Not Dead (Just) Yet.

From the many comments I received after my last post A Time To Die I obviously left the impression that I was on my way to an imminent death. I guess the concept of ‘imminent’ is what the issue is. Without intervention I have no idea when I will die although I can set up a situation through Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) whereby I can determine the time and place of my death. I’ve filled out the papers so that I now have the MAID option. The papers don’t obligate me in any way, and I don’t have to go through MAID if I choose not to. I don’t see any downside to being prepared by filling out the necessary paperwork well before I decide to use MAID or not.

This past weekend was a momentous one for me. I almost died for real, fulfilling the implied (somewhat exaggerated, certainly) conclusion of my last post.

After my infusion of Carfilzomib last Thursday, the first of my third cycle, I got some familiar symptoms: spiking fever, the shakes, insomnia, and pain, lots of pain everywhere in my body. By Friday morning I was in serious trouble. In spite of drinking copious amounts of water during the night, I could not pee, and didn’t even feel the urge to pee. It was obvious something was very wrong. At that point Carolyn called the Cancer Care Centre at the hospital. They advised her to get me to the ER as soon as possible. So, off we went. The Emerg staff got to work on me without delay, wheeling me into a room close to the nursing station, a room I had been in before on a previous occasion for the same reason.

They ran numerous blood and urine tests. They concluded that my kidney was functioning at less than fifty percent capacity. They installed a catheter and hooked me up for an infusion of liquids (lactated ringers). The ER doctor minced no words (strange turn of phrase) in telling us how close I was to dying. I filled bag after bag of concentrated dark and thick tea-coloured pee. I was formally admitted later in the evening and transported to the third floor, again to a familiar room across from the nursing station. Once there, my kidney quickly rebounded and resumed its more or less normal operation. By Sunday evening, after the staff was ensured that I had no infection and that my ordeal had been brought on strictly by an adverse reaction to Carfilzomib, I was discharged. The intent was to keep me in the hospital until Monday, but that was unnecessary at that point. I called Carolyn and she picked me up. I was one happy guy.

As I write this it’s Tuesday morning, September 20th around 9:20 AM. I feel that I’m slowly recovering from the weekend’s trauma, as much as an old man with myeloma can.

One thing I vividly recall from my three days in the hospital is that the many clocks all run on time, marking the seconds by the slightest but silent advance of the second hand. For long periods of time I was fixated on the clock and its inexorable movement forward. Sunday evening all I could think about was going home. The clock couldn’t move fast enough.

Another thing I recall is the change in my body odor. I was quite surprised by this. I shouldn’t have been because my entire body chemistry was under assault. I tried to wash frequently but being attached to my ‘med pole’ I called Ted made it very difficult to move around and get to the washroom. Of course, with my catheter I didn’t have to worry about going to the washroom to pee. That was kind of nice, actually.

Anyway, I should get to the crux of the matter here. I’ve decided that I can no longer continue receiving chemotherapy. Clearly it was killing me. In 2019 chemotherapy was offered to me as a way of mitigating the effects of myeloma. Instead, it exacerbated them for me. That’s not true of everyone receiving chemotherapy for myeloma or for other forms of cancer. Chemotherapy works for many people. I’m just one of the unlucky ones who has adverse reactions to chemo drugs, and I mean all chemo drugs. So now, I am palliative. I may still receive some treatment for my myeloma but it won’t be chemotherapy. It may be radiation or surgery, but even those options will have their limits.

I’m so fortunate in having very supportive family and friends. Our daughters came over from Vancouver on Friday to be with their mom and to come visit me. Coming from Vancouver with no ferry reservations is daunting, but I’m sure happy that they managed to get over here. It was definitely touch and go for me. I needed the support, so did Carolyn. My sister Hélène and her husband Roger came for a visit on Saturday. That was very pleasant and a welcome diversion from the hospital routine.

In conclusion, I must say that I received most excellent treatment at the Hospital this time around. That hasn’t always been the case, but this time we were very impressed by the care I received. Thank you so much CVH staff!

A Time to Die?

Well, howdy there internet people, it’s me again. Visited my local GP/oncologist this morning. He showed us images of the growth that is happening alongside the left side of my spine. I think it’s trying to replace the kidney that I lost in 2002. It’s big enough. Just kidding, of course. The growth is pretty impressive, let me tell you. I’m not feeling any ill effects from it at the moment because it hasn’t gotten into my spine. If it had, I’d be paralyzed. It is large, however, and nothing to sneeze at. Probably not immediately life threatening, but I have enough other issues to think about that are threatening my life, not the least of which is my age.

I’m feeling very strange at the moment. I am still sentient from what I can tell, although I’ll leave it up to others to confirm. Sentient or not, I’m close to death. From what I’ve read about Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) people are often sentient until the last minute. Maybe I can shoot for that although being zonked out on morphine has its appeal too as I slip off into death.

My local GP/oncologist is in contact with the oncologist in Victoria at the BC Cancer Agency who looks after my file, and he (Macpherson in Victoria) doesn’t support the idea of my getting another shot with another chemo protocol. I’m done as far as he’s concerned. He expects more chemo would just be futile and would not enhance my life chances a whole lot. I will know the results of my latest bloodwork late next week and that will help me decide as to whether or not I push for a second opinion and for another chemo protocol. Whatever happens, as Carolyn points out, even a new protocol would likely give me just another nine months of life at best, so what’s the point?

It may be time for me to accept the increasingly obvious fact that my life is done. Well, I may have a few more months to live, but not years, certainly not years. I don’t know, but going off chemo may give me a few months of relief from side effects. That would be nice. Already, I’m starting to feel my lips again. Lips I couldn’t feel, constant sore eyes, and plugged ears were Daratumumab/lenalidomide side effects. Since I stopped infusing Dara things have settled down. Carfilzomib has its own issues, but so far I have been able to deal with them. Whatever happens, I could still take hydromorphone for pain, and maybe even increase my dosage. I mean, what the hell do I need a brain for anyway? [Well, maybe for writing a few more blog posts!]

