Sunday, April 20, 2014

My Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL): More Good News

I still have CLL, but less of it.

It's in remission and it's actively retreating, but I still have residual disease.

Today I learned that my flow cytometry showed that I have a few cancer cells floating in my blood stream.

Here's how I know.

Essentially all B cells, good or bad, cancerous or benign, have a CD20 marker but are not supposed to have the CD19 marker on their surface. Those that have both are my abnormal CLL cancer cells.

Flow cytometry which looks very deeply at thousands of cells was able to find only 28 of such cells per microliter of my blood. Because my total ALC is 1400, that means only 2% of my lymphocytes are clonal.

Let's do the math. There are a million microliters in every liter and we all have about 5.6 liters of blood, so 28,000,000 x 5.6 or 156,000,000 cancer cells lolling around in my blood stream. Sounds like a lot, but it's nothing.

Those millions and millions of peripheral white blood cells are not the one that are proliferating. That's done mostly in the nodes, so my nodes are pumping out less cancer now. I know that because in October, the same count was 47. That's a 43% drop in the last 6 months, suggesting my CLL is still responding nicely to the ibrutinib.

After nearly two years, it is still working its magic inhibiting the B cell communication pathways needed to survive and reproduce.

That's truly great news.

Reassuring news.

Quite remarkable if we stop and think about it. Almost two years out and this gentle giant of a therapy is still dropping my leukemic cell count.

To get some perspective on my results, compared to my measly 28 CLL cells, I have a total of 1,400 lymphocytes in that same tiny spec of blood. Some of my friends with active disease can have half a million lymphocytes or more in each and every same millionth of a liter of blood and nearly everyone is  a part of the evil clone's posse. My count of CD19/CD20 + cells is trivial in comparison.

The other good news is that my overall T cell count is climbing with appropriate CD4/CD8 ratios. This could mean my ability to fight off infections is improving and more importantly my bone marrow and the rest of my immune system is healing.

My CLL has always been more nodal, hidden in my belly, so the CT scan at the end of June will be critical, but this is a positive harbinger. Makes sense that if I harbored any significantly growing nodes that were resisting the ibrutinib, they would be pumping more cancer out into the blood and the exact opposite is happening. But the relationship between the size of the nodes and the CLL count in the blood is not always so tight. Still it is good news.

I will be posting more videos from ASH soon and am preparing to attend ASCO in Chicago at the end of May.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia) Treatment Internationally: We Can't Always Get What We Want

Below is an article from the Brampton Guardian.

This unfortunate CLL patient can't even get bendamustine and rituximab in Ontario, Canada, let alone ibrutinib or idelalisib or ABT-199 or obinutizumab. OHIP, the provincial insurance won't pay for any of it.

Here in the USA, she would automatically qualify for ibrutinib as as second line therapy or she could get her BR or enter a trial or a host of other choices. Not so in Canada.

I am so lucky to be able to have received ibrutinib in a clinical trial long before it was approved.

Others, mostly those wanting a non-chemo first line therapy, have been less fortunate. Still on clinical, a quick look found eight open trials for untreated CLL patients with either ABT-199 or ibrutinib or idelalisib or obinutuzumab. And there are many more options using other very promising TKIs and mAbs in development. It's true that you can't be assured that you can get ibrutinib by prescription for frontline treatment, but at least most American untreated patients have many fine options with or without chemo.

When I advocate for more research on the the multi-drug non -chemo treatments for those of us such as myself not in CR after two years of ibrutinib, it is not meant at the expense of those needing other therapies or better access.

I want to see improved access for all of us. One way that might be possible is by following a path such a Professor Hallek outlined at ASH 2013 to limit the duration of therapy and thus control cost. I would just leave out or at least severely restrict the chemo piece of his protocol. His full article is available and well worth reading. It is a thoughtful discussion and one vision of the possible future of CLL treatment.

This is all new territory and we need the trials on untreated patients and we need the trials on relapsed patients and we need the trials on patients not in CR.

Truth is we are barely at the break of dawn of this new era of treatment and we need so many studies to help guide us. We are making this up as we go along.

