Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Backing a long shot

Together with many other cancer patients what I want most is a research breakthrough that will provide a new and much more effective way of treating my illness. Since being diagnosed in 2011 I've been following various research initiatives, one of which has developed into a recognised new treatment for Leiomyosarcoma. Unfortunately the effectiveness of this new treatment is limited and, whilst it's certainly a useful addition to the existing options, it doesn't fundamentally change the balance of power between the disease and the patient.  It does demonstrate however that new treatments can emerge in a timeframe of help to me.
There is one research programme that may offer the possibility of something better. Researchers at Stanford University are trying to unlock the potential of the human immune system to destroy cancer cells. They have identified that many cancer cells have, on their surface, a protein that acts as a "don't eat me" signal to macrophage cells. Macrophages are cells of the immune system, their job is to identify aberrant cells within the body and destroy them. Macrophages would normally be expected to target cancer cells but the "don't eat me" signal prevents them from doing so protecting the cancer and allowing it to grow.
This mechanism reminds me of being on safari in Zambia. If I was to stand ten yards away from a lion in South Luangwa national park I'm pretty certain the lion would attack me, however if I sit at the same distance in a totally open jeep the lion doesn't see me as a target. The jeep is a powerful "don't eat me" signal to the lion - so powerful that thousands of safari goers literally trust their lives to it every year.
The Stanford researchers have found a way of blocking the cancer cell's "don't eat me" signal so that the macrophages see the cancer cells for what they are. When a mouse, into which human tumour cells have been transplanted, is treated with an antibody that blocks the signal the mouse's immune system destroys the cancer cells. One of the things that is really significant about this research is that this "don't eat me" signal is found in many different types of cancer. This leads to hope that this treatment will be effective against many forms of the disease. LMS has been identified as one of the cancers that this treatment may be effective against.
My explanation here is an over simplification of what is really going on, but it does give a flavour of how this research hopes to deliver a significant blow against many cancers. The researchers are planning to launch human trials either late this year or early next. I know of no more exciting development in LMS treatment research than this. The odds of this being an effective treatment in humans are still very small but at least we have a horse in the race.
You can read more about this research here.
As I mentioned lions above these seem like appropriate pictures with which to end this post. These fine looking animals are residents of Chester Zoo. No "don't eat me" signal was required to take these pictures - the wire fence was enough!


Sunday, 17 November 2013

An afternoon as a sports photographer

I had a really enjoyable time this afternoon courtesy of Bath Rugby. A couple of months ago Katie contacted them and asked if it would be possible for me to have a press photography pass for one of their matches. The club were happy to help and so today I got to pretend to be a professional sports photographer at the LV Cup game between Bath and their west country rivals Exeter Chiefs.
Sports photography isn't as easy as it may look. Within a few seconds of the match starting Bath scored a try pretty much directly in front of where I was sitting. The attacking move was so quick and the try so close that I completely failed to get any shots of Bath crossing the line! Bath then went and gave a repeat performance straight from the restart, I did a little better that time around but still wasn't fast enough to capture the peak action. Sitting low down just a couple of yards behind pitch provided a pretty spectacular position from which to view the game. The speed and power of the players is really impressive up that close.
I took eight hundred photo's this afternoon so I haven't had chance to sort through them yet, however here are a couple from those first two tries. Bath's Carl Ferns makes the break that leads to the first score:
Winger Mat Banahan runs through a tackle on his way to setting up the second try:
Many thanks to Bath Rugby for making this possible and to Katie for organising it for me.     

Saturday, 2 November 2013

The Phoney War

My current chemotherapy cycle has been going very well so far. I had just a week or so of relatively mild side effects. The fluid retention has been a lot better these last few cycles which is a big relief as putting on large amounts of weight in just a few days isn't fun.
Apart from one break of a few months, I've now been on chemotherapy since April 2011. In the absence of any significant symptoms, my experience of my illness is defined by the repeating cycle of three months of treatment followed by a scan. Even with the relatively mild side effects I've been experiencing there is something psychologically difficult knowing that I can only get off this particular treadmill when there aren't any good treatment options left for me. 
It occurred to me that my situation has some parallels to what it may have been like during the 'Phoney War' period that occurred in the months between the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and their attack on France in May 1940. Britain and France were both at war with Germany but there was very little combat involving these three nations. People knew that the storm was approaching but had no idea when it would arrive. I imagine that some people reacted to the waiting and uncertainty by wishing that the real war would start so they could face whatever fate had in store for them and, hopefully, then get on with their lives.
In the context of my cancer I sometimes experience a strong sense of wanting to ‘get on with it’, that is of wanting to move past the current phase of my illness to face what is coming next. I think that this feeling comes from a wish to get something that is both scary and daunting out of the way as soon as possible. In many situations this kind of emotion would be reasonable but in my situation it really doesn’t make sense. Perhaps my emotional self is still to fully accept the reality of my position. 
For now I feel that the best way to try and deal with these emotions is to avoid looking too far into the future. Thinking about an on-going repetition of chemo punctuated by the anxiety of waiting for scan results or, worse still, coming to the end of my viable treatment options doesn’t do me any good. By focusing only on the short term future I hope to avoid having my enjoyment of today spoilt by the knowledge of what lies ahead.


Here's a photo from Westonbirt Arboretum taken last week, I like the colours in this one: