Breast Cancer and Herceptin (Trastuzumab)

During my treatment for breast cancer, I was part of a medical trial in relation to the effecacy of the drug Herceotin (Trastuzumab). Herceptin is a drug that belongs to the group of drug treatments called targetted or biological therapies. It stops specific ways that breat cancer cells divide and grow. I was treated with Herceptin because my cancer cells were found to have a higher than normal level of the protein Human Epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) on their surfaces. That stimulates the cancer cells to breast-cancer-s10-photo-of-her-2-genegrow. Herceptin works by attaching itself to the HER2 receptors so that the cancer cells no longer grow. it also stimulates the body’s immune system to fight the cancer cells.

I am one of the 20% of breast cancer patients to benefit from Herceptin as my tumours were the fast growing ones that are HER2 positive. I was given the Herceptin along with chemotherapy after my surgery in order to reduce the chance of the tumours spreading or returning. If your breast cancer is not HER2 positive or, indeed, HER2 negative, Herceptin will not be effective to you.

The Herceptin treatment I was given for my breast cancer was given to me intravenously through my Hickman line on the same days as my other chemotherapy. I was treated every three weeks as an out patient. However, the days were long, as the Herceptin was given over 90 minutes with additional time taken to give me saline solutions and my chemotherapy. I had to stay in hospital for several hours in case I was allergic to the treatment. Luckily I was not. However, like all drugs, Herceptin has side effects.

The common side effects of Herceptin include: feeling like you have flu, nausea and diarrhoea. I had all of these. I felt pain in my muscles and joints and often felt breast-cancer-s2-breast-cancer-illustrationlike I had a temperature so I swung between feeling hot and cold. I also had to have treatment with anit-sickness drugs for the servere nausea I suffered. I also got medecine from the hospital to counter the diarrhoea that I suffered.

The trial I was part of was looking into reducing the period of time that women are treated with herceptin, to see if it makes a difference to the efficacy. The usual period for getting Herceptin is about a year. I was treated with it for 9 weeks. I found the hospital visits and the side effects very draining, so, although I had initially felt diappointed that I was only receiving the treatment for a shorter period, in the end I was quite glad to get to the end of the course of Herceptin.

Valerie Penny

 

 

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Information about Taxotere (Docetaxel)and Breast Cancer

During my treatment for breast cancer, one of the drugs that I was treated with was Taxotere. It is also known as Docetaxel. It was used for me to treat primary breast cancer that had not spread to other parts of the body. It was used in combination with other drugs in combined chemotherapy. Docetaxel is also sometimes used to treat breast cancer that has come back after treatment or spread, for example, into the lymph nodes.

It works by interfering with the development and growth of cancer cells. Docetaxel blockshickman line.jpg part of the cancer cells before they divide and grow. This makes the cancer cells die off at an early stage.

When I was given Docetaxel, it was gven to me intravenously through my hickman line. I had three weeks between each round of chemotherapy. So, just about the time I was feeling normal again, another dose of the drugs was given.

Docetaxel has side effects. All drugs have side effects. Some people are more suseptible to them than others.Amongst the common side effects of Docetaxel are: bone marrow suppression, hair loss and nausea.

The bone marrow supression was the side effect that worried me most, because this means that I had an increased risk of getting infections when my white blood cell count was low. As a result of this, I was unable to go out and mingle with friends or relatives after my treatment. It made me feel isolated and lonely. My resistance was lowest around 5-10 days after I had had my dose of Docetaxel. So for about one week in every three, I had to be particularly careful to avoid infection. I was warned that, if I did feel unwell during this time, or if my temperature ever did go up over 38C then I was to get medical help or go to the hospital.

I managed to avoid having to go into hospital, but I did find that I bruised more easily and had nose bleeds that were difficult to stop and did suffer from anemia.I did not need any blood transfusions, but I did take iron tablets to boost my red blood cells.

Nausea was a problem for me, however, I was given medication to control this. The anti-sickness tablets were very effective and I was grateful for that. I also noticed that the taste of many foods changed while I was on chemotherapy. Much tasted like tin. However, I am glad to say that my sense of taste has returned to normal since my chemotherapy cancer-101-s8-tnm-stagingtreatment has finished. I was told that I might suffer from diarrhoea, however, my body reacted differently and I suffered more from constipation than diarrhoea.

