Tag Archives: University of Pennsylvania

Current Update


As these shorter, darker days hurtle us towards the close of 2014, it seems time to give an update. Just how am I staying alive these days? And what are my next tricks, if any?

Since late June of 2014 I have been doing several days of chemotherapy every other week. I am on a cocktail called the Bruckner Protocol that employs a varied mix of chemo drugs (often off label meaning FDA approved drugs but not approved for my form of cancer) in lower dose combinations that intend to intensify results without the toxicity. It has shown some success with hard to treat cancers. Using the protocol with recurrent ovarian cancers shows short-term results but there are challenges maintaining disease stability. It is no magic wand.

The doctors at the clinic are confidence inspiring in their relentless capacity to utilize the latest science to keep patients stable. Stability means a lot when you have untamed, terminal cancer. (Remission would mean more.) Drs Bruckner and Hirschfeld were pleased to hear that I not only had already started immunotherapy prior to arriving at their clinic but also that I was waitlisted for a next step immunological trial to open. I needed the Bruckner Protocol as a bridge to keep me alive. That was June 23rd.

I completed four treatments at the Bronx based clinic in NYC, a hefty commute, transitioning to Marin Specialty Care in early August. marinpagephoto2

I am just recovering from my seventh treatment in Marin bringing me to a total of eleven 31-hour cocktails.

Marin Specialty Caremarinphotonew3 became my new home when no Oregon facility was willing to treat me. (Thanks Oregon!) I had heard of Marin Specialty Care from the same woman who had initially presented the Bruckner Clinic as an option to track. Inbal was further down her relentless path with this disease when we met. With a young son to raise and a passion for life she was willing to try all options. Inbal blended zeal with research. She reported on the Bruckner Protocol with a journalist’s skill. For two years I saved her notes. When my cancer surge arrived in June I knew exactly where I was headed, and, in fact, flew off to the Bronx within a week.

Inbal lived in the woods near Oakland, CA. She chose Dr Jennifer Lucas as her oncologist, commuting the hour to Marin Specialty Care. Dr Lucas gave an initial no to Inbal when she requested the Bruckner Protocol but when asked to reconsider, Dr Lucas did, saying to me, “Who was I to say no. She and I both knew that I had no other way to keep her alive.” It is a rare oncologist that can set aside traditional doctrine and agree to a more daring protocol led by the patient. Dr Lucas watched the protocol both work and not work for Inbal. (Inbal died this September.) The clinic used the protocol on other hard to treat patients availing themselves of the free advise of Dr Hirschfeld in the Bronx. I arrived in August of 2014 as their first patient to fly in to their small 7-chair facility but patient number 9 on the Bruckner Protocol. Their entire team had expertise.

It has been an ambitious treatment period. Every two-week period I have three/four days in treatment/travel, recovery is a rather fierce three – five feeling lousy days (during which I moan and repeat, “oh my goodness” a lot) and then I have my rebuilding period in which I have daily health appointments and while my physical body is feeling better, my internal blood work is the weakest leaving me in a state of malaise. It is hard.  (14 days. 4 days treatment/travel, 5 days recovery, 5 days rebuilding.)

An additional challenge is maintaining a former life! My most vibrant health days are in Marin. There my body is in the best shape of the two-week cycle. Volunteers drive me to the airport, fly me by small plane to Marin, new volunteers scoop me up and bring me to my host family. I am fed and loved and dropped off by the 8 a.m. start of the chemotherapy drip. I am finally unplugged from my chemo pump 31 hours later to rush out the door to the driver who gets me to the Angel Flight, which brings me home. The love and dedication of these volunteers floors me. Their motivations fascinate me and, independently, they have become quite a social circle for my few good days each cycle. The fact that my new home is sunny and mild year round doesn’t hurt. My California days are nice.

My Oregon friends wonder though. I return sick and discharged and barely recover before departure. In Oregon, I am largely a missing person.

Where's Marcy?

Where’s Marcy?

All this effort initially showed great promise but back in September we got the first indication that the cancer is working around the therapy. Various tinkering is being tried, timed well as my body refuses to endure additional doses of some drugs. Oxaliplatin replaces Carboplatnum. Avistan is dosed when the stars or protein levels in the urine align. I get every infused anti-nausea med known and yet still, I endure the nausea, the nausea, and the endless nausea. Until one morning it is gone and much of my memory of the darker hours.