What we also need to remember is that we are are all in this together and none of us, myself included, should wish for an option that limits another's choices. At least in the USA, we are not at that point.

Canada may be a different story. There is a petition at the end of the attached article. Her denial of care seems cruel, unjust, unscientific, and just plain dumb to me.

I understand that nearly all cancer treatment is expensive. I understand society must make tough choices about how to allocate limited resources. But making choices based solely on arbitrary protocols and short term dollars signs is not good policy, especially when it clearly stands against both the best evidence based medicine and the specific clinical circumstances of the patient.

Truth is that ibrutinib might be a smarter choice than BR for this patient after relapsing only four years post FR. Truth is we learn nothing in this article about the state of her marrow. Can it handle more chemo? We don't even know her FISH. If she is 17p deleted, BR could be a dangerous waste of time and resources, and might leave her worse off than before the therapy.

In the end with CLL, one has to chose which battles to fight. Anne and her oncologist have made their choice and are pushing for BR, so I am assuming they are on their game and have done their due diligence.

Yesterday, I heard from patients in Turkey and China looking in vain for novel therapies. I quote from the latter email discussing ibrutinib: Indeed the medicine cost is too high, and even if it's approved to be imported to China, the market price in China would be still higher (with extremely high custom rate), and yet any imported medicine is out of the range of medical insurance in China.

It's tough for my friends in Europe too. NICE that regulates new drugs in the EU can be very price sensitive and there seems to be be fewer non-chemo trials.

I know how spoiled I am living in the USA. I know how lucky I am to have nabbed a spot in my trial.

I wish everyone everywhere had access to what they needed to be well.

After all, we are all in this together. 

But there is only one of me and I am spread pretty thin already, so I narrow my focus, and try to make sure that at least those of us in North America get the best possible and smartest treatments out there.

The LLS is doing important work on improving access through its patient advocacy and other efforts. They deserves our support. See the photo below.

Brampton woman denied OHIP coverage for life-saving cancer drugs

Brampton Guardian


Anne Mitchell is fighting an uphill battle.
After four years in remission, the 67-year-old mother of two is gearing up for her second battle with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia.
But dealing with cancer isn’t the only obstacle the Brampton woman must overcome. The real challenge now — apart from fighting the illness — is coming up with the money to pay for life-saving drugs.
“My mother can’t receive chemotherapy drugs, purely for bureaucratic reasons,” said Mitchell’s daughter Eleanor Elliott, who has launched on an online petition in a bid to pressure the provincial government to dole out the $52,000 her mother needs for the chemotherapy drugs Bendamustine and Rituximab.
The drugs are covered by OHIP.
Mitchell is being denied coverage based on what family members say is a technicality. Bendamustine is covered for first-time chemotherapy treatments.
But, since Mitchell has undergone chemo before, the drug isn’t covered by OHIP. The other drug, Rituximab, is approved for second line use, but only in tandem with Fludarabine — a drug that Mitchell can’t take because she suffered an extreme, adverse reaction to it during her first bout with chemotherapy.
“The drugs that my mother’s oncologist prescribed are funded by the government. However, in my mother’s case, they have denied her funding,” Elliott said. “If a drug is approved for funding, how can you deny a Canadian citizen access to that drug? How is this possible in our great country that prides itself on universal healthcare?”
In October 2010, doctors treated Mitchell’s cancer with Fludarabine and Rituximab, two very powerful chemotherapy drugs.
Mitchell, who has lived in Bramalea for nearly 40 years, received got through two treatments before the regime was abruptly stopped because of her negative reaction to Fludarabine.
Mitchell was hospitalized for weeks with a severe lung infection that nearly killed her.
Despite that setback, her cancer went into remission and Mitchell and husband John, 68, were looking forward to better days.

