Trials and Tribulations

[Feeling a little disjointed today…]

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that it’s all about me and my trials and tribulations around my experience with myeloma, old age, medicine, chemotherapy, and its side effects. Of course, I’m not completely self-absorbed, just mostly so. To be honest, it’s been a bit difficult to focus on anything else. Myeloma and its effects have taken over my (and my family’s) life. The pandemic hasn’t helped either. Both myeloma and the pandemic have severely restricted any social activity in which I used to take great pleasure. Driving is a challenge but not impossible. My neck seems to be getting somewhat better after the dexamethasone injection in my neck about six weeks ago. Now I fear that my time with Daratumumab may be coming to an end. I don’t know that for sure, but the neuropathy in my left hand is getting quite bad. Increased peripheral neuropathy is a side effect of Daratumumab and may be a signal that my body is rejecting the Dara. I talk to an oncologist in Victoria next month and we’ll certainly talk about my chemo treatments. On top of that I have a tooth that is dying if not completely dead. The endodontist I saw about that says I need a root canal and I should be on antibiotics for a bacterial infection just below that tooth. To be on antibiotics I probably need to cease chemotherapy treatments for a time. That’s another thing I need to talk to the oncologist about. So it goes. 

By the way, I’ve just finished reading The Cancer Code (2020) by Dr. Jason Fung. Aside from being a practicing nephrologist in Toronto, Fung is a prolific writer. This book on cancer is fine although Fung focusses on tumor-based cancers and mentions myeloma only in passing. I quite like his analysis and where he ends up suggesting that cancer is subject to evolution and natural selection like any organism. He argues that in the past cancer was seen as a mistake, then as a somatic mutation, but he writes: 

“Cancer had always been considered a single genetic clone, so evolutionary processes were considered irrelevant. But the realization that cancers evolve was electrifying. For the first time in decades, we had a new understanding of how cancer develops. The entire field of science known as evolutionary biology could now be applied to understand and explain why cancer develops mutations.” (from “The Cancer Code: A Revolutionary New Understanding of a Medical Mystery (The Wellness Code Book 3)” by Dr. Jason Fung)

Daratumumab is a monoclonal antibody. It worked well for a time. I hope it works for a while longer, but it is destined to fail when it no longer responds to myeloma’s mutations. He notes that cancer cells act like prokaryotes or single-celled organisms and not like eukaryotes or multi-celled organisms. According to Fung, we are on the cusp of a major paradigm shift in cancer treatment, but it will be expensive. What do we do about that? 

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Just to remind myself that I’m still a sociologist, I’ve spent quite a bit of time lately reading and watching MSNBC, CNN, The Guardian, NPR, BBC, Al Jazeera, Ring of Fire, Beau of the Fifth Column, and other newsy YouTube videos. I check out some Canadian content, but the elephant next door is far more compelling than Trudeau’s antics or O’Toole’s foibles. I’ll come back to the US below, but before I go there, I just want to say that I’m reading a book by David Graeber and David Wengren published just last year called The Dawn of Everything. The book challenges everything we know about the “Western” version of history and is a refreshing read. For one thing it sheds value on indigenous ideas and ways of seeing as providing the real challenges to the philosophers (Locke, Hume, Hobbes, etc.) of the Enlightenment, Rousseau, and other incipient lefties. The authors reject the idea that indigenous peoples were the child-like innocents they are often portrayed as by European travellers and colonizers. They also challenge the idea that things can’t change, that we’re stuck with large scale, ridiculous, bloated states. Unfortunately, Graeber died on September 2nd, 2020, three weeks after this book was released. He was fifty-nine years old. That hardly seems fair.

I don’t know how many of you are interested in American politics. It can be a nasty, grubby place at times and unless you are steeled against media biases and distortions of reality, you might be left with all kinds of strange ideas about what’s really going on to the south of us. One thing is for certain, I’m getting just a little perturbed at the ignorance and stupidity of some American politicians in Congress who shout “socialism” every time Biden and the Democrats dare spend a dime on regular, run-of-the-mill citizens or on infrastructure. They want all the cash to go to the 1%. I’m still not sure how that benefits them personally unless they believe Milton Friedman’s ridiculous trickle-down theory by which if regular people as taxpayers give billionaires all the money that some of it will trickle down to them. That is such a bullshit theory. The proof of that is that it’s never worked and the concentration of wealth in the über-wealthy is clear evidence of that. 

Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Josh Hawley, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Jim Jordan, and their ilk in the Republican Party and sitting members of Congress obviously haven’t a clue what socialism is, or, if they do, they are being disingenuous about it. The truth is that it may be some of both. For these clowns, any money spent on bridges, highways, city roads, the electrical grid, wastewater systems, potable water, etcetera, is evidence of socialism. So stupid. They take the notion of individual initiative and investment to the extreme. But, of course, they just want to get re-elected and making outrageously false statements is the name of the game. They can always be retracted later when nobody is paying attention.  

I’d say that I follow American Congressional politics as entertainment, but it’s not funny. There is a fairly serious challenge to the status quo there from a far-right racist Republican cabal and some people seem to want to continue the Civil War of the early 1860s. I do take some comfort in the fact that there are over 300,000,000 people in the United States and that would be a hard ship to turn around. I have a lot more to say about the US, supply chains, the wane of capitalism, the rise of oligarchy (which is already close to the surface), and history. Stay tuned. 

I strongly recommend reading Heather Cox Richardson on Facebook. You’ll get a well-researched commentary on American politics from a classy historian. Check her out.

Sleepless in Cumberland

Yesterday was my day at the hospital for my monthly infusion of Daratumumab, the monoclonal antibody. It along with other flavours of monoclonal antibodies have changed a lot about how medicine thinks about and treats cancer, arthritis, and other nasty ailments of us fragile mortals. Along with my Dara, I also take some dexamethasone, only 12 mgs for the month, and a few other meds designed to protect me from viral infection. It’s the dex that keeps me awake as I’ve noted many times on this blog. 

