I meditate on my last breath.

Yesterday afternoon Carolyn tucked me into bed. The zoledronic acid infusion I got Thursday at the hospital has left me feeling like I have a nasty flu combined with a smashing hangover. I fell asleep almost immediately but when I woke up I could hear the rain beating on our metal roof. I love that sound. Today, the dexamethasone is kicking in and it’s leaving me in a state of nervous fibrillation. I’ve never done speed, but I expect the sensation must be something like that. Now is a good time to write because I have this bizarre energy that needs an outlet. However, the dex gives me the shakes making it difficult to keep my fingers singly on the keys of my computer.

So, getting back to yesterday afternoon. Like I said I slept for some time and woke to the sound of rain pounding the metal roof. I just lay there. I find that lying in bed staring at the ceiling is not a bad way to pass the time. I could never do that before. I had the work ethic really bad when I was still gainfully employed and long after truth be told. Now, my body has taken charge of my reluctant mind and has forced me to sit still, to lie down and not feel guilty about it. Cancer has its upsides I guess, but I’m not sure that I fully subscribe to its methods. One thing for sure: There is no normal in my life anymore: sleep times vary, meals are still on schedule as are the ritual pill taking, but I can’t count on feeling the same way during each new cycle of chemotherapy that I felt on the previous one. Dex is predictable but the intensity of its effect varies. I only have to take it one more time on this course of chemo lasting until January. I start taking it again in late January when I start my second course of chemo with my fifth cycle. A course of chemo lasts approximately four weeks, a cycle, one week. At least that’s the pattern now. But I digress.

I’m lying on my bed focussed on the cedar beam that crosses the ceiling in the middle of our bedroom, light pouring in from the three windows just behind me at the head of the bed. I close my eyes and think about death. Well, more about dying than death, actually. It’s the process of dying that is absorbing me, not death itself which for too long we’ve considered the opposite of life. Dying is another thing altogether. Dying is the separation of consciousness and body. Consciousness in my estimation comes to an end at the point of death but my body, this collection of matter brought together by processes millions of years old, will immediately begin to become unglued. It loses its integrity as a collection of cells and begins to decompose, that is, to lose its composition.

I don’t have to tell you this. It’s hard to live for any length of time without coming across at least one death in the family, among friends, or by reading the news or obituaries on the local papers. We know about death although we don’t quite know what to make of it or how it pertains to us. It’s strange that for most of us we take for granted that ‘we’ don’t exist before our conception and birth and that ‘we’ become ‘we’ by a combination of hereditary traits, learned behaviour, and environmental factors. ‘We’ or ‘I’ are constructs. We are not born fully operational. We become ‘I’ over time, slowly developing personality traits, habits, and idiosycracies that define us as unique individuals. But we resist very strenuously the idea that if we come we must also go. But I digress again!

So, I’m back in my bedroom, lying on my back on my bed in that state of half sleep, very relaxed and I meditate. I meditate on my last breath. I’m thinking that dying is not much different than living. When we fall asleep and lose consciousness we have no idea whether we will awaken or not, we just take if for granted that we will. I’ve had two brothers-in-law die this past year. One died during the night in bed next to my sister. We say he died in his sleep. True enough. He wasn’t conscious when he took his last breath. Neither was my mother who died nearly two years ago, but she had demential and was so hopped up on morphine that I can’t say she died in her sleep. My sisters were there at the moment of her death. I missed it by a few hours. I was in pretty bad shape myself two years ago with symptoms on myeloma that went undiagnosed at the time. I was perennially exhausted, in a great deal of pain, and I couldn’t stand the vigil as my family surrounded my mom’s death bed waiting for her to take her last breath. I prefer to think of my dying as just another falling asleep kind of experience. My last one of course, but still.