The other side effects I suffered when being treated with Docetaxel tiredness, fatigue and pain in my muscles and joints. I still suffer from these over a year after termination of my treatment. When the pain is severe, I take pain relief or anti-inflammatories, but I try to avoid them as far as possible. Common practice says that gentle exercise improves the fatigue. I find it merely replaces it with exhaustion!

All in all I found chemotherapy difficult, but it is miles better than the alternative: no treatment: no recovery.

Valerie Penny

Symptoms of Breast Cancer.

Breast_Cancer_1Breast cancer affects both men and women. However, breast cancer has been the most common cancer in the UK since 1997, but is rare in men. It is by far the most common cancer among women in the UK (2011), accounting for 30% of all new cases of cancer in females. In 2011, there were 50,285 new cases of breast cancer in the UK: 49,936 (99%) in women and 349 (less than 1%) in men. Female breast cancer incidence is strongly related to age, with the highest incidence rates found in older women. This supports a link with hormonal status. In the UK between 2009 and 2011, an average of 80% of breast cancer cases were diagnosed in women over 50. Indeed, around a quarter (24%) were diagnosed in women aged 75 and over. I therefore find it very frightening that many older women ignore the risks of contracting breast cancer and are ignorant of the symptoms of the disease, with the exception of finding a lump. Finding a lump may be the most common sympton of breast cancer, however, in many cases finding a lump will be one of the last symptoms to become obvious, especially if the tumour is seated deep in the breast tissue. This is important because the earlier the disease is treated,the more successful that treatment is likely to be.

Some of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer include:

1) a lump in the breast
A lump in the breast is the most common symptom of breast cancer. Most breast lumps are not cancerous. They are usually fluid-filled lumps,cysts or a fibroadenoma, which is made up of fibrous and glandular tissue. But it is important to get a lump checked by a doctor straight away. If a lump or other symptoms is caused by breast cancer, the earlier treatment is received the more successful it is likely to be.

2) a change in the size or shape of the breast
The warning signs of breast cancer are not the same for all women. One of the common signs are a change in the look or feel or size of the breast. Breast enlargement alone is not necessarily a sign of inflammatory breast cancer. I see a lot of women who are worried about a change in breast size, and inflammatory cancer is rarebreast size

3) dimpling of the skin or thickening in the breast tissue
You may become aware of dimpling or tethering of the skin of the breast during a self-exam. It is an important part of the self exam to look in the mirror and look for a dimple. The breast should be outwardly round—it should curve outward and not pull in. If you have had breast surgery before and you have some scars, you might find that the breast will pull in around a scar. Of course, this is a different situation. A dimple is a pulling in of the skin, and it may occur when you raise your arm or lean forward. When you lean forward and raise your arm, the breast should stay outwardly round; it should not pull back in. That may be a sign of cancer, and it should be checked.

4) inverted nipple, a nipple that’s turned in
Every body is different. Some people are born with inverted nipples. That is not a worry or unusual for them. However, if you notice a change in your breasts that result in development of an inverted nipple, so you were not born with one,and the nipple cannot be drawn out, this should be checked by a doctor. it may suggest a lump behind the nipple that is pulling it in.

5) a rash on the breast or the nipple
Although tumors are the most common symptom of breast cancer, they are certainly not the only symptom. Women with a rare form of the disease called inflammatory breast cancer can develop a red, pink, or purple rash across part of their breast. The skin of the breast might also appear puckered, like the skin of an orange. If you notice symptoms like these, have them checked out by a doctor right away. Inflammatory breast cancer can spread quickly.breast cancer rash
6) discharge or bleeding from the nipple
Nipple discharge is a normal part of breast function during pregnancy or breast-feeding. It also may be associated with menstrual hormone changes. It appears spontaneously and involves a single duct. Although the bloody discharge may resolve on its own, this situation requires evaluation with an ultrasound of the area behind the nipple and areola. If the ultrasound shows a lesion, you may need a biopsy to confirm whether it is a papilloma or something more sinister. Although most often, nipple discharge stems from a benign condition. However, breast cancer is a possibility, especially if it is combined with one or more of the following: you have a lump in your breast, only one breast is affected, the discharge contains blood, yhe discharge is spontaneous or the discharge affects only a single duct.
7) swelling or a lump in the armpit
An armpit lump refers to the enlargement of at least one of the lymph nodes under your arm. Lymph nodes are small, oval-shaped glands that are located throughout the body and play an important role in the immune system. Most lumps are harmless and are usually the result of abnormal tissue growth. However, armpit lumps can be related to a more serious underlying health problem. Any unusual lumps should be evaluated by a doctor. Armpit lumps can occur in men and women of all ages. However, finding an armpit lump is most alarming for women because it may indicate breast cancer. Women should perform monthly breast exams and report any lumps to a doctor right away.Note that breasts undergo hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle, and may tend to feel more tender or lumpy during this time. This is completely normal. For the most accurate results, perform breast self-exams about one week after your period starts.