So, instead of lying awake, allowing whatever thoughts I had rattle around in my brain causing no end of silly talk, I decided to read instead. Reading is a good way of filling in the night hours in what some people would call a ‘progressive’ way. However, I may need to revise the material that I choose to read at night. I haven’t read a lot of fiction in my life, focussing my reading time on sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and other sundry disciplines. I have read most of Kurt Vonnegut’s work, all of Emily St. John Mandel’s books and I did recently read several books by Kim Stanley Robinson, fictional accounts of the human colonization of Mars, New York under flood, and other similar topics. In his Mars trilogy one interesting commentary was on longevity. If people accepted a certain treatment, they could live hundreds of years instead of the paltry number of years generally allotted to our species. That fact, however, did not seem to mitigate the angst they felt about death and dying. In a book called Aurora, Robinson is at his most pessimistic about human excursions to other planets and their satellites in our solar system. His conclusions about the time it takes to travel from Earth to other planets are telling. Travelling to and back from a satellite of Venus, for example may take a hundred and seventy years or more with the need for cryogenic sleep. So, if you were one of the ‘lucky’ ones who won the lottery for space travel you would return to Earth after several decades of travel at a time when no one would know you, you would have no recognizable family and you would be relegated to the margins of society. I read Robinson at night. It was a bit hard to get to sleep after reading some of his stuff, but not impossible. Reading Barbara Ehrenreich and other non-fiction writers of her ilk is an entirely different story (no pun intended). Last night I finished reading her book Natural Causes: Life, Death, and the Illusion of Control. This book is firmly planted in reality. Problem is reality sucks sometimes. Ehrenreich is especially blunt when she writes about aging. Getting old is no cake walk. It’s not for the faint of heart although in our culture it’s not cool to ‘give in’ to the infirmities of age. Ehrenreich writes:

“But as even the most ebullient of the elderly eventually comes to realize aging is above all an accumulation of disabilities, often beginning well before Medicare eligibility or the arrival of the first Social Security check. Vision loss typically begins in one’s forties, bringing the need for reading glasses. Menopause strikes in a woman’s early fifties, along with the hollowing out of bones. Knee and lower back pain arise in the forties and fifties, compromising the mobility required for “successful aging.”” (from “Natural Causes: Life, Death and the Illusion of Control” by Barbara Ehrenreich)

And:

“Not doing anything is the same as aging; health and longevity must be earned through constant activity. Even the tremors of Parkinson’s disease can be seen, optimistically, as a form of health-giving exercise, since they do, after all, burn calories. The one thing you should not be doing is sitting around and, say, reading a book about healthy aging. There are bright sides to aging, such as declines in ambition, competitiveness, and lust.”*

So, we must always put a happy face on adversity, be positive about everything, and keep moving. I don’t think my nine hours a day sitting with my computer on my lap would be morally acceptable. But you know what? I’m finding it a wee bit difficult to feel positive about dying. A Cumberland friend, Howard Jones, who died recently spent his last few days in the hospital. He couldn’t breathe on his own much anymore. Months ago, over coffee he confided that he didn’t know how long he could continue on oxygen with a life very much reduced to sitting or lying in bed. He could no longer walk in his beloved forest. I meant to visit him in the hospital when I was there for my usual chemo treatment, but I was cautioned not to because of my compromised situation. I should have gone anyways. Now it’s too late. We did text each other, but that’s not the same as a face-to-face visit. One day, the day he died as far as I know, he was the one to make the decision to go off oxygen, thus ensuring his death. I think that Howard died a good death. 

The especially difficult decisions I know I will face in the near(ish) future will be whether I continue with the chemotherapy that has so far kept me alive. I will be thinking of Howard when the time comes. I expect that my (and my family’s) decision will hinge on the quality of life my treatments are now offering me and the intensity of their side effects. There is a question of how much benefit a few months of life can give in the face of much reduced quality of life. It will not be an easy decision. I love life, I love my family, my community and where I live. I am loathe to give that up, to know that the world will carry on without me. But it’s not like I or any of us have a choice in the matter. We all die. Some of us, however, are given the privilege of deciding when and how we die. 

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*I’m reading Ehrenreich as an ebook on a Kindle. The problem with that is that when I select a quotation to use on my post, it doesn’t give me a page number. I find that unacceptable and will see if I can find a work around. 

Lassitude – An Addendum

So, on my last post I noted that I’d be going to the lab at the hospital this morning to get my blood tested in preparation for my Daratumumab infusion on Thursday. I told you I’d let you know how it went. Well, I texted the lab at 9 AM. We can get on a wait list if we text the lab. They text back when it’s our turn. I always do that to avoid sitting in the lab waiting room with a lot of sick people. We then immediately drove to the hospital. We got to the hospital at 9:40. I was 37th in line at that point. I waited in the car while Carolyn took Tilly for a walk. 

I got my blood taken at 10:40. Not as bad as it could have been, especially on a Monday morning. When I told the lab tech that I was quite disappointed that VIHA had closed all the satellite labs in the Valley, she said that if they had left them open, they might not be run off their feet at the hospital lab. But then we agreed that staffing was a problem. 

Getting my blood tested within ninety-six hours of my infusion is a must. They won’t proceed with the infusion if my blood shows any kind of wonkiness. In the last few months it’s been brilliant! Last month there was no sign at all of myeloma protein in my blood. Everything is going fine with me on that front. My chemotherapy is very effective and there is no trace of myeloma protein in my blood. 

I had a consult with my local GP/Oncologist about ten days ago. We discussed the possibility of my going off chemo for a short time, but I figured it would be best to wait until I spoke with an oncologist at the BC Cancer Agency next month to entertain such a course of action. I feel so fortunate that I have great care and my prognosis is excellent. Myeloma used to be a killer. It still is, but it’s not a quick killer. It takes its time now. There are some amazing chemo meds that account for the progress being made in the survivability of myeloma patients. The trope now is that we’ll more likely die with myeloma than because of it. Fair enough. Obviously, I want to live longer, but I’m not keen on following my father in the way he died. 