Then, when the time comes, I just give the Hospice Society a call. I may opt to die in a Hospice bed, but I may decide to die at home, although I don’t thing I want to put my family through that. Caregiving is tough enough as it is. It’s true that watching me die might be okay with them. I don’t know. We’ll have to discuss it. MAID is definitely an option. We have discussed that.

I, along with many of my siblings and relatives, sat around and watched my mother die in her bed at The Dufferin in 2018, the care home in Coquitlam she lived in for many years with my father before he died in 2007. She had dementia quite badly for the last few years of her life, and as she lay there dying she had no idea about anything, which is consistent with the last 25 years of her life. The nurses just kept pumping morphine into her veins. That kept her quiet. I suppose I could tolerate an ending like that, but I don’t have dementia. I would probably be conscious and sentient until the end. That’s fine as long as I got the morphine too. I’m not a big fan of pain.

I told my local GP/oncologist that I may go for a second opinion. I may. I may not. Probably not. It all depends on how I come to accept my end times. I find it hard to even think about death and dying. It doesn’t come easily to my imagination. Oh, every once in a while I lay in bed just before falling asleep in the evening and I think “What the heck? When it’s done, it will be done. No regrets.” Then, I get scared. I imagine myself in a cardboard box on my way to the crematorium on the hill. That’s fine, but I need to know that I’m really dead before that happens. I’m not keen on feeling fire on my skin. Of course, I’m being silly. I will definitely be dead by then. My box is on a conveyor belt. There are a couple of bodies ahead of me laid out in fancy coffins. They’ll burn real good! I’ll have to wait to get turned into ash powder. But it will happen. Later, someone will give my family a package of ashes that will have been me. I don’t care what they do with it, but I hear that the family has a cemetery plot in Vancouver. My wonderful niece arranged that. So, that’s it.

Goodbye life.

PS: I’ll write my obituary sometime. Not just yet. You’ll have to wait for it a while longer.

Myeloma: a Killer by Degree

[I wrote this post in May 2022, not that long ago. I reread it and I think it bears reposting. I keep getting bad news on the myeloma front. I had an MRI last Sunday and it showed a growth, a tumour if you like, growing on my lumbar spine and extending upwards to the left side of my thoracic area half way up my back. It’s a fairly new thing, and is ten centimetres long, five wide, and seven thick. So far I haven’t felt any ill effects from it except that my legs are beginning to feel slightly numb. That’s not good, and just adds to the peripheral neuropathy that already leaves my feet in a constant state of pain, pins and needles, and spasms. At least it looks like I’ll be continuing on my carfilzomib protocol into September.]

Yeah, well, myeloma. As I noted in my January post, the symptoms of myeloma and pernicious anemia overlap considerably. So, I have no idea what’s driving me nuts with peripheral neuropathy, numbness and tingling in my hands and feet, fuzzy brain, poor balance, weakness, especially in my legs, and bone pain, to name just a few of the symptoms I’m experiencing. It could be both the B12 issues and the myeloma that are teaming up to keep me in my place, and the chemotherapy is also no doubt contributing to my now radically re-assessed quality of life. 

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So, that’s it. I’m old, I have a severe B12 deficiency that could be the result of pernicious anemia, and I have multiple myeloma, with its attendant chemotherapy. 

As I lay in bed last night [again] I harkened back to times in my life when I was still able to do things easily and effortlessly, things like canoeing, woodworking, building decks, garden structures, and a number of other physical things. I can still paint and draw, but with some difficulty. Writing is even getting to be an issue because I can barely feel the tips of my fingers on my left hand, my dominant hand. 

It’s been difficult at times, not because of my physical abilities, but because of my attitude towards them. I’ve had challenges keeping the dark side away, the feeling that I can’t do things anymore like I used to, making me a lesser human being, somehow. 

Carolyn and I both read the news and despair at the state of the world, but Carolyn seems to have a greater capacity than I do for keeping the dark side away and for maintaining a sense of perspective about the world. It’s true that the world is in a mess, but it’s always been in a mess if the press is to be believed. I have to keep reminding myself that the press, all of it, has a vested interest in propagating the dark side. That’s where the money is. Outrage and fear sells the goods. The bright side doesn’t. 

That said, I don’t want to be captured by the dark side or the bright side. The world is a complex place. Life is finite and changes all the time. Mommy doesn’t have to change my diapers like she did seventy-three years ago, even if she were still alive. I don’t have to put a uniform on and go to elementary school. I never have to write a final exam or go on a job hunt ever again. Of course, I won’t experience the joy of the early days of fatherhood ever again either, of falling in love, nor of the thrill of discovering a wonderful, new camping spot. 

I guess my point with all this rambling is that life is full of variety, both at the individual as well as at the socio-political level. Some things we call bad, some good. Those are judgment calls, which for us are adjudicated with reference to capitalist morality which itself is expressed in possessive individualism based on wealth and health. We look down on the poor and the unhealthy. 

These judgments are not easy to counteract both at the individual and the political levels because they are so deeply rooted in our culture. They are so familiar to us that we consider them normal and reasonable. It’s easy to feel self-loathing for being poor or in ill-health. It’s almost expected of us. And those individual feelings are reinforced every day in a thousand ways by the vast majority of us as we compare ourselves to others, those with money or excellent health (mental and physical).

If I let myself I can easily be dragged onto the psychologically dark and barren landscape of blame and feelings of unworthiness. Enough of that now. I have a limited number of days, months, and years left to live. I cannot, I will not live them in fear and self-loathing. 

Death is like a destination, one we have no choice in travelling towards. But, you know, some of the best trips I’ve taken have been at their finest and most exciting just before reaching our intended destination. Maybe that’s a good metaphor for the last bit of my life.

Memory Works With A Little Effort

I’m not sure if you’ll be able to access this Atlantic article or not, so I’ll just summarize it a bit for you. It’s about memory or remembering and whether you remember events in the past from the first or third person perspective. I would expand the argument to include imagined events in the future.

When you remember a past event, say one that was particularly notable, do you remember it as you initially experienced it, or do you see yourself in it as a character, almost as an actor, in a play?

I’ll die soon. Soon is an indeterminate word, mind you. I’ve already commented in previous posts about the fact that I’ve not done all that well with chemotherapy. It seems that I’m probably a high-risk cancer patient in any case. I’ve been subjected to a number of different chemotherapy protocols. Now, according to the oncologist at the BC Cancer Centre in Victoria in charge of my case, I’m running out of options. At the moment I’m on a two-month trial with a drug called carfilzomib (trade name Kyprolis). So far, I’m entirely underwhelmed by its effectiveness. The next month will tell the tale. I’m not very hopeful given my recent bloodwork and my reactions to the chemo drugs. But, I haven’t completely abandoned hope. I may still get to live a few more months.

Recently I had a bit of a discussion with the family about MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying). It’s not something I need to consider immediately but eventually it will become an option, particularly when the levels of pain and immobility outweigh quality of life issues for me. I see no need to lie in bed in pain awaiting more or less imminent and sure death when there is the option of assisted suicide. I’ve tried to imagine my dying moments. I can do that from the third person perspective, but definitely not from the first person perspective although I know what it feels like to go under general anaesthetic. I imagine MAID as like going under general anaesthesia but never waking up again. I see myself lying on a gurney with a doctor setting up the meds and then injecting me first with morphine or something like that before administering the killer drug. I can imagine that. I can remember in the first person going into the Hospital to have my kidney removed in 2002. Now that I try, I can also see those events in the third person. Strange.

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It’s amazing how many incidents and events I can recall if I put a little effort into it. I have seventy-five years of them to capture. Lots of fodder for remembering. I could write a book, although there is a lot that I would not share with you or anybody, private things.

This post is about me as I age from 1949 or so until now. My life isn’t over yet, but I’m getting close to a complete lifetime. I can track my parents’ lives, at least as far as major events go. My father was born in New Brunswick (1911), my mother in Alberta in 1924. They both died at the Dufferin Lodge in Coquitlam, my father in April, 2007 and my mother in January, 2018. Noting their dates of birth and death means nothing, of course. They are merely life’s parentheses. It’s what transpired between those dates that makes a life. The same goes for me, and you. Photographs tell a bit of the story, but in a static kind of way.

In the first picture, I’m standing there with my sister Denise. She was born in 1943, four years before me, to a mother who subsequently died in 1945 giving birth to what would have been her first son. Denise died on December 13th, 2004 of cancer. I’m not sure where this picture was taken. It looks like it could be in Sapperton, not far from the Royal Columbian Hospital. I would welcome correction on this from anyone in the family. By the time this picture was taken the family lived at 634 Alderson Avenue in Maillardille (Coquitlam).

In this picture I look to be maybe two years old. Denise would have been six. I am endowed with a natural Mohawk hair do. I still have it. I don’t remember anything of what was happening when this picture was taken. I was way too young. The photograph does nothing to jog my memory.

Denise and I always had an interesting relationship. She was pretty tough and I was mouthy. She threw a knife at me at the dinner table when I was probably a pre-teen. She missed, but it was close. That was memorable and I see it in the third person. But during my late, listless, teenage years, after returning from College St-Jean and not knowing up from down, I lived with her and her then husband, Roy, for six months or so, and often looked after the kids (which they had adopted). They had a fairly large home in Vancouver, off of 41st. The basement was made out to look like a TiKi lounge. Strange now, but not so for the times.

I worked with my father at a couple of re-manufacturing plants in Surrey and Langley. But I also worked at a planer mill in Fort Langley. I got drunk on occasion with some of the guys from work. It’s amazing we didn’t kill ourselves on the way home from work. One of the guys drove a convertible and that’s what we came home in most of the time. Mom and Dad had to know but they never said anything.

From the time I left College St-Jean until I enrolled in courses at Douglas College in New Westminster in 1970 or so, I worked at a number of odd jobs, mostly in the lumber or related industries. For a few months I worked at a plywood plant on Braid Street in New Westminster. I remember the smells and sounds of that place the most, but I also remember (in the first person) the work I did, piling pieces of veneer in bins in preparation for pressing them into plywood. The last job I had before going to Douglas College was at a sawmill in Marpole. I worked there for maybe six hours total. I recall being required to ‘clean up the chain’ of massive timbers. I did that for a bit but then I slipped and had one of the timbers fall on me as I fell off the platform. I could barely walk after that so I dragged myself to the first aid shack. Nobody there. So I struggled to my car (an Austin Healey Sprite) and drove myself to the hospital. I had back surgery then. Dr. Hill (I recall his name to this day) removed a disc in my lower back. Worker’s Compensation (now Worksafe BC) paid for everything including my first year of studies at Douglas College. There was never an inquiry as to what happened at the mill and as to why there was nobody in the first aid shack when I went there for help. Workers Compensation just paid for everything, no questions asked.

I find the series of photographs here helpful in some way in jogging my memory. The early ones don’t help at all but the later ones do. The one I posted of me doing my Knowledge Network tele course is still available to me as a video so I can go back and see myself over and over again if I so choose. I have many more photos too, but I’m not going to post all of them here.

All I wanted to do here is give the flavour of my life as I grew up, then grew down. We all have individual experiences of life. I often think of the many thousands of people who have died in conflict over the centuries, their lives often cut short by machetes, as in Rwanda in 1994. I suppose if a long life is a good thing, then I’ve had a good life.

Look at the forehead on that kid!
Me, maybe two years old
Me, five or six

Me in 1959 setting off for College St. Jean
Me at sixteen or so
Me doing television – late 1980s, early 90s.
Me not long ago

Carfilzomib and Buttle Lake

Wednesday, August 17th, 2022 – 2:30 PM

Just got back from the hospital for the first infusion of carfilzomib for the second cycle of this protocol. It went well, but as usual, I’m dexed out. Given this was my second cycle I didn’t have to stay after my infusion for an hour of observation. I had to go to the lab yesterday for bloodwork and the results were available today for us via MyHealth. Things seem to be going moderately well from the looks of my bloodwork. I have some reduction in my paraproteins (not that you should know what that means) which is good news but my kappa free light chains are going up. That’s not good.

However, we did a fair bit of reading about carfilzomib and one of the nasty side effects of that drug is renal toxicity. Given that I have only one kidney, that’s not great news. We just have to hope for the best.

As I said, I had to go to the lab yesterday for tests. What I didn’t say is that we spent the last three days at Buttle Lake in Strathcona Park for a bit of camping with the family. Yesterday, we had to race back to Courtenay to get on the lab waitlist. Around noon I started out at 29th on the list as we came into Campbell River but when we got to the hospital in Comox an hour later, I was down to 10th place which is quite acceptable. I didn’t have to wait too long to get my blood extracted.

Sunday, August 14th, 2022 –

We packed up yesterday and this morning. We were in four vehicles. I rode shotgun in the truck. It hauled most of the food, the banana boats and me. I won’t identify individual family members here. Suffice to say that there were enough of us to pilot four vehicles along with some passengers. We’ve been camping at Ralph River campground on Buttle Lake for upwards of thirty years. We’ve had some wonderful times on that lake, and particularly at that campground. It was such a pleasure getting back there. Frankly, I doubted that would ever happen.

From 2019 a few months before my diagnosis

I already posted this photo on this site, but I decided to post it again because it tells a story of how we had such great fun improvising and adapting the canoe with outriggers, a sail and electric motor. We’ve had the canoe for over forty years. We’ve had such great times with this canoe for decades! This boat didn’t come with us on this trip. I’m not ruling out the possibility that it will again feel the waters of this lake on its keel. Chances aren’t great, but we’ll see.

When the picture above was taken, so was the picture below.

Buttle Lake at Ralph River

You can see that these stumps are a predominant feature in the landscape. Who knows why the loggers left them (probably no need or profit in removing them) but they did and I took the opportunity to draw and paint them*. I can’t remember exactly when I drew them, maybe it was 2014, but that doesn’t matter.

You can see the water surrounding the stumps. They are maybe a half a kilometre from the campground and there are connecting pathways. Below is a photo of one of those pathways, the one they built for the movie See with Jason Momoa. That pathway and surrounding terrain used to be clear from the campground down to the stumps with a gravel base and not a lot of vegetation as you get closer to the lake. Now, as you can see, it’s flooded and there’s lots of vegetation, but the rocks that define it are still clearly visible.

The lake must be at least three metres above what it was when I took the above picture in 2019. The stumps are nowhere to be seen. They are all underwater. What a dramatic change! What a metaphor for life! Things can change so quickly and dramatically.

Main pathway from lake to campground.

Monday, August 15th, 2022 – 6:55 AM

I was awake for some time before 6:55, but that’s when I got up. The sky was pure blue. The previous evening it was overcast and spit a little rain. This morning was beautiful. Our campsite was open to the lake but the path to the lake was impassably muddy and crawling with Western toadlets to boot. We really had to go around to Jason’s pathway to get to the lake. I set up a chair in our campsite (called a gravity chair)facing the lake. For some time I watched the sun hit Mount Philips across the lake. Eventually, the shadow cast by the mountains behind us on Mount Philips reached the lake, but by then I was busy doing other things and I got distracted by this as I pushed myself vertical in my chair:

Cedar Boughs.

I actually took this picture later in the day after the sky had clouded over. I stared at this sight for a long time. There is an odd quasi-symmetry to the branches and needles. I contemplated drawing this, but I just couldn’t garner enough energy to do it. Instead, I took pictures and stared. I found looking at these boughs soothing. My pain dissolved. I relaxed completely. Such a great feeling…at least for a time!

I can’t thank my family enough for making it possible for me to get back to this lake and this campground. I’m an old man now. Many of the things we did for years like camping and messing around in boats are just not possible for me anymore. Maybe if it were only a question of age, but it’s not. Myeloma and chemo complicate matters immeasurably. Still, when I was at the lake I could much more easily recall so many pleasant experiences we had there. I love that place. It’s so much better to feel love for this place and for my family than to dwell on my health or lack of it.

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*See my art blog for images of the Buttle Lake stumps in ink and pencil: https://rogeralbert.blogspot.com/p/drawings.html

Chemo and life

July 27th, 2022.

It has been about twenty hours since my second infusion of carfilzomib. I take dexamethasone in conjunction with my infusion and that’s what I’m feeling the effects of predominantly at the moment. I’m dexed out, and I will be for a while yet. What concerns me the most is a repetition of the fever I got last Thursday as a side effect of carfilzomib. That fever at 38.9˚C sent me to Emerg for a long day on Thursday. The irony is that the fever is not caused by an infection, but that’s what the staff in Emerg will focus on. That’s what they know. And, of course, they do have to discount the possibility of an infection so they prescribe high doses of antibiotics. I don’t need antibiotics, but there ya go.

This time around, if I get a fever tomorrow AM (it started at 4 AM last week) I’ll know what to do about it. If my fever stays below 39˚C or so, I’ll stay at home, take a cold shower, use cold compresses and wait for it to pass. Last week the fever lasted maybe a day, and it fluctuated a lot during that time. It was funny in a way, because we went to Emerg for a second time last week on Thursday evening because my temperature had gone up to 38.9˚C. By the time we got there it had dropped to 36.6˚C. Well, that was a bit embarrassing. At that point they took some blood and put me in a room to then ignore me for 4 hours. By midnight we had had enough waiting and just went home. I don’t blame the Emerg staff. They couldn’t do anything in any case. But it would have been good to just send us home even if we hadn’t seen a doctor yet.

In any case, I’m a little apprehensive about the next 24 hours. I really need this chemo regime to work so I need to deal with the side effects and not let them force a stop to the regime. Carfilzomib is one of the last possibilities for me apparently. After that, I’m on my own. That means facing my myeloma without any help from chemotherapy. The consequences of that are well, terminal. We all get there, but I was kinda hoping to see my 80th birthday. That’s not rational, of course, because whether I die today or in 4 years makes little difference. After I’m dead, there won’t be any regrets. So, my hopes and wishes for a longer life are purely emotional.

August 3rd, 2022

So, as of now I’ve completed the first cycle of carfilzomib/dexamethasone treatment. No fevers after the first infusion. That’s great. The thing is I need this protocol to work. I won’t know if it’s working until I get my next blood workup in a couple of weeks. I meet with my local GP oncologist on August 10th, but we won’t have the results of my blood tests by then. We will meet, though, so he can assess how I’m doing. Blood work is only one factor in making decisions about treatment, but it’s an important one.