The advice you must consider is this: whether man or woman, old or young, if you become aware of a change in the area of your breasts seek medical attention sooner rather than later. Time is valuable: time is life.

Valerie Penny

Life on Letrozole After Breast Cancer

letrozoleAfter completion of my chemotherapy and just as my radiotherapy started I required to start taking letrozole: just one 2.5mg tablet per day. A 2.5mg tablet each day for 5 years. This is because my breast cancer wasa type that needs the hormone oestrogen to grow. In women who have been through the menopause, the main source of oestrogen is through the change of sex hormones called androgens into oestrogen. An enzyme called ‘aromatase’ is needed for this change to occur. Letrozole works by inhibiting (or blocking) this enzyme. This reduces the amount of oestrogen in your body, which slows the growth of the cancer cells, should they recur. It is my fervent hope that they will not.

I am ashamed to say that I never read the information given with medication, although I know I should. The manufacturer’s leaflet will give more information about letrozole and a full list of the side effects which may be experienced from taking it. I have to take other tablets daily as well. So I take one 2.5 mg tablet of letrozole each morning with my other medication, although you may take letrozole at whatever time of day you find easiest to remember, but try to take your doses at the same time each day. This will helps to avoid missing any doses. You can take the tablets before or after your meals. If you forget to take a dose, take it as soon as you remember. If you do not remember until the following day, skip the missed dose. Do not take two doses together to make up for a forgotten dose. I suppose one tablet out of 5 years will not make much difference.

However, along with their useful effects, most medicines can cause unwanted side effects although not everyone breast-cancerexperiences them. If you have read other articles in this blog, you will realise, that my primary mind set is always that these things cannot happen to me. Of course, sometimes they can and they do. That is just life. Also, because I do not read the manufacturers leaflets, I did not know the side effects to expect. However, Letrozole has a raft of side effects and I seem to have been blessed with most of them. The common side effects are as follows:

1) Hot flushes and sweating: yes, I get this one! I thought it was my time of life, but no, I owe this joy to Letrozole so I try to keep cool by wearing light, airy clothes or in winter, I wear layers, so I can take them off as required.
2) Headache, muscle or joint pain: oh wow! I have this one in spades. You can ask your doctor or pharmacist to recommend a suitable painkiller but I do not like to take any more tablets than I have to, so I try to manage the pain with rest, hot water bottles or ignoring it before I give in to the painkillers. The dull ache of the joint and pain is a persistent, nagging pain that drains the drive and strength out of me. It is inescapable.
3) Feeling tired, weak or dizzy: Oh, you guessed, I find this side effect really, really debilitating. I simply cannot do all that I did before I got ill. Some days I cannot get up, some days I have to take a nap, sometimes I just cannot move. I get so indescribably weary and tired. I get cross with myself and irritated but it does not explain this side effect to say that I get tired. The tiredness makes me bone weary. My limbs feel heavy, my concentration is affected. My eyes cannot stay open. At other times I cannot sleep at night, so that makes me tired too. I do not drive or use tools or machines until I feel fit enough to do that.
4) Feeling or being sick, indigestion, abdominal pain: Hurrah! I do not get this one! I stick to simple meals, generally avoid rich or spicy foods and I am very careful about my diet.
5) Constipation: I occasionally suffer from this one but I try to eat a well-balanced diet and drink several glasses of water each day.I also drink copious amounts of tea, mostly English Breakfast tea, sometimes Earl Grey.
6) Diarrhoea: Nope, I do not get this one: if you do, remember to drink plenty of water to replace the lost fluids.
7) Appetite changes, weight changes, feeling depressed, hair loss, skin rash, swollen legs or feet, vaginal bleeding: I am blessed with some of these, the most immediately obvious is that my hair has become very thin. Sometimes I wear a hat because my head gets cold, my hairdresser is a magician and always makes me look and feel like a million dollars. The other one of these side effects that I have to cope with is depression. I have suffered depressionfrom depression for many years any way and now it is reasonably well controlled. It is just difficult having another potential source of that mental health problem.
8) High blood levels of cholesterol or high blood pressure. I do not suffer from either of these. I am lucky in that my blood pressure sits fairly low anyway and my doctor also arranges for me to regular have tests to check that these side effects are not rearing their ugly heads.

