Tag Archives: Dr. Marie Bleakley

Still

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IMG_0832IMG_0899I cannot count the hours I have laid next to Allistaire with this quiet music playing.  Putting her to bed for a nap, closing the curtain to her hospital room and posting the sign telling the world to stay away, Allistaire is sleeping.  Laying next to her in Ron Don, going through our night-time rituals.

The music plays on but she is gone.  Gone.  The bed is empty.

After four and a half years of fighting her great foe, Acute Myeloid Leukemia…after two long grueling weeks since Sten and I made the brutal decision to no longer attempt to thwart her disease, an aggressive, relentless, mindless onslaught…after over three hours, as her body continued to fight, to grasp for life, lungs pulling for air, and a heart, oh her heart, far stronger than we could have ever imagined, that heart so determined, so fierce, it pumped on and on and still her mouth gulped for air when her chest no longer rose and there was not one flex of her heart muscle left…

And then stillness.  Only the soft rushing sound of the oxygen still trying to sustain life.

Quiet

Utter stillness

How very strange to come to the end.  To have this child between us, this longed for child that together we had conceived, this little bright vibrancy now extinguished, pale, still.

We love you little sweets, beyond words and time, you are so very dear to us.

Allistaire Kieron Anderson died early this morning at 1:33am, April 30th 2016

 

My deep and fervent desire has been that these most vicious versions of Allistaire’s cancer cells would be able to be studied and contribute to the understanding of AML, in honor of all that Allistaire went through and in blessing to those who will be forced to come behind her.  Dr. Soheil Meshinchi, one of our spectacular, brilliant and tender-hearted Bone Marrow Transplant doctors at Fred Hutch, made a way for this final offering.  Soheil is the COG (Children’s Oncology Group) AML Biology chair and oversees the largest pediatric AML tissue bank in the nation.  Along with other doctors/researchers dear to our hearts (Dr. Katherine Tarlock, Dr. Marie Bleakley, Dr. Phil Greenberg, Dr. Todd Cooper), he is tireless in his pursuit of understanding AML and finding ways to thwart its stranglehold on so many sweet children.

These are the words of Dr. Soheil Meshinchi to me:

“I will do everything I can to learn all we can about Allistaire’s leukemia.  Her diagnostic sample is being sequenced now and we will sequence specimens that you send us…Please feel free to call me anytime you want to talk.”

“My prayers are with Allistaire and your family.  We will care for these precious cells of Allistaire.  Please call me if there is anything I can do.”

And this comes from him this very morning, “Dear Jai, I wanted to give you an update on Allistaire’s cells.  We received them in great condition.  They were processed and a fraction was used for extracting RNA and DNA.  We purified leukemic cells from another subset and banked several vials.  We are waiting for the result of the foundation medicine testing with plans to sequence her recent cells as well.  I’m available to talk anytime you need to.  Best, Soheil.”

Allistaire’s life was strangled out by cancer and while I look in hope for her to have a new body, one incorruptible, I also strive after life here and now.

Please considering honoring Allistaire’s life and tremendous fight by supporting cancer research at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.  You can join our team Baldy Tops or give financially to Obliteride HERE.

*We will be planning some means of memorial in the future, but have no plans as of yet.

**Allistaire is alive in all of these pictures (with the exception of the very last picture of her toes), though they are either days or even only several hours before she died.  Some may find these very difficult to see.IMG_3726IMG_0657IMG_0659IMG_0236IMG_0733IMG_0736IMG_0760IMG_0849IMG_0884IMG_0887IMG_0895IMG_0897

Come to the End

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IMG_0461IMG_0447IMG_0457The cursor blinks.  Waiting. Waiting for the words to come, to extract from the blur, to distill the thunder and wailing silence.

We are those people.  We have become strangers from even those who have known this road with us most intimately.  She is not yet gone but the memories, they flash in and burn.   Every step igniting shards of pain.  Beauty and joy, that with the awareness of their loss, pierces rather than delights.  Thoughts, uninvited barrage, come sailing past, slicing, blunt force.  I was teaching her the names of plants and she would yell out their names as we drove about – forsythia, I see forsythia, she exclaims. Red-tip Photinia gets blurted out over and over.  And there it is, a brutal mingling of what once brought joy and proclaimed life and growth is transferred into the category of no more and then the gaping expanse of emptiness where more names of plants were supposed to dwell.  But I wanted to teach her to crouch low and delight in the delicacies of moss, of tender fern, of trickling stream, to watch the light stream through trees, to stop and listen, to soak in life, to learn the secret of the bounty observation brings…

We have had rough times before, really really rough times.  There have distinct situations in which her life could have easily veered toward death, it was right there, standing at the threshold but never had it entered in.  To look at her is disorienting, to consider the severity of the situation keeps getting rejected and spit out over and over.  Dr. Cooper called in early evening.  I told him of the second guessing our decision that had already come, of the disbelief that she really is being over taken by her cancer, that there really is nothing to stop it this time.  I ask him again, are you sure, totally sure there is nothing for her, nothing?  Nothing.  There is nothing left.

This morning I thought, maybe there is something out there in the world, some new and wild way to tackle her beast, some new angle that can catch it unawares and strangle it at long last, extinguishing its mindless assault.  But no.  There are only the same grooved paths.  Therapy, primarily chemo, all to get to a transplant and she just had a transplant.  She just had THE transplant, the no holds-bar transplant, a full-conditioning volley of weaponry – if that didn’t work, there is at present nothing more under the sun that can cure.  And so the question rises, can we give her something to hold her, to simply keep her going?  But to what end?  And it’s not like this doesn’t come at its own cost.  The one possible goal was a CD123 CAR T-cell trial that is still in the works at CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia), but it is months and months out.  And with Allistaire’s current heart function she wouldn’t qualify anyway.  And perhaps more than anything, the startling speed of this cancer’s progression makes nearly any novel therapy too late.  Her kidneys are suffering with a steadily rising creatinine level.  Her potassium and uric acid or rising due to tumor lysis.  And this rise in potassium, the unbalancing of electrolytes, could at any moment cause cardiac arrest.

Before we knew it, without intending to and without being able to yet utter the words out loud, we began to discuss what it will look like for her to die.  Does kidney failure hurt?  No, it would be peaceful.  As would her heart simply stopping, peaceful.  What a strange thing to hope for your child.  I do not want chloromas to overtake her body – they cause incredible pain and deformity.  No, it seems most compassionate to make way for some other finality.  I do not want her to bleed out.  We must keep giving her platelets.  But red blood?  It may come to the point that we simply don’t give her any more red blood and she will grow more and more tired and sleep and never wake up.

I cannot believe I am having to have this discussion.  I cannot believe the words entering my ears or coming from my tongue.  It sounds like logistics, some planning committee.  Hospice will meet you on Monday at noon.  PAC Team (Pediatric Advanced Care Team) will do this, Dr. Cooper will check on this…but there is this little girl, the nucleus of all these efforts, these considerations.  And while it all might sound callous and aloof, distant, I am confident of the sincere care for Allistaire in that room, especially that of Dr. Cooper and Dr. Bleakley, two doctors who have intimately walked this road with us, who have thought long and hard over Allistaire.  They are dear to me and I trust them.  I trust them because the are incredible brilliant people who have walked this road with families for many years, who understand the disease far, far more than most and who have known Allistaire as a real girl, not a med rec number, not a PET scan result or Flow Cytometry percentage.  And so with what very little time we have left with our girl, I will not go running after obscure options.  We have chosen to rest in the expertise of our doctors who are connected nationally and internationally with fellow physicians also working on AML.  They are a gift of great worth to us.  They honor us and honor Allistaire in their enduring work to care for children with cancer.

I am already incredibly tired.  I don’t want to leave her side.  I feel the tiny bones in her hands and the light passing across the tiny little peach-fuzz hairs on her cheeks, the long dark lashes and puffy eyelids.  I listen to her breathing and rub the warmth of her back, the delicate blades of bone.  And it all just hurts so bad.  Tonight is Friday night.  It’s always been Friday night pizza night and a movie. Sten and Solveig honor that tradition in Montana and we here in Seattle.  But tonight?  What is tonight?  Is it my last Friday night with Allistaire?  I gag at the thought. I long to throw up, to some how clamp my hands over my ears, to press my eyes closed tight and somehow make it all go away.  Can I just go back to a week ago?  Can I just undo this awful week?  Can we please not take this path?  I want to scream and scream and scream until my voice is gone.

When we sat with Allistaire on her bed and told her that we had met with the doctors and there was no medicine left, that she would die, we asked if there was anything she wanted to do.  “I want to go home,” she said.  And while we feel our resources for this situation are best here, we are taking her home for two days.  Two last days at home in Montana.  Time for the four of us to dwell in that home one last time altogether.  Time for our family to gather.  I don’t know how our hearts will bear up under it.  But we must live out each moment, each minute that amasses to become an hour, and hours days.  Yet we may really be down to days and I can’t stand the thought of it.  My body just shakes, rejecting that the child I gave life to I have to at last lay down and walk away from.

I must go to sleep.  In the morning I will pack for this brief visit home and she will get a transfusion of platelets and red blood to tide her over.

Thank you for your many messages of sorrow and love.  Thank you for your prayers.  Many of you have expressed a desire to help.  First please understand that our time with Allistaire is so short, we will really be keeping to ourselves and our immediate family, a few close friends.  At this point in time we ask that you don’t ask to come visit unless we have already communicated with you.  Please know this is no reflection on you, rather a need to be realistic with our finite time and emotional resource.

Another way to demonstrate your angst toward cancer, your sorrow over the loss of Allistaire’s fiesty bright sweet spirit in this world, your support of our family, is to give to OBLITERIDE.  I cannot tell you how brutal it was this morning to hear of amazing research underway in the lab that is no where near being ready for Allistaire.  While I rejoice at the advance of cancer research, it is too wickedly slow!  What heartbreak to know that while cures are underway, Allistaire’s body will have already ceased.  Please consider honoring Allistaire’s life by supporting me in funding cancer research at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center through Obliteride.

Click HERE to donate.

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 5:8-11)

Blind Sided

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IMG_0434IMG_0435Blind sided.  Out of no where.  Everywhere bright sunlight, perfect blue skies, flashing radiant green leaves, bursting life.  Though my mind knew the possibility of what the scans would reveal, optimism actually seemed to fill my view and I am not prone to optimism.  I realized I had seen no change in her eye, nothing to show the march of cancer in her sinuses.  Wednesday morning I knew I would end that day knowing something profound.  And there seemed to be light on the horizon, it seemed within reach, for once a real genuine possibility that we might outrun this beast, at least for a time.  There was one dark blot.  The nurse practitioner on Tuesday had a very challenging time getting her marrow.  She poked Allistaire three times in the right hip, twice in the left and so little, so little came out.  “She bent my needle,” she told me.  As soon as I saw her I anticipated something being wrong; my hot flush validated.  Such a thing had only happened when she’d had disease.  But she couldn’t have disease in her marrow.  In an entire year of low-key chemo, she’d only had low level disease one time.  I never even thought to worry over her marrow.

Dark shadow suddenly overtook sun.  I had not heard the pounding of its horrible feet.  No awareness of its stench.  The speed with which it grabbed Allistaire…in a flash she went from her normal joyful little self, a bright sprite, a light, giddy blue eyes, a vibrancy…her face has already changed, her eyes puffy and the blue small slits full of pain.  She has done little more in the past 48 hours than sleep and call out, whimpering from pain in her arms, her legs, her head.  It hurts her to move, to shift from laying on one side to the other.  If she walks at all it is tentative and slow, pain, pain.  Gasping, gasping, mouth wide in horror, in shock, confusion.  What?  What is going on here?  My understanding fails me.  I could not comprehend the words…”there are two soft tissue masses in the left supraclavicular location…there are new hypermetabolic lymph nodes and lymph node clusters in the porta hepatis, retroperitoneum, and mesentery…there is diffuse increased FDG activity in the axial and proximal appendicular skeleton…the sinuses are clear.”  A snarling tearing, flesh from flesh.  No disease in the sinuses but, disease everywhere…in the short span of a month those cancer cells have been advancing, overtaking.  Oh my God, oh my God.

In the span of a moment, we are careening into black, the suffocating grip.  We had skirted this storm for so long, the black clouds, the sucking winds, an inertia ever threatening to draw us in and while it has always been with us, all these four years and five months, while it has remained in view, somehow, somehow we had evaded.  I called Sten…you and Solveig need to come.  Solveig arrived at 7am and Sten tonight.  We went to SCCA for Allistaire’s regularly scheduled Thursday morning labs.  When we left six hours later, as I cradled Allistaire’s great 20.7 kg of flesh, and was turning to go, I looked at Dawn, our long time nurse, the words caught in horror, “I don’t know if we’ll come back here…”  Oh God.  Oh God.

How could light and hope be extinguished in so short a time?  I began the day knowing there was probably nothing we could do for Allistaire; that there was probably no treatment that could cure her.  But still my heart clung to the hope that there might be something to hold her, to get her further down the road that somehow her life might intersect some new wonder of research, some new therapy that could somehow, somehow stop this ravaging.  I thought my challenge would be taking the girls to Disney Land and not crying the entire time.  But there was Jamie, the fellow.  “Her marrow has 9.5% disease.”  No wonder she’s in pain.  Her bones are filling with cancer.  In the course of time I learned that her chimerism had changed, now only 85% Sten and about 15% Allistaire, about 15% cancer.  How could this be? A week ago I was told her chimerism were 100% donor.  I could have never imagined this speed.  Her labs show rising uric acid and potassium, evidence of tumor lysis, of rapid cell turn over, of the multiplication of millions of the most fearsome of cancer cells; cancer cells that had some how thwarted the assaults of a nuclear blast worth of radiation, of over 25 rounds of chemo, genetically modified T-cells and the mis-matched cells of another.

All of sudden I realized…the good has already passed.  I have most likely already taken her to the park for the last time.  When was that?  When was the last time I followed behind her on her bike on the Burke Gilman?  When was the last time I tickled her until she cried out for me to stop, never wanting me to stop.  When did I last see her face look like her face, hear her unfettered laugh.  I feel myself going down, my own flesh ripped from bone and tendon, sinews tearing.  Agony.  How can this be?  How?  How could I have already lost so much?  But I didn’t even know!!!! I didn’t even know it was happening.  I thought there would be time, time.  And just like that – everything has changed.  Every action has always been in orientation to her survival, to her life going on, to sustaining.  And now it’s all been swept away.  It’s already gone.