As usual, I’m dexed out after my last infusion of carfilzomib and 12 milligrams of dexamethasone taken orally. The next forty-eight hours will tell the tale regarding other side effects. I’m feeling alright given the circumstances. Strangely enough I have more energy when I’m dexed out, at least until it wears off and at that point I need to lie down and maybe get a little sleep.

I’m currently reading a book by Tom Robbins entitled Jitterbug Perfume. It hit the New York Times Bestsellers List in 1985. I read most of Robbins’ books back then along with books by John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut. Ostensibly about coming up with the definitive perfume, the book is all about the fear of death, immortality and dying. I can’t seem to get away from reading (and writing) about death and dying. That’s not surprising, really, given my time of life. Strangely, I feel I need to apologize for being so focussed on death and dying. After all, death, according to Ernest Becker, is one of the twin pillars of evil in our world, the other pillar being disease. It seems I’m immersed in the twin pillars of evil. So be it. It’s my life right now. Chemo is my life too at the moment. It’s a tough row to hoe sometimes because the end is nigh. But, it seems that we need to always focus on the bright side of life. Talk of death and dying are not welcome in a world that vociferously denies death and dying.

I know too many people right now with cancer, some with cancers much more aggressive than mine. Some want to talk about it, some don’t. Some have died recently, some are still dealing with their disease. Whatever type of cancer we have, we all face the same end. The ‘authorities’ claim that my cancer, multiple myeloma, is incurable, but treatable. Fair enough. However, the treatment can be quite harsh and whether or not it’s worth it is a question we still need to confront. That’s the case for all types of cancer.

As the song says, it’s summer time…and the living is easy. Yeah, right. For all you joung’uns with not a care in the world, you need to take this maxim and run with it. I’m not in a position to run anywhere. That’s fine. We’re all at different stages of life. Have a great summer.

The habit of life and a new chemo protocol.

July 18th, 2022

So, we went to the Hospital this morning to the nuclear imaging department to get a baseline assessment of how well my heart is pumping blood. That’s in preparation for my initiation into a new chemotherapy regime starting tomorrow since the one I was just on including lenalidomide, dexamethasone, and Daratumumab wasn’t working anymore and it was producing some very interesting symptoms like temporary paralysis or what my GP considered seizures. These ‘seizures’ didn’t last for more than an hour or two, but had lasting effects like extreme fatigue and headaches. I thought I might be having a stroke or something of that nature, but that’s not likely. In any case, my GP ordered a CT scan of my head. It found nothing! ⁉️He also ordered an MRI of my lower back. That will happen at the end of August. That might be revealing. I’ve had issues with my lower back since I was twenty years old.

Also this morning I injected one milligram of vitamin B12 into my left thigh. I do this every Monday because I have an inability to absorb B12 from food. Sometimes I inject it into my right thigh, just for variety. If you’ve never been tested for B12 you might want to consider it if you have a lot of fatigue. That may not be easy if you don’t have a family doctor, but worth it, if for nothing else, to discount it.

Tomorrow afternoon I go back to the Hospital for my first infusion of carfilzomib (trade name is Kyprolis). It has some interesting side effects and reportedly is hard on the cardio-vascular system, but is touted as a solid replacement for Bortezomib (Velcade). It’s relatively new on the market.

All the things I note above are to give me a longer life. That’s the goal. I’m into that, but eventually I’ll have to kick the life habit. We are creatures of habit. (see my note below) Are we ever. And the biggest habit we have is life itself. No wonder we are so reluctant to give it up.

July 19th, 2022

Well, tomorrow is today. Went to the hospital’s Cancer Care Centre for a 1 PM appointment for an infusion of carfilzomib. I got a low dose infusion, forty-four milligrams. I experienced no adverse effects that I noticed. My next infusion, next Tuesday, will be one hundred and fifty-four milligrams. That will be the ongoing dose I get every week for three weeks, then I get a week off before going back for another round of three weeks. So, my life is pretty much tied to the hospital at the moment. I may be able to alter my regimen a bit, but I don’t want to mess with it. I think that consistency is a major part of chemotherapy and I want this protocol to work for me for the foreseeable future. My foreseeable future is shrinking every day. That’s fine. That’s life. It’s interesting as I watch myself go through what little is left of my life, the recognition that my energy levels are dropping fast and that I can’t do things I recently took for granted. I have no regrets. I understand evolution and the need for death. I’ve played my part and will continue to play my part until there is just nothing left of me.

July 20th, 2022

Yesterday was a day filled with anxiety and doubt for me. A new chemo regime is always stressful. Will it work? Will I experience nasty side effects? Is this my last kick at the can? So many questions.

Thankfully, the crew of nurses and support staff at the Cancer Care Centre are amazingly calm and systematic. They patiently answer all of my questions, and this time around I had lots of them.

My infusions of carfilzomib are just a half hour long compared to one and a half hours for Daratumumab in my last protocol. However, for the first three weeks this time around they have me stay for an hour after my infusion for observation. That’s a good move because anything new like this is cause for caution. We were out of there by three thirty. Still, It’s an afternoon a week, and I need to be close to the hospital. No travel abroad, that’s for sure. I’m fine with that. Not much interested in travel right now in any case.

One thing I’ve noticed since I’ve been off of Dara and lenalidomide is that some of the symptoms I’ve been experiencing around my face seem to be attenuating. I can now feel my lips coming back online and my eyes don’t feel as puffy and buggy-outy as they have been for some time now. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll feel a little more ‘normal’ now. I hope this trend continues. The sensation around my eyes is particularly disconcerting. Anything to relieve that is good news. I’m feeling optimistic about carfilzomib but there’s a ways to go yet before we have any sense of whether or not it’s working to keep me alive.