It’s clear that some of my current lassitude is caused by my chemo and pain meds. However, the fact that I’m almost seventy-five is also an important factor. As we were driving to the hospital for my consult with Dr. Bakshi, I happened to notice a cyclist pushing hard along Piercy Road on the way to Highway 19. He was maybe in his fifties. This scene reminded me of years gone by when I rode my bike on this same stretch of road. I’d get tired alright, but I had plenty of strength and endurance. I could easily ride forty or fifty kilometres back then. I still have my bike. It’s a good cruising bike, but I’m almost afraid to get on it because my balance is off, and that’s not good for bike riding. I may give it a shot again. We’ll see.

I guess what I’m saying is that each stage of life has its own characteristics. It’s a bit crazy to think that we should be able to do at seventy-five what we did easily at forty-five or fifty-five. Certainly, there are some people who can still engage at seventy-five in some impressive physical activity. I know some of them, but I’m definitively not one of them. As my GP noted too, having a nap in the afternoon at my age isn’t beyond the moral pale. Today, I didn’t nap in the afternoon. I went down to my shop instead. I had some energy. Better not to waste it. I’m hoping to sleep a little better tonight because of it, but there is a confounding variable in my sleep patterns. Her name is Princess Pretty Paws and last night she damned near drove me crazy. She started meowling at 2:30 or so and carried on for most of the rest of the night. She’s lucky to be alive. 😉

Lassitude

Yes, lassitude, which the dictionary that Apple so kindly provides for us as part of the operating system on my computer defines as: “a state of physical or mental weariness; lack of energy.” That about sums it up. 

I know my expectations for myself are way out of whack. I keep forgetting the basic realities of my life: I’m almost seventy-five years old, I have a slow acting, but debilitating cancer and chemotherapy designed to fight said cancer that has side effects I’ve already discussed on this blog at nauseum. No need to flog a dead horse (as they say). I also have some neck issues that most people of my age get but that don’t afflict all of us in this demographic with pain. We won’t talk about arthritis now, shall we? 

So, I’m tired and generally not feeling that great. What should I expect? Duh! 

The past month has been especially unpleasant. My computer tells me that I’ve spent about nine hours a day of screen time. That seems about right. I’ve watched a lot of YouTube videos on everything from sailing to boat building, to prospecting, art, art history, lumber manufacturing, bushcraft, the La Palma volcano, people living alone in off-grid cabins, American Congressional politics, and more. Nine hours a day. It’s true that I also read quite a few articles from The Guardian, The Tyee, NPR, the CBC, and lots of internet-based news sources. And I’ve written a bit too. Still, I do a lot of sitting in my recliner, staring at my computer screen. I often think about things I could be doing like drawing, painting, woodwork, etcetera. Sometimes I do these things, generally followed by increased pain in my back and legs. That doesn’t encourage me to do more things. In fact, it actively discourages me from doing things. So, I go back to my recliner for another few hours. This pattern seems to be my fate now. I’m not sure I can do anything about it either.

Today is Sunday and this week is my chemo week. This is the fourth week in my monthly cycle and for the fourth week I don’t take lenalidomide, a drug I would normally take daily. On Thursday I take dexamethasone, valacyclovir, montelukast, and get one and a half hour of a Daratumumab infusion. That’s all no big deal. However, the effects of these meds will leave me feeling like I’ve got the flu for at least a week after. 

Tomorrow, I have to go to the lab for blood tests. So, VIHA has now closed all satellite labs in the Valley leaving only the lab at the hospital. There used to be three satellite labs, one in Cumberland, one in Courtenay, and one at St-Joseph’s hospital. All gone now. Apparently, VIHA can’t find enough staff. There are no appointments to be had either for tomorrow, and I need lab results tomorrow to be able to get my infusion on Thursday. I may spend the better part of the day tomorrow at the hospital waiting to get my blood tested. That will not put a smile on my face. But, we’ll see. I’ll report back on my next post.

Do I sound like I’m complaining and whining? Well, I am.

Slowly Falling Apart

For this post, I decided to create a collage of quotes and commentaries from books I’ve been reading lately. They range from comments on death and dying to philosophy, culture, and the future. So far in this blog, I’ve refrained from commenting on American Congressional politics, but I just may go there soon. I told my sociology students year after year throughout my college teaching career that the American empire would fall, as all empires fall, not from external conquest but from implosion due to unresolved, long standing conflict. The American empire, specifically, will fall because of commodity production that depends on longer and more complex supply chains and failing profits. America is falling on its own sword of profits. Supply chains and economic processing zones in a plethora of ‘developing’ parts of the world have been an issue for decades while only recently making it onto mainstream media commentary and news. I’ll explain in a future post.

US politics has to wait. It’s a mess down there but it’s a mess everywhere on the planet at the moment. Let’s move on.

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Robert Sapolsky is one of my all-time favourite guys. He has a number of his Stanford University lectures on YouTube. He’s a neuroscientist who specializes in stress. He worked in the field for many years with Olive baboons in Africa. I have a video in which his work with the baboons is featured. On the topic of the human condition he writes:

“we are now living well enough and long enough to slowly fall apart. The diseases that plague us now are ones of slow accumulation of damage—heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disorders.” (from “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping (Third Edition)” by Robert M. Sapolsky)

Now, ain’t that the truth! If you check out Stats Canada’s vital statistics you’ll find out that cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada. Actually, life is the leading cause of death everywhere, but as far as the observable evidence of bodily decay and death goes, cancer is determined to be the immediate major causes. Writing this makes me want to go back and binge watch Sapolsky on YouTube. Not only does he have a lot to say, but he says it in such an engaging way that binge watching is entirely feasible. I’ll be sharing more from Sapolsky later, but now on to another very different writer.