Needless to say, there are only one or two ways of being born that I know of, but millions of ways to die. I like to think that my last breath will be in the comfort of home or at least in a hospice, somewhere nice. Many, many millions of people worldwide don’t die under such benign circumstances. Violent death is common. Five thousand Canadians die in vehicle crashes a year, fifty thousand Americans meet the same fate. I don’t fancy that as a way of dying, but if it’s quick, maybe. I can’t imagine being hacked to death with a machete after watching my family meet the same fate in 1994 Rwanda, or being shot by a stray bullet in Aleppo leaving me wounded and watching the blood spill out of me. No, give me a peaceful, quiet place to die.

I’ve been diagnosed with an incurable cancer but I’m told that it’s more like a chronic treatable condition than a CANCER that kills fast and unannounced. I’ve got some time to think about my last breath. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. Certainly, I’ll roll with it. I remember clearly when I was a kid of twenty or so. I had a fairly serious back injury while working at a sawmill on Lulu Island and I needed back surgery to remove a disk in the lumbar area of my back. I was a kid in search of meaning in my life, not such an unusual thing. I remember lying in my hospital bed after the surgery, hanging over the edge puking my guts out and thinking to myself. I can milk this for everything it’s worth. I could stay on Compensation for a long time then go on disability or something along those lines. Or I could get out of the hospital and use this time to get my shit together. And that’s what I did. I got my shit together. I enrolled in the liberal arts program at Douglas College in New Westminster and never looked back. My injury allowed me time to think about my future without the pressure of work. That was luxurious, and it worked.

Now, I don’t need to get my shit together. It’s been together for a few decades and I’m happy with my shit. My encounter with cancer, in a way similar to my experience with my back surgery, is giving me time to think about my last breath, but to also remember that every breath I take until my last one is worth paying attention to and celebrating. Whatever I do until I take my last breath is not so important. Of course, I can’t help but do something and I will do things that have always mattered to me. It’s impossible to do nothing and still be alive. Even lying on the couch ‘doing nothing’ is doing something. Whatever I do will be the right thing at the time because it will be what I do. In any case it won’t matter one iota after I’m dead because ‘I’ won’t be around to care or experience regret or any other sentiment.

Access to medical records

It is shocking to read on the CBC News today that LifeLabs has been hacked with an ensuing leak of information on 15 million LifeLabs customers including email addresses, passwords, medical records, et cetera. This is not good news. LifeLabs is a private medical laboratory business that has provided employment for members of my family and which is reputable, and generally reliable. It’s seriously unfortunate that the breach of information has occurred but it’s obvious (if implied) from the news source that it was a case of cyber blackmail, something that can easily happen to any company.

I had LifeLabs online access to my medical records years ago but in the last few years I’ve used VIHA (Island Health) labs exclusively, mostly the lab in Cumberland. Very convenient. Last time we were there (on Monday morning) the tech turned us on to MyHealth which is a new (to us anyway) service to allow patients access to our own medical records including lab and imaging results. This service is equivalent to the service offered by LifeLabs. It’s very comprehensive and I love it. We were able to access online records of our Monday morning Cumberland lab visit by early in the afternoon! Spiffy! So, I have an appointment with my GP tomorrow and I’ll already have looked at all my numbers and will be able to refer to them intelligently with my doctor. Carolyn and I have done a fair bit of research on myeloma, my bone marrow cancer, and understand what the numbers mean to some extent. Because I have only one kidney, the creatinine levels in my blood are of particular interest to us. They measure kidney function, something that can be impaired by myeloma but also by the chemo drugs I’m taking. My numbers show that my kidney is almost functioning normally again! Have a look at the graph below.

For an old researcher like me this is exciting, especially since it’s about my own blood work! Referring to the graph, you’ll see that on January 25th 2017, my creatinine level was 106 umol/L (which means micromoles per litre). That is above the reference range (60-100 mol/L), but not terribly so. Now see what happened in April 2018. There was a slight jump in my creatinine levels, but that was just the start of things going really wonky. By May of 2019 my creatinine levels began to spike up. In late September and during October my creatinine levels were all over the map. I think the radical drop from 134 to 103 umol/L from October 25th to the 29th was very likely because of a prednisone infusion on October 26th. On December 2nd, my creatinine levels were at 137 umol/L and by two days ago on Monday had dropped to 110 umol/L, almost back to normal.

