Last week Asa's blood counts -- specifically, his neutrophil count -- didn't return to normal in time for him to undergo his eye exam and begin the 3rd round of chemo. Our medical appointments were pushed back a week, and in the meantime we've enjoyed a lull, waiting things out, and hoping the neutrophils are climbing, but also getting more time and space to reflect on life than we've had for the last couple of months.
The first time Asa’s neutrophils fell below 1.0, during the first cycle of chemo, we were thrown into a panic, and half expected him to break out in spots or immediately develop a fever. Since then we’ve learned that the danger is manageable.
Neutrophils are one component of white blood cells, which indicate your body's ability to withstand infections. The chemo drugs Asa is taking inhibit his ability to produce white blood cells, and consequently his immune system is seriously depressed for a while after each dose. During the first cycle they plunged after 9 days, and then returned to normal by day 20 or so. This time they fell more rapidly and stayed down for longer.
The implications for our day to day life aren't all that great: We've been taking precautions to protect him from infections, and we don't get out much: an excursion to the shops every now and then or a walk in the countryside when the weather's fine is about as adventurous as we get.
One of the precautions we take – keeping Asa (and sometimes Selam) penned in
This has become our normal routine now, so we're used to it. And so far we've been lucky this time around -- no fevers, no scary coughs, no inflammation around the Hickman line.…
The downside of up
At first, the absence of crisis was a bit difficult to deal with. When you've been putting out fires for weeks on end, it feels weird not to have an emergency on your hands. And the first week or so after Asa's appetite returned, when he seemed to be pulling back and was acting (as he still is now) pretty much like any other toddler, saw us struggling much more than we'd expected, with worries bubbling up. Your mind goes strange places under these circumstances -- you start wondering how long all this treatment is going to last. How you’ll get your own career back on track. How nice it would be to return to Ethiopia. And what it would be like if Asa were really to lose his sight….
We started searching for more information from other families who had children with Rb, and how things had worked out for them.
This has been a sobering exercise, and the stories make difficult reading. The first 6 months of chemo are never the end of the road, at least in the cases we've heard about. There are long periods when children are getting regular eye exams under anaesthetic, doctors are spotting new tumours, and children are receiving focused therapies like cryo, laser, and radioactive plaque…
And sometimes, after all this, removal of one or both eyes is necessary.
The blog that we've learned most from is Fintan Tadgh's. Maintained by his parents James and Fiona, it tells the story of their journey from Fintan’s diagnosis in 2007, when he was 6 months old, through an EUA last week, at the age of 4.
Fintan and his family have been through a lot, and learned a lot, over the years. Following them through this, reading a year's worth of posts each evening last week, we empathised as they took a roller coaster ride through periods when it looked like Fintan’s cancer was on the ebb, through times when it was resurgent, and through many and various treatments, all of which they suffered with great strength and dignity.
At the moment, we can’t tell how closely Asa’s story will resemble Fintan’s. We expect we’ll get more information when we see Mr Reddy, the consultant ophthalogist at the Royal London Hospital on Wednesday. And while we’re hoping for good news on how the chemo’s working, we know that this won’t be the final judgment, and there are likely to be more surprises ahead.
For the time being, we’ve attained a certain amount of equanimity, and the past few days have been as good as any I can remember of late.
Asa's been developing in new and surprising ways: imitating sounds, walking more confidently each day, fussing for our attention (are we spoiling him??), and kissing us (wetly and smack on the mouth).
And we've felt more lighthearted than we have for a long time, one sign of which is our ability to laugh at things that would have caused us to freak out just a week or two ago -- for example, me tracking dog shit into the house one day… Not a great move at the best of times, but especially not when you've got a severely immune compromised toddler in the house.