I looked at the toilet seat covers.  I noted the handle to the door that I would never have touched with my bare hand.  I thought about her reading book laying on the table at Ron Don.  She’d come so far.  She was doing so well learning to read.  And now it was gone.  When was the last time she sounded out a word, read her short little stories?  She never even got to go back to school after she was discharged from the hospital because of her cold.  I won’t have to figure out how to home school her.  It won’t matter if other children in our town are not vaccinated.  They can no longer but her in harms way.  I won’t have to mourn that she can’t go in the water at Cliff Lake.  She won’t be there.  She won’t be there for my birthday.  She won’t be there for Obliteride.  She said to me this afternoon, she said, “I wish Obliteride was happening right now.  Why sweet girl?  Because there’s no medicine left for me.  And then the doctors would have money to find something for me.”  Aaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!  The flesh of my face contorts and my heart beats hard.  How will I get on my bike?  How will I ride those miles?  How can I not get on my bike?  How can I not ride and ride and ride and ride and never stop, never stop asking for more.  More.  We need more!

Dawn showed me the med list, wanting to know if there were any meds I wanted to stop giving her.  Because suddenly we don’t have the long view any more.  Suddenly everything I have done as a parent to push her, to care for her as a person who will grow into an adult, it all falls flat, out of place.  It no longer makes sense.  I hesitated.  How could I say no to any of those meds?  How can I yield?  How can I yield?  How can I hand her over?  But what does it look like to love her now?  I have for so, so long fought for her, defended her with all my might, been attentive to ever last detail.  How do I just walk away.  How do I just stand with arms at my sides at let it come for her?  We still haven’t met with the doctors to come up with a plan, but as the day progressed it became more and more clear that there is probably nothing to be done but make her comfortable.  I asked Dr. Wolfrey, what do you think?  I know you can’t tell me how long, I know you can’t predict, but you’ve been here a long time, you’ve seen a lot, what do you think?  She agreed that it had taken everyone by surprise, the change had come out of nowhere, there was no hint of its onslaught.  But given the rapid progression, she said probably no more than a month.  Maybe two weeks.  Maybe one.

Incomprehensible.  I literally don’t know how to comprehend.  I feel the immensity of this is more than my flesh knows how to allow in, to take into myself.  Though I have intentionally looked death in the eye over and over, have never turned away from its black looming form, despite holding the cold hands of my friends children, it remains a reality disparate, utterly apart from all I have known of this child who has only ever burst with life.

What I can tell you is that those close to me, dear to me, those whose beloveds have died, they long to be reunited with them.  And those that know Christ – their yearning has a specificity, a particular quality and dimension, a faint outline, their eyes keenly fixed on the shadow of what is promised, they have a yearning unlike anything they had previously known that draws them to the Lord, to call out with groaning for Christ to return, a desperation to leave this life and enter the next.  Mental assent to the concept of death and disease and sin is not enough.  One most know the gnawing of disease, the gaping hole of death, the ugly betrayal of sin in order to loosen the grip on this life, this world.

Ingrid Lyne’s sawed off head and foot were found Saturday afternoon in a recycling bin.  She was savagely murdered by the man she was dating.  She was a nurse at Swedish Hospital.  She was forty years old and the mother of three young girls.

On the same day that Ingrid was found, my friend’s brother-in-law jumped off an overpass in California.  He leaves behind his wife and sons.

A woman in our town suffering from postpartum psychosis, shot her husband in the back of the head, then her sixth month old baby before calling 911 and then shooting herself.

My friends have a box of all that remains of their little girls, ashes.

My sister-in-law grieves Jens’ body broken at the bottom of cliffs.

I have yelled ugly, belittling words at my children, the very children of my womb, the children I love.  I have harmed my husband and not made safe space for him, I have been guilty of immense selfishness and materialism and arrogance and gluttony and coveting.

My six year old little girl likely swept away, never to admire her hilarity again, to see the sweet compassion in her eyes, to rub her back at bed time, blow kisses…

And you ask me how I can groan for another life, for another world, for an altogether different sort of life?  How can I not?  How can I not scream with every raging cell of my body that children should not die, that depression should not destroy, that sin should not ravage?

The brutal unending brokenness of this life, this creation causes my eyes to rise, to lift up, to fix my gaze, my hopes on God.  Apart from hope of another world, another life, despair might likely dominate, or numbness or distraction.  God declares this of the life to come, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them.  They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old older of things has passed away.”  (Revelation 21:3)  This hope enables my to look full into the face of this agony, this dark, impending death, horrific violence, utter despair, and see the promise of more, of different, of other and my longing grows.

The bulk of my hope lies in a world yet unseen, in a reality promised but not yet experienced.  The irony is that this assurance of God fulfilling all His promises, of redeeming all our sorrows, of all the days of my life being of purpose and enveloped in a vast and beautiful plan, of putting away death and sin for eternity, this subsequent loosened grip on this life, it frees me up, it gives me buoyancy to more fully dwell here, now, intently, without having to turn away.  I don’t value this world and this life less because my eyes are fixed on the world to come.  No, I am freed up to relish and delight and claim beauty and good where ever it is to be found in this life and in turn to know that it is just a whisper of what is to come.

It is mystery and paradox but my very love of sunlight, of craggy rock and star scattered night, of cool scent of sage, of birdsong, of cytoplasm and nucleotides and whirling atoms, of ocean and whale and storm and tectonic plate, of magnetic pole and bursting suns and waves of the electromagnetic spectrum – they all call out – they all declare and sing and sing of God and I treasure them all and I am giddy before them and they point endlessly to the might and glory of my God. I don’t love the earth less because of my belief in God – I love it more, more, more for it is all His, it is all the expression of His wonder.  And if this is how I may treasure that which does not have spirit, how much more my fellow beings, crafted of but dust, but made alive by the breath of God?

Time is short and I must go.  My words fall short as I try to grasp for words to put some beginnings of dimension and color to this mystery – this agonizing that comes from the thought that we may really soon lose Allistaire and yet – this brutality is all interwoven, caught up in realities far vaster, hopes that sustain the heart that tastes death.

The day has begun and Allistaire is already calling out in pain, pain in her legs and her first dose of morphine.  I have already emailed Dr. Cooper to ask about another CD33 targeting drug (a sort of next generation Mylotarg drug) in clinical trial for adults – could it be an option for Allistaire?  Could we get it on a compassionate use basis?  And you know what – that drug – it comes from a sea hare, from the symbiotic relationship it has with the algae it eats, from some molecule that is formed in its gut.  So you see, even in the midst of the most brutal ravaging, there He is, there is God not waiting to give us life only in the life to come, but in the most wondrous of ways, declaring, I am here!  Look how I love you!  Look how I have gone before you and provided for you.  Look how I have compassion on your suffering.  Look low here and now and behold that I am God – be in awe – see what I have made and if you think this is good, well just wait and see, this is only a tiny smattering of the glory to come.  Come Lord come!!!!!

We meet with Dr. Cooper and Dr. Bleakley at 11am today.

 

Stirrings

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IMG_2802 IMG_2798 IMG_2794 IMG_2791IMG_2811I grew up in a land of unfoldings.  A land where one must bend low, look now, another unfurling.  A land of delicate magic, intricate.  Stepping over branches slick, footsteps quiet on the soft underfloor of forest.  Ferns unwinding, their beings all folded up tight in complex arrangement, arching their backs, rising toward the light filtering down to them from high in the silhouettes of tree tops.  Little ferns with leaves paper-thin, bright green in direct light, countless shapes repeating.  Fuzzy juicy stalks and delicate sleek black ones.  Mosses creeping, covering like downy shawl a glorious, vigorous green.  Everywhere lush.  I recall making a fern fort once.  Ripping up scores of Lady Ferns, weaving them into walls and overhanging.  I lay down upon the mossy floor and looked up through that scattered light, the greens bright like stained glass.  Ferns and moss, resplendent greens of life unrelenting, delicate yet most resilient.  Two gifts of this earth instantly inciting glee in my heart.  Like Thoreau, I repeat, “I think my own soul must be a bright invisible green.”

And birds.  Oh the birds.  Fat breasted robins calling in the early morning when light has only begun to seep.  Chatterings, bushes alive with tiny throbbing birds.  Evening calls as day calms toward night.  The days are lengthening.  Crocuses and daffodils thrust up from the dirt.  Cherry blossoms pink, forsythia and azalea.  Tiny white clusters like thick stars on the limbs of apple trees.  This is something Washington has that our home in Montana never will.  Spring.  Winter turns almost suddenly to summer in Montana and doesn’t come until June.  But here, in this land, the drear of February, a time when the weariness of winter starts to become intolerable, it catches you off guard…there, did you see it?  Stirrings.  Hints that winter will not forever stake its claim.  In the cold of ground and the rigidness of trees and branches, life still courses.  Somehow what looked vacant, dead, unmovable, is everything to the contrary.  Nay, there is an overcoming, some inner working unseen to my eyes, yet with such vigor as to burst through rock and soil and press out of wood and limb.  A draw from distant lands, a call for the birds to return.

Spring is as sure as anything in this life.  We know it deep in our flesh, our own veins course with anticipation.  An inclining.  An unconscious arching toward light, a yearning to feel warmth of light and freshness of breeze.  Some mineral tang on the tongue that declares life never ceases, though all appears to disagree.  That’s what we’re banking on, that is what moves us through our days.  A hope.  Hope.  Such an overused word.  But no, no.  It is not merely some ancient knowledge that the earth will continue spinning on its axis, marking countless days and nights and a relentless orbit that will always swing back toward sun.  No.  Hope is unique to our humanity.  Hope looks about and not only says, but proclaims, what I see now is not all that there is, there may indeed be more and different.  Hope looks forward.  Hope is the very essence of endurance.

There are stirrings in the woods, stirrings of song and light and delicate unfurlings that press against the dark and the cold.  It makes me giddy.  Giddy that death will never ultimately overcome.  Giddy that the world is arcing in its orbit toward the sun.  Giddy that one day the land will be bursting with life and the sun will rule the day and their will be an unstoppable flourishing.  Abundance will mark life.  No longer scarcity.  No longer mere grasps at survival.  No longer decay and death.  The greens are unfurling.  The birds have begun to call out to the morning.  Spring is that tangible bright expression of the hope that courses through me.

And I have much to be giddy about.  Hope abounds.

The land is wakening and it lightens the step and everywhere there is more to smile about.  And Allistaire is doing just so surprisingly well.  Dr. Sohel Meshinchi, our current BMT (Bone Marrow Transplant) clinic attending doctor, has ended our last several clinic visits with the statement, “I have no concerns.”  This is like balm to the feverish forehead of a cancer parent.  Her labs continue to look great and even improve.  Her red blood and platelets are recovering, with platelet transfusions being spread out to one or two a week, whereas they had been every day to every-other day.  Robin, our clinic nurse the other day said with glee, “Look Jai, look here at her ANC (Absolute Neutrophil Count), it’s normal.”  She looked at me with shining eyes.  Normal.  2,612  What an amazing number.  What a wonder?!  Normal.  Imagine that!!!!  Her liver function numbers have improved substantially and are only slightly high, her kidneys continue to do well and her BNP (measure of heart distress) was down to 119 the other day, a gorgeously low lab value.  She continues to be CMV negative (Cytomegalovirus which can reactivate).  Her weight is good as her appetite improves and taste buds return to normal.  She has begun to eat salad, and even declares its tasty with the exception of the one half of one grape tomato I force upon her which causes her to dramatically grimace and gag every single time.  She skips and paints and rides her bike and sings really loud with her headphones on.

Today marks Day+43 post transplant.  We are still very early in this very long process.  My brother asked me a while back, when we would know if the transplant was successful.  Success is multi-pronged in this situation.  The first mark of success is that she has survived the actual transplant process itself.  Her body and specifically, her heart was not overwhelmed by the cytokine storm of the infusion of the donor cells, nor the hyper-hydration necessary with the chemo.  The cyclophosphamide did not cause the slim but terrifyingly possible acute heart damage.  Her lungs did not bleed nor did she have the brain damage possible with MMF.  Her liver remained healthy despite the increased risk of VOD brought on by several rounds of Mylotarg.  Her graft did not fail, rather Sten’s cells have latched on forcefully resulting in 100% chimerisms.  Her marrow is clear of detectable cancer both by Flow Cytometry and cytogenetics.  Thus far, her transplant has been a success.  It is a beautiful surprise.  Allistaire’s golden birthday is coming up soon and honestly, as I look back, this is the fifth birthday that I never knew would come and had much reason to think it never would.  It is the fifth time we have had cause to celebrate life that might not have been, life that has been relentlessly hounded by cancer.  But hope has continued to mark our days, and now years.

This next phase of transplant continues to be about making sure the cancer is kept away and about being on guard for GVHD (Graft Versus Host Disease).  Every two weeks she gets a LP (Lumbar Puncture) in which Intrathecal Chemo is given and a sample is withdrawn to check for disease.  This means chemo is placed directly into her spinal fluid as it can be a “sanctuary for leukemia,” given the blood/brain barrier that does not otherwise allow chemotherapy to pass through.  While CNS (Central Nervous System) relapse is less common in AML (Acute Myeloid Leukemia) than in ALL (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia), the more common form of childhood leukemia, it is still a danger.  She will get 5 LPs in all post-transplant.  So far, her LPs have not detected any cancer in the spinal fluid.  She will also be getting a BMA (Bone Marrow Aspirate), and PET/CT on March 15th.  Typically BMAs are done post transplant only on Day+28 and Day+80.  But for high risk patients they include another intermediate BMA.  March 15th will be her first PET/CT since November and before her last round of chemo pre-transplant.  At that time, her body was clear of chloromas with the exception of those in her sinuses, which had reduced in bulk from the previous round of chemo but were still present along with one new small chloroma.  While her sinuses received 5 fractions of focal radiation and her body was barraged with TBI (Total Body Irradiation) and systemic chemo (fludarabine and cyclophosphamide), I am still nervous about this upcoming scan.  Her cancer has defied countless assaults, its tenacity awe-inspiring and terror invoking.

