Living Out a Fantasy

Friends and Family,

I hope the above subject heading doesn’t get this email filtered into the spam folder, along with the fake Viagra ads and opportunities to meet sexy strangers who live nearby, but I couldn’t say it any other way. This really was a fantasy for me.  

Genevieve and I recently got to do something I have been dreaming of for the past two and a half years, but that I never actually thought would happen. I got to thank the people that saved my life.

Ever since I started this clinical trial for AZD9291, now approved and known as Tagrisso, I have been thinking about the lab scientists who were coming up with this new treatment. How did they come up with the strategy? How did they test it? And ever since my first CT scan, which showed that my cancer had shrunk by two-thirds, I have fantasized about what it would be like to actually meet these scientists, and to thank them. There was no reason to imagine that it would ever happen, but hey – I’ve beaten the odds on everything else, haven’t I?

It happened because Genevieve and I were invited to go to Maryland to visit Astra Zeneca, so that I could be on a panel.  Astra Zeneca has an annual Science Day, so that their scientists have an opportunity to see the value of their work. Just like at other scientific conferences, they had a poster session with displays of all their research over the past year, and they had speakers on different topics. At the end of the day, two other survivors and I sat on this panel. The idea was to let these scientists know what it is like to live with cancer, and then to understand in a much deeper way what a difference the work they do makes. I couldn’t wait for the opportunity! But before that…

It got even better. We got to tour the labs. We saw where the kernel of an idea gets translated into experiments, and where the fruits of those experiments lead to larger-scale experiments, and eventually to a finished product. And it was right in this lab where I got to see the exact tanks where AZD9291, the medication that saved my life, was made. It was exhilarating!

And just like those TV ads for steak knives that you can cut steel, or equally tough steaks with: “But wait! There’s more!!!”

We met people from multiple departments all day long. Each one seemed to be genuinely appreciative that we were there. And Genevieve and I got to tell them in person that, because of them, I am still alive. They cried. I cried. Genevieve cried. We were all a mess, and very embarrassed, and really happy.   

Finally, we got to the end of the day, and the panel. The last time I spoke in front of a crowd this big was four decades ago, but I didn’t let that get in the way. I told them of the devastation of getting diagnosed. I shared the fears before every CT scan, waiting to find out how long I might live. I shared how much richer my life has been, partly because I don’t know how long I will live, and largely because I’m living in gratitude every day, and my life is full of love, and my values and priorities are so much clearer. And, because I was worried that we would run out of time, I interrupted the moderator to tell these scientists thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. For saving my life. I choked up, and barely got the words out, in front of 300 people. But nothing was going to get in the way of this opportunity.   

So much of my life now is about gratitude, and this was the perfect moment to express it.

And now I have one more thing to be grateful for:

I got to live out my fantasy.

No Viagra required.

Love,

Dann

P.S.: We are having the annual Lung Love Run/Walk on Saturday, June 24th at Laurelhurst Park. We would love for you to join our team, Live Lung and Prosper, if for no other reason than it’s a great name. :-)  This year my goal is to have 30 participants, and to raise $3,000.

To join my team or donate, go to http://engage.lungcanceralliance.org/site/TR/WalkMap/General?team_id=1532&pg=team&fr_id=1211#sthash.GlWuI5BI.dpuf.

A Victory Lap and a Partial Graduation

Friends and Family,

Genevieve and I have even more reason to celebrate after this trip to see my oncologist in San Diego. It has been three long months since the last nervous check-in to see how my CT scan results turned out. That's twice as far apart as the scans used to be, so there is twice as much to worry about. But guess what? No new growth. Again!

I started  taking AZD9291, AKA Tagrisso, 27 months ago. On average, this drug works for 13 months. This means that I not only "won" a "baker's year" of extra life the first time around: It means that when that was done, I took another full victory lap around the sun. Yaaaaaaah! So much to be grateful for!