As I suffer with so many side effects of Letrozole, I have been offered the opportunity to change to another tablet. However, I have declined to do so. I know what the side effects of Letrozole are and I can cope with them, more importantly my long suffering husband knows what they are and he can also cope with them. So for the remainder of the 5 year period, I will cope and I will be grateful that I am being successfully treated for breast cancer. I am a lucky woman.

Valerie Penny

Risk of Recurrence of Breast Cancer

herceptin_drugMy body has endured surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. As a result of this I have lost my hair and my energy. Still, that tumour the size of a baked bean is perceived as a threat. Its return must be further discouraged. My oncologist therefore insists on mammograms every six months and prescribes Letrozole. I must take one 2.5mg tablet each day for 5 years.

Breast cancer is often discussed as a general condition, but there are several different types that require different treatments. One way to distinguish breast cancer cells is through your genes. When you are diagnosed with breast cancer, your doctor will test the cancerous cells to determine their genetic makeup. My tumour had more of the HER2 protein in it than it should have had. HER2 is a protein that stimulates the growth of breast cancer cells. It can be found in your blood and urine. Sometimes it is referred to as a tumour marker. Tumor markers like HER2 cannot be used for cancer diagnosis, but they can provide other important information and the presence of HER2 helps the doctor predict how likely the breast cancer is to respond to treatment.

It is estimated that about 20 percent of breast cancers are HER2-positive. Younger women are more likely to be her_2_geneHER2-positive than older women. HER2-positive breast cancer tends to be more aggressive and to spread more quickly than other cancers. That is why it is important to find out if the cancer cells in your body contain this protein. If your breast cancer is HER2-positive, you have a much better chance of successful treatment with methods that target the HER2 protein specifically. Results show that those who tested positive for HER2 at an early stage of the condition (with tumours 1 centimeter or smaller) had a higher risk of recurrence. Researchers have also found that HER2-positive patients had a 77.1 percent five-year survival rate, with no recurrence. However, they also are
around five times more likely to suffer recurrence than those who were HER-2 negative and have close to three times the risk of recurrence of those who tested negative for HER2. So I am absolutely sure I want to discourage recurrence.

Tumours that are HER2-positive are more often associated with factors that increase recurrence rates. For example, HER2 tumours are more likely to occur in younger women and have higher nuclear grade. Generally, the higher the nuclear grade, the more aggressive the tumour. HER2 tumours are also more likely to show positive margins during breast surgery. Positive margins occur when cancer cells extend beyond the edge of tissue that is removed. HER2 tumours also have a higher likelihood of residual disease being found when additional tissue is removed. Up to 70 percent of patients with HER2-positive breast cancer respond to treatment. However, total remission for the condition occurs only in around 7 to 8 percent of patients. Targeted treatments (medicines that target the HER2 protein, like the Herceptin I was treated with) have improved the prognosis for HER2-positive patients. Remissions can also be lengthy, offering another bright spot in prognosis and reports show that remission can last more than 15 years for some patients.

tabletI was diagnosed HER2-positive and this brings special challenges in my recovery from breast cancer. The HER2 protein can make the breast cancer more aggressive. It can also make it harder to treat with hormone treatments used for other types of breast cancer. However, drugs like trastuzumab (Herceptin) target HER2 directly and effectively. This drug, when used in combination with other drugs, shows some very promising results for improving prognosis and survival rates for patients with HER2 cancer. However, there is a small but real risk of heart damage and possible lung damage. Scientists are still studying how long women should take Herceptin for the greatest benefit. I am not ashamed to tell you that I hope their studies are successfully concluded soonest. I have a vested interest in this, as my tumour was HER-2 positive.

All in all, having made the decision to stay alive long enough to thoroughly embarrass my children, when the oncologist tells me that I must take one 2.5mg tablet of Letrozole each day for the next five years, I will do just that. Letrozole has side effects but I have decided that whatever they are, they have to be better than allowing the tumour to return.

Valerie Penny

A View of Cancer Care – Book Review – The Spare Room by Helen Garner

The Spare Room is a novel about caring for a friend with cancer by Australian writer Helen Garner. She is an Australian novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist who was born in Geelong, Australia on 7, November 1942. She is a graduate of the University of Melbourne. Garner’s first novel, Monkey Grip, was published in 1977, and immediately established her as an original voice on the Australian literary scene. The Spare Room is a story set over the course of three weeks while the narrator, Helen, cares for a friend dying of bowel cancer. The cancer sufferer can be very stubborn and selfish. It is a form of self-preservation. This story reflects this. The book was published in 2008.