But the cancer has returned and doctors believe Mitchell’s fighting chances are good if treated with a combination of Bendamustine and Rituximab.
However, the hefty price tag on those drugs now stands in Mitchell’s way.
Mitchell’s latest chemo treatment was to start April 7. Shortly after arriving in the oncology department at Brampton Civic Hospital, she received news that the $8,700 for the Bendamustine and Rituximab would have to come out of her own pocket.
“I felt complete and utter shock,” said an emotional Mitchell, describing her reaction when told OHIP denied her payment.
Mitchell used a credit card to cover the $4,500 cost for the first round of Bendamustine. She needs six treatments in total and can’t afford the cost.
Elliott said the hospital administered the Rituximab at no charge and has put through an appeal to Ontario’s health ministry for the $4,200.
“I sat in shock as my mother had to pull out a credit card to pay for her treatment,” said Elliott, who is concerned that her parents will be forced to spend their retirement savings on cancer treatments.
With her mother facing an uphill fight, Elliott has taken to social media for support. Her online petition has so far garnered more than 600 signatures, She plans to present the petition to provincial health officials.
Bramalea MPP Jagmeet Singh has offered his support in the form of a letter sent to Ontario Health Minister Deborah Matthews appealing for help
Meanwhile, Elliott has also reached out to the manufacturer of Bendamustine.
According to Elliott, Lundbeck Canada has agreed to cover 20 per cent of the cost of the Bendamustine, but the family will have to pay the cost up front and then apply for a rebate.
But, as Elliott noted, that works out to be just about 10 per cent of the total cost of her mother’s required treatment.
Elliott argues that her mother wasn’t able to complete her first round of chemotherapy and therefore should still be considered a first-time patient.
Falling under the category of first-time chemotherapy patient would make her eligible for the Bendamustine. Elliott also wants Ontario to waive the requirement that OHIP will only cover Rituximab if taken with Fludarabine.
She argues that approved chemotherapy drugs be approved “without discrimination and without bureaucratic intervention that could cost Canadians, like her mother, their lives.”
To view the online petition click here .

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Personal Update on my CLL (Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia): The Good News

It's been a while since I posted on my personal medical news.

Today in Columbus, it was all good. CBC was happily and boringly normal. My Hgb still shows that I am no longer anemic. My ALC (lymphocytes) is 1.4 which is actually a bit high for me, but certainly a comforting level.

My ANC (neutrophils) was healthy. My platelets are a bit higher than normal again, but that is to be expected due my splenectomy. The spleen gleans the aging and decrepit platelets, so counts are higher when it's missing. I will take high platelets any day over the terrors of single digit counts when my ITP was raging. By the way, the accepted wisdom is that the high platelets associated with a splenectomy do not increase the risk of a blood clot, but ironically ITP which ravages the platelets does. You can both hemorrhage and thrombose with the same disease. Seems inflammation is the enemy. I refer you to the 19th century wisdom of Virchow's triad, a trusted nugget carried in the brain of all medical students. 

More on this particular topic soon with some personal revelations, but that is for another post.

My blood chemistries show my liver and kidneys are happy and healthy. The advantages of a vegan lifestyle.

Dr. Byrd would not agree to skipping my next CT scan in three months. The very few late relapses on ibrutinib that he has seen after 24 months (my two year anniversary of living with the TKI magic of ibrutinib aboard will be at 9:30 AM EST on May 7, 2014) are often subtle and begin in the nodes. With my pesky abdominal nodes, that does seem prudent despite my aversion to more diagnostic "radiation therapy". Getting the scan at the newer CT at OSU's Martha Morehouse may cut the rads by as much 60%.

Most relapses occur between 12 and 24 months, so my period of higher risk is thankfully coming to an end. 

Still my clonal instability and my small subclone of 17p deleted cells keeps me forever on alert.

What we really need is a trial for the many patients such as myself that are doing very well on ibrutinib, but are not in a complete remission (CR). How about adding in a PI3K inhibitor such as idelalisib or one of the newer ones following in its footsteps. Hit the cancer clone on two pathways at once. A pincer move. A classic chemotherapy technique, but instead on chemo, we box off the cancer with focused therapies. Next add a potent third generation monoclonal antibody (mAb) such as obinutuzumab once the rascally clonal B cells have been released from the nodes and marrow out into the open spaces of the blood stream where they are easy picking for the antibody. Finally, we add something to mess with Bcl-2, say ABT-199. All this done in a carefully orchestrated and timed dance to maximize efficacy and dodge tumor lysis (TLS) by adding the ABT-199 as the final coup de grâce to make sure the beast will never rise again, but also when the tumor load is low so the risk of TLS is mitigated.

