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.

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Norman Marshall

A brave and wonderful story

Melina

Always good to read your blogs!