At this point, there is no evidence of her disease.  I rejoice at this and simultaneously remain on high alert, knowing “no evidence of disease,” in no way means we can confidently say there is no disease.  The other significant issue the doctors and I are ever watchful of is GVHD (Graft Versus Host Disease). GVHD is when the donor cells attack the host (Allistaire), most commonly in the skin, gut and liver.  GVHD is always a concern in bone marrow transplants but especially so in Allistaire’s case because of the much greater mismatch to Sten.  Common symptoms of GVHD include skin rashes, tummy pain which can cause the patient to stop eating, diarrhea, and elevated LFTs (Liver Function Tests).  There is a strange love-hate dance with GVHD.  GVHD can severely impact quality of life and even cause death.  What starts out small can suddenly turn into “rip-roaring GVHD,” so caution and response is necessary.  But the treatment for GVHD has its own consequences.  Immune suppressants such as prednisone and cyclosporine are given to tamp down the aggravated response of the T-cells.  However, not only can these drugs have devastating effects on bones and joints (it’s not uncommon for teenagers to get hip and knee replacements), but the rest of the patient’s immune system is suppressed along with the T-cells causing the GVHD.  This means the body’s ability to fight infection is radically diminished, again sometimes resulting in death from infection.  In addition to the complications to be avoided from responding with medication to GVHD, the doctors actually want some GVHD.  The thing is, when the donor cells are ramped up and attacking the host/patient, there is also the potential for the GVL effect (Graft Versus Leukemia) or GVT (Graft Versus Tumor in non-leukemic transplant patients).  This is the secret weapon of stem cell transplants, an army roving the body to wipe out anything foreign which includes any lingering cancer cells.  The hope of a transplant as a cure for cancer does not rely solely on the intensity of the conditioning, but rather, the more sophisticated element of the transplant is its micro soldiers that infiltrate the whole body and have the lasting ability to eradicate cancer.  This is the  “immunotherapy” element of a transplant.  This is where I swoon.  Don’t you just love it?  And it has taken decades of research to begin to tap these mysteries.

A virus has taken up residence in Allistaire.  Interestingly, it is a virus which even the most sensitive viral tests at SCCA cannot identify, never the less, she has had copious amounts of snot and some coughing.  It is her first cold in over a year at least.  With this virus we have seen what may be a small flare of GVHD, evidenced by a red spotted rash on her cheeks, spreading out from near her nose.  Additionally, there seems to be a bit of a bumpy, slightly patchy pink rash on parts of her arms, back and chest.  I was instructed to watch carefully for its advance both in terms of spread and speed.  When Allistaire received the infusion of Sten’s stem cells (say that 5 times fast), she was given some mature blood cells from his peripheral blood but primarily his stem cells.  Because the mature blood cells she received from her have mostly died out at this point, the immune fighting cells in Allistaire’s body are immature and have never been exposed to pathogens and are presently “uncoordinated” in their assault on this viral invader.  Hence, both the virus and places like her skin are under attack.  Apparently this pairing of having a virus and a flare of GVHD is very common.  In fact, when there is evidence of GVHD, the doctors then go looking for an infection.

The other possible cause of this potential GVHD flare is the removal of one of her immunsuppressants and the tapering of the other.  According to the protocol for her transplant, her MMF was to be stopped at Day+35.  Typically at SCCA they would rather taper the MMF rather than stop it abruptly.  However, Allistaire has clearly and repeatedly demonstrated that she has very aggressive disease putting her at extremely high risk for relapse even now.  Removing the immune suppressants releases the hold on the T-cells which we hope will identify and wipe out any remaining cancer cells. For this reason, the doctors are very motivated to remove all immune suppression as rapidly as is safe to do so.    So about a week ago her MMF was stopped all together.  Then this Monday, 2/22, we began to taper her tacrolimus on Day+41, whereas the protocol calls for the taper to begin on Day+180.  During this tapering process, she will be “watched like a hawk,” as the BMT staff seems to like to say, looking for any signs of GVHD and potentially backing off or slowing down on her taper if necessary.  I am told that in these Haplo transplants, it is more common to see GVHD later than in unrelated-matched donor transplants (probably because of the post-transplant cyclophosphamide).  More typically, acute GVHD is seen around Day+60 and later.

There is in the transplant world a magic number.  One-hundred.  One-hundred days is a song, like some mantra, some enchantment, a mystical goal out there in the fog.  The standard is that, baring any serious complications, a patient’s Hickman line is pulled on Day+100 and is allowed at long last, to return home.  I haven’t calculated the date exactly, but I know in Allistaire’s case, Day+100 is somewhere around mid-April.  It’s out there.  The date I avoid, I skirt around.  I only allow it to linger in my periphery.  I will not look it straight on.  I am too well acquainted with disappointment.  I keep my head down and we trudge on, willing ourselves not to be tired, not to be discouraged.

In August 2013, I was told in the most direct way, that Allistaire’s only chance for survival was a second bone marrow transplant.  At that time, she was only Day+50 post her first transplant.  You must wait an absolute minimum of six months between transplants to even have a chance of survival.  For us that meant December.  December was impossibly far off and the idea of going through it all over again was the most overwhelming moment of my life.  People say the day of diagnosis is the worst.  I most heartily disagree.  When you are diagnosed, most of the time you have a plan, a means of response, hope that you can make it through.  But what about when you’ve done the thing you came to do?  You tried the big gun.  And it just didn’t work.  It wasn’t enough.  And now your foe is even stronger than when you first began because it has mutated and become resistant at the very same moment that you are at your weakest, your most worn-down.  But then Allistaire went back into remission with one round of chemo and there continued to be no more evidence of her disease as she completed a total of seven rounds of chemo post transplant.  So when the day came for her one-year post-transplant follow-up and all looked well, I kept quiet.  I was so very tired you see.  I never asked about that second transplant.  I just smiled and let myself finally feel a bit at ease.

Looking back, I understand the depth of that woman’s fatigue, but part of me screams, “You fool!”  What if we had done that second transplant then?  Her body was in great shape.  No heart failure.  No evidence of disease.  A perfect time really for a second transplant.  But I didn’t ask.  I was tired.  I just wanted to run as fast as could out of that cancer world and have a shot at normal life.  Well, really I can’t remember if I asked or not.  But even if I did, I must have accepted that answer.  I’m not going to let that happen this time, no matter how weary I may be.  I keep pressing the question.  What are we doing to help prevent relapse?  Okay, okay, we’ll do that, but what else can we do?  What about this?  What about that?  As with so much in the world of cancer treatment, we are dealing in the world of utter unknowns.  Dr. Meshinchi told me today that Allistaire’s specific MLL (Multi-Lineage Leukemia) translocation where chromosome 11 just broke off and attached to another chromosome, is unique among the 3,000 pediatric AML samples he has in his database.  There is no data to say what someone is Allistaire’s very unique situation most benefits from.  And every form of treatment has the potential for side-effects and the question is always, are those potential risks worth the unknown, untried benefit?

For now the plan is this: we will rapidly taper off all immune suppressants as fast as possible while trying to avoid GVHD in any severity.  The hope is to allow the T-cells to have the brakes taken off of them and allow them free reign to roam wide and vigorously to eliminate any remaining cancer cells.  Ironically, if there is no evidence of GVHD, we are planning on a bold move, rarely attempted, to elicit a GVHD response.  The goal is to be off of all immune suppressants by Day+100 and if at that time there has been no evidence of GVHD, Allistaire will be given DLI (Donor Lymphocyte Infusion).  DLI is an infusion of just lymphocytes from Sten.  There are probably enough stored cells from his stem cell donation to get the necessary number of lymphocytes.  If not, he can do a simple blood donation which would not require GCSF shots because it would not include stem cells.  These donor lymphocytes would be infused into Allistaire in hopes that the white-blood cell hunters will recognize Allistaire as foreign and go on the war-path.  Soheil does not recall them ever trying this “prophylactic” DLI approach.  DLI has been given in the context of minimal residual disease in hopes to wipe out tiny bits of cancer, but never or very rarely when there is no actual evidence of disease.  If she were to get DLI and it was well tolerated, she would be given a larger second dose about a month later.  This also means that we have a good chance of having to be out in Seattle longer.  It is all a matter of waiting and seeing.

A few weeks ago I found myself feeling extremely down, baffled and frustrated with my deep sense of sadness.  We had just been discharged from the hospital and moved into our apartment at Ronald McDonald House.  Allistaire was doing amazingly well, yet I could not shake saturating sadness.  It was an act of will to hold back the tide of tears threatening to swamp my little boat.  Perhaps like a runner in an ultra-marathon, having finally made it through transplant, I found all my reserves of energy come crashing down.  I felt tired to my very core.  When I tried to force myself to look up, all I could see were the sad, tired faces of my friends who have lost their children.  I kept thinking of Stevie and Lilly reduced to ashes.  How many?  Sara, Ruby, Mario, Benton, Jaxon, Tristin, Christian, Pantpreet, Nolan, Jordan, Marleigh, Howie, Cyrus, Zach, Karlee, Bella, Lilly, Stevie.  These are the children who have died in the time Allistaire has been in treatment – children and/or their parents that I have known – not even close to the total number that have died.  These are the faces I have known.  Though I have much to rejoice in with Allistaire’s progress, it has sometimes felt like her death is inevitable, just a matter of time.  Sometimes my whole vision is consumed with the bright faces of children gone still.  Home and a life freed from the grips of cancer sometimes seems like an impossible dream.

But there are stirrings see?  Whisperings.  Eyes a blaze with zeal.  Minds whirling with ideas.  Happenings.  Little discoveries and victories that are starting to turn the tide.  As the earth has reached the furthest reaches of its orbit, it has begun its journey back toward the sun, the earth warming and throbbing with life, unfurling.  There are stirrings too in the world of cancer research.  Great wonders have begun to be revealed.  While it has literally taken decades and decades of research to get here, there is now starting to be a new world of promising cancer treatments which look in and down to the genetic level, down to the world of molecules.  Immunotherapy, in which the intricacies of a patient’s own immune system is harnessed to track down and obliterate cancer while sparing healthy cells, is making incredible advances.  Like a wild-fire that starts with a mere spark, so it seems is the world of immunotherapy.  There is hope that the world of cancer treatment is on the verge of a tremendous revolution.  There is hope that we are on the cusp of seeing a future for cancer patients that will look radically different from that dominated by the standard weaponry of chemotherapy and radiation.

Right at the center of this immunotherapy revolution in cancer treatment is our much beloved Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.  Check out this article from The Huffington Post that tells about the successes of Dr. Stanley Riddell of Fred Hutch which has yielded amazing results: putting cancer patients who have failed all other forms of treatment into remission at staggering rates using T-cells.  Everywhere I turn at Fred Hutch there are new amazing trials and areas of research underway.  Allistaire’s clinic attending, Dr. Soheil Meshinchi, and our dear Dr. Marie Bleakley are working on designing TCR T-cells that target highly specific proteins found only on leukemic cells.  I sit and ask Soheil question after question and listen with mouth gaping, on the edge of my seat, eager to hear where the world is headed.

But there have also been moments as I’ve sat in wonder that I also find myself grieving.  All of these advances are far too late for the eighteen children whose names I listed above.  Much is even too late for Allistaire.  Just four years have passed since she was first diagnosed and already the treatment of AML has changed.  There are new tests done at the point of diagnosis to better determine what course of treatment works best with the individual’s unique disease.  There are new treatment options that simply did not previously exist. It was only in April 2012 that the very first child was treated with genetically modified T-cells.  I wonder what it would be like if Allistaire were diagnosed today, rather than four years ago.  How much better would her chance of survival be?  I also hear Soheil mention over and over again, “it’s a matter or resources…if we had the resources…”  Resources!!!!!  Sometimes I want to scream.  So you mean, if you had the resources you could do this and this and this and give my child the treatment she so desperately needs?  But you see, resources are scarce and government funding has been in short supply.  These very brilliant, intelligent brains that should be devoting their time and energy to research, to what their good at, have been having to run around trying to scrape up money to keep their labs going, to find a way to pay to design that test, that piece of equipment, get the research from the lab to treatment in the clinic.

You know what I want to see?  I want to see cancer research accelerated so that fewer kids and moms and brothers and friends have to have their lives cut short.  I want to see treatments that actually cure! I want to see treatments that cure without poisoning hearts and kidneys and brains!  I want to watch in wonder as scientists learn to use our very own beautiful, wild, amazing immune systems to obliterate cancer.  And science is science – all these advances in understanding the genetic base for not only cancer, but for so many diseases, and how to make genetic modifications and therapies promises to benefit lives touching each one of us!

I’m going to get on my bike again this summer of 2016 and ride to accelerate research, to save lives faster, to obliterate cancer.  I’m on Team Baldy Tops again this year in Obliteride and I’d love to have you join us!  Come on out the weekend of August 13-14th and ride with us.  There are routes for every skill level, from 10 miles to 150 miles.  If you’re not up for riding, you can still join our team as a virtual rider and raise funds for cancer research.  And easiest of all, you can donate!  One-hundred percent of all funds raised in Obliteride go to cancer research at Fred Hutch!

Hope is being able to imagine a world that looks different than it does now.  The cold and dark of winter is turning toward the bright zeal of spring.  One day kids diagnosed with cancer won’t have to die, but can be cured and go on to flourish in this life.  One day your mom, your wife, your sister, your daughter won’t have to fear breast and ovarian cancer and having to make the brutal choice of whether or not to cut out chunks of her womanhood.  One day you won’t have to watch your dad whither away or lose your best friend.  While my ultimate hope for life overcoming death rests in Jesus Christ and His promises of redemption, resurrection and a new heaven and a new earth, it is joy to see His grace in this lifetime as this vicious disease has begun to meet its match.

I will ride in Obliteride again this year because I will forever be indebted to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.  Allistaire would not be alive today were it not for the research, the clinical trials and the treatment she has received through Fred Hutch.  I ride in gratitude for my child’s life.  I ride in sorrow for the children I’ve known who have died.  I ride in hope for cures for cancer!

Check out this great video of Allistaire promoting Obliteride, now showing in movie theaters in the Seattle area.

Donate HERE to support me in Obliteride to end cancer!

Check out all the details at Obliteride.org

See what Obliteride looked like last summer and catch glimpses of our awesome Team Baldy Tops

Learn more about Immunotherapy

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Transplant, Haplo-Style

Standard

FullSizeRender-18FullSizeRender-34FullSizeRender-35FullSizeRender-9FullSizeRender-16FullSizeRender-15FullSizeRender-10FullSizeRender-11FullSizeRender-12FullSizeRender-11FullSizeRender-7You look out upon a field studded with rocks, rocks small that huddle together in the hand like eggs in a nest, fist-sized rocks, rocks you think if you gave them all your strength you could heave up out of that earth, hold to your chest, hugging them round with your arms.  And here and there, a few scattered boulders.  Boulders, monoliths, enormities that stand silhouetted against the sky.