I sleep well these days. That’s great. Of course, dexamethasone will mess with my sleep. I expect that and adjust as needed. It means that I may just read a little longer after I go to bed or wake up later and need to read a bit again before I can get back to sleep. I’m reading Agatha Christie at the moment. She’s such a good writer. There’s lots of murder and mayhem in her books, but some great problem solving too. Poirot and Hastings are principle characters in many of her books. Their interactions create a wonderful backdrop for their crime solving endeavours. Hastings is a great foil for Poirot. He’s not too bright but he is willing, and enthusiastic. The books do a much better job that the television adaptations of Christie’s work in terms of the dynamics of the Poirot/Hastings relationship. Read on. I paid one dollar on Amazon for all of Christie’s work on Kindle. What a deal.

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Just a note to end this post thing:

The fact that we are creatures of habit will be our downfall as a species.* We can’t seem to kick habits we know are bad for us. We know that fossil fuels are in the process of polluting the planet to such a degree that we may very well not be able to reverse the process. The pollution is what is killing us, not the fossil fuels themselves. We keep driving our cars and trucks. That’s a habit hard to kick because we also have a habit of spending money, and we have to get that somehow. Working for others (employment) seems to be the main way we do that, but contract work is also quite common. Employment is a relatively recent way of organizing labour. I wonder how much longer it will last. What I can guarantee you is that it will go the way of the dodo bird just as everything else does.

One huge issue we face is the generational lag that dominates our lives. We tend to think that we can live the way our parents and grandparents lived. We buy big fishing boats and huge RVs to wander around the oceans and roads like the 20th Century had never passed. We all want to live in detached single family houses (around here at least). Well, our parents did it, why can’t we? Maybe it’s because fish are disappearing at an alarming rate and gas is so expensive and polluting. But we’ll carry on because that’s what we know. We do feel anxious about it. That anxiety sometimes gets squished out of our minds in strange ways such as in ‘freedom’ convoys and ridiculous conspiracy theories. Oh well, steady as she goes. We all get to the wall sooner or later.

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*All animals are essentially creatures of habit. We all develop habits of life, some learned, and some tropismatic. We cling to them as long as we can. So it goes. It works as much for bees, chickens, and elephants as much as it does for humans.

Evolutionary Theory vs. Structural-Functionalism.

[Don’t be too put off by the title of this post. It looks highfalutin. It may be, but the text isn’t.]

It’s a truism to say that our lives are finite and that we go through stages of development and change. But, it seems, sometimes we need to be reminded of obvious but possibly unwelcome realities. I’m sure we all understand that we follow a path of change starting at birth and ending at death. In between we move from infancy to childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood, and then to old age. Of course, not all of us get to go through every stage. For some of us, the stages get cut off and we die young or accidentally. We may contract a disease at any age that proves fatal. Governments document all of these things with vital statistics and publish all kinds of data on birth rates, types of mortality, morbidity*, et cetera. British Columbia offers a lot of this information online. Statistics Canada also gets into the act and publishes a lot of health related statistics. It’s not an exaggeration to note that we are obsessed with our health and wellness. How much of the internet is dedicated to health related websites? The woo flows freely and the sales of every magic potion, miracle diet, and supplement imaginable are on offer. And there is overwhelming evidence that at every turn we find ways to deny death. As I’ve often noted, one of Ernest Becker’s most salient observations is that the twin pillars of evil in our world are death and disease.

Our entire medical system is set up to discover and ‘fix’ any human organism that doesn’t conform to what we consider normal for any stage of development. It is often unsuccessful in that endeavour, but it doesn’t like to discuss its failures.

Pathology as I use it here describes a condition of abnormality (non-normality), a structural and functional situation wherein things have gone wrong in an organism. The underlying assumption of pathology is that organisms all have a normal condition, and if things cease to work as they are supposed to according to medical science, then they are considered pathological, or at least the cause of their malfunction is searched out and an attempt is made to restore the organism to normality. Medicine, and in fact, our whole culture, decided a long time ago what normal humans should look like and how they should behave. Yes, we all live and die, but pathology isn’t really interested in those realities. A pathological perspective is only interested in bringing a diseased organism back to normality.

Science and medicine have analyzed and dissected the human body in great detail especially over the past five hundred years. Leonardo da Vinci, born in 1452 was adept at dissection, and he led the way for countless others who carried on the tradition. Later, biologists analyzed the human body from many perspectives, broadly using anatomy and physiology as major categories, but focusing on systems (cardio-vascular, endocrine, etc.), organs, cells, and their functioning. I’m no biologist so I won’t pretend to understand the intricacies of the investigation of human biological life. However, it’s clear that our organs (heart, liver, kidneys, et cetera) are of great interest to medicine, particularly if and when they cease to function the way they are supposed to.

As a quick aside, a major sociological school used (and still uses) what Emile Durkheim calls the organismic analogy. He suggests that society is much like the human body. He argues in his dissertation Rules of Sociological Method that there is no organic equivalence between human organs and social systems, but broadly, they share the same epistemological underpinnings. Human organs work in concert for the good and survival of the whole. That’s easy enough to understand. He then argues that human social systems, politics, family, economy, education, et cetera, must work in concert for the good of the whole society. Social pathology occurs when any one or other of the social systems that make up society fail to fulfill their function. The result is that the whole society is ‘sick’ or malfunctions. The problem with this perspective is that it’s not especially easy to find ‘a society’. From my point of view, societies are not be confused with countries or nation-states. They are not necessarily equivalent.

It’s easier to identify an individual human being than a society, or so it seems, until we ask the question: Is an individual human being a stand-alone organism? My answer is no. I could not and would not exist without air, food, water, et cetera. These elements are not necessarily a part of me, but they are essential for my life so excluding them from an analysis of what I am as a human is highly misleading. It suggests that we are somehow separate from the world that surrounds and sustains us. This is a foundational part of the individualism that characterizes our capitalistic world and it’s wrong.

So, broadly, we are captured by a world view that focusses on the structure and function of our organs in a biological sense and our social structures in a societal sense. This is why people often argue that what’s ‘wrong’ with our society is that the family isn’t doing its job, the economy is failing us, education is behind the times, and other simplistic criticisms. Figuring out how to fix it is another thing entirely.