You can't get to cure without first passing by CR and MRD (minimal residual disease) negative.

For me, this is not a theoretical discussion. This is my blood and marrow and proliferative centers in my node that are at stake.

The same applies to many others that are in similar circumstances with ibrutinib and other TKIs.

It may even make long term financial sense in that it may also be a way to limit the duration of therapy with this initial treatment intensification, but with a predicted end of treatment baked into the plan.

I don't want to wait until it's too late so I am hoping such a trial may come to pass, speedily, in my time.  

These and similar concepts are beginning to percolate out there.

What do you think?

I am wondering about bouncing such a plan off the powers that could make it happen. Right now it is a small population that would qualify for such a trial, but our numbers are growing fast.

Please give me your feedback.

"You may say I'm a dreamer, but I am not the only one."

More news, personal and general soon.

I wish a meaningful Passover to all my Jewish friends. May we all leave our personal Pharaohs behind and cross dry shod into the promised land.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

ASH 2013: Dr. Claire Dearden Discusses CLL Treatment in the Elderly

One of the nicest doctors in the world of CLL is the English hematologist or should I say haemotologist, Dr. Claire Dearden of the Royal Marsden in London.

At ASH 2013, Dr. Dearden and I reviewed the new studies on the treatment of the most common group in CLL but the most underrepresented in clinical research, namely the elderly patients.

At ASH 2013, several papers made significant progress addressing this gap and that is what we discussed.

We can hear echoes of my discussions with Dr. Jeff Sharman in a recent post on the trial of idelalisib with and without rituximab. In that interview, we focused on the ethics of that placebo controlled trial.

We may also recall that Dr. Jennifer Brown and I discussed in another ASH 2013 post the very exciting trial of chlorambucil alone, with rituximab or with obinutuzumab that Dr. Dearden mentioned.

There was also important information of relevance for this population group in the long awaited study comparing FCR versus BR. For another thoughtful discussion on this, check out Dr. Jeff Sharman's excellent blog post. Here is a link to the actual study data presented at ASH. In the over 65 group, there was no progression free survival (PFS) advantage for FCR over BR despite the former's greater toxicity, especially in this age group. This is news we can use.

But before we get started in deconstructing the data, one of the first issues we must address is exactly how to define old. Turns out there is much research on looking at the biological versus chronological age. The CIRS scale is commonly used to look at co-morbidities, but as Tait Shanafelt out of Mayo Clinic pointed out in his important educational paper at ASH on this topic, we need to look at quality of life, life expectancy (approximately 20 years for those us 65 years old), and frailty. It's not just calendar years.

This is the biggest reason I push for a healthy lifestyle. It is not that a plant based diet and regular exercise will cure our cancer, but we are sure to do better if we have fewer co-morbidities, and living healthy helps with that. We don't need to add diabetes or renal disease or heart trouble to our list of woes that come pre-packaged with CLL. More problems unrelated to CLL lead to more problems related to the CLL.

Here is the interview with Dr. Dearden.

The news is good. Options are improving. I am not thrilled with chlorambucil as the backbone of the therapy, an admittedly gentler but still old school alkylating agent in the same class as bendamustine or cyclophosphamide (cytoxan or the C in FCR) or mustard gas. Just because it's a pill, doesn't mean that it's safe. Moreover, I am sure that the heavy lifting in this trial was done by the immunotherapy agents, rituximab and especially obinutuzumab. But chlorambucil is cheap (as little as $1.50 a day for the lowest dose) and easy to take.  It is very popular in Europe and was a favorite of the late great Dr. Hamblin.

One more point.

As we hear from the end of our discussion, the choices are complex and nuanced. As I have said before and as has been proven in a study out of Mayo, we do better with a CLL expert as part of our team guiding us through our therapeutic decisions.

Finally, Dr. Dearden reminds us of the many unanswered questions and that's why we need more research.

I have been traveling and meeting with fellow CLL friends, but I am back and trying to catch up on a backlog of videos and personal stories and adventures to share.