I am a cancer survivor. I have written about my journey in https://survivingbreastcancernow.wordpress.com/. When I chose this book from the local library, I did not realise the topic it covered. I was not sure that I would be able to cope with it. However, The Spare Room is a magical gem of a book. It is gripping, moving, and unexpectedly funny. The book packs a huge punch, charting a friendship as it is tested by the threat of death.

The book made me think about how those who love had suffered when they were caring for me and watching my treatment and recovery. How much of they gave up to help me in my time of need. Likewise in this book, Helen has little idea what lies ahead and the strength she will need to muster when she offers her spare room to an old friend, Nicola. Helen arrives in plenty of time to pick Nicola up from the airport, but she wasn’t expecting to see her friend look so sick, so sick that she could hardly walk. Of course Nicola insists it was just the flight that has taken its toll on her and that she’ll be fine once she has a rest. Nicola has arrived in the city for cancer treatment. She is skeptical of the medical establishment, and placing all her faith in an alternative health center. Nicola will be attending The Theodore Institute where she she will undergo extensive alternative treatment for her cancer. She is convinced that after three weeks of this alternative treatment she will be cured of her cancer. The alternative treatment is high doses of vitamin C. Nicola is determined to find her own way to deal with her illness, regardless of the advice Helen offers.

Nicola explains to Helen how the treatment works and as far as Helen is concerned it is a load of rubbish. Helen knows that there is no miracle cure for the final stages of terminal cancer, but Nicola refuses to be convinced. However, after only a few treatments of vitamin C, Nicola starts to feel very sick and is in a lot of pain. In the weeks that follow, Nicola’s battle for survival will turn not only her own life upside down but also those of everyone around her.

She wakes during the night to sopping wet bedding from sweating and chronic pain. Each night Helen helps her change thehelen garner bedding and tries to comfort her, but her patience are wearing thin knowing this treatment will not work. As Nicola continues with the treatment, Helen becomes increasingly angry, frustrated and exhausted. She cannot seem to make Nicola see that this treatment is not only expensive, but is a waste of time. She only wants what is best for her friend:that is to make sure the time she has left is as pain free as possible.

Helen Garner’s book was a relatively quick read, but it definitely was not an easy read at times. A heartbreaking and powerful read about care, friendship and dying. The Spare Room is a book well worth reading.

This review originally appeared in Valerie Penny’s Book Reviews at: http://bookreviewstoday.info/2015/01/18/the-spare-room-by-helen-garner/.

Valerie Penny

Post Cancer Fatigue

Cancer related fatigue (CRF) is very common.   I had just no idea how long I would suffer from fatigue after my treatment had finished.  Fatigue can often be confused with tiredness, but there are differences between the two conditions.

chronic-fatigue

Tiredness happens to everyone, especially after certain activities or chemotherapy however,  fatigue is less common and is an excessive whole-body tiredness that is not relieved with sleep.   This debilitating condition can impact your quality of life. It certainly impacts upon mine.  I am still unable to walk for the kind of distances I did previously and only do half a line dancing class instead of a full one.  My 18 weeks of chemotherapy ended almost 10 months ago.

Fatigue can be acute (lasting a month or less) or chronic (lasting from one month to six months or longer).   Mine is clearly chronic.  The precise reason for this intensive tiredness is unknown, but practitioners believe it may be related to the process of cancer itself or chemotherapies and radiation treatments.  Although  CRF is one of the most common side effects of cancer and its associated treatments, nobody told me about it or warned me I might suffer from it.  Therefore, I thought I was just being lazy and not pulling myself together properly.   I was quite wrong.

Usually  it comes on suddenly, and does not result from activity or exertion.   Although in my case exertion makes it worse.  The fatigue is often described as “paralyzing.”  It may continue for months, even after treatment is complete.

If you are a cancer survivor and feeling tired or fatigued even long after your treatment is finished, you must know you are not alone.

fatigue

About one-third of breast cancer survivors experience CRF for periods of time ranging anywhere from a year to several years post-treatment.  While there is no conventional therapy to resolve it, studies are increasingly showing yoga and other gentle exercises can help. Some patients with different cancers report relief with exercise.

Valerie Penny

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