In terms of the human body, if medicine finds that the heart is weak or not working properly, it tries to ‘fix’ it, that is to restore it to its presumed former state. It may conclude that a weak heart will have deleterious effects on the kidneys, and it may even find that a weak heart will threaten the organism as a whole. In contrast, an evolutionary perspective expects the heart to weaken as it ages. It expects that lungs will lose their ability to process oxygen. It expects that over time, muscles weaken, no matter what you do to counteract it. It expects death because death is built right into the model, unlike functionalism whereby death is left unconsidered or considered a clinical failure.

It’s true that an evolutionary perspective has made substantial inroads in science and even in medicine. It hasn’t in sociology, although it’s coming along**.

An evolutionary perspective follows the logic I present in my recent post: LIFE vs My Little Life. From this perspective, birth and death are normal human events. Death, especially, is not considered a defeat, it being an essential part of life. No death, no life. It’s as simple as that. That doesn’t mean we have to be happy about it. Just the amount of effort the human species has spent on denying death, on convincing itself that death is not the end of life, is testament to how unhappy we are with death and dying.

I don’t want to die, but I don’t have a say in the matter either.

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*morbidity refers to the incidence of ill-health in a population.

**see my (slightly outdated) dissertation on the topic published on this blog.

Freedom: Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose?

I’ve been relatively quiet about the ‘freedom’ movement in Canada. The ‘freedom’ convoy in Ottawa earlier this year set off a fairly entrenched opposition to vaccine mandates and other freedoms purportedly lost according to the leaders of this movement, at least one of which is still in jail for an inability to respect bail conditions. It’s impossible to know how many adherents the ‘movement’ has, but it is definitely a small minority of Canadians at this time. Who knows, however, what the future holds. 

Hyperbole is rampant in recent pronouncements from the leaders of this movement, one even suggesting, according to an article by Sarah Richie in The Canadian Press, reporting on statements by a ‘leader’ of the movement, Canada is facing a civil war. If it were true that Canada is facing a civil war, I’m not sure what the fighting sides would look like. Maybe anti-vaccine types on one side and everybody else on the other? I don’t know. I can’t seem to wrap my head around the notion of a civil war over vaccine mandates. 

Now, if the ‘freedom convoy inspired protestors’ represented a real political movement that, for instance, rejected the overriding influence of public corporations (global ones, primarily) in politics, I might sit up and take notice. However, I don’t see anywhere in the press or on alt-right websites that anything like a coherent platform for revolution or civil war is extant. Right now, it just seems that the only policy they have is flailing arms, shouts of ‘freedom’, flag waving, and rank ignorance of history, politics, and common sense. 

The whole notion of freedom and the purported loss of such is singularly misguided. Where does the idea of freedom originate? The idea of personal liberty and ‘freedom’ (although I hesitate to even use the term) can be traced back to the beginnings of a capitalist mode of production in Europe as far back as the thirteenth century, but really taking off in the sixteenth century. By the nineteenth century, the transformation of the peasant class into the urbanized working class was solidified. Along with the real transformation of people’s lives from rural to urban came the idea that people were now free to move around, change employers if they so desired, giving the impression that individuals were now in charge of their destiny. Veblen’s book The Instinct of Workmanship (1918), although makes for ponderous readings to some extent, is probably the best analysis of the creation of the urbanized working class that I have read. It’s not possible to summarize Veblen’s argument here. It’s a complex analysis of the rise of the business class and the idea that although we, as humans, long to do things, to work, we are not particularly suited to employment. The distinction between work and employment is basic to his argument. 

It’s always been true that individual human beings have agency. We are not like billiard balls subject to movement only at the invitation of the cue, although strangely there is some truth to this view. In fact, as Thorstein Veblen points out in the early twentieth century, that idea is the foundation of modern classical economics.

At this point I invite you to read a blog post I wrote in early 2019. It’s about the hedonistic calculus and what Veblen does with it in his dissection of neoclassical economic theory. It’s not a post wherein I write about my experience with myeloma because I hadn’t been diagnosed yet. I would also invite you to read my blog page on critical thinking which is based on an earlier article I wrote for teachers. It addresses the fact that we generally lack awareness of our place in the world because the school system systematically, via its prescribed curriculum and in spite of the efforts of individual teachers, fails to systematically address our social responsibilities. 

This brings me back to our ‘convoy’ protestors. The ignorance expressed by the ‘leaders’ of this ‘movement is astounding. They insist that they want freedom without ever telling us what they mean by that except to suggest that they don’t want vaccine mandates. They feel that vaccine mandates infringe on their ‘rights’. They should consider that they live in societies that require some individual compromise to ensure the safety and security of its citizens. 

Don’t get me wrong. I have no love for the Federal government’s unfailing support of often dangerous and completely self-interested business corporations, sometimes not even Canadian ones. But, like I said before, if the convoy goofies had an even basic understanding of Canadian political economy I might be inclined to hear their arguments. But they have no analysis, just empty opposition to perceived grievances. 

Their anti-mandate grievance and calls for ‘freedom’ have no place in a social world. We drive cars, but we need licences to do so. We can’t simply get out on the road  without a licence or insurance and expect to be left alone to do that. A world without rules and regulations would be an impossible world. There are countries where ‘rules of the road’ are mostly non-existent, but there are unstated agreements among motorists and others sharing the road as to how to conduct themselves on the road. Those unstated agreements are social contracts nonetheless. We rely on social contracts every day of our lives and in everything that we do. We depend on other people always to provide us with services for our comfort and security. Yes, we are individuals, but we always act socially and, in fact, we couldn’t exist as individuals. 

To think about how dependent we are on others, just think about how often you interact with others every time you buy groceries or fill your car with gas. What of the roads we drive on? We don’t build those as individuals. We build them collectively through our taxes (although not always without complaining about it). We, most of us, have water piped to our homes, electricity to power our heating systems, to refrigerate our food, and sewage lines to take away our effluent. Without millions of people all over the world ensuring that we have what we need to live comfortable lives, we would be living cold, brutish lives in caves. Imagine if you were only allowed to wear clothes you made yourself from material you yourself gathered. That’s not possible in this day and age. 

There are people who want to live off the grid. That’s fine, but even that means buying arrays of solar panels, having vehicles to transport goods, seeds, livestock, and the means to access health services if necessary. We may try to live as socially distanced as possible but we still need to acknowledge how dependent we are on others and why we should have some consideration for their health and security because in the end our health and security depends on theirs. 

