… I even get to keep my hair. There is a new drug, one made by Incyte, with the very catchy name INCB018424. This drug has caused significant buzz in the hematology/oncology world in that it seems to offer hope as the first potential treatment for this disease. Both of my doctors feel strongly that this is the right treatment for me, but it is still in clinical trials and not yet available.
I am very fortunate to live only three hours away from one of the finest cancer centers in the world; one that contains a pre-eminent expert on my particular disease. He is the lead researcher on the drug I need, and has offered hope that there may be an appropriate trial available for me this spring.
So, we wait.
I keep telling friends and family that this is the longest learning curve I have ever been on. The issue that challenges me the most is the question of how to explain it all to my kids. That is the main reason it has taken me this long to write about it. I truly believe that the best explanation always involves the truth, no matter how difficult, but this gets more complicated in a situation where even the experts don’t really know how this will go for me. I think that kids can tell when their parents are protecting them, and that their fears stemming from that silence will always be worse than the truth. I want them to understand what’s happening, but also don’t want to scare them needlessly. Sam keeps asking me to tell him that I’m “at a low risk for dying.” I believe that I am, based on my age, my history as a medical outlier (if there’s a category that involves 5% of all patients, I’m usually in it, a bizarre fact that is oddly common in my family.) However, I also need to stare realistically into the face of odds that I don’t like very much. I think that’s an important part of conquering this sucker.
For now, I’ll get my blood counts checked monthly with my local hematologist/oncologist, travel a few hours quarterly to see Dr. Big Shot, get out and listen to live music as frequently as possible, celebrate our kids’ successes and appreciate amazing support from friends and family that stuns me in its scope and seems to grow daily. I wish my kids would fight a little less and clean their rooms a little more, but in a way, it’s comforting that life goes on as usual.
The yellow bracelet on my left wrist inspires me to literally Livestrong, and I am determined to continue that throughout all of this. As Lance’s foundation manifesto says, “Unity is strength, knowledge is power and attitude is everything.”
And now, I’m off to fetch socks for Sam, conditioner for Abby and a library book for Hannah. Our regularly scheduled life continues.