How can I ever gather them all?  The task overwhelms.  Scattered all about they don’t look like much.  Yet to convey the enormity of the day, one massive boulder would never suffice.  No, all those rocks would be necessary.  And not just a great pile, no, no, an intricately designed wall.  Or better yet, something yet more complex: a dome formed with each rock set carefully in place.  Rock against rock.  Force pressing up against force.  Rocks tucked tight so that the tension could somehow hold up the curvature.

To come to this day, this day seemingly like hundreds of others, has required a hundred thousand minute steps.  How many times has a nurse “entered” her line?  Fifteen seconds of scrub time.  Fifteen seconds of dry time.  How many sets of vitals?  How many CBCs (Complete Blood Count)?  How many echos and bone marrow biopsies?  How many times have her cells gone hurtling past a laser, striking that electron off to release a burst of energy at a precise wavelength to reveal its identity?  How many transfusions of red blood and platelets?  How many emails flying back and forth between doctors, careful to consider all facets of her case, what will be best? What meds?  What protocols?  How many great hurdles overcome?  How many slim possibilities made real?

When at last the time came, when at last word came that, “the cells are here,” and the room began to flood with folk, tears came quick.  Tears of being just plain overwhelmedly grateful.  The weight of the bounty, the absolute wonder of all that has taken place to bring us to this day.  This day.  This day of transplant.  This day of hope, of an open door, of another gift, another opportunity to pull a weapon from the scabbard and thrust it into the heart of those cancer cells.  And the faces…faces dear to us, faces with whom the most difficult possible conversations have taken place.  Faces beaming with joy for having walked long segments of this road with us.  And though the faces of many were not present, I saw them still.  In my mind there I saw Dr. Pollard, Dr. Gardner, Dr. Tarlock, Dr. Cooper, Dr. Berstein, Dr. Law, Dr. Kemna, Dr. Hong, Dr. Albers, the faces of countless nurses, of pathologists, and lab techs, Mohammed and Bonnie.  The list could go on and on.  If this was a Golden Globe I’d be kicked off the stage.

And there was something so poignant about the setting.  The plan had been all along to put Allistaire in the ICU for the most crucial, dangerous portions of transplant.  The ICU has many more means of monitoring her heart and an array of cardiac meds that cannot be given on the Cancer Unit.  Allistaire cannot be handled by standard protocols alone.  Everything that happens with intense immune responses result in the potential for great fluid shifts which in turn can radically impact the heart.  The first event of concern was simply receiving her cells.  As with all blood products, there is always the risk of an allergic type reaction, but even more significant is the possibility of a “cytokine storm,” due to the large mis-match between Sten’s stem cells and her own body.  It is like two great waves crashing into one another.  This clash of contrasts can result in a cascade of immune system signally and response that can be severe enough to be fatal.

When I asked the nurse what room we would be in the ICU, my mouth dropped at her response.  Forest PICU 6 room 321.  The very room we spent 70 of the 80 days Allistaire was in the PICU last January through April.  So as the morning turned to afternoon and the cells finally began to flow into her line, and the “Happy Transplant Day,” song was ended, and someone yelled, “Speech!” – I simply could not resist.  I could not resist proclaiming the wonder that we had come full circle, that in the span of one entire year, we had returned to this very room to at long last enter this gauntlet of transplant.  As I stood there before that little throng of medical staff and family, the bare white unadorned walls of this agonizingly familiar ICU room constraining, my heart was bursting, my few words fumbling to offer up a naming of gift and thanks.  Thanks for each person present and not present who has so faithfully, and graciously and compassionately done their part.  We have each put our head into the wind and pressed forward though relentlessly buffeted, somehow forward motion has been attained and as we look back, wow, wow, who can believe we have covered such a great distance?!

In the center of the room, a bright flash of spirit.  Allistaire Kieron Anderson, a spirit whose light is like sparkling pink lemonade, giddy, curls upon curls, curls of blonde hair tinged in pink and curves of cheek and chin with light glinting out of her blue eyes.  Lord, you make a crazy claim, one hard to fathom, sometimes hard to swallow, yet simultaneously gorgeous and wondrous:  You know all of our days before one of them comes to be (Psalm 139:16).  I have sought your face, I have yearned to walk this life held in You and one year ago, you said, “Come, follow Me, take my hand and let us walk this way, down this road leading into darkness,” as alarms blared on pumps and CT scans and echocardiograms declared disaster. I don’t know the road ahead, but as I turn, craning my neck back to look down that dark road behind me, hand gripped in Yours, I am simply in awe, in awe of the dangers and sorrows, of tears that threatened to drown and always Your hand, never letting go, and always Your Word, Your quiet voice entreating me to fix my eyes on You, on You and rest child, rest, rest in Me though all around you, you feel the ground giving way and the night presses in thick and you can’t seem to catch your breath, and the teeth flash and your whole being groans.

And startlingly, here we are, we have circled back around.  The obvious question is, “Why?  Why Lord?  What was the point of all that?  I mean really, really, did we really have to take what feels like a year-long detour through treacherous territory only to come back to where we started yet more bloodied and bruised, wounds deep?”  So much lost.  So much time.  So much separation.  So much damage.  So very many tears.  The lacerations and scars are easy to see yet don’t begin to reveal the depth of ravaging.  What is harder still to see is the other-worldly beauty, the treasure often imperceptible.  Seeds in dirt don’t look like much.  Seeds sailing on winds…The Lord’s aim has never been transplant.  He aims for my heart, for all hearts and sometimes in great peril and pressing darkness we are more able to see aright, to incline our ear to His voice, to have His Word made full and pulsing with life, our stiff necks bend low and we come to worship the God of creation as never before.  Getting to transplant has never been hard for the Lord.  To say that it has been trivial in His sight sounds callous only when I fail to set it against the enormity of His heart for me, for me a child of Adam, a child of God.  But I have no doubt God smiled broad and His face beamed as we gathered in that small room and were witness to the marvel of the human body, to the tenacious brokenness of creation, to the wonders of medicine and human endeavor, and to hope, hope for a way through.

I don’t know the road ahead and there is the quiver of trepidation, knowing there are still many dangers.  But on this gray January day with rain intent on saturating, my heart feels heavy and full, full with the satiation of joy and full of yearning to keep leaning in, inclining my face to the face of my God.  I look at this little girl and marvel that I should be so blessed to call her daughter and to walk this road with her, to hold her sweet little hand along the way, and to incline my ear to the pleasure of her small sweet voice, a voice proclaiming dreams of a future and joy for the present, delight in simply putting color down on paper, color alongside color alongside color.

Allistaire has made it through five fractions of focal radiation to the chloromas in her sinuses, eight fractions of TBI (Total Body Irradiation), three doses of the chemotherapy Fludarabine, all in preparation, a “conditioning,” for transplant.  The only direct immediate result has been fatigue and a C-Diff (Clostridium Difficule) infection due to the effects of radiation on her gut for which she is now on Flagel.  On Monday, on her day of rest, Sten’s birthday, Sten received his fifth and final shot of GCSF (Granulocyte Colony Stimulating Factor).  Then, in the early afternoon over the course of several hours, his blood was pulled out, and through the action of centrifugal force, the lighter weight white blood cells including CD34 stem cells, were separated out and the remaining blood returned, a process known as apherisis.  In total, the goal of 5-6 million CD34 cells/kg was achieved in a mere 187ml of Sten’s blood.  Sten’s blood was then processed, having both the red blood cells and platelets removed because of the antibodies Allistaire has formed against them.  When that bag of orangish red blood arrived in Allistaire’s room on Transplant Day, it contained nearly 120 million CD34 stem cells within 148 ml.

Due to extreme weariness at countless plans dashed, I felt no need to explain this transplant of Allistaire’s until it actually came to fruition.  So at last it is clearly time to explain what we’re doing here because truly there are so many different types of bone marrow transplants, each specially designed and chosen to fit with the uniqueness of the patient and their disease.  In order to make any sense of what is happening in Allistaire’s transplant, a brief overview of bone marrow transplants seems necessary.  When transplants were first developed by Dr. Donnall Thomas of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in the 1960’s and 70’s, the goal was to have the ability to use extreme doses of chemotherapy and radiation to destroy a leukemia patient’s bone marrow, the source of their cancer, and then “rescue” them by giving an infusion of another person’s bone marrow.  Without this “rescue,” the obliterated marrow could never recover and the patient would die.  Only later was it discovered that a key component of a bone marrow transplant’s potential to cure comes from the immunotherapy effect of Graft Versus Leukemia (GVL).  More about that in a bit.

All bone marrow transplants  begin with “conditioning,” which primarily attempts to eradicate any remaining cancer cells and to make way for the incoming stem cells.  Patients have the highest chance of a “successful” transplant when they go into transplant in remission which is generally defined as little to no detectable disease.  In Leukemia this means 5% or less disease in the marrow and ideally no extramedullary disease (cancer cells which form tumors outside of the marrow).  Each transplant protocol has specific requirements regarding disease status which determines whether or not a patient will be approved to move forward with a transplant.  Additionally, there are numerous conditions of health, especially regarding the major organs (heart, liver, kidneys, etc).  Determining which specific transplant regimen is best for the patient requires a great deal of data gathering and consideration.  All have variable elements of benefit and risk.

The two key defining components of a bone marrow transplant are the type of conditioning and the stem cell source.  There are a number of different types and doses of chemotherapy which may be used in conditioning.  Additionally, a patient may or may not also receive radiation as part of conditioning.  Sometimes the radiation is focused only on certain areas of the body where there have been or are tumors, or only the lymph nodes may be targeted.  In Allistaire’s case, she had both focal radiation and TBI (Total Body Irradiation) which sends radiation throughout the entire body.  Depending on the patient’s health, they may or may not be able to endure full intensity conditioning.  For older transplant patients who may not be in optimal health, “mini transplants,” were developed by Dr. Rainer Storb, also of Fred Hutch Cancer Research.  In patients like Allistaire who have one or more major organ systems that have been compromised, intensity of conditioning is an enormous consideration.  While Dr. Bleakley was very hesitant to give Allistaire a full-intensity conditioning transplant given the status of her heart, the extreme aggressiveness of her disease necessitated this in order to give her any chance of a cure.

The second component that distinguishes a transplant, is the stem cell source used for “rescue” after the marrow has been decimated. This might be may very favorite part of transplant.  Rescue.  A word conjuring up vivid, dramatic images, harrowing situations, bravery, sacrifice, love.  To read specifically about about the beauty of “rescue,” as I wrote about in Allistaire’s first transplant click HERE.  Originally, all transplants used whole marrow as the stem cell source which meant all donors had bone marrow removed directly from their bones.  In time, a method was developed for harvesting stem cells from the peripheral blood with the aid of GCSF (Granulocyte Colony Stimulating Factor).  GCSF promotes the production of stem cells in the marrow and their mobilization into the peripheral blood where they are collected by apherisis.  This is the means by which Sten donated his stem cells.  Lastly, the most recently developed stem cell source is that of cord blood.  Cord blood is blood that is extracted from the umbilical cord of a newborn baby.  Mothers can opt to donate their child’s cord blood which is then registered with the National Marrow Registry and banked, awaiting a person in need of a transplant.  It should be noted that some cancer patients have their own stem cells harvested and then reinfused after conditioning.  This type of transplant is known as an Autologous transplant.  However, whenever a particular blood cell line itself is the source of a patient’s cancer, as in the case of leukemia, they cannot be “rescued,” with their own stem cells as these are the source of their cancer.  In an Allogeneic transplant, the patient receives another person’s stem cells.

Many clinical trials have been conducted exploring the risks and benefits of diverse combinations of conditioning regimens and stem cell sources.  However, a major consideration in determining what type of stem cell source to use in a patient’s transplant is simply availability.  To receive someone else’s bone marrow fundamentally means you are receiving another person’s immune system.  Our immune system is able to accomplish the extraordinary defense of our bodies in large part because of its ability to identify “self” and “other.”  This is actually why cancer is so hard to eradicate.  In essence, the immune system of a person with cancer has failed to identify their cancer cells as “other.”  This is because cancer cells develop from normal healthy cells.  The goal of virtually all cancer treatment is to discern and target the subtle differences between healthy cells and cancer cells.  Typically a prospective transplant patient is “matched” to the greatest degree possible with the incoming stem cells so that the incoming cells look as close to “self” as possible.  This is done through HLA typing.  On human’s chromosome 6, there is a grouping of genes that encode for Human Leukocyte Antigens (HLA) which are then presented on the cell surface of all cells in a person’s body.  It is like a bar code (in the form of cell surface proteins) used as a unique identifier for that person.  These HLA proteins are what distinguish one individual person from another and are what allow a person’s immune system to identify “self” from “other.”  The immune system aims to identify and destroy anything “other.”  For this reason, it is essential that there be a significant degree of HLA matching between the patient and the incoming stem cells.  Otherwise, the patient’s own immune system would heartily attack and destroy the incoming stem cells.  When this happens it is known as “graft failure.”

Another potentially severe complication of a HLA mismatch between patient and donor is known as GVHD (Graft Versus Host Disease).  In this situation, the incoming donor cells may identify the patient’s body as “other” and set about attacking the patient’s tissues, most commonly the skin, gut and liver.  GVHD can even be fatal.  The ways to prevent or reduce GVHD have typically been to select the highest degree of HLA matching and/or give the patient immune suppressants which suppress the immune fighting T-cells within the graft/donor cells.  A major down side of immune suppressants is that they also suppress the incoming immune system’s ability to fight infection which can often lead to life-threatening infections.  As research into GVHD progresses, scientists are learning more about what subsets of T-cells are responsible for the majority of GVHD.  Dr. Bleakley has been conducting a clinical trial in which the “naive T-cells” are depleted or removed from the donor cells prior to infusion into the transplant patient. This has succeeded in substantially reducing the incidence of chronic GVHD.  Click HERE to read more about this fascinating research yielding substantially better results.