This is a quote from another book I’m reading that I want to share with you. Talk about falling apart! Robinson is a contemporary novelist writing in the sci-fi genre with dystopian tinges. He writes:

“Say the order of your time feels unjust and unsustainable and yet massively entrenched, but also falling apart before your eyes. The obvious contradictions in this list might yet still describe the feeling of your time quite accurately, if we are not mistaken. Or put it this way; it feels that way to us. But a little contemplation of history will reveal that this feeling too will not last for long. Unless of course the feeling of things falling apart is itself massively entrenched, to the point of being the eternal or eternally recurrent individual human’s reaction to history. Which may just mean the reinscription of the biological onto the historical, for we are all definitely always falling apart, and not massively entrenched in anything at all. 31 India” (from “The Ministry for the Future: A Novel” by Kim Stanley Robinson)

Most of this quote will be difficult for you to fathom because it’s out of context. It’s the last sentence that really matters. To help you out a little with the context of this quote, the ‘order of your time’, in the first sentence means that in the course of your life you feel out of control. You can’t go back, you can’t stay still. You can only go forward towards your death. This applies not only to us as biological entities but also to our cultural and social constructs which also are bound to come and go in a generally disorderly way. We cannot be ‘massively entrenched’ in life because daily existence makes a lie of any attempt to avoid moving toward death.

Now, more from Robinson in another of his sci-fi novels set far from Earth on a ship and a moon.

“Existential nausea comes from feeling trapped. It is an affect state resulting from the feeling that the future has only bad options. Of course every human faces the fact of individual death, and therefore existential nausea must be to a certain extent a universal experience, and something that must be dealt with by one mental strategy or another. Most people appear to learn to ignore it, as if it were some low chronic pain that has to be endured. Here in this meeting, it began to become clear, for many of those present, that extinction lay at the end of all their possible paths. This was not the same as individual death, but was instead something both more abstract and more profound.” (from “Aurora” by Kim Stanley Robinson)

Robinson is not a great writer in terms of composition, but he is a very perceptive commentator on the human condition. His novels are all about the fragility of humanity in the face of evolution and death, both on an individual and social level. Death denial is a consistent theme in human history and as a goal, has engendered a mass of immortality tales with “supernatural” characters as diverse as Zeus, Jesus, Shiva and a mess of lesser gods. These characters are our heroes who will save us from death if only we believe in them. But then we come face to face with evolution and biology which care not a wit whether we believe in them or not, and which just carry on.

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So, what about falling apart?

It’s clear that average death rates have risen consistently over the decades on the planet although in the US they’ve been falling for some demographics. Falling or not, on average we live well into our seventies. In fact, Stats Can tells me that if I live to be seventy-four I can expect to live another fourteen years. These are average life expectancies, of course. Millenia ago, living to thirty-seven years of age was considered average. People died of things then we seldom die of these days (such as appendicitis).

Sapolsky understands that the longer we live the more things can go wrong in our bodies. That’s self-evident the longer we live. If we get injured while young we can expect to heal and then just get on with things. As we (I) get older the healing process slows down.

There are a few very fortunate people, especially in the world’s richest parts, who suffer very little as they get old. I don’t think I know any of those people (well, maybe one or two). That said, there is an inevitable decline in capacity as we age. That doesn’t mean we should stop living and simply prepare for death because we know it’s going to happen. For me, I have much reduced capacity. At seventy-four I have maybe a quarter of the capacity I had at fifty. But a quarter is better than nothing. I still have shit to do! I’m falling apart, yes. In fact, I can’t fall much farther, but that’s fine, I still have a way to go.

Dexamethasone, Tooth-aches, Pig Kidneys, and Life.

So, dexamethasone strikes again! I went to the hospital this past Thursday for my monthly infusion of the monoclonal antibody, Daratumumab. Along with the Dara, I get a number of other chemo meds among them dexamethasone. I only get fifteen milligrams of dex these days once a month and that’s probably a good thing because any steroid can be trouble in the long run. Of course my long run is getting palpably shorter, or to put it another way, dex can’t really hurt me in the long run if I don’t have much of a long run. What I can say, though, is that no matter how long my long run is, I’ll make the best of it. I’ve decided that that’s my goal. I’m thinking of my life now as a one mile marathon race. Getting closer to the finish line is no reason to slow up. In fact, it’s all the more reason to step up the effort. Of course, the closer to the finish line we get, the more tired we get so it’s a trade-off. Still, pushing to the end is my goal. But I digress.

What is interesting about dex is it’s effect on my tooth-ache. I mentioned before that I had a nasty tooth-ache that a dex shot in my neck attenuated rapidly and almost eliminated entirely. Well, that tooth-ache has persisted in a low rumble since it returned after a few days following my neck shot. Again, the dex that I took orally on Thursday killed the pain in my tooth right dead. It’s back now because as I’ve become well aware, the relief from dex is very short lived. Oh, I appreciate the pain relief whichever way I can get it, but dex has other side effects that aren’t as welcome as the pain relief. Check out this list of side effects. I’ve experienced many of them over the past couple of years.

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[As an aside, I’m writing this sitting in my new La-Z-Boy recliner (thanks to my very generous daughters) in my cozy, warm living room. Carolyn, my love of forty-eight years, while I sit warm and cozy in the living room, is out there walking on the trails in Cumberland in rain as thick as soup. She is accompanied by Tilly, our Bernese Mountain Dog/German Shepherd mix who loves her mom and also most other living things, and swimming too. I hope she gets home soon so we can have a cup of tea together. She did!]

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So, what about pig kidneys? Well, lots. This article explains what the experiment was all about. And it was an experiment, of course. Serious ethical issues aside, the experiment was a success. Researchers in New York attached a kidney from a specially raised pig, one that was genetically modified to not produce a certain sugar that caused immediate rejection in humans, to a cadaver. Yes, a cadaver. The objective was to see whether or not the pig kidney could reproduce the function of a normal human kidney, and apparently it did, and splendidly so. The cadaver was special too, of course. I suggest you read the article to get the story from a reputable source.

What’s the big deal, I ask? Researchers genetically modify pigs so that we humans can use their organs. How does that make you feel? The truth is that pig heart valves have been successfully implanted in humans for some time now and researchers have been experimenting with xenotransplantation since the 17th Century. We eat pigs all the time. They are one of our major sources of food. They are also intelligent, rivalling some humans I surmise.

The reason pigs are such a good fit for xenotransplantation is that they are so closely related to us genetically. In fact, we are related to all other living things, animal and plant but with varying degrees of fit in terms of the quantity of genes that we share with them. We are very closely related to chimpanzees sharing something like 99% of DNA with them. (I think that the reason we don’t raise chimps to eat is that they look too much like us.) We share DNA with ducks and cedar trees, snails, and puppy dogs.

