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Speaking and seeing

This week I got back to London after two months in Congo.

During the first weeks away I was able to talk with Selam by phone; after that we communicated mostly by text message. 

Asa didn't do all that well on the phone (when we'd talk, he'd often just laugh), but on my return I've discovered that he's made amazing progress in speaking.

His vocabulary reflects common preoccupations of children with animals (dog, cat, bunny, bear, and ait [Amharic for rat]) and vehicles (car, truck, plane, tractor, bus, and train). These things recur in his picture books and in toys; some of them he can also see through our front-room window, or on walks around the neighbourhood.

A lion driving a car... Asa digs this book.

Other words reflect experiences that are less common in childhood.

"Chemo", for instance, Asa uses to refer to a drip set. (He used the word when he last had a blood transfusion.)

And “ambulance” means something different to him than to many kids, because he’s used to riding to hospital in them.

A conversation

Yesterday, Selam and Asa were still in bed when I was about to head out the door, and I crawled over to them to say goodbye.

Asa opened his eyes and looked at my clothes.

"Yellow. Jacket."

"Yes, Daddy's wearing a yellow jacket," I said. "I'm going to ride my bike."

"Bike," he said. "Motorbike."

"Not a motorbike, just a bike," Selam corrected.

"Out?" Asa said.

"Yes, I'm going to work."

"Not yet."

This caught me by surprise.

I couldn't bear to say I was going right away.

"Not right away. Soon," I said.

"Back?" Asa asked.

"Yes, I’ll come back later."

That was by far the most complete conversation we've had so far.

The cataract

While Asa's language abilities have improved, his vision has deteriorated during the time I've been away.

As we learned in April, there's a cataract developing in his left eye. It's now visible in the form of a milky whiteness in the pupil.

The left eye was formerly his stronger eye. Now, apparently on account of the cataract, he's switched his preference to the right eye. When he's looking at books, or at images on his mum's smartphone (a favourite new toy), he'll cock his head and orient towards the right eye.

This right eye, however, has a centrally located tumour. And so the window he's peering through must be very small indeed.

Unexpected by the doctors, it’s unclear whether the cataract is a side-effect of the cancer, or the chemo, or independent of them.

Getting through chemo

Another wild card that came up in the past two months was a bacterial infection in the Hickman line, during the second cycle of chemo. This had us scared. Asa was in hospital for 8 days.

The Hickman line was eventually removed, and then reinserted a week later.

Thankfully the third and fourth cycles of chemo have gone relatively smoothly, without infections or long spells in hospital.

This is likely due at least in part to the presence of grandmother Kuri, who’s been living with us since April, and who provides such help around the house that Selam is able to concentrate better on keeping Asa happy.

Asa and grandmother Kuri, in the garden


The prospects after the next EUA on June 19 are difficult to gauge.

There are at least three possibilities.

  1. The most optimistic scenario -- the chemo has caused the tumours to recede dramatically, and no more treatment is needed.

  2. Less optimistically, four cycles of chemo might have produced modest effects on the tumours, and two more cycles could be given before reevaluating progress.

  3. The least optimistic scenario is that the chemo hasn’t had any substantial effect, and we need to consider other treatments.

It impossible to know which of these scenarios we’ll face – or whether, instead, we’ll receive another surprise.


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Relapse. Birthday.

Wednesday'sExamination Under Anaesthetic yielded some unexpected news.
In Asa's left eye, which had been stable since the end of primary chemo in June, there were 4 or 5 new tumours, and one previously treated tumour that was growing slowly. There were also some new seeds.
In his right eye, moreover, the tumours that had earlier responded well to Melphalan had started to relapse.
These areas are at the front of the eye -- as the doctor put it, "almost where the retina finishes."
And the seeds that were there last time had not responded to the cryotherapy.

Treatment options
When Selam picked Asa up from the recovery room, both of his eyes were red and swollen from cryotherapy.
Cryo is a stop-gap measure: Since too much of it can cause retinal detachment, this approach doesn't hold much promise for controlling the tumour growth in the long term.
The area of tumour activity is also too wide for the more gentle kinds of radiotherapy -- such as radiation delivered through a …

Mixed results

Last Wednesday Asa was put to sleep and underwent an eye exam under anaesthetic. 
The first since the beginning of the new chemo, the exam showed that the drugs have had a "partial effect."

In Asa's left eye, the tumours responded well to the chemo. 
But in the right eye, there's been a slight increase in tumour activity.
And in the left eye there's a cataract developing.
A mixed bag
This was not what we'd hoped to hear.
We had reason to expect that the TVD (topotecan-vincristine-doxorubicin) combination would lead to shrinkage of the tumours in both eyes. 
And the appearance of a cataract -- a clouding of the lens -- at this stage is unusual: puzzling to the doctors as well as us.
While cataracts can be removed through surgery, cutting into the eye when there are active tumours inside is not advisable. So treatment for the cataract itself will have to wait until the tumours are stable.
The main risk in the near future is that the cataract may make it difficult to moni…

Hard questions

One morning recently, when we were trying to get Asa to put on his socks, he asked us, seemingly out of nowhere: “What does it have in it, my right eye?” It was clear he wasn’t in discomfort; it wasn’t that he had a piece of grit in there. He pointed up at his eye with his index finger.
“Well, it’s got jelly in it,” I said. “And a retina, and a lens. And lots of other things we didn’t know about two years ago.” “And what does it have in it, my left eye? Does it have a lens?” “No, your left eye doesn’t have a lens.” “What happened to it, the lens?” “The doctor took it out, because the eye was poorly.” “Was the lens poorly?” “It had gotten --” “Cloudy,” Selam offered. “Yes, it had gotten all cloudy, and you couldn't see well through it. So he took it out.” “Who took it out?”  “The doctor took it out.” “It doesn’t have any lens.” “No. That’s why you have to wear glasses sometimes, so you can see better. And that’s why Mummy patches your right eye sometimes. Because we want you to see as well as …