An American tourist visiting London tries to cross the street. Instinctively, he looks to the left first. Finding it clear, he steps off the curb, looks to the right, and is immediately flattened by one of those double-decker buses they have over there. Whoops!
I've been feeling a little bit like that lately. For a long time now, my multiple myeloma journey has been sailing along on cruise control. My numbers have been fine with no evidence of monoclonal gammopathy. I am now on Cycle 54 of my Revlimid maintenance therapy. The only glitch was a reduced iron level in 2014 causing some anemia. I received an iron infusion which remedied the problem. Then this happened again this year, which I mentioned in my last post. I received another iron infusion in September, which has again boosted my red blood cell counts back up to normal. So all is good, right?
As I metaphorically look to the left, I see an undisturbed 4 plus years of my MM in complete remission. The road is clear. However, as I step off the curb and look to the right, Bam! The double-decker bus turns out to be the spectre of Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS). MDS is a form of blood cancer where the bone marrow doesn't produce enough healthy blood cells. This is a serious blood disorder which has a high risk of becoming Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), an even more serious blood cancer. It has long been known that MM patients are at a heightened risk for developing MDS/AML, possibly due to treatment-related effects of the chemotherapy (such as the melphalin I had for my ASCT).
In August, Paul informed me that he had ordered a blood test genetic profile for me, which revealed that I have some genetic mutations that predispose me to develop MDS. While my numbers show that I don't (yet) have MDS, he put me on Vitamin B1 and folic acid as a precaution. He also referred me for a consult with Dr. David Steensma at the Farber, who specializes in MDS.
I started to do some research (surprise) and was a bit nonplussed to discover from the gene profiling pathology report that one of the genetic mutations I have is ASXL1. For patients with MDS, the ASXL1 oncogene is associated with high-risk aggressive disease with poor clinical outcomes. Gulp! I also learned that one of the first signs of MDS is often anemia. Could my iron deficiency have something to do with this?
So I was understandably a bit nervous when I met with Dr Steensma today. He was great! He immediately put me at ease and allayed some of my concerns. For one thing, he assured me that my recent history of iron deficiency is completely unrelated to MDS. MDS-related anemia is an entirely different mechanism. That's good! Also, since my CBC blood test results are almost completely normal, there is no sign of impending MDS. He likened my condition to MGUS, a precursor asymptomatic condition to MM, which has a small (about 1%) annual chance of progressing to full MM. In my case, since I have two oncogenes identified (the second one is SH2B3, another MDS predisposition gene), I may have a somewhat greater chance of progressing to MDS, but he thinks it is still pretty small.
I told him that with my bad genetics, if I do contract MDS, I'm fucked. Is there anything available to forestall getting MDS with my predisposition oncogenes? He said there is some recent research being done on this, and that there will soon be a clinical trial to see if administering some chemo to at-risk patients who have been pretreated for another blood disease could prevent the onset of MDS. I intend to follow up on this research.
This was a great relief! All I have to do is continue to monitor my blood counts. If I become anemic again due to iron deficiency, it's not MDS. If it's not due to iron deficiency, then I need to explore further. In the meantime, I plan to look both ways before stepping off the curb!
I've scheduled a colonoscopy/endoscopy for next month to see if there might be a reason I'm losing iron. I sure hope it's not colon cancer!
As for the other patient in our household, Gretchen is slowly recovering from her recent esophagectomy. It has not been an easy recovery. She has had to go back to Dr. Kent twice to have her esophagus dilated. While this definitely improved things, she is still having trouble eating solid foods, so she may have to go back again for another dilation. She also has a lot of nausea and is really tired, but she was told that this is all pretty normal. We just hope that she gets through this phase sooner rather than later.