From what I can gather from casual observation, we tend to think of all species as distinct from each other and, of course, that’s partially true. Sadly, we are generally ignorant of our place in the scheme of life on this planet. We have been convinced over millennia that we are special under the sun and that all life on the planet is there to serve us. That attitude will ultimately lead to our demise as we Bolsonaro the Amazon rain forest, empty the seas of fish and other life, and generally bulldoze our way through all life on the planet. We take up more and more of the biosphere every year. We, as a species, have no respect for life and from what I can see, have very few mechanisms that would allow us to gain respect for life. Our culture is designed to deny death and thus to ignore life.

Our political systems are geared to produce maximal growth and compete in absurd ways for greater and greater shares of planetary resources. It’s disconcerting to see China and the US embroiled in a chest-thumping match over Taiwan. How stupid. How short-sighted. How ignorant. What are they going to do, lob nuclear weapons at each other? It’s especially ridiculous knowing how closely tied manufacturing in the US is tied to production in China. It’s hard to see how Americans destroying American production in China will help anyone, anywhere. I suspect that the Chinese leadership is in need of a diversion to keep its population’s collective mind off of serious domestic problems. Focussing attention outward is a tried and true method of avoiding domestic conflict.

I could argue that the way we are increasingly economically interdependent through production of commodities in networks that span the globe is encouraging as a basis for concerted action. However, I’m not sure that we have the time to wait for economic interdependence to lead to political interdependence. Finally, I’m not convinced that as a species we are capable of doing what needs to be done to enable us to live in harmony with the rest of life on the planet. It may be that cockroaches will inherit the earth and if that’s the case, so be it.

I want my goddamned life back! Redux

[I wrote the post below in April, 2021. I’m still feeling it and still living with the issues I raised in this post in April! I think it’s worth a repost. Life is infinite, but any expression of life is finite. As expressions of life, some of us are more inclined to accept our finality, our death, than others. In April I was particularly pissed off about my lack of resilience and strength. I guess that my attitude in this regard has changed somewhat. I’m more inclined now to just accept my limitations and to accept death as the only inevitable consequence of life, and maybe have a little fun while waiting for it. I will die soon enough. This can’t go on forever! I’ve always understood death from a philosophical and anthropological perspective. Now things are getting more real every day. It’s a bit scary, but it’s not something I turn away from. Of course, I may feel differently about all of this if you ask me about it next week! So, don’t ask me.

On another topic entirely, I’m concerned about this blog. I’m getting tapped out as far as writing about my life, its trials and tribulations. I do have a lot of things to write about but they are less personal and more sociological than the content of most of my current posts. After all, I am still a sociologist. Early on in this blog, in 2013, I wrote extensively about Ernest Becker and his books, The Denial of Death and Escape From Evil. I still consider these books to be critical as they confront the issues of the many cultural ways we try to deny death, like misogyny. I’m still amazed at misogyny and its close relative, patriarchy. I may write soon about religious denials of death as expressed in Sunday rituals and the overwhelming need many of us feel to transcend the physical beings that we are, a need fulfilled by religion. I will write too about the recent implantation of a pig’s kidney into a human. Just think about the philosophical and sociological implications of that as you eat your bacon for breakfast!

Ciao for now! Read on…]

I may want it back, but of course I can’t have it back. I can never have it back at least not the way I lived it when I was fifty years old. We can’t live backwards on this planet. It’s just not possible to go back in time. Furthermore we can’t achieve the physical vigour at seventy that we had a forty. Cognitive vigour is another thing entirely, but I find that since my retirement, I’m just not as sharp as I used to be. Writing this blog helps me keep my cognitive skills in some state of repair, but it’s harder all the time to maintain a certain level of critical skill when the couch beckons. It’s perfectly okay to be lazy in old age although lazy has a moral connotation that doesn’t apply to inactivity in old age. Strangely enough, there is an expectation in our culture that the aged should be occupied at productive activity even in old age, or we should at least go golfing and volunteer at the local SPCA. I was caught up in this moral silliness for a while, but cancer soon disabused me of any expectation that I could stay active in old age. My mobility is highly compromised and was even before my cancer diagnosis. But that’s okay. I had my time being physically active and strong. Our lives are made up of stages. I’m on the last stage.

Every now and then I forget how old I am and the fact that I have cancer, arthritis, and degenerative disk syndrome. In this forgetful state I try to do things that I did easily when I was 30, 40, 50, or 60, even 65. For instance, today I got it into my head that I could still chop wood. Silly man. It was just one piece. I thought there would be no harm in that but Carolyn reminded me that I would pay for my silliness later, maybe tonight. The thing is that one of my chemo meds is a steroid called dexamethasone. I take it just before I go to the hospital for my Daratumumab infusion. It reduces pain and increases stamina. It also gives me the shakes and a false sense of capacity. That’s when I think I’m still physically capable of doing things like working in my shop or cutting woodblocks for printing. [I haven’t given up yet, damn it.]

So, that’s it. We all know that human life is finite. We speak as though we understand and accept that. But you know what? There is a ton of research that establishes beyond a doubt that we generally do not accept the finality of death. I’ve written about the denial of death over and over again for decades. But you don’t have to count on me for information and confirmation. Just consult the bible in your hotel room. Or just go to the religion section in your local library, although I’m reading a novel at the moment that deals with death avoidance in quite a non-religious, creative way. The novel (the last of three in a trilogy) is set on Mars sometime in the future. It’s called Blue Mars which follows Green Mars and Red Mars. About half way through the book one of the lead characters, Nirgal, who was born on Mars, takes a trip to Earth (Terra) and almost dies. To understand the quote below it’s important to know that Martian scientists had developed a longevity program that allowed people to live much longer than they would normally have. People would have to have this procedure involving stem cells and telomeres repeated at intervals. Some of the characters were a hundred and fifty years old and more.

