Overdiagnosis?

In my last post I left you hanging with suspense! Well, in this post I have a couple of issues to raise that should quell any after effects of inordinate suspense left behind from reading my last post. One is about overdiagnosis, which I promised to raise again, and the other is about cancer itself and what would happen if it didn’t exist.

So, in her book Natural Causes, Barbara Ehrenreich addresses what she calls overdiagnosis. This is a situation wherein currently powerful imaging techniques can, for example, ‘see’ many more, and smaller, lumps in a person’s neck than was previously possible. The question is then put to the patient: “We’ve found a lump in your neck. What would you like us to do?” Patient, very concerned: “Is it cancer?” Doctor: “We don’t know, but we can always remove it.” Patient: “Well, let’s not take any chances. Let’s get rid of it.” Ehrenreich claims that in seventy to eighty percent of these cases in the US the surgery was unnecessary.

I have my own example of overdiagnosis. I had a parotid gland removed from the left side of my face years ago. There was evidence that it was enlarged, but nothing to say it was malignant. I had a choice to make and opted to have it removed. It was unnecessary surgery. Because of it I was left with insensitivity on the left side of my face and a scar leading from my ear down the side of my neck. It’s a crapshoot. How many people do you think would turn down the surgery?

Recently, Dr. Brian Goldman of the CBC’s program White Coat, Black Art, wrote in his blog about overdiagnosis. He writes that overdiagnosis “means identifying problems that weren’t causing symptoms and were never going to cause the patient harm.” The source for most of his information is a study led by Prof. Paul Glasziou, director of the Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare at Bond University in Australia. It used data collected over a thirty year period by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. The results are quite astounding. Goldman writes:

The researchers found that, in men, 42 per cent of prostate cancers, 42 per cent of kidney cancers and 58 per cent of melanomas were overdiagnosed. In women, 22 per cent of breast cancers, 58 per cent of kidney cancers and 54 per cent of melanomas were overdiagnosed.

Overdiagnosis can arise from overly prescribed testing including screening tests like mammography. Increasingly sensitive imaging equipment can detect smaller and smaller lesions and tumours, benign or malignant. It’s often difficult to tell whether a tumour is benign or malignant. In the case of kidney cancers, invasive biopsies are not often carried out for fear of spreading cancer cells to adjacent lymph glands. So, surgery is a crapshoot. Do we operate or not? The default position is surgery because few people would be willing to take the risk of leaving a possibly benign tumour in their bodies.

To take this even further, Goldman’s blog post argues that even “incidental abnormalities” or cancers that would never have caused symptoms or led to full-blown rapid onset pathological mitosis are being surgically extirpated. We probably all have asymptomatic cancer cells in our bodies that may never result in any health threat because of them.

In the September 11, 2017 issue of The New Yorker Siddhartha Mukherjee is back at it with a thoroughly provocative article entitled: Cancer’s Invasion Equation: We can detect tumors earlier than ever before. Can we predict whether they’re going to be dangerous?

Good question. The gist of Mukherjee’s argument in this article is that two things are required for a full-blown cancer to make itself known which he metaphorically refers to as the seed and the soil. This metaphor he borrowed from a 19th Century English doctor interested in cancer research, Stephen Paget. His idea was that a cancer cell (the seed) would grow only if the local bodily ecosystem (the soil) was conducive to that growth. It could happen that the cancer cell falls on barren ‘soil’ and does not grow and divide. On top of that, on close examination cancer cells could be found that would never produce any symptoms. Some cancer researchers were now becoming human ecologists. Some even began to ask why people don’t get cancer and not just why they do when they do.

In my case, I may have carried the myeloma ‘oncogene’ for a long time but my ‘soil’ wasn’t yet ready to receive it. It may be that it was just a matter of time in my case, age being a big factor, but there may have been others that contributed too to creating the right conditions for my myeloma to go from dormant (smoldering) to active. Now, there’s no turning back for me. The seed has been planted and the hemoglobin garden in my bones is turning into an oncological garden.