This graph only goes back three years. If it went back further you’d find other times when I had spikes in my creatinine levels, not surprising since I lost my left kidney to cancer in 2002. For instance, in 2008 I went in for a blood test (not shown on the graph) and my creatinine levels were 114 umol/L, (within the reference range which at that time was 70-120 umol/L and not the 60-100 umol/L that it is now. Why the reference range changed, I have no idea). That probably wasn’t a spike, but it shows that my creatinine levels were generally above the reference range or very near it.

What I find really interesting about this graph is that I seem to be able to see immediately the effects of certain treatments on things like creatinine levels. I’m now definitely in a better position to ask the right questions of my medical team.

I’m sure medical professionals may have some doubts about to value of making this kind of information available to patients. I’m sure some patients might just go off the rails if they see lab results in MyHealth that are in red (indicating something abnormal is going on). Overall, I think this is a good move on the part of VIHA but I’d sure like to hear what the pros have to say about it.

In the meantime, if you’re a LifeLabs customer, good luck. There are resources you can access if you feel your medical records may be compromised. Check out the news reports on this. It’s all over the CBC and Facebook.

Now we wait.

I started the second course of chemotherapy using the new cocktail of drugs called CyBorD: cyclophosphamide, bortezomib and dexamethasone. Ya just got to be impressed by that line-up of fancy Latin names for that nasty little prickly army of toxic chemicals that we have to wear gloves to handle and that I gleefully (albeit not without some trepidation) ingest every week. Next week they’ll also infuse me with zoledronic acid, a drug that is supposed to strengthen bones. So far, so good. I may have said this before, but I will reiterate that the staff at the Cancer Centre at the hospital here in the Comox Valley is really fine. I feel that I’m being looked after. I have a person I can reach on the phone if I have any issues or questions and they’ve given me a letter to take to the Emergency Department if for any reason I should need to go there.

We won’t know for a while yet what effects the chemo drugs are having on my myeloma. It’s a waiting game, but I suppose the whole process is pretty much of a waiting game. There are so many questions and very few answers at the moment. In my last post I told you that I was going to see an orthopaedic surgeon in Campbell River. Well, we drove up to CR on Monday (the 9th) to his clinic in Willow Point. His name is Dr. Deke Botsford and he is a specialist in hip and joint replacement surgery, but he’s also capable of dealing with the issue I have which is the lesions in my femurs. To be precise, the lesions are in what’s called the distal part of the femur which is the part of the femur closest to the knee. He told us that that was an unusual site for myeloma lytic lesions to form but he also said that there were treatment possibilities. So, the lytic lesions are the result of paraproteins in my blood excavating my bone marrow thereby weakening my bone and getting in the way of the creation of hemoglobin. The excavations are called lesions. It may be that the chemotherapy treatments I’m on will arrest the growth of these lesions but then again maybe not. Botsford could drive a rod up my femur from my knee all the way to my hip joint so as to stabilize the bone and keep pain at bay. Or, he figured I might benefit from radiation therapy. I expect my oncologist will want to wait for a while to see what the chemotherapy treatments are doing before launching into another therapy. I see Botsford again in early February at the hospital in Campbell River to get an x-ray of my right femur and to assess the state of affairs in my bones. It seems that my right leg especially is weakened by the paraprotein excavations, but it is not likely to spontaneously break. It could break if I fell, for instance, or banged it a little too hard on a door jamb or something. I’ll try hard to see that doesn’t happen.

As far as pain goes, I’m dealing with it. I’ve reduced my intake of hydromorphone, my main opioid line of defence, but things seem stable enough. The zoledronic acid has a nasty side effect in that it can create elevated levels of pain in the back so I won’t be trying to wean myself off of hydromorphone anytime soon. Besides, if I do back off a bit with the hydromorphone, something I’ve tried a couple of times, I can feel pain creeping back into my ribs and back so I don’t think I want that to happen.