“But Nirgal had seen Simon die even though Simon’s bones had been stuffed with Nirgal’s young marrow. He had felt his body unravel, felt the pain in his lungs, in every cell of him. He knew death was real. Immortality had not come to them, and never would. Delayed senescence, Sax called it. Delayed senescence, that was all it was; Nirgal knew that. And people saw that knowledge in him, and recoiled. He was unclean, and they looked away. It made him angry.”

from “Blue Mars (Mars Trilogy Book 3)” by Kim Stanley Robinson

So, even in this scientific, atheistic world, people longed for a longer, productive, and meaningful life and a painless senescence followed by immortality yet as Nirgal points out, ‘delayed senescence’ is all that people could hope for. Even if they lived to be a thousand years old, their lives were still finite, albeit much longer than what one could expect without the longevity treatment. As the quote highlights, people sensed that Nirgal knew about mortality and shunned him for it.

I understand senescence because that’s what I’m living now. It is not delayed for me. Chemotherapy is nothing more than a longevity treatment. As we undertake chemotherapy we expect to live longer (see my next blog post) but, as I’ve learned, the price of chemo for me is reduced capacity although that’s not true for everyone and for every kind of chemotherapy.

Dexamethasone for the Win!

Last post I more or less said that I would not write about pain anymore. Well, that’s not really practical if I want to write about my life so that idea is out the window. Lately pain has been my life. It’s dominated everything that I do and don’t do (because of it). So, away we go.

Along with the general pain in my legs and back from the chemo treatments I get, I have serious neck issues that are fairly common in older people, that is, vertebrae that collapse or the passages in the spine shrink (stenosis). For all of you young’uns out there, this is your future. However, most people don’t have pain to accompany these age-related changes. I just happen to be one of the lucky ones to get excruciating pain in my neck that includes cramps and a low-grade throbbing pain. Most of this I can handle. The cramps require immediate attention much like a charley-horse in the leg muscles. I often wear a neck brace to keep my neck from moving too much and inducing the cramps. In fact, I’ve just put one on because looking down on my keyboard is a sure way of bringing on a cramp.

I’ve been exasperated with my neck pain because it severely limits my mobility and I want to do some painting, drawing, and boat work. As soon as I look down for any length of time, I get a cramp and that really cramps my style, if you know what I mean. So, I called my GP. He, I’m sure being sick and tired of me complaining about pain referred me to the Pain Clinic at the hospital in Nanaimo. They called me from the clinic surprisingly quickly and we set up a telephone appointment with Dr. Pariser, one of the doctors who works at the clinic. We decided on a procedure. It would take place on October 6th, yesterday. All that was left was the waiting.

Carolyn drove me down to Nanaimo yesterday morning when I got to see Dr. Pariser. We decided on a treatment that’s been around for a long time and that works fifty percent of the time and only after a month following the procedure. It (the procedure) involves injecting a steroid in the spinal cord to deaden the pain. It’s clinically referred to as an epidural. Epidurals are sometimes given to women during labour but they are not uncommon for lower back pain.

In my case the steroid was dexamethasone. I’ve often mentioned dexamethasone (dex) in my previous posts because it’s a staple medication of my chemotherapy and it has interesting side effects. I was a bit surprised when Dr. Pariser told me that he would be injecting dex into my neck, but he assured me that there would be no adverse effects from adding this dosage of dex into my mix along with my monthly oral 12 milligrams taken in conjunction with my infusion of Daratumumab at the hospital. Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of side effects from the dex injection in my neck. It didn’t take long to find out.

Before I tell you about the effects of the dex injection in my neck I want to tell you about another source of pain I’ve had recently that prompted a visit to my dentist. It started innocently enough with a bit of sensitivity in an upper left molar. It has a large crown which has been there for some twenty-five years. X-rays showed a probable need for a root canal. Well, that was fine and dandy, but when could that be scheduled. I was in pain NOW. My dentist was very concerned and referred me to a group of dental specialists in the Valley that specializes in this kind of work. Great. Their office called me and cheerfully informed me that I was booked for an appointment on November 15th. Yahoo! That’s all I needed: a six week wait for a consultation, never mind the procedure. After whining for a bit I got the appointment moved up to October 15th. That was some improvement but still a long way off given the level of pain I was in. I mean, this pain trumped all other pain in my body. It was excruciating, it was relentless.

So, yesterday when we drove to Nanaimo I was still in a lot of pain, but it had attenuated some due to an onslaught of hydromorphone. I take hydromorphone daily in a small dose for pain associated with my multiple myeloma, its side effects and the side effects from the chemo. I take a slow-release dosage morning and night, but I also have a stock of what’s called breakthrough medication for times when the slow-release dosage just doesn’t cut it anymore. Over the last while I used a lot of breakthrough hydromorphone. It has a lot of side effects that I don’t particularly enjoy, like insomnia, but too bad about that. I needed pain relief and damn the torpedos! It’s a good thing I had my breakthrough hydromorphone.

This is where serendipity comes in. I love serendipity. Dex can relieve pain. I had pain in my mouth as well as my neck so what would dex do for my molar pain? Well, I’m pleased to report that the dex pretty much killed the pain in my mouth, at least for now. I don’t expect the pain relief to last a long time, but any relief is welcome. I have the hiccups, a common dex side effect so I know it’s working. Strangely enough, I slept very well last night. Insomnia is also a common side effect, but it’s also a side effect of other meds I’m taking so who knows what’s going on in my body.

As a bit of a side note, if there are scientists reading this, scientists interested in pain and its management, you might want to think about a way of letting others know how much pain we’re in. That wouldn’t have any pain relief effects, but it may increase positively the way most people react to people with chronic pain. I mean, it’s hard to know if someone is in pain or not. People can fake it. There are clues in bodily function and blood work, but not many that show physically. Arthritis can sometimes show clearly in the body. In the last decade of his life, my father’s hands became deformed with arthritis. He was unable to open them, and he kept them clutched against his chest. Maybe, if our pain wasn’t obvious, if our limbs glowed blue or green that would be a clear indication of pain. Whatever. Work on it.