There’s a final note towards the latter part of Mukherjee’s book The Emperor of all Maladies that makes me realize how little we know about cancer at this stage and about the process of dying and what that entails. Mukherjee writes:

“Taken to its logical extreme, the cancer cell’s capacity to consistently imitate, corrupt, and pervert normal physiology thus raises the ominous question of what “normalcy” is. “Cancer,” Carla said, “is my new normal,” and quite possibly cancer is our normalcy as well, that we are inherently destined to slouch towards a malignant end. Indeed, as the fraction of those affected by cancer creeps inexorably in some nations from one in four to one in three to one in two, cancer will, indeed, be the new normal—an inevitability. The question then will not be if we will encounter this immortal illness in our lives, but when.” (from “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee)

So, how exactly does the body shut down as it’s dying? Cancer may very well be one (a very important one) of the mechanisms that is ‘natural’ in its role in having us die. Maybe cancer is not the pathological evil that it’s made out to be. What would happen if cancer did not exist? How would we die then? What does it mean to die of natural causes? How can we figure that out? Stay tuned. I think science and medicine have a lot to learn about us yet.

My Brain Hurts!

We went for a walk this morning around the airport on the River Walkway in Courtenay. It was overcast and coolish, quite pleasant as far as weather goes for this time of year. The ducks are getting up to their mating ways and even the redwing blackbirds have started singing. I think one or two of them may be rushing it, trying to get a head start on the mating action. It’s a good walk for me because it’s flat and paved. I’m still not that steady on my feet and I’m not sure about that lytic lesion in my right femur that lately seems to be getting a little more ‘present’, insisting that it not be forgotten.

My brain, frontal lobe really, also insists that it not be ignored. It tells me that it needs more and more information about the bad boys excavating my bones, crowding out and bullying the good boys that are working hard to make hemoglobin for me. It threatens never to let me rest until it’s satisfied, and from what I can tell, it’s a long way from being satisfied. I have been feeding it, though. It’s not being ignored even though it does sometimes have to take a seat and wait until other parts of my body are willing to participate. My amygdala is pretty insistent these days. The various parts of my brain don’t always want to be nice and play together. Some days they are more likely to coöperate, generally those two or three days, Mondays to Thursdays, just before I get a new load of chemo drugs on Thursday mornings. On other days, organized rebellion reigns. Thursday evening is my hyper time, no sleep. Fridays are a mix of hyper, lightheadedness, dizziness and near disorientation. My whole body tingles and my feet are somewhere between freezing and very cold. Saturday my bortozemib injection (which I get on Thursday at the hospital) site on my stomach starts to get inflamed and begins to itch. I have to take antihistamine to counteract that, but I’m a bit worried that the inflammation is getting worse with every injection. The area around the injection site gets very hot and red, and itchy beyond description. This is when Carolyn and I pore over the literature on the various drugs I’m taking trying to get a handle on what I’m experiencing in terms of side effects and indulging my frontal lobe with a bit of a snack. From what my oncologist told us in our last interview, I could be on this particular chemo protocol for at least another six months so I’d better get used to it. Of course, things constantly change as we go along so past experience is not necessarily a good measure of what I can expect in the future. Right now, getting ‘used to’ anything seems like a little far-fetched.

Thankfully, there are periods of time when I can sneak in a bit of reading and even some writing. It’s a good thing that I write fairly quickly because I often am too preoccupied with my symptoms to concentrate for any length of time or keep a train of thought going. My trains of thought are always getting derailed. Generally, if I get an hour or so of reading or writing in at a time, I’m happy. That works for me because what the hell else have I got to do?