The highest degree of HLA matching is a 10 out of 10 match, which means the patient’s cells share the same genetic code as the donor cells at the ten major points on Chromosome 6.  In order to accomplish this matching, patient and donor most often share very similar ethnicity.  It is more difficult to find a good match for those patients who are ethnically diverse, whose ethnicity is rarer or derives from parts of the world in which there is very low Bone Marrow Registry participation.  For example, one of our friend’s was from the indigenous tribes of Guatemala.  Her specific ethnicity is simply rare in the world.  Another friend with sickle-cell was Ugandan, a part of the world with very little registry participation.  Almost amusingly, in Allistaire’s case she may be “too white,” in that she has never had a single match within the United States.  Her matched donors have always been found through the German registry.  She was unable to participate in Dr. Bleakley’s naive t-cell depleted protocol because it requires a U.S. donor.  For this reason, patients will have better transplant options when more people join the Bone Marrow Registry, thus increasing the likelihood that the patient can find a match.  For patients who have no sufficient bone marrow matches, cord blood can be a good option because it must be matched at fewer points (max of 6 out of 6).  Again, this is why donating your newborn’s cord can literally save a life!

As noted, the two major distinguishing components of a stem cell transplant are the type of conditioning and the type of stem cell source.  There is no one right transplant as each patient comes into needing transplant in varying degrees of health, disease status and access to stem cell source.  Allistaire went into her first stem cell transplant in June 2013 with nearly 70% disease in her marrow and 9 chloromas/tumors.  Otherwise her body was “healthy.”  Nevertheless, because of the enormity of her disease, she was only able to receive a transplant because of a specific transplant clinical trial through Fred Hutch that did not require remission.  She would have been dead long ago had it not been for that clinical trial.  When Allistaire relapsed again in October 2014 and needed a second transplant, we were aiming to use the “naive T-cell depleted transplant,” which did require remission.  Fortunately remission was attained but Allistaire had no U.S. matches and Dr. Bleakley set about trying to gain permission from the FDA and the German registry to allow Allistaire to use the available matched German donor from outside the U.S.

However, last January the cumulative effect of her years of chemotherapy and the severe typhlitus infection put her into heart failure.  She no longer qualified for transplant because of the extremely poor function of her heart which nearly resulted in her death.  Even once she regained some function, for a very long time she would have only qualified for low-conditioning transplants.  However, no low-conditioning transplant could sufficiently wipe out her extremely aggressive disease.  So for the past 10-11 months the goal has been to keep her cancer under control while giving her heart the time to possibly regain enough strength to qualify for a full-intensity conditioning transplant.  This has been extremely difficult as the oncologists have had limited treatment options.  Many types of chemotherapy themselves can be hard on the heart and/or greatly assault the marrow, effectively suppressing the immune system which then allows for the possibility of life-threatening infections.  Not only can the infection itself kill you, but the body’s attempt to fight the infection often causes major fluid shifts, changes in heart rates and blood pressures, all of which can put major strain on the heart.  Even seemingly minor situations like the two instances of an ileus resulted in all her medications, fluids and sustenance being given IV which puts a great burden on the heart.  It is a tough situation all around.  This was the reason for trying the WT1 modified T-cells and the decision to try Mylotarg (available only on a compassionate-use basis through Fred Hutch).  And while the Mylotarg was impressively effective against Allistaire’s cancer, one problem has been the incidence of cancer cells mutating in resistance to it and the risk of causing SOS (severe liver complication) in the context of transplant (which is why it was pulled by the FDA in 2010).

Once Allistaire’s heart began gaining strength as evidenced by ejection fractions (as determined by echocardiogram) in the high 30s and low 40s, the discussion began in earnest as to whether or not it might finally be time to give one more great thrust toward transplant.  Countless conversations between the Oncology, Bone Marrow Transplant and Cardiology doctors debated risks and benefits which were strongly tied to both keeping her disease under control long enough to get to transplant and what transplant regimen could give Allistaire the best chance at a cure and not kill her in the process.  When Dr. Bleakley first suggested the real possibility of a Haplo transplant, my gut response was to spit that idea right back out.  A Haplo-identical transplant is one in which the patient is half matched (5 out of 10) with a parent or sibling.

Because of this extreme mismatch, Haplo transplants have historically been associated with many poor outcomes including graft failure, high incidence of severe GVHD, high rates of infection and relapse.  Each awful complication results from attempts to respond and mitigate one of these other complications.  For example, because the HLA is only half matched between patient and donor, the patient’s immune system can attack and wipe out the graft/donor immune system.  Graft failure can be mitigated by increasing the intensity of conditioning to suppress the patient’s own immune system.  However, there is still the likelihood of severe and/or chronic GVHD where the donor immune system attacks the patient.  In order to combat this, the patient is given immune suppressants to tamp down the immune response in the donor cells.  This in turn results in severely lessened ability to fight infection and may reduce the Graft Versus Leukemia effect which is the advantageous and desirable element of the mismatch between “self” and “other.”  Remember that because cancer cells derive from healthy cells, they carry the HLA typing of the patient so when donor cells come into the patient’s body, they are more able to recognize the cancer cells as “other” and destroy them. Dr. Bleakley provided me with this paper, (Modern Approaches to HLA-haploidentical blood or marrow transplantation), which gives a historical overview of Haplo transplants.

Dr. Bleakley went on to describe a more recent approach to Haplo transplants which has yielded results on par with that of standard unrelated-matched donor transplants.  The most unique aspect of this transplant is that the extreme mismatch between patient and donor (half-matched parent or sibling) which would naturally produce immense GVHD, is greatly mitigated by giving a strong dose of the chemotherapy, cyclophosphamide (also known as Cytoxan), on days 3 and 4 after the infusion of the donor cells (the actual day of transplant).  This also occurs in the absence of any immune suppressants which are traditionally started at Day-1 (the day before transplant which is known as Day 0).  What this means is that when the donor cells go into the patient’s body, there is an uproar of immune systems in which the donor immune system begins to respond to the presence of “other” by rapidly dividing its Tcells and beginning the process of fight or GVHD.  There is nothing to lessen this response of the incoming donor cells because there are no immune suppressants present.  This is where the possibility of a cytokine storm comes in and where severe GVHD could take off if there was no intervening.  The possible cytokine storm must simply be managed as best as possible but the revving up of the donor Tcells is stopped in its tracks by these two large doses of cyclophosphamide on Day+3 and +4.  The cyclophosphamide targets rapidly dividing cells including the Tcells, which left unchecked, would produce immense GVHD.  The way that the whole graft/donor cells are not altogether wiped out by this chemo is that, according to a recent discovery, stem cells have proteins on their cell surfaces which make them immune to this particular chemo.  Also left, are a subset of Tcells which were not highly activated and can still go on to fight infection and provide GVL (Graft Versus Leukemia).  There are various versions of this “post-transplant Cy.”  Allistaire’s includes TBI (Total Body Irradiation) in the conditioning portion of the transplant which is essential given the aggressiveness of her AML and the ongoing presence of extramedullary disease.  Other “post-transplant Cy,” transplants may have reduced intensity conditioning.  Dr. Bleakley followed a transplant regimen based on the research described in this article (Total Body Irradiation-Based Myeloblative Haploidentical Stem Cell Transplantation in Patients Without Matched Sibling Donors), published in July 2015.

So at long last we come to this week of transplant.  And for those of you with eyes glazed over or simply head asleep on the keyboard, part of my motivation in going to such lengths to explain this transplant is not only for my own documentation, but also for folks out there in situations like ours who may need detailed information.  Given the condition of Allistaire’s heart and the aggressiveness of her disease, we therefore, chose a transplant with full-intensity conditioning and most importantly, full dose TBI which you can only have once in a lifetime.  The reason for choosing Sten as Allistaire’s donor is for three main reasons.  First off, Allistaire’s chance of both surviving transplant and having it actually cure her is extremely low and so ethically, the doctors do not feel right about asking an unrelated donor to undergo risk and burden to be her donor.  Secondly, given the highly fluctuating nature of Allistaire’s health and disease, the projected date of transplant could easily change which might mean we lose our donor who has constrained availability and requires more pre-planning because they would be donating on the other side of the earth (remember no U.S. donor matches).  Sten, as Allistaire’s father, is more than willing to take on risk and burden and is a highly committed and extremely flexible donor.  By the way, both he and I were options but it was concluded he was the better choice.  Lastly, the statistics for acute and chronic GVHD, NRM (non-relapse mortality), relapse, DFS (2 year Disease Free Survival) and OS (2 year Overall Survival), were on parr with the statistics for standard unrelated-matched donor transplants.  This means that we have the opportunity to give Allistaire as good of a chance at survival and a cure with her dad as a half HLA matched (haplo) donor as she would with a fully matched 10 out of 10 HLA matched unrelated donor with the added benefit that comes with having your awesome dad who is willing to literally lay down his life for you.

Thus far, Allistaire has received her infusion of Sten’s stem cells, essentially getting her transplant on Tuesday, January 12th.  She had no allergic reaction to the cells.  However, later in the evening she had a fever with higher heart rates.  Whenever an immune suppressed patient (in her case because of conditioning, not immune suppressing medications), gets a fever, blood cultures are drawn and antibiotics are started in case the fever is evidence of an infection.  Thankfully, Allistaire’s fever seems only related to her response to the mismatch of the incoming donor cells.  Dr. Bleakley was quite pleased as the fever was evidence of an immune response without the danger of a full on cytokine storm.

In the last few days, Allistaire has started to get some mouth sores, an expected result of conditioning which especially impacts rapidly dividing cells.  This means all the cells lining the digestive tract from the mouth all the way out the other side are hit hard.  This can result in mucoscitis.  She is more gaggy and nauseous, has thrown up a few time and has begun to eat far less.  At this point we are prioritizing her drinking the necessary fluids and continuing to take her oral meds, (rather than giving her IV fluids and IV meds which would be harder on her heart).  We are attempting to have her drink a pint of milk at each meal time to provide some calories in the form of protein and fat.  She may soon require her nutrition to be converted to TPN and lipids which are essentially IV forms of sustenance.

The next storm on the horizon begins tomorrow with the two days worth of cyclophosphamide infusions.  A side effect of cyclophosphamide can be bladder bleeding which they try to counteract with hyper-hydrating and a medication called Mesna.  Because of Allistaire’s weaker heart, they are reducing the hydration from the standard 1.5 times maintenance to 1.25 and are hopeful that this will both be enough to prevent the bladder bleeding and not overwhelm her heart.  Another serious and potentially fatal, but rare, possible side effect of cyclophosphamide is acute cardiomyopathy due to hemorrhagic myocarditis.  Depending on how things go, Allistiare could be transferred from the ICU back to the Cancer Unit early next week.

Honestly, it is an absolute wonder that she ever made it to this transplant.  Whether or not she will survive the transplant or it will be successful at curing her of her cancer are totally separate questions.  I am just simply in awe that we are here.  The Lord will continue to be faithful, morning by morning, come what may.

To join the Bone Marrow Registry, go to Be The Match

Learn about how to donate your baby’s cord bloodFullSizeRender-25 FullSizeRender-23 FullSizeRender-38 IMG_2372 IMG_2365 IMG_2360 IMG_2356 FullSizeRender-40 FullSizeRender-39 IMG_7554 IMG_7543 IMG_2354 IMG_2352 FullSizeRender-41 IMG_2333 IMG_2325 IMG_2312 IMG_2303 IMG_2302 IMG_2300 IMG_2393 FullSizeRender-13 FullSizeRender-8 IMG_2391 FullSizeRender-7 FullSizeRender-12 FullSizeRender-14 FullSizeRender-13 FullSizeRender-21 FullSizeRender-22 FullSizeRender-19 FullSizeRender-27 FullSizeRender-29 FullSizeRender-28 IMG_2384

 

All I Want for Christmas is a Bone Marrow Transplant

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FullSizeRender-4Winter Solstice is passed.  The darkest night of the year is behind us.  Ever so slowly, at a staggering speed, we make our way back toward the sun.

I can hardly believe the earth has made an almost complete orbit around the sun since that day last January when Allistaire’s immune defenses dropped to zero and typhlitus nearly took her life and ravaged her heart, a heart already made vulnerable by so very many rounds of chemo.  There have been so many very dark days, so many tears, so much uncertainty, so many occasions where all appeared bleak.  And yet…I cannot begin to count the number of barriers overcome, walls knocked down, doors that opened.  I stand back and I survey the road behind us, it both tires me and brings elation, joyous shock, mouth-gaping awe.  The world is just as quiet and just as loud and busy and frantically running around, and I stand, I stand and look around me, and really, I cannot believe we are here.

It  is a grey day.  There is no snow to beautify the land, no hush of quiet, no blue light of early morning snow reflecting the sun’s advance over the horizon.  The earth shows no sign that it knows what has happened, what has transpired in this place.  I look back, back, back over forty-eight months, to a day when I sat in this very seat on a snowy day, back to the day I received Allistaire’s bone marrow results after her first round of chemo.  A zero percent, no identifiable Acute Myeloid Leukemia.  I felt such utter relief.  I could never have imagined how long the road would be before me, of the nearly five hundred days in the hospital that would transpire between then and now and just how sly those cancer cells would be, ever-present, ever ominous, ever intent on dividing endlessly until they foolishly commit suicide by taking the life of their very own body.

I look back, my heart and mind touching back over those points in which I was told, she probably won’t make it, her chances are so very small, in the single digits.  The weightiness of looming dark walls, the snarl of danger ever lurking, threatening to strangle.  We still stand in the dark, there are still looming walls and teeth flashing in the night.  And as I stand in this darkness, where there is so little light to make out the landscape before me, where the way forward is cloaked and unknown…I am smiling.  I want to go up to each person I pass and say, do you know?  Have you heard?  Let me tell you a story, a story of a little girl, little but fierce.  Let me tell you a story of terror, of heartbreak, of hope, of glee, of overcoming, of victory.  For no matter what lies ahead, today is a day of victory.  This day is a day of incalculable gift.

Sten and I sat with Dr. Summers as she went through paper after paper, our Data Review as it’s called.  We looked at the highlighted numbers that tell of the wonders within, of kidney’s and liver, of heart and marrow, of lungs and bones, of cells and antibodies.  Her marrow, so beat down by twenty-three month-long rounds of chemo, no longer produces almost any cells and yet, there is also no sign of her leukemia cells.  Her sinuses still harboring tenacious leukemia cells, many wiped out, but there is a clear remaining presence of this disease.  Her heart is not a normal heart, it gimps along but has made a marvelous recovery from the days ten months ago when it seemed right on the cusp of utter collapse.  In short, it is clear that there is no chance to cure her of her cancer without the most intense myeloblative assault possible, and while her body has incredible vulnerabilities due to all the ways it has been injured and weakened from her treatment, it has a chance to maybe, just maybe weather this storm.