Stay tuned. Posting should be more frequent over the next month.

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Saturday, March 15, 2014

ASH 2013: Dr. Jeff Sharman Discusses FCR versus BR in Front Line CLL

In this interview, Dr. Jeff Sharman gives us some understanding of the important trial data presented at ASH 2013 that compares FCR (fludarabine, cyclophosphamide, rituximab), the gold standard chemo-immunotherapy (CIT) to BR (bendamusine-rituximab) the new kid on the block and very popular with community oncologists.

In the excitement and promise of the new era of gentler and more effective oral medications for CLL, there is still a diminishing group of patients that for many reasons will continue to chose a chemo-immunotherapy (CIT) approach.

One possible reason is that for a few patients with excellent prognostic factors, a significant subset of those will reach MRD negativity and for that group FCR produces exceedingly durable remissions, starting to hint a possible cure. A half year of harsh but not the worst therapy, and you're done. Time to get on with your life without any daily pill reminding you that you have CLL.

Professor Hallek discusses this special group in my short interview from iwCLL last year.  I would not be completely dismissive of the value of CIT in those special circumstances.

Sadly insurance coverage and expense will be another reason that we will still see chemo. Older drugs are cheaper than newer drugs.

And even more sadly, patients' and physicians' unawareness of the rapidly changing therapeutic landscape will limit some of us CLLer's option to what our oncologist is most comfortable with it.

A few of us won't be able to tolerate the new oral therapies due to side effects, but as more options and new TKI's are approved I suspect that will be a vanishing small number. There are also the very few patients who have progressed on ibrutinib (the only oral TKI approved for CLL at this time and available by prescription) and an unfortunate group of us who both can not qualify for a trial or who have no access to the new meds because of where they live or their insurance and who need treatment NOW and can not wait for a different option.

That said, the FCR versus BR data welcomed as it is, is hardly the blockbuster news that it would have been a few years ago.

Ibrutinib and idelalisib and ABT-199 and obinutuzumab and others have rightly stolen the spotlight at ASH and elsewhere. Their time has come, and not a moment too soon.

Still CIT is not going to quietly fade away so fast so let's look at this important ASH abstract.

This link gives the data.

This link explains what is meant by the grade of adverse events and reminds us that a grade 3 adverse event is severe or disabling, a grade 4 is life threatening and a grade 5 adverse event is polite medical talk for a side effect that kills the patients. So when we see that on the FCR, we patients had a 90% of a Grade 3 or worst hematologic side effect compared to only two out of three in the BR arm.

The price of this higher that high toxicity and small but real risk of dying from FCR was an impressive 98% overall (ORR) response rate with nearly half of those being CR (complete responses). With BR the ORR is the same but the CR is 38%. MRD (minimal residual disease) negative data was not presented. Progression free survival was better for FCR in those under 65 years old, but not in the older group.

So very impressive results, but significant toxicity. This is an old and too common story with chemo: The more toxic the drug, the better it works. FCR is better in younger patients, but comes with more risks and misery.

New targeted and biological therapies break this paradigm and that is why when we have a choice, we should be putting the emerging therapies high on lists of options.

Remember too that this trial was for front line therapy in fit patients where access to the newer treatments in even more difficult.

Listen to Dr. Jeff Sharman and get his take on this important study. Dr. Sharman is a smart, very busy and compassionate guy who has done much to help the CLL and other blood cancer community and I am grateful for the time he gave for this interview at ASH 2013.

Dr. Sharman has an excellent blog himself where he covers much of the same and even more detail on the trial here.

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Friday, March 14, 2014

The Good Cancer

Here is a post I wrote in response to a spirited discussion in a CLL forum on the topic of how we patients are informed about our diagnosis and the unnecessary anguish called by sometimes well meaning but poorly informed and of touch physicians. As is everything in CLL, it's complicated and clear and sensitive doctor- patient communication is the starting point for a good outcome.


CLL is too often still called the "good cancer" and all of us CLL patients rightfully hate that.

No cancer is good. But perhaps the problem is more with the word cancer than the word good.

We are pleased when our doctors tell us that we have the "good" prognostic factors, knowing full well that guarantees nothing about our future.