Lately I’ve been reading a variety of things. I get a bit overloaded with books, articles and other materials dealing with cancer every now and then and that’s when I pick up a book on Medieval Europe. Right now I’m reading a book called The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe, (2002) by Patrick J. Geary. It’s an easy read. Just right for bedtime. The composition is a bit clunky and Geary probably needs a better editor, but eventually he makes his point, not that I’m going to discuss it here. The books, reviews, and reports that have claimed most of my attention lately have been on the topic of cancer. Too bad I wasn’t reading them on a nice beach on the Tropic of Cancer. 🙂 They are important for feeding my frontal lobe.

I mentioned in a previous blog post Barbara Ehrenreich’s book: Natural Causes. It’s polemical and iconoclastic to the core. I love Ehrenreich for the way she hounds the medical profession and business for excesses of enthusiasm for making money at the expense of the quality of life of patients. In this book she rails against overdiagnosis, a point to which I return later, and the false emphasis on building the immune system to fight cancer and other serious illnesses. She notes that macrophages, special white blood cells are an important aspect of our immune systems in that they attack and destroy invading bacteria and other infections at wound sites. The problem is that they can also provide cancer cells with conduits for metastasis, creating the means by which cancers can spread to distant parts of the body. She argues that we shouldn’t be such cheerleaders for our immune systems because they could very well be traitors in our midsts.

I just finished reading another of her books: Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (2009). This book trashes one of the most iconic delusions of American life, the power of positive thinking. In Natural Causes she applies this idea to medicine, the wellness industry and cancer treatment when undue optimism detracts from realistic appraisals of health and illness. She argues that from the perspective of wellness and mindfulness whereby we have control over our bodies, every death is a suicide. The argument goes that if we control our bodies with our minds and we die, it must mean that our minds wanted us to die! Well, there ya go. I guess mindfulness has its limits. Ehrenreich is not too keen on negative thinking either though. She argues for critical thinking, not positive or negative thinking. Fair enough.

The book that is most relevant to cancer is one that I quoted from in my last post. It’s called The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (2010) by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It’s a sweeping analysis of cancer detection and treatment over the past few centuries. Of course, most of the cancer action has occurred over the past few decades and many of the protagonists in the book are still alive. Mukherjee interviewed many of them for his book, bringing to life the stories he tells about the development of cancer treatment drugs and protocols. I had no idea that there was such a divide between clinicians and scientists in the cancer world. Biologists and other scientists, Mukherjee notes, have often been at odds over knowledge and treatment. Oncologists want to treat patients. Scientists want to know more about the disease and its genesis. What’s clear is that cancer treatment using surgery, radiation and chemotherapy has moved ahead in leaps and bounds in the last thirty years. ‘Success’ in treatment, often measured in months of survival, has grown exponentially over the last three decades. Drugs called ‘biologics’ are increasingly used to target specific types of cancers in certain types of people. In other words, cancer treatments are becoming more individualized, more targeted. This is all very encouraging, especially for someone like me who has cancer. However, there are problems and the sky ahead is not without clouds.

That’s the topic of my next post. This one’s already long enough. Stay tuned.

When Death Comes Calling

Don’t worry. I haven’t gone completely morbid or so focussed on death I’m forgetting how to live. However, I’ve been fascinated my whole career on the overwhelming but often covert death denial we have built into so many of our institutions and which is at the core of much of our morality.

That’s one reason I was amused, yes, amused, when I came across this YouTube video of a long retired philosopher who in his 97th year of life, after a career writing about death and dying in an abstract sense often poo-pooing our personal fear of dying, come around and admit that he was scared. He was scared of dying. He’s dead now, but in this video we get a pretty good sense of what he was going through in the last few weeks of his life. It’s not about cancer. I figured I’d give you a bit of a break from that for one blog post.

So, Herbert Fingarette, author, teacher, husband of 70 years to the same woman (who died seven years earlier), devoted rationalist and philosopher (Stoic I expect), writes about death and dying in an almost flippant manner, virtually sniggering at the weakness of being fearful of death. Then, he’s ninety-seven years old and on his way out. He knows that, and now he’s scared. He still has time to be scared. His question is: “What is the meaning of all of this?” Well, that’s a legitimate question, one that Tolstoy asked himself about his life and work as he lay dying. Truth is, there is no meaning. No cosmic meaning that’s for sure.