As if that wasn't enough. There's more! On this trip, we found out that the trial is beginning the wind-down phase. That means we will see my oncologist half as often, which matches up with the scans. Also, each time we fly to San Diego, the team places electrodes on my chest and does an EKG to see if my heart is being affected. Those tests will be done half as often as well. The risks of this drug are becoming more known, so the researchers aren't as worried about the impact on people's hearts. That's a good sign not only for me, but for every person who will ever take this drug.

Flying to San Diego four times per year instead of eight sounds pretty great, although there are some perks to taking those trips. Getting even a few hours in the San Diego sun after the snowiest, iciest Oregon winter in my lifetime has done our hearts good. See below for a picture of the signs of hope and optimism (in addition to Genevieve) that the latest San Diego trip brought.

Even though we won't get to see as much beautiful sunshine, this means that I have partially graduated, and I'm getting close to outlasting the trial. Yet another victory! The final victory will come at the end of the year, when the clinical trial is shut down. Tagrisso was the fastest drug to ever get approved for a clinical trial by the FDA, and it has been life-extending for those of us who had a good response. What a great success story.

I want to give props to AstraZeneca, the sponsor/creator of this amazing drug. They will continue supplying this med to me for free after the trial is over, for as long as I am still benefiting. Although this seems like the ethical thing to do, I'm told that this isn't common. Thank you, AstraZeneca!

Speaking of victory laps, I'm asking for you to take one with me. The event is the Lung Love Run/Walk, which will be held in Laurelhurst Park in Portland on Saturday, June 24th. My goals this year are to have a team of 30 people join me on the walk, and to raise $3,000 for Lung Cancer Alliance and their advocacy efforts. This is the group that I went with to D.C. last year to lobby congress for lung cancer research. Given the political climate, lobbying for health care is going to be extremely critical. I encourage you to check out the web page for my team, Live Lung and Prosper, at http://engage.lungcanceralliance.org/site/TR/WalkMap/General?team_id=1532&pg=team&fr_id=1211. I am only doing one fund-raiser and one trip to D.C. this year.

Have you had your own "victory lap" event lately?  Share the joy and pass it on. Reply in "Comments" below, send it to me through the "Contact" tab, or send me an email. I'd love to hear about it, and I would love to share it, if you give the OK.

Love,

Dann

Advocacy, Staying Alive, and the Zombie Apocalypse

Friends and Family,

You know how us guys are not known for listening very well? This week, I did something even more rare. I listened to myself.

Last Friday Genevieve and I were part of the Lung Force Expo, and I gave a talk on how to be your own advocate. Preparing for it got me thinking that there might be even more things I could do for myself, so I took another look.

 The basic idea is that, no matter how good your doctor is, YOU have a lot more invested in how this turns out than they do. That means it’s on you, or in this case me, to make sure things go the best they possibly can. You can’t do that if you’re passive.

 First, I started thinking about Xgeva, the bone-strengthening injections that I’ve been getting for about three years. Strengthening porous cancer-riddled bones is good, but how much stronger will they get if I keep getting these injections? The downside of these injections is the risk of necrosis, or killing off the bone. That includes the jaw, so I get asked about dental work and jaw pain every time I go in. Makes me a little nervous. So on this trip to San Diego, I asked my oncologist, is it time to stop? “Good question,” he says, and I can tell it hasn’t occurred to him before now. “The research says one year is enough for the other brand, Zometa. You’ve been on Xgeva for three. You can probably stop now.” That means great news! My risk of turning into a zombie just went way down! The apocalypse will have to wait.

My next question was about this clinical trial. Almost a year ago, I had the choice of going off the trial when my trial drug was approved, but I chose to stay on the trial to : 1) help with the research, since there were only 440 people in the world on this trial to begin with, and most are no longer on it; and 2) to stay connected with my San Diego oncologist, whom I think has an excellent grasp of the latest lung cancer research. Here’s that story: http://www.dannwonser.com/blog/decision-time-for-my-treatment/12/3/2015.

