Another Patient Journey: 2019 was a good year

Picking up the story from my last blog Was 2019 really that bad? my doctors advised that I should stop the TNF blocker drugs, that had enabled me to live a normal life for the past three years, before undergoing cancer surgery. That made sense. These drugs work by dampening the immune system. I could understand that my immune system should be as strong as possible for the operation, so I would have to go off them…. for a while.

However, after the operation I was told that I wasn’t supposed to stop the TNF blockers just for the operation. I was supposed to stop them forever, or at least for a few years, because TNF blockers might enable the cancer to come back. TNF = Tumour Necrosis Factor – the blockers stop these messengers in the immune system, which are thought to play a role in suppressing cancer.

My doctors all seemed to be saying “stop TNF blockers”. I couldn’t believe it. I read the patient information for my medication, and it said the same thing: Do not take this medication if you have been diagnosed with cancer.

I was absolutely devasted.

Until I spoke to one doctor, by whom I felt understood, and who said, “What do you want? What is Quality of Life for you?” I thought of my trips to the mountains, of laughing with family and friends and all the love of life that had come back to me with TNF blockers. After the trauma of diagnosis and the surgery, I felt so confused and helpless. I needed that input to start thinking for myself.

I posted a question on the Facebook AS patients’ page of which I am a member. One woman commented that she was in cancer treatment and had to change medication. She wrote, “I got my life back with humira [brand name of a TNF blocker drug] and now it’s the 💩💩💩.”

Then I looked for relevant research results, my oncologist sent me a paper, I opened the discussion with different experts, and discovered …that there was no relevant, reliable data to guide my decision. The risk of cancer caused by TNF blockers in my situation is theoretical, because it would not be admissible to run clinical trials with patients to find out. There is also no scientific literature showing that I will reduce the risk by stopping TNF blockers now.

Living with chronic disease is life on a knife-edge

With my condition I live on a knife-edge, and I want to stay on it, living a normal life. This is me, on a mountain called the Lyskamm. It’s a knife-edge ridge, about 5 km long, and the idea is to stay on it, to walk right over it. I walked over it on my mountain tour of August 2017. I tell that story in my TED talk or my blog 16 x 4,000m summits in 5 days.

Traverse of Lyskamm, 16 4,000m peaks in 5 days
Me standing on the knife edge of the Lyskamm on the border of Switzerland and Italy

When you stand on that ridge on the right is Italy, and a drop of 1000 m. On the left is Switzerland, and a drop of 1000 m.

Italy is happy go lucky, living for the now. “La Dolce Vita”. For me it stands for continuing TNF blockers. But maybe I will fall to my death, because taking the drugs might allow the cancer to come back!

Switzerland is the sensible place to be. If in doubt, choose the conservative option, wait and see. It stands for stopping TNF blockers. But maybe I will fall to my death because if I stop taking the drugs, the autoinflammatory conditions will probably flare up again! I had experienced this a year before, when the medication stopped working, see The Luxury of Despair. Furthermore, it is known that chronic inflammation increases cancer risk, as does a lack of regular exercise.

How would you choose? ……Which way would you lean on that ridge?

“What is Quality of Life for you?”

The words of that doctor were my guiding light. She saw my integral, holistic needs beyond the inflexible, “one size fits all” recommendations of a health system that generally places mortality and prolonging life above quality. In Switzerland I can choose my doctors and over the years I have sought out dedicated carers who are attentive to my experiences and needs and do everything in their power to help me.

I want doctors to give me the facts, listen to me, guide me, but recognise that this is my patient journey.

I could explain my perspective to my doctors and win their understanding, respect and agreement. I decided to continue TNF blockers and live as healthy and strong a life as I can, even if my decision might be increasing the risk of cancer. Life feels good right now, and that’s all I need.

A new F-word: FASTING – Love or Hate?

Next week is Ash Wednesday when the Christian fasting period called Lent begins.  I’ve never fasted.  It always seemed rather uncomfortable and difficult.  Until now I couldn‘t see any benefit and feel that managing AS I have enough to do.

The more I read and try things out, the more convinced I am that diet is important to my condition.  We know that AS is about 95% hereditary, so I couldn’t have stopped it breaking out.  But what I eat can maybe influence the progress of the disease, and most importantly how I feel on a day to day basis.  A good diet should also help to keep other health issues at bay, which result from chronic inflammation.