We are happy to see a "good" lab result,  knowing full well that it might change tomorrow.

Cancer is such a loaded and malevolent word that the idea of putting something positive in front of it carries a similar horror and disbelief that would accompany  anyone uttering a phrase such as: it was only a "gentle" abuse or a "polite" hijacking. There are worse oxymorons, but I'll skip them.

Doctors want a short hand to say we have good news and bad news. There is never an excuse for poor doctor-patient communication, but we all know it is often going to be a short communication.

Many patients don't know what indolent means until well after they have been diagnosed, and to say slow growing, many patients might only hear the "growing" part especially when it is qualified with the adverb, "usually".

Let's get some perspective.

CLL is not an imminent death sentence, especially now. A significant chunk of us will never need treatment and even more of die with the disease, not from it. Nearly all of have some real time to rub our chins, plan our lives, and consider our options before any therapy is needed. And if and when treatment is eventually needed, today we have a load of non-chemo therapies available and the floodgates of less toxic choices are just starting to open. 

Maybe the cancer isn't good, but all of this is good. Very good!

Ask most patients with pancreatic cancer or MDS  or glioblastoma multiforme or metastatic ovarian cancer if they would want to trade their cancer for ours. Ask any doctor which bad news he prefer to share with his patient. It is easier to say someone has a bad cancer than a good one.

Moreover, doctors want their patients to have realistic expectations, good or bad. There are documented tragic cases of elderly patients committing suicide when they found out they had CLL because they thought it was quick death sentence. It is incumbent on any health care worker to offer comfort always and hope where hope is a real possibility.

Finding the balance is so hard.

I am trying to think here as both a doctor and as a patient. What do you think if you heard this as a starting point from your doctor?

"You have CLL, a chronic form of a blood cancer. (Pause…) While all cancer is bad, some are much worse that others. Now I want you to listen carefully to what I am about to say. (Another pause...)  While no-one knows the future, CLL is most often, not always, but most often, one of the least aggressive kinds of leukemia".

That takes longer than saying you have the "good cancer" but not too much longer. And there are a millions other ways it could be said better. And that is just the beginning of a much longer discussion to come. 

Tough stuff. Whole books on medical ethics and patient communication are written on this topic.

These and similar and usually much easier issues are what I struggled with everyday as a doctor turned patient.

Stay strong

We are in this together.


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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Pills, Pills and More Pills: A Follow-up

Seems as if my last post on too many pills struck a nerve.

According to some of the feedback that I received, I am way out of my league with my complaints about my pill count. Some of us patients top 85 pills a day.

Here is an important email that I received from one of the readers of my blog who makes some good points that I thought I should share.

A few years ago I had to take about double the number of pills I take now.  I simply adopted the view that for every new medication I was asked to take, I asked the doctor to find two that I really didn't need.  The strategy seems to be working.

I developed this strategy after contemplating something my mother went through years ago.  She was taken to the emergency ward of a local hospital.  She was very sick from a number of things and death was imminent. Her organs started to fail.  It was decided that they would keep her pain under control but stop all other medications and allow life and death to take their course.

Once they stopped ALL of her vast amounts of medications (once on a med she never got off it) and she immediately began to recover.  In fact, she lived for 12 more years after that incident.

Of course you are a doctor, but for the rest of us I would suggest that twice a year (or more often if required) each of us present a full list of our meds to each doctor that treats us, with a view to stopping all meds that are no longer needed for one reason or another.  Doctors seldom have a list of the meds they have prescribed to us over the years and some doctors don't bother, of their own initiative, to even review those meds, let alone reviewing all of the meds we are taking in order to take out meds that are no longer necessary.

These are important lessons here. 

With today's larger integrated healthcare delivery systems for outpatient and inpatient services and the possibility of a shared electronic medical records, it should be easier to keep the medication records up to date, but as a dear friend can testify when his wife recently came home from hospital on two nearly identical meds (the second one was completely unneeded and a potential problem), it is still too often the case that care is not co-ordinated and patients are taking drugs  that at best they don't need, and at worst, can be dangerous.

That is why is important to be our own well informed advocates.

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