What is next? Just this week the University of Pennsylvania released the new T Cell Depletion Protocol that I have been on the waiting list for since June. The first woman will be accepted in January, with a new woman started each month with dose escalation every third patient. When will I be called? Will my weakened body still qualify? And can I keep my cancer calm until that moment?

I think I can. That’s what this whole six-month slog has been about. For now I count down to my next few spa dates in Marin, hoping my new friends are well and the sun will be out. That is far enough into the future for me.


Cone of Happiness


It is with great relief and gratitude that I close out a year of arduous and, possibly, effective treatment treks from Oregon to Philadelphia for my recurrent stage iv ovarian cancer.

Cone of Happiness

Cone of Happiness

I first arrived at UPenn’s Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine on April 4th, 2013. It had taken me twenty months to qualify for this tentative visit. Paperwork was signed on May 8th, Aphereisis #1 completed on May 22nd with my starting round of treatment June 5th and 6th of 2013. On March 12th and 13th 2014 I completed my 15th trek to Philly and my 11th round of treatment not knowing it would be my last. But it looks like that was my closing treatments for the part one of this clinical trial! Wow!

It’s been a complicated month since I lowered the Cone of Silence. It is never easy to interpret test results without the hands-on experts leading you and my great UPenn doc was gone until April 10th. The Internet told me a pericardial effusion was a bad sign. On April 17th, my doc could finally advise me from looking at the actual scans that the size of my effusion, a mere 1-2 cm of fluid around the heart, was not a concern. (Another probable side effect of Avistan.)

While waiting to understand my March test results, my body was increasingly crashing from the burdens of Avistan, a drug I knew I was set to go off, which tempered my complaints. What I did not expect was on April 10th UPenn offered that in lieu of dropping Avistan, they would give me a month off of treatment and add a day to my next proposed treatment cycle to determine if they could administer the Avistan. My heart dropped a little. I wasn’t sure I was up for more travel and more Avistan but I did not want to be cavalier about stopping participation in this trial given all that it has meant for extending my life.

Luckily, I had an appointment with my Oregon oncologist scheduled for the next day – my first visit to OHSU (Oregon Health Sciences University) in a year! As I biked to OHSU the next morning I found tears of joy on my face – it was wonderful to be enjoying a commute to my medical world. Entering OHSU-land (the largest employer in the city of Portland) I was awed by how affirming I find this community. I park my bike with hundreds of others. I get my free ticket for a jolly tram that arrives like a descending sculpture over my head and takes me to the top of the hill as if on an adventure versus a medical treadmill. It’s Tulip Sales Day so bright colored blooms are being sold for five dollars to support some good cause. My appointment is in the women’s center, which offers huge windows, a play area for children and adults on a wrap around balcony outside, all taking in the awesome view of mountains. Every moment at OSHU gentles the medical woes with positive possibilities. It is not so bad being sick amid a culture dedicated to hope and zest. Oh, I wanted to come home for treatment.

My appointment started early and my lovely, calm Doctor arrived with all my recent test results and said, “Wow, aren’t you doing great!” I explain that I have four vaccines left and she asserted before I have even biased her answer, “No, I think you are done. I think you have chosen a resolute and courageous path. You have gotten a lot of benefit and you will probably get no more.” I could have jumped in her lap and wept. Instead I listed my medical woes and she decisively attributed them all to Avistan, a drug she also believes in and dispenses often. But my body needs a break.

I await my two great docs deciding what is the proposed treatment plan for me here in Oregon. It is now my body’s turn to prove what it has learned from the Part One Autologous OC-DC Vaccines. I intend to cheer on my rebooted immune system in tracking down and eliminating new ovarian cancer cells. Or I may recur and get in line for a return to UPenn for the Part Two T Cell Infusion. I am fortunate to count down to either option.

May we build a world where all diseased people find they have positive options for getting diagnosed, finding treatment options and not being burdened with a payment plan. Thanks to this clinical trial, I might have a bit more time to contribute to that effort! Let’s add that to my to do list. much love, marcy

New To Do List

New To Do List

Goodbye Avistan and Final Scan Results


The final results of my March ct scan are in, the RECIST read. The radiologist contracted for the deeper read for this trial signed off on my scan as “no disease progression.” In fact, there was some reduction of disease in the abdomen. I am still trying to get answers about the pericardial effusion but the doctor is out until April 10th so I will content myself with everyone else’s lack of concern! Actually, they see the enlarged lymph nodes as a possible indicator of my immune system fighting per vaccine intent.