Dr. Summers went through all the steps of the harrowing process before her, and of a plan, a collaboration of the Bone Marrow doctors, the Heart Failure cardiologists and the ICU staff.  This plan might look simple on paper but represents incredible teamwork on the part of these different specialties.   Today is not just a victory for our family, it is something for many people to be proud of, for it has taken the tenacity and compassion, and skill and brilliance of many folk to bring us to this point.  I thank in particular Dr. Marie Bleakley who has for so long been working behind the scenes to make this transplant an option for Allistaire, for Dr. Yuk Law and his wonderful team of cardiologists for constantly reconsidering Allistaire’s heart and how best to support it and build its strength, and for Dr. Todd Cooper along with Dr. Rebecca Gardner and Dr. Jessica Pollard, three incredible oncologists whose ability to straddle the research and clinical care of patients is impressive and have been directly responsible for helping to keep Allistaire’s cancer at bay for so long, enabling time for her heart to heal.  It is simply a gray and rainy day here in Seattle, Washington, the silhouette of evergreens, firs and hemlocks, and the delicate outlines of maples and madronnas, dark against the sky.  It is a quiet afternoon in the hospital, one day before Christmas, nothing to draw attention to how remarkable this day really is.

It has not been hard to call out to the Lord for help.  The words come easy and swiftly, “Help!  Hold onto me!  Hear my cry!  Mercy, mercy!”  But today I feel oddly mute, sitting in this quiet corner of a hallway looking out at a day turning to night.  What words?  What words Lord can I bring before you to say thank you?  I come before you empty-handed.  I sit down at your feet and just shake my head, in wonder, in awe, in delight. Thank you Lord.  Thank you Father, maker of the heavens and the earth and all that they contain.  I can say only, You are beautiful, I stand in awe of you, and I love you Lord, you are dear to me.

There have always been two fights, parallel, interwoven, side by side.  The fight of the flesh and the fight of the spirit.  Today is a moment of victory.  Today the door has been opened to transplant, of one more chance to eradicate the sickness within Allistaire that threatens her life.  Today marks the entrance to many more walls and doors and dangers, but it also marks the only possible way forward, the only hope for Allistaire’s life.  The fight of the spirit has always been that of Abraham, will I yield?  Will I lay all my treasure, all my hopes for life at the feet of the Lord and say, “This life of mine, this life of my child, so bound together, they are Yours.  You are God and all my days are for You to determine.  I yield.”  I enter the throne room of grace only because Christ has gone before me…He has gone before me that I am invited into the presence of the God of the Universe who actually loves me.  I am able to yield because He has so demonstrated His love for me in this, that He sent His only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life!  Perfect love drives out fear.  I can walk forward into the dark without fear, because no matter the days ahead, I know there is light on the horizon.  No matter the dangers, I cannot perish.  And should this transplant take Allistaire’s life instead of restore it, while we will miss her desperately, she will have been made whole and free.  She will live.

It is now Christmas Eve, a Christmas Eve like none I have ever known.  For the first time in my life I did not select a Christmas tree and delight in decorating it with Christmas music playing in the background.  I cannot think of a Christmas Eve that I have ever spent alone.  But for the first time in a very long time, I did not wake up sad.  We have a glimmer of hope.  The door to transplant has been opened.  Allistaire must make it 10 more days without getting sick or having some major issue come up in order to start the transplant process.  Next Monday she will begin the first of five “fractions” of focal radiation to the tumors/chloromas in her sinuses.  She will then have New Year’s Day and the weekend off before officially starting the transplant process on Monday, January 4th with TBI (Total Body Irradiation).  Once you begin the actual transplant process, there is no turning back.

Ten days.  In the scope of things, a short bit of time, but an enormous amount of time in which something could go wrong and this open door can go swinging shut again.  But tonight I go to bed with joy curled up in my heart, joy to have been allowed to walk this far forward and hope for more open doors.  Tomorrow is Christmas.  Tomorrow is the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  Tomorrow is the day that changed everything.  The birth of Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God with us, is the basis for our hope that no matter the road before us, there will be beauty and redemption and life.

Brewing Storm

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IMG_2054How many times has my Father extended His arm out over the waters and invited me to walk – to step out on shifting waters, to look Him in the eye and trust Him, to put one foot in front of the other and put all my hope in Him? How many days have the winds buffeted and the sky seemed angry and black?

I wrote the words above on June 18, 2013.  They continue to ring so true.  I was prompted to look back at that day because Sten and I received an uncommon, hauntingly beautiful gift today.  A strange message in broken English came to us from across the world.  Allistaire’s bone marrow donor from her transplant in 2013 reached out to us, seeking to make yet another connection with us, this time in voice, in words, no longer disembodied.   Katja.  Katja.  A beautiful name.  I say it again and again, like savoring a morsel, I smile as I say it, gleeful, amazed, surprised, utterly delighted.  This is the woman who gave of her bone marrow to my child, who saved the life of Allistaire, whose very cells have divided over and over and over and over for two and a half years to sustain my girl’s life.  SHE’s REAL!!!  I mean I knew that, of course she was real, is real, but somehow, to know her name, it is gift.  And it is gift to have even the smallest means of bowing low before her, to show her honor, to convey my thanks, to cry big silent tears of joy and gratitude for her compassion, her generosity, her selflessness to give, to give to a stranger.

Thank you Katja.

The timing of her contacting us is interesting.  I’ve actually been thinking about her, about Katja, this woman who was born in the same small span of time as myself.  She and I, two women who have the great mysterious privilege of giving life to Allistaire.  You see, if Allistaire is able to move forward to this second transplant, not only will all of Allistaire’s cancer cells hopefully be annihilated, so will Katja’s cells.  It grieves my heart.  I will mourn the death of those life-giving cells, those cells, those bits of Katja that have done so much for Allistaire – those cells that have protected her from bleeding out by making platelets and the white blood cells to fight infection and those most precious red blood cells who carry oxygen throughout her flesh.  I will be cheering on the radiation and the chemotherapy and praying for their utter conquest of her marrow and yet, just as with her first transplant, there will also be loss, also be grieving.

The way forward is still unknown, but millimeter by millimeter we take ground.  The week seemed to begin on Tuesday with her brain MRI.  Later in the afternoon we were in clinic so she could get platelets and I was eager to hear from Dr. Cooper, hoping to hear that the chloromas were vastly reduced yet again and she was considered in a good position to move forward with transplant.  Allistaire was busy with the Childlife Specialists, Callie and Jen, pressing her inked hands against great glass orbs.  Having watched Lilly’s hands being placed against those same glass ornaments, I asked Callie to help us with this now, to preserve a bit of Allistaire, for the possible times ahead when it may seem hard to believe she ever existed, when memories of her could blur and fade.  It was a uniquely painful and bittersweet moment, watching her joy at doing crafts and yet knowing in my heart why this was happening, knowing what very well may come true.  It was in the midst of her cheerful chatter with Callie and Jen that Dr. Cooper came to the door.  “Is it good?  Just tell me…”  He raises his shoulders and lets them slump back down.

The two chloromas in her sinus maxillary on the right and left have decreased both in dimension and bulk but there is a small new 1 X .8 cm chloroma on the right side.  All of a sudden, when I least expected it, I yet again had the wind knocked out of me.  I shake my head in bafflement, only sort of hearing as Dr. Cooper voices the possibility that this could take the option of transplant off the table.  “This could be considered progressive disease…”  But, but, but this is the nature of chloromas.  This is exactly the sort of disease she’s had for the past three years.  But, but, but…I called Sten trying to explain this news, gasping at the thought of there being nothing left.  I mean, there are other trials, but we can’t just keep doing this forever.  An internal conflict insures, the question of how far do you push, just how far do you go?  Is stopping giving up?  Lord have mercy.  And what does it look like to have mercy?  Is mercy finding a way forward, a tiny crack in the granite for the water to seep through?  Is mercy a closed-door, a ceasing from struggle?  But how?  Ever how?  How do I take this girl home to die and what would death look like?  Because I know I don’t want it to look like those chloromas taking over her face, stealing her away right in front of me, agonizing pain.  Oh God, Oh God, I’m going down and all the world blurs with tears and the scaffolding of my flesh feels like it’s giving way.  Just don’t give her red blood I think, my breath quick, she’ll just get tired, she’ll just sleep.  Yes, that seems the best way, I think, and I walk back to the room, to the room where my fluffy-haired, bright blue-eyed girl smiles her cooky little grin.

My alarm goes off.  It’s Thursday morning and I lie eyes wide in the dark, a heaviness on my chest.  Oh God.  Oh God, what will this day hold?  I think of those nights when I would go to bed crying, wake up crying, having to find a way to just will my legs out of the bed, to force my feet upon the floor, to rise and begin and face whatever might come my way.  A luxury car commercial playing recently, quotes what is often credited to Abraham Lincoln, “The best way to predict the future, is to create it.”  Hah!  I laugh a sad weak laugh.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  It has become abundantly clear how little I can do to create the future I long for.  The Christmas songs, taunt and ask, “All I Want for Christmas…”  I cry in the store as the song cheerfully plays on.  All I want for Christmas?  All I want is for my little girl to live, to not die, to not be ravaged and stolen away.

In the dark, I walk through the room to the shower, careful to be quiet and not wake Allistaire who is ever no less than 10 feet from me.  I pray, ineloquent, little fits of words, bits and bursts as I rinse out the shampoo, seeking the Lord, turning toward Him, longing to align my heart with His.  In weakness and fatigue, falling before Him, not crawling and quaking in fear, but fear of the Lord, a fear that says, Yes, Yes, you are God and I am not.  You are God and you are my dwelling place, you invite me into the shelter of your wing.  I am weary, I am frail and broken and you draw me to Yourself, you entreat me to come, and I have no strength to walk and somehow my Jesus comes and carries me to the throne and I say, You, You are God and I am not.  That is the sum of my prayers.  You Oh God have created the future, all of it, the past, the present, the future.  You know what this day holds and it is all swept up into the beauty of what you are creating.  In You, and You alone I trust most high God, who has come down low to me.  You have demonstrated Your grace, Your compassion, Your tenderness and I rest.  You are the place, the person in whom I choose to trust.  You know this day, Lord, I do not.  It is your day Lord.  She is your child God.  Oh Lord, do not let me go.

My heart slowed as I saw that Dr. Bleakley would be joining our meeting, The Arrival Conference, with Dr. Laurie Burroughs leading our time.  Did her presence mean it was all over?  Was she here to help convey the hard words that they had decided not to allow Allistaire this transplant because of the new chloroma?  It soon became clear that we were marching forward, that this chloroma had in fact caused them to push forward the process to begin the conditioning a week earlier.  Dr. Bleakley was there to provide continuity.  Dr. Bleakley said that prior to getting these most recent MRI results, she was still considering whether or not a reduced intensity conditioning transplant might be better for Allistaire, given her heart.  She said that this chloroma had made it clear that nothing less than the full force of all they could throw at her had even a chance of ridding her of this disease.

“You know Jai, most transplant centers would not do this transplant.  There are doctors on our service that do not think we should do it.  There are parents who would choose not to.”  The night before I had read through the protocol for the transplant and all the details of what could go wrong, of side effects.  There were of course the usual side effects – nausea, vomiting, temporary hair loss, fatigue, weakness/loss of strength, fever, loss of appetite, diarrhea, increased risk of infection.  But then,words taking up no more space than the others, yet whose weight left me gasping – sterility, brain injury, kidney failure, liver failure, heart failure, multi-organ failure, death.  Death.

“[Your child] has been diagnosed as having a fatal malignant disease that does not respond to conventional therapy.  Although remission may be able to be obtained for some length of time in a few cases, relapse will most likely occur after a short while.”

Those two faces, faces of two women I have come to know over the years, women in whom I have placed my trust, women who are brilliant, women with compassionate hearts, they tell me “not only is there a chance Allistaire could die in transplant, but there is a very good chance that she will die in transplant…Are you sure you want to do this?”

It feels as if I have always known this, as though all my life I have known about bone marrow transplants and the reality that they are brutal on the body and can kill in an effort to cure.  My heart pauses, looking out over the distance, looking out to the horizon, heart heavy and I say, “Yes.”  Yes, because we know what will come for her if we don’t try this.  There is nothing left.  We have at long last come down to this last great undertaking.  I had an image in my mind the other day of Allistaire grown, crying and angry, demanding to know why I had not just let her die.  I was driving east, away from Seattle, to stand witness at Lilly’s memorial, to extend my hand and heart in solidarity with Heather.  Sometimes I look at Allistaire and it seems impossible to me that she has cancer.  Does she really have something inside her that will rapidly kill her were it not for the enormity of this intervening?  But she looks so alive.  But I love her too much.  But she is just unfurling all the more, day after day, new delights in coming to know who she is, who she will become.  But, but…but all my love and all my yearning for her, all my delight of looking into her eyes and hearing her voice, it is not enough, I can not stop what will be.

Yes.  Yes, I understand the risks.  Sten and I choose to walk forward, knowing it is entirely possible that we are entering into the last weeks with her.  I have to stop myself from thinking it every time I look at her, every time I delight in the sweet curve of her cheeks, the swoop of her nose, her hilarious mannerisms, her perpetual coloring of rainbows and inability not to dance at even the hint of music, of her constant tip-toe walking, her goofy laugh, her tender face that tells me, I love you mommy.  I just feel my whole heart shattering in sorrow, my esophagus tightening, threading to cut off my breath.  Every joy feels like a double-edged sword, every joy a cutting, the threat of severing.  Somehow God just help me to live out this day, to take joy in this day and not let the possibility of tomorrow’s sorrow steal away today.