So, in summary, dex was a clear winner for me yesterday and today. I still had a shake (liquid diet) for breakfast today like yesterday rather than my usual granola or toast, but I’ll carry on with that because I really like the shakes Carolyn makes! Besides, I expect my toothache to reappear as the dex wears off. So be it. Pain management is very complex because the pain never stays the same in terms of source or intensity. It’s like playing whack-a-mole, but with no fun involved.

Moments in my life #3: Dealing with Pain

If you read this blog regularly you will know that I am preoccupied with pain. There are at least ten posts wherein I address pain more or less directly. This one will make it eleven. What triggered my writing this post is a Zoom class I had yesterday on Somatics designed to help us deal with chronic pain. It comes from the Central Island Pain Program at the Nanaimo General Hospital, an organization I had something to do with several years ago after I experienced a lot of pain from kidney surgery. I’ll deal with Somatics at the end of this blog post.

Pain! There are a few people who do not experience pain at all (their condition is called congenital insensitivity to pain,(CIP) or also hereditary sensory and autonomic neuropathy type IV (HSAN IV). Those individuals who can’t feel pain wish they could because if they inadvertently put their hand on a hot stove element they don’t know about it until they smell burning flesh, that’s if their sense of smell is operative which it often isn’t. (There is some very interesting research reported on a Wikipedia site about the gene that is involved in congenital insensitivity to pain.)

So pain is not always a bad thing.

In fact pain is a signal that something is not quite right in our body. For instance, the sensation (pain) I feel in my left thoracic area is a result of surgery, as I noted earlier. I had my left kidney removed because of kidney cell cancer. That was in 2002 and the sensation has not gone away although it varies in severity. These days I don’t feel it that often but that’s because I don’t stress that area of my body by doing work or sitting inappropriately. A few years ago a doctor at the Pain Clinic at the Nanaimo General Hospital ultimately suggested that I have a tens machine implanted in that part of my thoracic area to relieve pain. I respectfully declined the invitation. In the Pain Clinic’s orientation session the staff told us that the pain we were experiencing in various parts of our bodies was really in our brains, not at the site of the trauma. Apparently it’s the brain that tells us that we have pain. If the brain doesn’t get a signal from the site of trauma, we don’t experience pain. I experience pain in various parts of my body these days and it seems that the pain receptors in my brain are quite active but the pain always seems to be located at the trauma site.

Pain is not just one type of bodily phenomenon or experience. If you go to the emergency department of the local hospital or to your family physician’s clinic you may very well be asked what kind of pain you are having. I always find that a difficult question to answer. Well, are you having stabbing pain? Or is it like electric shock? Or is it throbbing pain? My answer is often “yes” because I can experience several kinds of pain simultaneously. For example, my neck pain can be quite severe at times. I experience it as stabbing pain or what I call ‘charley-horse’ pain because of the cramping that accompanies it, but there’s always an underlying throbbing pain too that varies in severity. It’s caused by degenerative disc syndrome which is very common in older people and by arthritis. Simultaneously I’m having peripheral neuropathy and my legs hurt as well as my lower back. So I have lots of pain in various parts of my body. In fact, there are dozens of types of pain, some specific, some very general.

The Johns Hopkins Blaustein Pain Treatment Center website provides a list of pain types for our reading pleasure:

“At the Johns Hopkins Blaustein Pain Treatment Center, we provide treatment for the following types of pain:

  • Low back pain
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Vertebral Compression Fractures
  • Cervical and lumbar facet joint disease
  • Sciatica/Radiculopathy (“pinched nerve”)
  • Sacroiliac joint disease
  • Failed back surgery pain (FBSS) / Post-Laminectomy Neuropathic Pain
  • Neuropathic (Nerve) pain
  • Head pain / Occipital neuralgia (Scalp/head pain)
  • Hip pain
  • Intercostal neuralgia (Rib pain)
  • Peripheral neuropathy (Diabetic nerve pain)
  • Complex regional pain syndrome (Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy –  RSD)
  • Herniated discs and degenerative disc disease (discogenic pain)
  • Neck pain
  • Shoulder and knee arthritic pain (osteoarthritis)
  • Myofascial (Muscular) pain
  • Post surgical pain
  • Cancer pain (pancreatic, colorectal, lung, breast, bone)
  • Pain from peripheral vascular disease
  • Anginal pain (chest pains)
  • Post-herpetic neuralgia (shingles pain)
  • Nerve entrapment syndromes
  • Spastisticy related syndromes/ pain
  • Spinal Cord Injury (central pain)
  • Pelvic pain
  • Thoracic outlet syndrome”

Well, shit, I can experience any ten of these types of pain at any one given time. So, if you ask me what kind of pain I’m having, take your pick. Don’t ask me to come up with just one, unless of course, at any specific moment a particular pain experience is taking centre stage as in my appendectomy.

Is it acute or chronic? Well, yes!

Acute pain is the result of injury. Chronic pain is the result of disease. That may be a classificatory simplification, but it’s basically accurate. To me, my neck pain seems to be both. There’s definitely disease going on in there, but if I move my neck suddenly or if I try to do something like draw, paint, or work on my canoes, the resultant pain feels like pain caused by an injury. If I (or you) have chronic pain from one or more sources, that doesn’t mean I can’t also experience acute pain, and vice versa.

And what about the intensity of the pain? Well, goddamn it, that’s another tough question to answer. Doctors and other sundry medical types generally trot out the ten point scale to measure pain intensity, but there is a list of ten scales here, so it’s not simple. Pain clinics are everywhere and are very busy these days. I’m currently attending the Pain Clinic at the Nanaimo Regional Hospital (again!). Well, I’m not really attending, yet. So far all interactions with the clinic have been by Zoom. But on October 6th I’m going to Nanaimo to have a steroid injected into my neck to see if we can attenuate the pain signals to the brain. That’s a good solution because surgery is not really an option and it’s so common among old folks like me that it’s hardly worth the bother to consider. Palliative care is the goal. It’s interesting, though, that the decision to inject the steroid is a tacit recognition that pain starts at the site of trauma. I have bone pain. It’s clear that that’s caused by multiple myeloma and its propensity to cause bone lesions. The bone lesions in my femurs result in pain signals to my brain where I’m told pain is experienced. So how can this kind of pain, or any of the pain I’m experiencing, be treated? Well, let me count the ways!