But not eating at all?!   NOT TOO SURE THAT I WANT TO STOP EATING ENTIRELY!

Beautiful organic lettuce
I love my lettuces – this one was grown organically in my garden!

So what is fasting all about?!  HERE IS WHAT I FOUND OUT

The first thing I found out is that I could fast in many different ways.  I could not eat for just 8-12 hours, which is called “interval fasting” and seems the same as eating early in the evening; or fast for perhaps as long as 3 weeks.  I could eat nothing at all, or just limit my diet, for instance to juices or fruits.

The second thing that I realised is that not only Christians of practically all denominations, but also every other leading wisdom tradition, such as Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, observe fasting at certain ceremonies or times of the year.  These are traditions which have held for thousands of years, and are based on collective and accumulated knowledge.  Such customs are a spiritual practice but also often developed for practical reasons.  In Western Europe before global trade and industrial greenhouses, food was getting scarse by Spring, so there were good reasons to eat less!  But maybe there were health reasons for these practices too, which could not be scientifically proved, but were observed.  The ancient Greeks believed in fasting.  Indeed Hippocrates is quoted as saying: “Instead of using medicine, rather, fast a day.”

The third thing I found is that Western medicine does not advise fasting, particularly for people who suffer from serious chronic disease.  The fasting article in Wikipedia discusses fasting in religious practice at great length.  Medical applications are referred to only with reference to fasting before surgery or medical tests. 

Alternative medicine gets a one liner in Wikipedia: “Although practitioners of alternative medicine promote “cleansing the body” through fasting, the concept is quackery with no scientific basis for its rationale or efficacy.”

But the fourth thing is that I found an article on the effects of fasting on rheumatoid arthritis in the renowned medical journal “The Lancet” in 1991.  Its conclusion is: “Fasting is an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, but most patients relapse on reintroduction of food.”  But then, after 7-10 days fasting, patients were put on gluten-free vegan and then lactovegetarian diets.  A control group ate an ordinary diet.  The final result: “The benefits in the diet group were still present after one year, and evaluation of the whole course showed significant advantages for the diet group in all measured indices.  This dietary regimen seems to be a useful supplement to conventional medical treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.”

Has this research on rheumatoid arthritis (RA) been followed up?  Yes, a bit!  I found an interesting article from 2014 called “Fasting: Molecular Mechanisms and Clinical Applications“, which states that the positive effects of fasting on RA have been supported by four differently controlled studies.  The authors write: “..for many [RA] patients able and willing to endure long-term fasting and to permanently modify their diet, fasting cycles would have the potential not only to augment but also to replace existing medical treatments.”

Is fasting really “quackery” as Wikipedia claims, or has not enough research been done to establish its value?  And what about the effects on AS?

My fifth thought comes from new knowledge gained in basic medical research.  A process which might have played a key role in the positive effects of fasting for patients with rheumatoid arthritis is Autophagy.  This is a sort of automatic biological cleaning programme.  The removal of waste products and old debris is essential for the cellular and organic fitness of any living organism.  Autophagy describes a fundamental process to degrade and recycle old cells, and then use them for new purposes or as a source of energy.  Yoshinori Ohsumi who discovered the processes and elucidated the basic mechanisms of how autophagy works, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2016 for his work.

Autophagy, as a recycling and cleaning act, is essential in many physiological processes.  It is triggered by the need to adapt to a lack of food caused by starvation or intentional fasting, but it is also a response to infection.  Furthermore, it is now known that mutations in autophagy genes can cause disease, and that the autophagic process is involved in several conditions including arthritis, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.  But nobody yet understands how.So perhaps the view of fasting will change in the next years.  More research is needed to understand autophagy and how exactly it may be connected to arthritis.  We might  find out that autophagy could contribute to the treatment of diseases, perhaps even by fasting!

The Luxury of Despair

The Welsh singer-songwriter Martyn Joseph sang at a music festival in our village last August. A song was about the conflict in Palestina and the fate of those innocent civilians living there. „Despair is a luxury,“ he sang. (There’s the link – check the song out!)

