The boys and I arrived at the hospital fairly early. We wanted to spend the day with Chris and to be together as a family. I’m not really sure what my brother had to do, but by 9 am, Chris was getting phone calls. My brother called him and told him that they were going to arrange for Chris to be transferred to University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora. We assumed that it would be the following day. However, he also got a phone call from a well-respected lung cancer researcher, Dr. Paul Bunn, who is at University of Colorado Hospital. Dr. Bunn did not want Parker Adventist to do anything else with Chris and the doctors there were saying that they wanted to do another procedure, so Chris was transferred and in his room at U of CO Hospital by dinner.
Chris was in the hospital for 10 days total. They performed a pleurodesis, which is a procedure where they attach the lung to the chest wall so that no fluid can build up around the lung. They inserted a second chest tube to help drain the liquid. In the end, they drained 2 gallons of liquid from the pleura (the space around the lungs). When all the scans were done, they discovered that there was a tumor in Chris’ lung and there were cancer cells throughout the pleura. This is why it was called Stage IV. And at some point, they were able to type the cancerous tumor in Chris’ lung and found that it was a rare mutation that Dr. Bunn was specifically studying. It was called EML4-ALK. Believe it or not, this was good news because Chris could be put on a clinical trial drug that they were testing to see if it would impact the ALK cancer cells.
Chris began chemo and had two different drug combinations. One was a somewhat standard chemo drug (Chris could probably tell you what drug it was, but I really don’t know) and the other was the clinical trial drug. Just the actual infusion of the drugs took 6 hours. So every 3 weeks he spent the day at the hospital.
I was still trying to finish my student teaching (and my Master’s program), be a mom to our 2 boys and a spouse to someone with cancer. It was very difficult. As much as I hated it, Chris went to a number of infusion sessions by himself. It is not the way that I wanted it, but there was only so many things I could accomplish in one day. No one should have to sit through 6 hours of infusion alone. And I am so sorry that is what happened. But, Chris told me, immediately after he told me that it was cancer, that I had to finish school and get my teaching license. Both of know that it is the only way that I have a chance of providing for our family when I need to.
After Chris finished with the “regular” chemo, he only had the clinical trial infusion (which was much shorter) every 3 weeks. Many things from this time period are “fuzzy” in my brain. I know that I should know and remember everything that Chris has gone through and the time-frame, but honestly, I was working on managing everything so that he could go to work and get treated. He was the one who had to deal with the side-effects and the treatments. I am certainly not downplaying the side effects or the immense emotional toll that chemo had on Chris (and to a lesser degree, me and the boys). It is just that we have traveled so far from infusion that it seems like it was another lifetime, at least for me.
The chemo drugs did not result in any change in the cancer cells: they were not growing, but they were not shrinking either. And then, they did start growing. Not a lot, but just enough so that the doctors were going to change Chris’ treatment.
Dr. Bunn sent Chris to another doctor at the U of CO Hospital who was involved in a different clinical trial drug. This one was in pill format and would be targeting the specific mutation of the EML4-ALK cells that Chris had in his tumor. Obviously, chemo drugs in pill format were much less of a hassle. The side-effects were very much the same as the side effects of the infusion drugs. And again, the time period is fuzzy – but I think that Chris has now been on the drugs for around 9 months.
Clinical trials are nice because they often do additional testing to see what the impact the drug is having. They also suck because no one is really sure what will happen with them. Chris has a CT scan done every other month. The nice thing about the scans is that it lets us know how things are progressing on a regular basis. The not so nice thing is that Chris has to go for the scans in addition to seeing the doctor. The time between the scan and the doctor’s appointment (usually about a week), is fraught with anxiety for all of us. Chris becomes short-tempered, I become emotional and the boys feel the stress and Michael tends to get in trouble, while David overcompensates to the other extreme.
At the end of May 2011, Chris’ scan showed that there was an area of cancer that was growing. What that meant was that the cancer cells had become resistant to the clinical trial drug. We knew something was probably happening because of a marker in his blood that they were watching, was going up. He has blood-work done at every doctor’s visit.
The doctors felt they could treat this “flare-up” with radiation and Chris went for radiation at the beginning of June for 10 days. Radiation seems to have different side effects than chemo, at least for Chris. The radiation side effects were more intense and he was in more pain rather than less. But for now, radiation is finished and Chris is back on the pill format chemo drug.
More to follow in Chris’ Cancer – Part 3