Just to be clear, I mentioned palliative care in the above paragraph. As this website notes, palliative care is all about pain management. It’s not the same as hospice care or what we sometimes refer to end-of-life care. So palliative doctors (there are some in the Comox Valley) focus on pain relief mostly for chronic severe pain. They offer a number of treatments for pain relief.

Overall, there are many treatment options for severe chronic pain. Medications are commonly used for pain relief. Opioids like hydromorphone are quite often used. I take hydromorphone orally every day. Gabapentin and nortriptyline are two I’m familiar with but there are hundreds or meds used for pain relief (Google it). Surgery is often used to relieve pain as are injections of various kinds like the one I’ll be getting next month where a steroid will be injected in my neck. There is a procedure where a cement is injected into vertebrae to relieve pain and there is a procedure where a balloon is used to open up the spaces in the vertebrae blocked by compression.

The Pain Clinic at the Nanaimo General Hospital offers many options for classes designed to help one address pain by conscious activation of the autonomic nervous system with gentle ‘exercise’. Somatics is a practice used to slowly and consciously re-program the nervous system to deal with pain. I’ll give it a try. Muscle tension is a major source of pain so anything that can relieve tension is worth a try. So far, for me, medications have been the major treatment I’ve received for pain relief. They haven’t always worked that well. Hydromorphone works but to relieve pain I need to take so much that it leaves me cognitively impaired and that’s not something I’m willing to entertain. So I put up with some pain so that I can retain some cognitive and psychic sharpness.

That’s enough for today, and maybe I’ve written enough about pain. Thanks for reading my posts.

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Fall is upon us. I’m liking it.

It’s late September and Fall starts by the calendar in the next couple of days. It actually started about three weeks ago reckoned by dropping temperatures and increasing humidity. I quIte like this time of year. Cool temperatures and refreshing rain. I managed to get out yesterday. We went to the official opening of our new firehall and to the Foggy Mountain Fall Fair where we bought some T-shirts at the Cumberland Community Forest Society booth and some goodies (including Palestinian organic olive oil) at the World Community booth before getting some lunch from a food truck the name of which escapes me (Farmers something or other- the food was excellent). I was quite tired from a poor night’s sleep the night before, but everything turned out okay. I had a nap when we came home while Carolyn went out for coffee with a friend. Chemotherapy is keeping me alive but there is a price to pay. I get tired easily and the pain is still a big part of my life. The fact that I’m seventy-four years old may also have something to do with my lack of spark! Of course it does! I’m walking some, and I’m going to try riding my bike later this week when there is less rain in the forecast. I’m willing to pay the price. I always seem to benefit from exercise even though there is short term pain involved. I’d sure like to get off hydromorphone and gabapentin, but the withdrawal symptoms are hard to take. Tomorrow I hope to get some work done on the canoe. I may just do a blog post on that project alone. I’ve done a bit of drawing lately too but my neck pain really puts a damper on any sustained drawing practice. Sometimes I wear a neck brace and that helps.

Plant life here in the garden is both rejoicing at the rainfall, and at the same time preparing for the dormancy of Fall or the end of life. The vegetable garden is almost done. The raspberry plants are still throwing out a few stragglers but are pretty much done as are the blueberries. We picked the pears a couple of days ago and the plums a couple of days before that. We now have several jars of delicious plum jam thanks to Carolyn’s hard work. The pears aren’t quite ripe yet so we’ll wait until the end of the week to process them. That’s always a bit of a chore, but the results are worth it.

The ferns and grasses are still standing firm against the oncoming seasonal changes, but most of the flowers are giving up and bowing to the need to get some sleep. A few, like the begonias, sedums, and Black-eyed Susans

Begonia
Black-eyed Susans
Sedums

still buck the trend and proudly flaunt their colours against the overwhelming greens and browns of the fall and winter. Of course, speaking of colour, winter could also bring the white of snow, but that won’t be for some time yet. The long term forecast is for snow early in the season this year, but we’ll wait to see what happens. It’s always a crap shoot as to when the snow will come on the mountains, but the ski hill on Mount Washington generally aims to open in early December. It doesn’t always work out that way because the freezing levels are fickle in this area and it’s possible that skiing won’t happen until January. We should see the first snow on the Beaufort Range soon. Logging is about to start again close to the Village too. I’m of two (maybe three) minds about that. As a woodworker I can hardly condemn the practice of cutting timber and I know that my pension plan is invested in forestry companies, but I’m not keen on seeing logs go offshore to be processed either and I’m interested in learning more about how clearcutting and road building affect carbon sequestration and the production of atmospheric oxygen. We don’t have to worry about running out of atmospheric oxygen just yet (Google it). The processes of atmospheric change fascinate me at a scientific level. I’m particularly interested in long-term modelling of atmospheric change.

Pond Pano shot

The pond is full after the recent torrential rain. The sticklebacks will probably survive the winter as they have over the past few years (except for the year of the turtle!), but it would be good to keep Tilly out of it so as not to disturb their nests. That won’t be an issue as we enter Fall. Next summer she will be over two years old and we’re hoping she will leave the pond alone. That’s probably an empty hope. For now, Tilly loves the pond and she wades in it often then comes into the house to shake, spraying water everywhere. Yes, she is a bit of a brat.

Sculpture

I’m not sure why I’m making note of this here, but this sculpture lives up by the pond area under a big cedar tree and surrounded by ferns. I finished it with spar varnish the year I carved it (maybe three or four years ago?) and I thought about refinishing it because it’s showing signs of deterioration. However, I decided to leave it and let entropy take its course. I’m not concerned about how long it will last in the elements but it will be around long enough for me to enjoy it.

I guess that I’m attracted to the changes of seasons rather than to the seasons in their full bloom. That may be because the times that mark seasonal change are the best reminders of entropy and its importance in our lives and in life generally on this planet. I quite enjoy this time of year even though it marks the end of the warmth of summer and the beginning of the cold of fall nights and winter days. I’m not a big fan of the heat of summer or the cold of winter. I’m more a middling kind of guy.

Ta ta for now.