We left SCCA (Seattle Cancer Care Alliance) Thursday afternoon with the plan to go to clinic at Seattle Children’s later that day in anticipation of her bone marrow test on Friday that would also include a LP (Lumbar Puncture) to test for leukemia in her spinal fluid and Intrathecal Chemo (chemo that goes directly into her spinal cord).  But upon entering our room at Ron Don she felt warm and with dread I took her temperature.  101.6 degrees, a clear-cut fever.  Along with the fever, there was a strange rash of red spots on her arms and legs.  And in a flash any remaining days at Ron Don were swept away.  We went to the ER where blood cultures were drawn and antibiotics started.  The next day a bloodstream bacterial infection was confirmed, eventually the bacteria being pinned down to a common bacteria on human skin, Staphylococcus Epidermidis.  Vancomycin was started and eventually, Vanco-locks as well, which means the nurse inserts vancomycin directly into each of the two lumens of her Hickman Catheter and allows it to sit for eight hours at a time with the goal of ridding the actual plastic tubing of the bacteria, given it’s propensity to grow on such material.

Fortunately, the mysterious red spots went away and she has had no further fevers.  She’s feeling great and doing well despite now being stuck in the hospital.  We have a sweet room, Forest A Level 7 room 219, a room that looks out over the western end of Lake Washington, that allows a view of the sunset and the Space Needle.  If all goes well, she will be in this room for the next few months, with the earliest departure being sometime in February.  If all goes well, she will begin focal radiation to the chloromas in her sinuses on Monday, December 28th and continue through the 31st.  TBI, which is considered the first segment of conditioning, would begin on Monday, January 4th and wrap up the two-a-day sessions on the 7th.  Next would come the chemotherapy, Fludarabine, for three days.  A “day of rest,” and then the actual transplant/infusion of donor cells on Tuesday, January 12th.

This all feels so far off and yet it is coming in fast, just as I want the days to slow that I might savor.  She has to remain in the hospital the next two weeks in order to complete this course of Vancomycin which ends up coinciding with beginning the actual transplant process.  The upside to being in the hospital is that we are able to start tackling the tests and tasks that remain to get her ready for transplant.  Three major tests have already been completed: the brain MRI, the bone marrow biopsy and aspirate and the chest CT.  The chest CT yesterday showed that the COP (Cryptogenic Organizing Pneumonia) in her lungs has improved, with one spot being completely gone and the others reducing in size.  This is a huge relief, as the requirement to move forward was stable or improved disease in her lungs.  We should get bone marrow results by the end of tomorrow or Tuesday at the latest.

Tomorrow is a very, very big day.  Tomorrow Allistaire will have an echocardiogram and EKG, which feels like her biggest hurdle.  The doctors again want to see stable cardiac function.  While her BNP (measure of heart distress) had gone down from about 800 to the low 400s, it jumped back up as seen on Saturday morning’s labs.  Dr. Kemna explained that a small change in the body and/or heart can produce a relatively big change in the value of the BNP.  Dr. Kemna thought Allistaire looked great when she examined her on Saturday and was delighted to report she felt very warm and well profused.  So we shall see soon enough.  Tomorrow Allistaire will also have a nasal swab, nasal flush and a rectal swab all to test for a variety of viruses.  Some of the tests would block her from moving forward and others would simply be for the sake of information gathering.  She will also see the dentist to get a baseline of her oral health.  Sarah, the physical therapist, will do an evaluation of her range of motion as this can be impacted by the transplant process of being in the hospital and by GVHD (Graft Versus Host Disease).

Thank you to so many of you who have continued to walk faithfully with us on this long road.  Thank you for you for prayers and encouragement and Starbucks cards and meals and just for caring, for remembering us.

Tonight our little family of four dwells under three separate roofs.  Solveig may never see her sister again.  Nobody wants me to say this out loud, nobody can bear to hear those words.  I have to live the realistic possibility of those words.  I don’t know how many days I have left with Allistaire.  But then again, I have never ever known that.  I cannot predict the future.  But I rest in the One who has created it.  Father, oh Father, have mercy, have mercy, mercy according to your perfect love and perfect wisdom.

If you would like to offer the amazing gift of life to someone as Katja did for Allistaire, sign up to be a bone marrow donor HERE

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Mysteries…

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FullSizeRender-2FullSizeRender-3The conclusion of Allistaire’s biopsy is well, sort of inconclusive.  What we can say definitively after a week of numerous tests on the sample from her lungs is that it is not leukemia, not fungus and not bacteria.  Obviously this is all good news, actually fantastic news!  However, there is something going on in there.  We seem to be down to two remaining possibilities not previously considered.  Either the spots are evidence of a recovering infection or are evidence of Cryptogenic Organizing Pneumonia (COP).  The cells are described as hemosiderin laden macrophages.  Actually, the description of the tissue is far more detailed than that – I will include it below just so you can be in awe of both our amazing bodies and of the task of the pathologist.  In a way it would be surprising if the spots are evidence of a recovering infection given that they were not present on the previous CT, nor has she had any symptoms.  On the other hand, the sort of COP that Allistaire could have is actually a complication of a bone marrow transplant typically seen in adults and is a process of GVHD (Graft Versus Host Disease).  Allistaire did have COP in the spring of 2014 and was successfully treated with steroids.  Again, Allistaire has absolutely no symptoms of anything happening in her lungs, just this sole indication derived from the CT.

The plan is to re-scan next Wednesday, 11/25.  If the spots are the same or worse, she will likely be seen by a pulmonologist at SCCA (Seattle Cancer Care Alliance).  Dr. Cooper is also consulting with Dr. Carpenter, who is a pediatric BMT (bone marrow transplant) doctor who specializes in GVHD.  He is the doctor that directed the treatment of her previous COP.  It is not an optimal time right now for Allistaire to be on steroids if this is the required treatment.  Steroids suppress the immune system which added to the suppressive effect of chemo is a double whammy in terms of vulnerability to infection.

As of today, Allistaire has started what we hope and pray is her last round of chemo before transplant.  Just like the previous two rounds, she will start with five days of Decitabine followed by Mylotarg.  The exact number of Mylotarg doses is still to be determined.  It sounds like given the hoped for timing of transplant, it may make more sense to do only two doses.  Dr. Cooper and Dr. Bleakley are working together to sort out all the details.  Oh, I should also mention that Allistaire’s cytogenetics from her bone marrow also show no evidence of the MLL rearrangement by FISH which means no evidence of AML in her marrow.  This is in keeping with the clear results from the Flow Cytometry test.

As for today, Allistaire and I are delighting in having Solveig with us for a week and a half.  She flew in yesterday and Sten’s parents will drive out on Tuesday.  Sten will fly in on Thanksgiving morning and Allistaire will get her first dose of Mylotarg.  The bummer thing is that it seems Solveig has just started showing symptoms of a cold.  I don’t know how Allistaire will avoid it but I so hope she can.  We are looking forward to Thanksgiving with the joy of so much family with us.

 

Lung Biopsy – Microscopic Description:

H&E stained sections demonstrate lung with large foci of atelectasis and collapse intersected by bands of septa with increased fibrosis and vessels with hypertrophic walls.  There are increased macrophages within alveolar spaces, many of which contain hemosiderin or foamy material.  Hemosiderin laden macrophages are particularly prominent around bronchioles.  Also conspicuous are scattered small and large droplets of exogenous lipoid material in airspaces.  Well-inflated lung parenchyma in well-expanded areas shows thing delicate alveolar spat without fibrosis or significant inflammation.  Inflammation is patchy, mild to moderate and airway-centric, consisting predominantly of lymphocytes and plasma cells admixed with few neutrophils.  Infiltration of inflammatory cells in the bronchial epithelium is seen, and there is associated plugs of fibroblastic tissue (organizing pneumonia) as well as mucostatsis in airways.  Bronchioles also demonstrate smooth muscle hyperplasia and sub-epithelial fibrosis.  Many airways have moderate to marked luminal occlusion by well-established collagen deposition (constrictive/obliterative bronchiolitis) as highlighted by Movat pentachrome stain.  There is mild medial thickening of pulmonary arteries and veins show intimal fibrosis as well as muscular hypertrophy.  No atypical cellular population is seen, confirmed by CD15 and lyzozyme stains.  Viral cytopathic changes are absent.  Fungal and bacterial stains are negative.

Lung Biopsy

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IMG_1792I met with Dr. Cooper for Allistaire’s clinic appointment last Wednesday afternoon.  The results of the week’s testing were mixed.  The bone marrow test showed no leukemia detectable by Flow Cytometry which is an awesome improvement from prior to this round.  Previously the Flow test showed about 3% and the cytogenetics FISH test showed 6%. We don’t have cytogenetics back yet from this most recent bone marrow test.  The PET/CT affirmed what the brain MRI showed from two weeks ago with significant improvement in the chloromas in her sinuses.  The trouble is, there are also spots in her lungs that have showed up.  Because the resolution of the CT done with the PET is low, Dr. Cooper wanted a high-resolution CT of her lungs.  It took a mere 15 minutes to leave clinic, check in with radiology, walk back to the CT machine, get Allistaire loaded in, hold her breath at the right time and we left the hospital arriving back at Ron Don.

While I was totally relieved to hear good Flow Cytometry results for her marrow, the spots in her lungs pose a major, major problem.  There are three options – they are chloromas/leukemia, fungus or bacterial.  Dr. Cooper relayed that Dr. Bleakley, the BMT (Bone Marrow Transplant) doctor said that if these are chloromas they indicate an incredibly aggressive cancer (given that the chemo isn’t successful at keeping her cancer down even for a short time) and she will probably not be offered a transplant.  No transplant obviously means the end for Allistaire.  The other options, fungal and bacterial, represent infection which would require some aggressive treatment.  Allistaire’s bone marrow is so beaten down that it is barely recovering from the last round of chemo.  Her ANC (Absolute Neutrophil Count) was 64 as of Sunday’s labs.  Today is about Day+48 of this round of chemo.  Typical bone marrow recovery is an ANC of 200 by Day+28.  This means she has very few white blood cells to fight any infection.  So while she has no symptoms of infection, she also has very little to fight with and would have even less once another round of chemo begins.  In a way we must hope that these spots are infection because this at least gives her an option to go forward.

Given that it is imperative to know the nature of these spots, Dr. Cooper said doing a lung biopsy would be necessary, but of course if was my choice.  My choice?  I suppose so, but to say no to the biopsy would equate with choosing to be done.  Amazingly, the biopsy was able to be scheduled for Friday afternoon, with the plan to go into clinic in the morning to get platelets first.  Strangely, Allistaire’s blood pressure was incredibly low, even lower than its normal low.  The strategy of the heart failure team is to push Allistaire’s cardiac meds just as far as they can without totally bottoming out her blood pressure.  They continue to titrate up her meds every Wednesday, alternating between going up on the dose of Entresto and Carvedilol.  So while the purpose of the cardiac meds has nothing to do with trying to lower her blood pressure, this is the direct side-effect.  On Friday her pressures were in the low 60s over mid to low 30s.  More typical blood pressures for Allistaire are 80s over 40s.  She was examined by the nurse practitioner and the clinic attending doc who both agreed she looked great – bright, energetic, engaged, good capillary refill and strong pulses.  Her pressures came up slightly after the platelets.

Finally it was time for the biopsy and the surgeon explained that first Allistaire would go to CT where the Interventional Radiologist would use CT to guide the placement of a needle within which there is a small wire.  Once the IR doc locates the spot in the lung that is the target of the biopsy, he places the needle and then removes it, leaving the wire.  She would then be transferred to the OR where the surgeon would remove the spot using a tool that places staples on two sides and has a blade on one side to cut out the spot.  He said that most likely she would leave surgery with a chest tube to help drain fluid rather than allowing it to build up within the pleural space while the hole in the lung sealed back.  He said it could take anywhere from a few days with the chest tube up to a few weeks and that it would be quite uncomfortable.  As I was about to leave Allistaire in CT as she had just fallen asleep, the anesthesiologist looked concerned.  She told me that she wasn’t sure they would able to continue with the procedure if Allistaire’s blood pressures did not remain stable given how low the base line pressure was.  As I walked out of the room with a weighty heart, 59/30 shone green on the monitor.  Would she make it through this procedure?  How desperate we are to know what is going on in there.

Thankfully, all went well both with her pressures and the procedure.  She was already awake by the time she was transported from the OR to recovery.  Soon she began to complain of burning pain in her chest.  She was given a dose of Dilaudid and began to calm down.  An X-ray a few minutes later confirmed that the pain she was having was from the chest tube tunneled under her skin.  Her oxygen saturations were dropping every so often because she didn’t want to take deep breaths due to the pain from the chest tube.  She was transferred up to the Cancer Unit Friday evening where she was given morphine every 2 hours.  Allistaire was very quiet and went in and out of sleep as she watched movies.

Saturday began with an x-ray to look for fluid, air or gas filling the pleural space.  I was surprised to learn that because there was minimal drainage from her chest tube and the X-rays were looking good, the surgeons decided to turn off the suction on her chest tube.  They would check it again in four hours and then take another X-ray.  If all looked good, they planned to pull the tube.  So around 5pm, the surgeon, nurse and I strategized on how best to pull the tube.  I made a commitment to Allistaire many months ago in the ICU to always tell her if something scary or painful was going to happen.  But I’ve also learned that for Allistaire’s sake, it is best to tell her as last-minute as possible as she often gets really worked up with a lot of anticipatory fear.  The nurse quickly ran a dose of Dilaudid over 5 minutes and I curled up next to her in bed.  I told her the surgeon was here to remove the tube because her lung was looking so good.  He would remove the gauze, cut the stitches and when he was ready to pull the tube, he would tell her to blow out of her mouth which helps to keep air from entering the body in the small space of time between when the tube is pulled and the dressing is placed.  Allistaire was terrified and kept asking when did she need to blow.  The truth is I don’t even think she felt the tube come out given that there was no indication it was out and suddenly it was all over.  She did a great job, she was very brave.

From this point, Allistaire had another X-ray four hours later and then at the 24 hour mark from the time the tube was pulled.  Because all continued to look good, she was able to be discharged yesterday evening.  She only needed one dose of pain meds once the tube was pulled.  The day was fairly uneventful with the exception of being given some misinformation about results of the biopsy.  I was told that a person from ID (Infectious Disease) said that this (the spots in her lungs), looked more like a disease process.  While the attending doctor was later able to clear this up, saying that there were absolutely no results yet, I spent several agonizing hours contemplating the reality that Allistaire’s options had finally come to an end.