Why does my marker steadily rise? How to understand the aggravated lymph nodes and fluid around my heart? For now they are simple reminders that I am in a Phase One Clinical Trial trying to teach my body to fight back my aggressive ovarian cancer. There are many mysteries in this process.

I sometimes feel like the boy in the hills crying, “Wolf.” But the purpose of this blog is to make real life with terminal disease – constant testing, relentless waiting and then unclear results are a significant, routine burden.

The roller coaster of disease ups and downs, engulfed in bigger woes.

The roller coaster of disease ups and downs, engulfed in bigger woes.

For most of 2013 testing was relatively easy because my marker was so stable but as the marker rises, my friends and I with terminal disease find we wait for the other shoe to drop. Stable pronouncements don’t calm as much as they should. But I am determined to accept this news as is – good!

Other news was unexpected. I need to stop taking Avistan, a core drug in the trial, because I have moved into an unsafe range. UPenn is rewriting the maintenance protocol in the hopes that the external review bodies will approve my staying in the trial. I don’t have anxiety about what happens. (My lack of anxiety is also because I am assuming that I will be able to go back on Avistan eventually or still opt in to the Part Two T-Cell Phase when relevant if I take a break from the drug now.)

Avistan is the drug I dragged my heels on starting for 8 months. I was supposed to start with my first recurrence in Autumn 2011. For months I stalled, often calling off the start in the final week even while knowing how lucky I was to have access to this incredibly expensive new drug that many countries and insurance companies refuse to pay for.

I distrusted Avistan for my own hard to justify reasons. It is actually not a chemotherapy agent but rather a “biologic” that works to cut off the blood supply to existing tumors, killing them. When I first started treatment back in spring 2010, I started in a Phase Three Clinical Trial where 2 out of 3 patients were given a trial biologic anti-angiogenic – I still don’t know if I was in the placebo arm or not. It was the marketing overkill, price tag and current reality of what it takes to bring a drug to market that fueled my distrust as well as the rumors that those of us who took the miracle drug got short term payoffs but when the cancer learned to go round it, the result was relentless. I took those rumors to heart. And it is a drug too new to even be approved for ovarian cancer or for anyone to know that proper dosing or use of.

The UPenn team really believes in Avistan and that has lessened my fears. I have now been on Avistan for over two years and my body has gradually been starved by protein being spilled into the urine. Now, I am at grade three status and the risks are too dire for my kidneys. Avistan’s side effects always kicked my butt. Maybe it was payback for my reluctance. Unrelenting nose pain and ever increasing headaches lowered my daily quality of life. I feel joy as I imagine approaching relief of these big discomferts. Ahhhh…..goodbye Avistan for now.

Thank you, dear readers, for staying with me on this roller coaster of disease. I enter a new year ever hopeful! Happy birthday to me.IMG_4850_3


A Big World Made Smaller


Where are Jersey, Tobago and Ghana?  Courtesy of Wikipedia I find answers. Unknown