It seems to me that the ‘freedom convoy’ folks don’t have a coherent platform, nor do they have even a basic plan. What they seem to have is a diffuse and incoherent opposition, maybe a sense that their lives are meaningless, but that they would be filled with meaning if only the government would be removed or there were fewer rules and regulations. The fact is that rules and regulations arise often out of a need to live in society with others and to resolve conflicts between them. To be moderately safe we all need to drive on the right side of the road. If even a small minority of people refused to accept this rule and started driving wherever they wanted to we would all be in serious trouble. If someone does drive on the left in Canada, and insisting they have a right to do that, they could have their license revoked, just as anti-vaxxers can lose their jobs if they refuse to be vaccinated. Nobody says you must be vaccinated unless there is, like in the military or in health care, a need for absolute safety (or as close as we can get to it). So, get over it. Play by the rules or play another game somewhere else.

#78 LIFE vs My Little Life

[I posted this in February, 2021. I’m re-posting because I think it expresses how I’m feeling right now about life and death. I will follow up with another commentary in a couple of days if all goes well.]

LIFE in capital letters is life writ large. It governs all manifestations of individual life. It goes on merrily as individuals live and die generation after generation. Ironically LIFE needs death to make more life. After all, we eat dead things, don’t we? Of course all plants and animals follow the same pattern. They come and go, often by being consumed by other living things. It’s almost March and the property here is getting ready to burst into life after the long period of die-off and dormancy that is winter. Flowers are appearing even with freezing temperatures.

The early ones are aconites, snow drops, early crocuses, and maybe violets. They express life briefly then give way to the grasses, the ferns and the flowers of spring. The pear, apple, plum and cherry trees will soon display their flowers in preparation for the fruit that will follow as long as the pollinators do their thing. The birds are into mating season and we’ll soon have baby robins, finches, nuthatches, flickers, thrushes, jays, hummingbirds, and chickadees hassling their parents, fluttering their wings and demanding food.

The sun is shining right now. It wasn’t supposed to according to the weather forecasters, but there ya go. Living and dying under the sun. That’s what’s going on. My adult life has been informed by the scholarship of life and death, that is, of life and death as considered by philosophers and scientists. The thought of my own dying hasn’t occupied very much of my time except when my mother, father, and sister Denise died, and then only briefly. Being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer that is incurable but treatable, changed all of that. Myeloma kind of sets the stage for end-of-life considerations. There’s no escaping myeloma’s trajectory. It will kill me eventually if I don’t die of something else first. Now, I have a hard time not thinking about my dying.

For most of my teaching career I used Ernest Becker’s work (The Denial of Death, Escape From Evil) to discuss the role of the fear of death on our cultural institutions. The fear of death and the promise of immortality and their overriding presence in institutions such as patriarchy and misogyny have shaped our social relations and created the conditions necessary for human contest and eventually homicide on a grand scale and war.*Related to our fear of death is our propensity to cut deals with deities. Humans have invented thousands of gods (and related semi-gods or supernatural entities) over the millennia. We assign responsibility to those deities for natural disasters, crop success or failure, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and the like. We even put faith in God for winning a football game or a war. We barter with the gods. We make sacrifices. We tell the gods: “Look, we are sacrificing this young woman for you by throwing her into this volcano, now you must reciprocate by ensuring our crops grow well next year.” A life bartered for more life. That’s largely the story of countless religious (and political) invocations over the millennia. Priests and politicians constantly urge us to make sacrifices so that the future will be better.

Modern medicine is an elaborate institution for the denial of death. It’s all about ‘saving’ lives, and it’s willing to go to extreme measures to accomplish that goal. Of course, ‘saving’ a life means little more than postponing a death. Obviously, I’m personally invested in modern medicine and pharmacology. I’m hoping that chemotherapy and radiation treatments will buy me time, effectively giving me more life and postponing my death. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments are not cheap. Just one of the drugs I’m taking will cost over $100,000. One of the pharmacists at the pharmacy in Victoria that dispenses the drugs I use told me over the phone recently that they have some million dollar patients out there, patients that have used these drugs for many years. I attend the Cancer Care Centre at the local hospital and I’m impressed by the technology and the expertise of the many staff nurses and doctors that work in that facility. That can’t be cheap either.

Modern medicine will go to great lengths and expense to treat patients hoping to extend their lives. It must do so otherwise it fails in its sacred mission to safeguard life and battle death, the ultimate enemy. As Becker notes, in our culture death and disease are the twin pillars of evil. Disease prevents us from enjoying the pleasures of life while death cuts them off summarily.

So, we are willing to invest a great deal to save an individual life yet we are also willing to gleefully pile corpses in great heaps during war or in the context of ethnic cleansing, that vile excuse for murder, rape, and pillage as in Rwanda, 1994, or in any countless examples of such celebrated mass murders. We gladly kill for US, for our people because THEY(the enemy) are obviously responsible for our misfortune and distress. If we eliminate THEM our problems will be solved. That is the big lie. As Becker notes, we need a THEM with whom to enter into contests to show our prowess and to show our God (gods) how powerful and deserving of eternal life we are. Why do we spend so much time, energy, and money on organized sport? Sports reflect our constant need to show how deserving we are of life and more life. We win, we go to heaven. The gods are obviously on our side. We lose and we face shame and rejection. This analysis can easily be applied to American politics now too.

I’m rambling now. I guess I’m trying to avoid writing about the finitude of my life, my little life. In the face of LIFE and its overarching grip on the process of life and death, my little life doesn’t amount to much…but it’s all I’ve got really. Maybe I can celebrate my insignificance. Maybe I can celebrate the entirety of my life from beginning to end. In a way end is as necessary as beginning in the scheme of things. Let’s see what I can do with the little bit of life I have left.

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*The need for an opponent or an enemy (THEY) is based on our need to prove our worthiness in competition for the good things in life and for eternal life. The winner takes all! Very early on in human history, tribes split in two called moieties so that there would be contestants to beat proving the prowess of the winners and their qualifications for immortality.