I can’t be fake with Allistaire.  She is so intuitive, so sensitive, so incredibly sweet and tender.  I couldn’t stop crying.  I just stared out the window at the steel gray clouds interspersed with late afternoon sunshine.  “What’s wrong, Mommy?”  I tell her the spots in her lungs look like more sickness and if this is true, she can’t have her transplant.  The other day she asked why she can’t just keep getting tubie medicine.  I had to explain that her body just can’t handle it.  How can I explain to a 5-year-old that inside her sweet tummy are kidneys and a liver and a heart and lungs and white blood cells?  How do I explain that iron builds up in your body with every transfusion of red blood and eventually you will die from iron poisoning.  This is not a chronic illness.  This is an acute, deadly disease.  “Your tubie medicine is poison, Allistaire, it kills cancer cells but also hurts your body.”  On this day, as I cradle her warm little body, her soft luxurious curls against my cheek, I think of what my friend Esther wrote.  About the desperate need to soak her in, to burn every memory into my brain, so that when she is gone, I can find her again, if only in memories.  But I can’t, I can’t.  It isn’t enough.  I hold her tight, desperate not to let her go.  “I just hope I won’t notice it happening,” Allistaire tells me about the fact that she may die.

I let her go back to her movie and her model magic.  I stare out again at the gray.  What is the best way to let her die?  Do we even try another round of chemo?  Do we try to extend her life just as long as we can?  But might this mean letting that wretched tumor grow in her face?  All that pain.  I think back to four years ago.  These were the dreary November days that she just slept and slept.  She would be asleep for five hours in her crib taking her nap.  I would debate with myself whether or not to go wake her or just let her sleep.  I feared finding her dead in her crib.  She wouldn’t crawl up the stairs anymore.  She had little interest in eating.  On December 1, 2011, I would first learn the word, “hematocrit.”  Her’s was 9, just a mere 25% of her red blood.  She had absolutely no energy and her heart beat fast like a little bird, desperate to pump those meager cells around her body.  Maybe this is the way, I consider, just let her go quietly.  She wouldn’t even notice.  She would just fall asleep.  Her heart wouldn’t be able to keep up.  Maybe this was the most gentle way to let her go.

I still don’t have biopsy results.  In fact, I didn’t expect to get them until today or tomorrow anyway.  But soon I will know.  I woke up in the night.  What do we do if they say no to a transplant?  I’ve thought of so many other desperate stories where they allowed transplant, even were there was little chance it would work.  Why deny Allistaire the chance?  This one last chance.  If they say no here, do we try taking her somewhere else?  These are the doctors in whom I have placed my trust.  They have earned my respect.  They know Allistaire.  They genuinely care for her.  Do I just disregard their counsel, their decisions and rush out into the fray, unwilling to lay down this battle?  The doctors have always told me, you will know when it’s time.  But this?  At this point I feel no peace, no rest in stopping.  It doesn’t feel clear at all.  I always hoped, assumed, it would be clear, that if at last there were no more options, no more open doors, I could at last say okay.

As always, the world operates on a calendar, on schedules, on days of the week.  I heard my first Christmas song three days ago and all I felt was shock.  Has the world again shifted, are we already at another holiday season?  Sten and Solveig and Sten’s parents are coming for Thanksgiving.  In times past, we always cut down our Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving, one of my very favorite traditions.  I always looked forward to that day, the day I would pack away all the oranges and browns of Fall and pull out the silver and glittery of Christmas.  All just seems desolate, empty.  I just wanted this one last chance for Allistaire.  Just this one chance.  Oh God.  Please.IMG_1804 IMG_1802 IMG_1800 IMG_1798 IMG_1796 IMG_1795 IMG_1794 IMG_1791 IMG_1790 IMG_1786 IMG_1784 IMG_1782 IMG_1750 IMG_1749

Numbers, Wild Numbers

Standard

IMG_1461IMG_1466IC_Obliteride_080715_GasWorksKickoff_0029100MileStart-640

1975

2013

2,650,000

6,800,000

8,000,000

So something cool happened.  Forty years ago, in the year 1975, I was born.  I know, sweet, huh?  Just joking.  I mean I’m pretty stoked I was born but what my parents could not have imagined as they gazed down at their newborn baby girl’s little face was that something else significant had just been created.  Little did they know that blue-eyed baby girl cradled in their arms would one day desperately need what also had its beginning in 1975.  In many respects I think it is grace that we do not know the future, that we don’t have to carry burdens in the present of situations yet to come.  At that moment of my birth there was only joy, well my mom would probably say a little pain too.  And yet isn’t it amazing that long before we have a specific need, the provision is often already on its way to being available and ready for us? And so it was that in 1975, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center came to be and would one day dramatically intersect the life of that little baby girl and her baby girl.  Beautiful.  Makes me smile BIG!

In the spring of 2013, there was a blue-eyed feisty three-year old girl named Allistaire.  Turns out she had an aggressive type of leukemia that just wouldn’t back down in the face of every type of chemo thrown at it.  It had come back after lying dormant after standard treatment and this time it was winning, filling her marrow and infiltrating the rest of her body with numerous tumors.  The doors just kept slamming closed.  But then, but then…a door opened.  Allistaire had the amazing opportunity to have her disease filled marrow obliterated and then rescued with an infusion of donor bone marrow stem cells from a woman in Germany.  This was only possible because of a wondrous clinical trial through Fred Hutch.  Had it not been for that trial, for that single open door, there is no doubt Allistaire would be dead in the ground right now.

Time after time Allistaire has been the blessed recipient of the expertise and amazing research through Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.  I will always be indebted to that institution and its many phenomenal doctors and support staff!  It is my joy to commend them to you and to keep seeking to add to their ability to propel research forward and provide more open doors for children and adults alike who find themselves facing that wretched beast Cancer.

And WOW!  WOW!  Look at what we’ve been able to do!!!!!  This year, in August 2015, thanks to your incredible generosity, compassion and support, our Obliteride Team Baldy Tops raised $38,000!  In total over the past three years riding in Obliteride, our team has raised nearly $60,000 for cancer research at Fred Hutch.  This year’s ride raised $2,650,000, totaling $6,800,000 since the inaugural ride in 2013.  One hundred percent of that $6,800,000 goes directly to cancer research at Fred Hutch!  It makes me giddy.  Sometimes one’s efforts feel small.  It’s hard to put yourself out there and ask people to give of resources they could spend on themselves, and instead give it away for the betterment of others.  Then again, you never know when you might find yourself in the desperate position of needing another open door in your own battle against cancer.  When we put our efforts together they can have a BIG impact!!

Would you like to join us?  Our team this year was super fun and included Sarah from Utah – an amazing woman I had never actually met until the morning of Obliteride.  You should have seen her face when she finished her 50 miles – a beaming exuberant smile!  Also on our team were two fantastic nurses, Lysen and Adrienne, from the Cancer Unit at Seattle Children’s where Allistaire receives treatment.  Adrienne and her awesome dad rode on an old tandem bike (and I do mean old).  Carrie, our amazing financial counselor at the hospital joined us as well along with her friend Eric, a local business man who wants to give back.  And of course I had my dear sweet sister-in-law Jo by my side along with my oldest friend, Emily.  Jo’s sister, Annie, also joined us.  Her little baby boy, Marzio and husband, Franky cheered us on.  It is such an amazing experience to be in a swarm of people gathered together for one purpose, each brought to that day by their unique stories.  Obliteride has put together a short little video of this year’s ride to give you a taste of the experience.  You’ll get to see several shots of our team (I have on a blue helmet you see a few times.) Click HERE.

The beauty is you don’t have to be a cyclist to participate in Obliteride.  There are rides from 10 miles to 150 miles, from quick and easy, to covering two days and lots of hard-core hills.  Wherever you are on the cycling spectrum, there’s a place for you to have fun and give directly to cancer research.  Even your kids can get involved with the special kid’s ride.  The 2016 ride is over the weekend of August 12-14th, so mark your calendars to ride with us or be a volunteer.  Registration will open early 2016 and of course I’ll keep you updated!  If you’re interested in being on our team Baldy Tops, please simply leave a comment on this post and I’ll include you in my Obliteride emails.  Wouldn’t it be awesome for our team to reach the $100,000 mark with the 2016 ride?!  I can’t wait!  Here’s another fun video to give your more info on how to get involved in Obliteride.

This year is drawing to a close and you may be considering where to give your remaining 2015 donations.  While it isn’t yet time to fundraise again for Obliteride, you can still give to amazing cancer research at Fred Hutch.  One specific way is to support Dr. Marie Bleakley’s work.  She has been one of Allistaire’s primary bone marrow transplant (BMT) doctors at Fred Hutch for the past several years.  She is the BMT doc who is directing Allistaire’s upcoming (hoped for) transplant.  Like most of Allistaire’s doctors, not only does she do an incredible job clinically caring for patients, but she does amazing research.  One focus of her research is TCRs (T-cell Receptor T-cells).  You will remember that this is the sort of immunotherapy Allistaire received with her WT1 T-cells.  In the HA-1 T-cell immunotherapy that Dr. Bleakley is designing there are specific matching and mismatching requirements of the donor and patient which on one hand limit their applicability to a wide range of patients, on the other hand, they are not limited solely to patients with AML but could benefit patients with a variety of types of ALL (Acute Lymphoid Leukemia) and Lymphoma as well, thus expanding their impact.  Dr. Bleakley says that, “There are actually numerous targets like HA-1 and different targets will work for different patient-donor pairs. We are trying to build a toolbox of TCRs so that we can ‘type’ the patient and donor and figure out which TCR will work for them.”  This is personalized, targeted, sophisticated beautiful cancer treatment.

Dr. Bleakley has already been awarded a Bio Therapeutic Impact Grant of $682,000 from Alex’s Lemonade Stand (ALS) whose vast majority of funding goes directly to pediatric cancer research. I am told that 85 cents of every dollar donated goes to program and research grants with the vast majority of that going to the research end. Their program grants go to family’s to provide one lifetime grant of about $1,400 which we ourselves received two years ago in the form of plane tickets home for Allistaire and I.  Dr. Bleakley is able through Alex’s Lemonade Stand to raise up to an additional $25,000 in donations through the end of 2015. For every dollar up to $25,000, ALS will match one to one. So in total she could raise $50,000 additional to go toward her research.

This is an incredible opportunity to fast-track her research in the lab to actual patients.  The next step for her research is to take what they have been doing in the lab and bring it to a GMP (Good Manufacturing Process) lab. This independent lab would, with the aid of her research assistants, recreate their work in order to determine the safety and quality of the product they say they are producing. She said it’s like a dress rehearsal for the real process in which they would prepare the cell product for the patient. The information is taken and included in an IND (Investigational New Drug) Application for the FDA to approve. Once approved, they can then move forward to offering an actual clinical trial to patients. Basically they are at the point of taking their research in the laboratory and offering it as treatment to patients – that means an open door for patients with leukemia and lymphoma!  An open door!  You could help open that door.  To learn more about her research click HERE.  To donate and have your dollars matched one to one up to the goal of $25,000, click HERE.

You know what…At last count, Allistaire’s cancer treatment has cost just shy of 8 million dollars.  That’s more money than all riders have raised in total over the three years of Obliteride.  That is a crazy, mind-blowing number!  My jaw drops every time I think of that number.  Wouldn’t it be WAY COOLER if we could invest in research upfront that would reduce the cost of treatment, reduce the suffering, reduce the incredible investment of time of Allistaire’s life and our family’s lives fighting this fight?  When we put money upfront to accelerate research, we open more doors!  What if we didn’t have to rely on chemotherapy that isn’t targeted and takes down hearts and lungs and kidneys and livers and ovaries with the cancer cells.  What if there was a way to deliver radiation so that it only killed tumors and not brains.  What if surgeons could “see” exactly where tumor cells stopped and healthy cells started, getting all the cancer and sparing the rest? Wouldn’t it just be mind blowiningly awesome to use the incredibly complex, beautiful immune system you already have in your body to effectively and totally wipe out every last cancer cell so that “relapse,” is word never again uttered!  When we put our money and effort into research, it isn’t just one patient that is benefited.  Who can know how many people will be blessed by each step forward in cancer research.  And this is a world-wide endeavor!  Do you know that amazing minds are at work all over this earth trying to untangle the mysteries of cancer?!  Israel, Germany, China, Italy…What is learned here carries value across the world and their efforts likewise bless us!  Do you know that Fred Hutch has a cancer treatment clinic in Uganda?

As I have said many times, there are many worthy places to give of your time and money, many struggles on this earth that deserve and need our attention.  It just so happens that cancer came barreling into my life and so it does for many, many of us.  Cancer will touch us all, if not directly in our flesh, then most certainly in that of someone dear to us.  One in three women will get cancer in their lifetimes as will one in two men.  Thank you for the great swelling of your compassionate hearts that listened and responded in generosity and love.  May you find many open doors!!!

As for our little bright love, Allistaire Kieron Anderson, well, she thrives, she runs, she hops, she laughs silly little giddy laughs and she told me today that the numbness in her face is finally gone.  She looks incredibly good.  Only every now and then can I detect that her right eye is slightly off.  Yesterday she had a bone marrow test and today she had her PET/CT.  We should know results soon.  Hopefully the general trajectory going forward is one more round of chemo which will include Decitabine and Mylotarg again, though likely only one or two doses of Mylotarg this time instead of three.  Then, God willing, she will have her transplant.

We’ve been at this point before.  I am no fool to believe the road ahead is necessarily clear of barricades.  It as though she walks through a field replete with land mines. To get across to the other side will take a miracle, so fraught with danger is the road ahead.  Even yesterday, she had an echocardiogram which reported out an Ejection Fraction of 34 versus 45 last time.  I don’t know how the BMT doctors will interpret this.  The cardiologists say her heart function looks the same as it has on the last two echos despite variance in the numbers.  Thankfully her cardiac MRI showed no scarring and affirmed great improvement in her heart.  Going forward with chemo always opens the door to infections.  Two and a half weeks ago she went inpatient due to an infection and the next day she had a separate issue with an extreme rise in her liver function numbers we finally concluded was due to her anti-fungal, posaconazole.  Her ALT and AST were 1,156 and 1,450 respectively, the normal high being 40.  It has been imperative to get these numbers down and get her liver happy again as Mylotarg’s one direct toxicity can be to the liver both in the setting of when it’s given and in transplant.  Just getting to transplant is an incredible undertaking, then there’s the transplant process itself which holds many extreme dangers.  If you get past all of that, you still have to contend with the possibility of GVHD and relapse.  Thank you Lord that you have used these past four years to help me learn more and more how to walk day by day.

To learn more about the fascinating history and endeavors of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, click HERE

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