I have been going out a lot, of course, to the lab, the hospital and to doctors’ offices, but late yesterday afternoon Carolyn and I went to the Cumberland Brewing Company to meet with some friends. That’s the first social outing I’ve been on in three months or so. It was taxing, and today I’m exhausted, but it was also good to get out amongst friends and sip on a bitter. Even though I’m very tired I still managed a visit from a good friend and former student now living in Nanaimo. We drank tea out of mugs she made and delivered to us three weeks ago. Everyone has been so kind and generous. Gifts of food and goodies keep coming. I really feel the love.

It is all so surreal.

From the time in late September until now, we’ve been living a life tainted with the surreal. At any time I expect Salvador Dali to peak around the corner of the hallway into the living room dangling a fluid clock from his arm peering at me silently from his secure death. I can’t seem to find a solid bit of ground, a place where I don’t have to feel the ethereal presence of the spectre of ‘incurable cancer’. Everywhere I turn all I see is wall with no door inviting me into the light beyond the uncompromising diagnosis of a life sentence with no chance of parole. Some people will argue that there is always a door, one just has to believe in it for it to appear and open. Imaginary doors like that don’t exist in any prison I’ve ever visited so I am left with the only tangible evidence I have and that’s based in the physics of concrete and rebar, and not in my imagination, which I confess, I thoroughly enjoy as a garden of pleasure and delight but which flickers inexorably out of existence like a holodeck program on Star Trek.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

We were supposed to retire in 2012 and do a lot of the things we had no time to do while we worked at our jobs. We could go camping in the off season and not during the busy summer season. We were supposed to go on long walks and go out for coffee when it struck our fancy. We could travel if we wanted to. We could get more involved in our community. Well, we did a lot of these things and more. But slowly, over the years, I lost energy. I could no longer accompany Carolyn on long walks. I could still putter around the house and fart around in my shop, but as time passed, puttering became more and more difficult, and then impossible. I knew that there was something wrong. I knew it for a long time. We tried to figure out what was wrong, but we came up empty handed time and time again.

Over the past few months, I became increasingly immobilized. I was short of breath after walking up the driveway. I was in so much pain that I was loathe to move. Then, in utter desperation, we went to see my GP. He ran some tests and from there it was just a matter of time before we got the definitive diagnosis of multiple myeloma. I was gobsmacked! It wasn’t supposed to go this way. But I’ve already written about this in past blog posts. What I have not written about is my new reality, as rapidly changeable as it is.

Most days now, I don’t do a hell of a lot of anything. I spend half the day in bed and the better part of the rest of the day in my recliner. Well, that’s mostly true, but not entirely. It’s strange, but it’s like I have a job again. Weekends are mostly free, but weekdays are taken up with visits to the lab, doctor’s offices, and hospital. For example, this week I have an appointment today with an orthopaedic surgeon in Campbell River at 1 PM to deal with the lytic lesions (tumours) in the long bones of my legs and the degenerative disk disease in my neck. Tomorrow I see the dentist at 2 PM because one of the very rare side effects of one of the chemo drugs I’m taking is a degenerative jaw thing. On Thursday I do the chemo routine again with pills in the morning and a visit to the Cancer Centre at the hospital for my injection and visit with the nurses. I have to check my calendar for next week, but I know that I have an MRI on the 19th.

I expect this will change as my treatments progress, but it will still be that my treatments, office visits, etcetera will be during the week and I’ll have weekends ‘off’. I should have fewer appointments with my GP and even with the chemo crew. Lab visits will still happen frequently so they can monitor what’s happening with my blood. Things will get very routine if all goes well. What we’re aiming for is remission within a few months.

Don’t get me wrong, remission is clearly an important goal. If I get full remission for three or four years that would be amazing. Still, it’s hard to free my mind of the verdict I know will not change. The multiple myeloma may not kill me, but it sure brought to the forefront the reality of my death. I’m almost seventy-three years old. I’ve had a very good life for the most part but I want more.

So it begins…

First off, I’d like to welcome all of you who are new to following my blog. It’s gratifying to know that my writing is of interest.

[Still holding off on the post about the Emergency Department at the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. I’m working on it, but I need to write this post and at least one more first.]

