Started today by getting an echocardiogram at the Hospital adjacent to Dana Farber. This is an ultrasound of the heart, intended to assess heart function. Specifically, they’re interested in how well my heart is pumping blood. This is called (ahem) “ejection fraction,” or EF.
The concern is driven by my Herceptin infusions. In another example of how cancer treatment can negatively affect patient’s lives over the long term, research (here, here, and here, among other studies) has shown that Herceptin, aka trastuzumab, can cause loss of heart function. This isn’t an immediate effect, but given the multi-year use of Herceptin, the cumulative effects can be problematic for some people. As is often the case, however, the research on this isn’t crystal clear. There are many caveats about the conditions under which Herceptin might cause cardiac dysfunction, as well as the reversibility of this problem. The upshot is that it’s standard to do regular echocardiograms to keep an eye on any possible problems.
Back to the ejection fraction. Normal EF is 50-75%. Left Ventricle EF (LVEF) less than 50% is technically considered heart failure. When I had this done on May 8, my LVEF was a strong 72%, and today’s test will be used as a comparison to see if my treatment has negatively affected my heart.
Silver Linings Alert: A very nice difference between today’s echocardiogram and the one done on May 8 is that I no longer have all that abdominal pain. The process requires lying on your left side on a bed while the technician pokes and rolls a small ultrasound transducer that looks like an ink roller over your heart. This is probably no big deal for men (see image above), but for women, I can tell you it’s rather uncomfortable. Those pesky breasts. The tech pokes/rolls the ink roller around the chest, applying a good deal of pressure to try to get a good image of the heart beyond all that useless, dare I say traitorous, breast tissue. Anyway, back in May, it was difficult for me to lie on my back or side for any length of time without pain, which made this relatively simple procedure a little more difficult. Today I was able to lay there for nearly an hour without any problem.
It was fascinating to hear all the different sounds made by different parts of my heart. At one point I noticed a distinct shh-WOO-woo, shh-WOO-woo, shh-WOO-woo sound, though I don’t know where she was with the transducer at that point. It was at this point that I turned my head to the right to get a view of the monitor. And what an amazing view it was! (The soundcloud link below is not my echocardiogram, but you get the point. I was bummed to discover that this person’s heart doesn’t say shh-WOO-woo.)
I kept asking the technician questions, and she was happy to try to answer them, but as a non-native English speaker with a very strong accent, it was hard to understand much of what she said.
Still, I gathered that they pay special attention to the left ventricle because this is the real powerhouse of the heart, responsible for most of the pumping. The other heart chambers, she said, are more passive. She poked and rolled and made a big mess of my chest with all the lube they use to allow the pokey ultrasound transducer to “glide” more easily. There was not much gliding involved in this exercise, I can tell you. Then she instructed me to take short breaths – not too much! – to capture the heart filling and pumping. Too big a breath meant that the heart would expand beyond the view of the monitor window, making this a rather precise process. She went on to say that breathing is a very important exercise for good health. I feel like I’ve been inundated with instructions to meditate (and practice breathing) lately. It almost felt like she was a paid protestor to further this pro-breathing agenda.
The 2-D echocardiogram shows an image of the heart (or whatever the target organ or other tissue is) doing its thing, as well as the heartbeat, which is measured by electrodes that are stuck in several places around the chest and abdomen. Periodically she would turn on a feature that would show a color-coded image of blood flow through the various heart chambers, veins, and arteries. The image looks like a heat map, where red colors mean more blood flow and blue colors mean less. At one point she held the transducer in the upper middle of my abdomen to get a look at the hepatic vein, flowing from liver to heart. The hepatic vein is quite large, and was easily visible to my eye on the monitor, but I was distracted by two pulsating cones (a terrible word to describe this, I’m sure, but that’s what they looked like) to the right, above the liver. It turns out that this was the bottom of my heart. Every time I get one of these windows into my body, I’m amazed at how close together everything is! I’ve heard many times that the heart muscle is about the size of a fist. Well, that’s a bigger fist than mine, apparently, since its lower extremities are far closer to my liver than I would have imagined. We’ve got a lot of stuff crammed in these bodies. No wonder things go wrong so often.
The technician also explained that the heart can experience scarring from breast radiation, in spite of best efforts by radiation oncologists and techs to avoid this. That reminded me of the, again, very precise, practice of breathing and holding my breath that was required during my breast radiation in 2015. They did imaging to figure out exactly how much I would need to inhale and how long I’d need to hold my breath to protect my heart during the radiation zaps. The duration of each radiation treatment was mostly a function of whether I was able to do the inhalation and breath-holding well the first time, or whether it took a few times to get it right. It’s interesting to see this all come full circle now. Oh, and by the way, “radiation therapy frequently augments the cardiotoxic effects of systemic cancer therapy.” Yippee!
No results yet, but Nurse M said this was good news. If there had been bad news, we would have heard today while I was getting the infusion.
Finally, I’ll note that this was treatment number 15 today. Wow. Time has flown. Three more chemo treatments to go, or so we hope. Another CT scan in early September, blood work, and the echocardiogram results will tell the story that informs Dr. M’s decision about whether I need to continue chemotherapy beyond September 7.
Side effects remain about the same. The neuropathy has gotten a little worse, but hasn’t spread beyond my fingertips and toes. The quality of the neuropathy has changed, with my fingertips feeling to me as though they’re calloused, even though they’re not. My nail beds no longer feel sore, but that’s because each of my fingertips feels more deeply numb. As in, deeper within my fingers. It’s hard to explain.
The diarrhea continues, and today DF gave me a prescription for Lomotil, a more powerful anti-diarrheal drug than Imodium. I’ve been using Imodium steadily, with mixed results. Nurse M explained the various strategies that patients deploy with the two drugs: some people decide to skip Imodium entirely and just use the Lomotil; others stagger their use of both. He concluded, “there’s no hard and fast rule for how to do this.”
Without missing a beat, Husband said, “the only rule is that it will come hard or fast.” Baahaahahahahaha!! I think this might be the title for the chapter devoted to pooping in my eventual book. ‘Cause you know there’s going to be a chapter about poop.