Martyn Joseph singing
Martyn Joseph singing at our annual music festival in August 2018

Those lyrics struck a chord with me. I remembered how a neighbour met me in a train last May. My hand and arm were bandaged with a dressing of anti-inflammatory cream. The medication that had transformed my life since Christmas 2015 had been working less well in the previous months. Now it had stopped working entirely, and alternately my wrists, arms, knees swelled up. I had backache and felt exhausted, drained of  energy, not rested after sleep. We talked a little, and she said, „You are brave.“  I said, „I’m not. I have no choice.“

Inside I didn’t feel brave. I was frightened. Frightened that the joy of life, given back to me by the treatment, was lost. Frightened that I would go back to chronic pain, frightened that I might not be able to work, frightened that I would be too tired to go out into the world, and loose the social life that keeps my soul afloat.

Six months on, one of the alternatives that are currently available, does seem to be working. The swelling disappeared in June and the back ache that plagued July is gone too. Side effects are being controlled with another medication. I am energised again, able to get up early, go hiking, swim, go out in the evening and generally feel good about myself again. I’ve just been on holiday for two weeks of swimming, diving, reading, eating, fun with friends, and generally had an amazing time.

In retrospect, it‘s a shame that I allowed several months to be marred by feeling miserable. My doctors are caring and will do their best to find a treatment that will help me. I am incredibly lucky to live in a country where my treatment will be paid for, more or less whatever it costs. (Think of the people in poorer countries, where this is not the case; and for the Americans with disorders like mine, who told me that they will not get insurance cover, if President Trump’s health care reforms are enacted).  I have a job and an understanding employer. I have a secure home, and a loving family. There are plenty of things I can still do, even if I have aching joints. Things could be so much worse.

Despair is a luxury” sings Martyn Joseph. If you can‘t change anything, then despair has no use – it’s like a luxury. That’s how I understood the words of the song, So, if despair can galvanise me to go into action and change something, then it’s useful. If not, despair is only destructive and will never end. Acceptance and trust are the keys; enjoying every moment, when nothing is seriously wrong – and of course even during a flare-up, there are such moments.

Meditation is the greatest tool I know to instantly get into a mind-frame of acceptance, trust and happiness. But exactly when I’m in pain and feeling bad about myself, is the time when I don’t use it! If I have backache, or other aching joints, I find meditation most difficult….. Will I manage better next time? I’m working on it.

When things don’t go according to plan – An April Fool’s Day Joke?

It’s time to come out with it! In January I broke my leg skiing. Now it’s April, and I STILL have a sort of plastic brace on my leg. I’ve barely been out of the house since the accident, except to go to the doctor’s or physiotherapy. But I’ve been to many places inside my head and – thank goodness – I’ve come back again. Life is still an adventure, even within the constraints of hoping around the house. But this is an adventure I could probably do without.

Skiing below the Eiger North Face
Below the Eiger North Face minutes before my accident

So here is the photo of me just before it happened. I’m looking at camera in my orange jacket and black helmet. To the left is the Eiger North Face. We are a group of friends planning to ski down a long descent just under that iconic mountain. We even had a wonderful local guide/teacher with us. Now, on Easter Sunday, it seems such a long time ago.

I was concentrating on practising my new improved short turns in deep snow, and didn’t notice a sort of drop to my right, someone came too close and to avoid a collusion I veered right and at the moment of falling into the drop, I couldn’t decide whether to brake and fall sideways or try to jump cleanly into it, so I fell straight into it and at that angle my touring ski bindings didn’t open.

Just the day before I’d seen Tom Cruise on the Graham Norton Show breaking his ankle and then running on. I was so impressed, but somehow something uncanny resonated with me that evening. So when a similar thing happened to me the next day, I was very aware of what was happening and knew instantly that I had broken my leg (tibia for people who know about bones), and that this was going to be a long story.

My friends helped me back to the main slope where a sort of motor bike on skis picked me up and took me to the Alpine train station called Scheidegg. I was put on a train back down to Grindelwald. During the train journey a middle-aged man, who was obviously used to telling people what to do, hit my leg with his ski stick and told me to take it off the seat. I breathed deeply and managed to remain courteous, but my explanation caused him to beat a rapid, wordless retreat to another seat. At Grindelwald the ambulance was not there as promised, so two station masters carried me to a taxi, which took me to a local doctor, who seems to earn a good living in winter x-raying people and encasing their injuries into plaster. The doctor also gave me a bottle of an opiate based pain-killer that I know from serious AS flare ups, so I chatted nonstop and cheerfully to the woman in our group who kindly drove me home. Goodness knows what I found to talk about!