A. Jersey is a British Crown dependency just off the coast of Normandy, France.
B. Tobago is located in the southern Caribbean, northeast of the island of Trinidad and southeast of Grenada.
C. Ghana, officially the Republic of Ghana, is a sovereign state and unitary presidential constitutional republic located on the Gulf of Guinea and Atlantic Ocean in the Africa frontier of Sub-Saharan Africa.
There are people impacted by cancer in each of these locations, not surprisingly, alas.
       My accuracy in geography is weak. A shower curtain world map entertained me for years but I still failed to orient myself much better. It is a big world with almost 200 countries, shifting borders and new names. What I know is that everywhere on this globe matters, as does each individual. And that everywhere there is life there is also cancer.
       I set up the blog LivinglyDying in June 2013 motivated to share my experiences participating in a Phase One clinical trial. The fact that it was an immunological trial at the top rated University of Pennsylvania with early promising results meant it was on the cutting edge of possible cancer breakthroughs. Ovarian Cancer has not seen a shift in its mortality statistics in 30 years – any breakthrough would be a big deal.
       I did not enter this trial to be a good citizen. I entered it as my best bet for staying alive awhile longer. Such self-centered motivations did not mean I couldn’t ‘share the wealth’ by adding a public communication loop. I set up a blog during a week when acute hip bursitis had me able to do little. It was a distraction versus a well thought out new project.
       I make an effort to post weekly, be modestly engaging and use different content angles to meet the varied interests of readers. Friends, family and colleagues were the first to enroll, motivated to track my progress. I wanted content to be good enough that they might share the link with other’s coping with mortality or cancer or just the wonders of life. As the tagline indicates, the blog promises “notes and essays on daily life with terminal cancer.”
       I learned about blog culture and the excellent tools that WordPress provides so that innocents like myself can build a platform that is read. Little by little, I was found. (I am still waiting for The Post That Goes Viral to bring me instant fame as was so well made fun of on Showtime’s series The Big C. The truth is many, many people blog and many, many people buy lottery tickets – the odds of making it big are not in your favor.)
        I stay mesmerized by my stats page which allows me to study not just the number of visitors and the different places on the site where they spend time but also which countries they call home and what entry points allow them to find LivinglyDying. I am often amused to find search terms like ‘Marcy Westerling’s Obituary’ as the connection to the blog. (Yesterday someone entered ovarian cancer party supplies and found the blog!) More common are search term entries like today’s query, ‘I am dying of cancer’.
       Most of my visitors stumble upon the blog in desperation – they have received their own terminal diagnosis and they want to feel less isolated as they learn how to cope. People from 58 countries including Jersey, Tobago and Ghana have spent time on LivinglyDying. There have been over 13,000 visitors and while that still ranks me as a small potato blog, I hope that in the five months of my blogging visitors may have found some support and useful information.
       Thank you for being readers, for spreading the word. If you are healthy, thank you for being brave enough to co-mingle with those that are not. For those consigned to this sorry path of terminal illness, thank you for reaching out and for suspecting, as I do, that there might be some magical power in being connected and in being emboldened by the notion that in 2013 we can be both terminal and quite lively and that maybe, just maybe we will see our illnesses become chronic versus terminal in our lifetimes, especially if we can make the world a little smaller, share our resources and make every person and every community counts.images-1

Surviving Recurrent Ovarian Cancer


There is no recipe for staying alive with advanced, recurrent cancer – and ovarian cancer by definition tends to be advanced and recurrent. Alas. Luck seems to be the only constant in outliving the odds. My luck hasn’t seemed great of late as my first recurrence has involved a year of running through various chemos until low dose taxol brought me enough shrinkage and stability to start Phase One of a clinical trial at the University of Pennsylvania. I now travel cross the USA for treatment every two and a half weeks. Is it crazy to still feel so alive?

Why not feel alive?

I completed my fifth trek to Philly and second round of treatment this past week. Outside of the city being beastly hot, there are no riveting ups or downs to report. The thunderstorms that shut down all flights just as my plane backed onto the runway sucked but that is Mother Nature and my poor relationship with the gods of travel stepping in again. For an Oregonian, though, this new constant of daily thunderstorms most afternoons is its own form of excitement – Western Oregon averaging a mere three thunderstorms a year.

The routine is becoming just that. My sister, an emergency room doc and 18-year survivor of stage 1 ovarian cancer, travelled in to greet me. She is the big sister despite her smaller frame – 18 months my elder. Living far away with her own life of demands, our rendezvous in Philly allowed her to treat me to a vacation while holding my hand, at times literally, during treatments. As someone inclined to do it all solo, it was a lovely treat. Especially the finger to squeeze and the voice to soothe as the two vaccines to the groin searched out deeper lymph nodes to inject this time.

photoVacation meant strolls and delightful meals out in Philly, the city beyond hospitals.

A sister meant no luggage to schlep. A sister meant all needs all the time were met. A sister meant no need to explain or entertain, we could just be. My prescription for nausea was filled while I stayed being infused. Lovely. Although that did mean I navigated the fire alarm alone. The alarm droned, “this is not a drill” with flashing blue lights, while failing to say what you do when it is not a drill. Everyone in the ward was tied to toxic chemicals. It is a large building. The answer seemed to be for the staff to close you in your single room. Such solitary confinement never goes over well with this gal assigned a windowless chamber. So I left, found a lounge window ledge to sit on, infusion equipment in tow, and watched the fire trucks arrive. My last treatment overlapped with the collapse of a downtown building and the 12 survivors being brought to this center. I am getting used to the secondary dramas unfolding in a large urban hospital.

My ‘vacation visit’ with my sister was over too soon. I don’t know how to survive recurrent ovarian cancer but I do know enjoying the moments probably does not hurt. Hopefully, getting into one of the most exciting clinical trials of the times will help as well. Stay tuned!