Day before yesterday Carolyn drove me up to the North Island Hospital, Comox Valley Campus (I think that’s right) for my first chemotherapy treatment using a drug combination sometimes referred to as CyBorD. The ‘cy’ stands for cyclophosphamide, ‘bor’ stands for bortezomib and ‘d’ stands for dexamethasone. This article from 2009 suggests that this combination is associated with a very rapid response with manageable toxicity. I can only hope that it works for me.

I get the cyclophosphamide (cyclo) and the dexamethasone by tablet to be taken orally every seven days on a cycle of four weeks. I get a subcutaneous injection of bortezomib on the same day as I take the oral doses of the other two drugs. I get another drug by infusion once a month. It’s called zoledronic acid and is a bone strengthening medication often given to patients who have weakened bones due to cancer, which I do. I haven’t had my first injection of zoledronic acid yet but that’s coming soon.

So, I take a schwack of pills, probably fifteen, every Thursday morning then head up to the hospital in the afternoon for my bortezomib injection and for a visit with the oncology nurses. The oncology department at the hospital is superb. The staff is wonderful, calm, attentive and supportive.

The day before the day before yesterday Carolyn drove me to the hospital for a visit with the GP oncologist who is the local connection I have with the oncologist at the BC Cancer Agency in Victoria. Like the rest of the staff, Dr. Bakshi explained all the procedures I was about to experience calmly and attentively. One thing I appreciated with Dr. Bakshi was the way he explained the difference between myeloma and other forms of cancer. Myeloma is not like pancreatic cancer or other forms of virulent cancer. It’s more of a lay-low, make you sick for a long time type of cancer. It’s not unusual for people with myeloma to live ten years after being diagnosed and by then life is mostly a rear-view mirror phenomenon in any case. Myeloma is a disease mostly of older people.

I have to keep this post short because I have very little energy today. Yesterday I had a ‘high’ which was like I imagine I would feel after drinking twenty cups of strong coffee. Boy was I hyper! That’s caused by the dexamethasone. I had a hell of a time trying to sleep night before last, but last night was okay. I finally got a different prescription for my pain meds, hydromorphone. It’s a slow release prescription. I take two tablets a day twelve hours apart rather than taking two short acting tablets every four hours. I still have to get up to pee at night a couple of times, but not having the alarm go off every four hours is quite nice.

Today I got up feeling like I had a huge hangover. That feeling is still with me. It’s not all that pleasant, but it’s tolerable and I’m not going to complain about it. I knew that chemotherapy was not going to be a cake walk and I was right. I have a long way to go with it yet and the experience with it will change as I go along. I just hope I can tolerate this cocktail of meds and it doesn’t push my peripheral neuropathy to intolerable levels, nor does it damage my poor lone kidney.

More tomorrow if I can.

Just a note

This is just a short note to tell you that I started the second round of chemo this afternoon. It’s so anticlimactic when it actually happens and the drugs begin to course through my veins on their way to doing what they’re supposed to do, whack the hell out of certain proteins that are clogging up my bone marrow.

I have a lot to say about the type of cancer I have and the chemotherapy I’m getting and what I can expect, but for now, I just wanted you to know that I’ve had a pretty severe energy deficit over the past ten days or so. I’ve found it difficult to do much of anything. I can do a bit of reading and I’m liable to post the odd thing on Facebook, but I have had little energy for anything else.

Given how my energy levels have waned over the past while it’s clear to me that if chemo is unsuccessful, the remainder of my time on this planet will be distinctly unpleasant. I would probably live for some time without treatment, but there wouldn’t be much left of me in the end. That’s why I’m really pulling for the drugs that I started taking today. I’m visualizing them as an army of caregivers with standard-bearers for each of the drugs I’m taking, moving closer and closer to my bone marrow to restore some semblance of balance in there.

So, I’ve decided to put together a couple of posts over the weekend. I’m anticipating a bit of a surge of energy in the next little while to get me to a point where I can actually get some significant writing done. Stay tuned.