 HOWEVER. Partly because it’s been bothering me from the beginning, and partly because my friend Linnea Olson got me thinking more about it after going nova on her own blog about excess radiation– see https://outlivinglungcancer.com/2016/10/03/when-noncompliance-is-your-best-option/ - I started questioning the trial all over. So I had the discussion with my oncologist again. My questions were better this time around:

1.       If I skip every other scan, will they kick me out of the clinical trial? And…

2.       If I’m not in the clinical trial, can I see you anyway?

 I got the answers I wanted. Dr. Patel emailed the trial sponsor about my ultimatum even before I left the clinic for the day, and is willing to see me even if I’m kicked off the trial.

 So the bottom line: I will check on my insurance, to make sure they cover Tagrisso, and he will tell the clinical trial people that I will drop out if they don’t agree to a reduced CT schedule. Either way, it looks like a win for me. It just took being ferocious.

And did I forget to mention, in the midst of all this ferocious self-advocacy, that my scan results were again good? :-) Twenty-five months on this trial, and no signs of growth! Woohoo! The more time I get, the more time there is for the NEXT new drug to get developed! The longer I stay alive, the better my chances get that I can outrun this pesky disease. Life is pretty great, isn’t it?

So if you’re interested, I’ll tell you what I shared about how to be your own advocate:

 You can’t wait for the medical experts to do it for you. They may care, but it is not their life on the line.  They may also be very knowledgeable, but that doesn’t mean they always have the best judgement.

 Being passive can cost you your life, and it almost cost me mine. The first time I had cancer, I was treated successfully and was NED (No Evidence of Disease) with the help of the top lung cancer specialist in the Northwest. When she left town, I was handed off to one of her partners, but I didn’t check his credentials. MY FIRST MISTAKE. He was an expert, but not in what I needed. He specialized in prostate cancer. That explains a LOT about those exams….

 When something weird showed up in my lung CT scan, he didn’t know what it was, but didn’t think it was cancer, so he suggested waiting four months until the next scan. MY NEXT BIG MISTAKE: I didn’t get a second opinion. This could have gotten me killed. When it turned out to be cancer and I switched doctors, my cancer remained manageable, but then that oncologist left town. MISTAKE #3: I didn’t check the new doc’s credentials. I must be a slow learner! However, this time I was a little more on the ball. When the cancer started growing again, he had no answers, so I am the one who told him about the clinical trial I am in now.

 There are other stories. Lysa’s doc wanted to take her off a successful treatment to try something new, until she insisted that nothing change until there was a problem. Another friend lost his life when his oncologist wouldn’t re-test his mutation after his cancer started growing again. By the time she tested, it was too late. He wasn’t well enough to travel to the clinical trial that he qualified for.

 Another woman asked her doctor for molecular testing of her cancer. He was incensed that a mere patient would think she knew more than he did about lung cancer, and he refused. She fired him.

 There are so many stories I have heard. They all point to the same things:

·         Check the credentials of your doctor and your clinic.

·         Make sure you have a lung cancer specialist. A specialist in six different cancers is not a specialist.

·         Get molecular testing.

·         If the cancer starts growing again, get molecular testing again.

·         Do your own research, either by piggybacking on what other survivors have learned, or looking at the data yourself.

·         Get a second opinion. Your doctor may be brilliant, but that doesn’t mean that their judgment is flawless, or that they would make the same choices that you would.

·         Make waves if you need to. It’s worth risking hurting your doctor’s feelings if it means that it may save your life.

·         Treat your doctor like he or she is your consultant.

·         Get empowered by getting knowledgeable. Check out the Resources tab. Below the survivor blogs is a master list of 21 professional websites, along with a description of what each one offers.

 LAST THING: I will be on the Portland Today show on KGW TV this coming Monday, November 14th, from 11:00-12:00 as part of Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Watch it if you get the chance!

 Love,

 Dann