At home a neighbour helped me set myself up with cushions in bed and an office chair to scoot around the kitchen. Over the next weeks my son visited regularly and helped with things like putting the rubbish out and filling the bird-feeders, neighbours shopped, and the Red Cross taxi service took me to the doctors. The ice and snow only melted in mid-March, so until very recently it was almost impossible to go out safely .

My well-being is very dependent on lots of movement and sport, and when after 10 days I was suffering from acute backache, I was terrified that a AS flare was starting. I started taking NSAIDS (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) regularly again, and they upset my stomach and made me feel sick. However, massage and physiotherapy managed to relieve the pain, so I could stop taking medication.

I got very lonely sometimes. Many friends visited and that saved me. But my daughter had only just moved out two weeks before and was abroad, so I was living alone for the first time in about 30 years. Morning meditation was difficult at first because of the pain, but I kept writing a journal and trying. That time in the morning is special, because it helps me to reframe negativity, create intentions and a purpose for the day, and live in the present moment. An example: on days when I saw nobody was to pose the question: “Am I lonely, or do I have the opportunity to enjoy a day of solitude?” Around me are so many people who are stressed out by the demands of their jobs and other people, and who would love a day by themselves.

One of my friends who told me that she’d never broke a bone, promptly broke her left leg skiing too. So we are thinking of forming a Facebook group. Anybody else?

Andrea and Judith broke their legs skiing
Andrea and me both broke our legs skiing in Winter 2018

Now the weather is a bit warmer and the snow has melted. I can put weight on my leg. Next week is another X-ray and if the bone has mended, I will loose the brace. Only downside is a sort of wandering Arthritis. Yesterday my right index finger and left elbow were swollen and painful. Today it’s my right knee and a bit in my right wrist. I’ve had this twice before – anybody else know it?

But otherwise life is looking up.

What keeps me healthy?

In Switzerland we believe that foxes are clever. Near the village where I live there is a family of foxes living on the border between the woods and a corn field, and in Spring the young foxes come out and play in the evenings. Last year I managed to get a picture, which I’d like to use as my feature picture for this first blog about being clever and keeping healthy.

Being and keeping healthy is the most precious, valuable thing that I can think of.  But let’s be honest – a lot about keeping healthy is luck, or maybe it’s more scientific to say that it’s about genes. So does it pay off to live healthily? I see a lot people around me who – how can I put it? – seem to ask a lot of their bodies. But they still seem to be very bright and cheerful, hold down a job and earn enough, have an intact family – in all, manage their lives quite successfully.

Much of my adult life I didn’t feel very well, I was exhausted, or had pains. Despite living my life a in very “healthy” way, I was often ill. Shortly before I started on the treatment with TNF alpha blockers in 2015, I couldn’t “tick off” any of the above life successes. I wonder what my life would have looked like if I’d lived like Winston Churchill, for instance? He began the day with whisky or brandy, and ended it with the same. In between he was very fond of Champagne and of course “Churchill Martinis” which is essentially a glass of gin. He liked good and large quantities of food as well, and is estimated to have smoked or chewed his way through 200’000 cigars. He didn’t think much of sport either, and lived to be 91. I would feel just awful, if I’d lived like that. How did he do it? Genes were probably pretty important.

But if your genes have passed you a disease like AS, or any other chronic ailment. It’s probably a good idea to live as healthily as possible. It should improve the quality of life, as long as you have it, and maybe give you some extra time as well. I believe that my health depends on the medication I take, on what I do for my body, on what I eat and drink, how well I can keep stress out of my life, and how much beauty and joy I manage to keep in.  That’s 5 things. In the next blogs I will address each of these five factors and reflect on how I bring them into my life. In a sixth blog I will make a guess about how much each factor contributes to my total well-being.

I’m looking forward to it, and hope to learn from the experience, and maybe give others some ideas as well.

It’s snowing outside, but Spring will come again. I leave you with a picture of the woods and the fields where the clever foxes play.

View of poppies and Swiss mountains in summer
View of poppies and Swiss mountains in summer