I also wrote some (no books, mind you) about death and death denial from sociological, psychosocial, and anthropological points of view mainly through the work of Ernest Becker, the author of several books, the last one being entitled Escape from Evil. I do a detailed review of Escape from Evil in the early days of this blog. You can do a search for several posts on Becker by using the ‘search’ function on the right scrolling menu of this blog. Here’s an example:https://rogerjgalbert.com/2017/11/

One of my favourite BBC documentary presenters is Brian Cox who is an astrophysicist and has a beautifully produced series of documentaries on the cosmos, entropy, life and death. For him, everything, every structure comes into being using materials in the environment, grows, matures, then decays into its constituent parts and dies. Ocean floors are pushed up into mountains, sharp at first then eroded finally into plains and flatlands. Galaxies come and go. The whole universe is destined to die. For us, following Ernest Becker, death and disease are the twin evils of our world. Of course, we need death because we usually eat dead things. We need death to live. It’s when our own lives are at stake that things go messy in our heads. We don’t mind death at all and we’re quite willing to inflict it on anything we wish to shove down our gullets or we think might be a threat to our continued existence. The movies these days are full of death and destruction, but it’s always of the good kind, when threats to our existence are defeated. It’s a lot more complicated than I’m portraying it here. There’s a lot more explanation in the archives of this blog.

We don’t mind killing things, other animals, including humans. Some of us glory in the idea. As Becker points out, war is a venue for the creation of heroes. Some people trophy hunt to show how tough they are. So, it’s not death that bothers us so much, it’s death with insignificance.

I have no evidence of this, but it strikes me that most of us don’t think about death and dying on a regular basis, we have way too many other things to think about, like where the next rent payment is coming from or how can I confront my cheating husband or wife, or whether to get a latté or mocha on the way to work. Decisions, decisions. Way too many to be meditating on death. It’s true, the closer we get to dying the more immediate the threat, the more we sit up and take notice. Some of us deny the terminality of our own lives until our kidneys stop working in the last few hours of life. Some of us, if not most of us, push the thought of death and dying so deeply into our subconsciousness that it barely has time to surface even at the moment of death. “What, I’m dying? Nah, must be a mistake! Check my numbers again.”

Right now, I’m trying to conjure up my last moments on earth. It’s not coming easily. Sometimes I get scared, but mostly I’m curious about the process. I’ve been thinking of talking to a death doula to see how they approach coaching someone who’s dying. See, I can still intellectualize dying, but before I know it, I’ll be face to face with it and no denial will be possible anymore. Will I be like Herbert? I don’t think anyone of us knows for sure how it’s all going to do down. I certainly don’t, and it’s the uncertainty that is probably the most frightening thing of all.

The Unrelenting Presence.

Carolyn and I have just finished reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. The author, an oncologist and Renaissance man, who won a Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction for this work in 2011, masterfully addresses the war on cancer over the past few centuries or so, but with a special focus on more recent events and ‘successes’ relating to specific cancers and new treatments. Cancer, as the books so often argue, is not one disease but lots of different diseases. They all have one thing in common, though: pathological mitosis.

I’m not going to review the book today. I will, though, sometime soon. I’m kind of bummed out right now and not really in the mood to write a long blog post. I took my chemo meds again today. That’s always a fun time, but I’m still confused about just what accounts for how I’m feeling. Sometimes we call these feelings ‘symptoms’ but I don’t like that word much. I’m not sure why. For instance, this afternoon I felt exhausted, and lightheaded, somewhat dizzy too so I went to bed for a nap. As I lay there my body was tingling all over. Is that a feeling or a symptom? If it’s a symptom, is it a symptom of my myeloma, the chemo meds or something else? It’s still tingly, but not as intensively as this afternoon.

I’m bummed, but I should be celebrating, I guess. I had a five minute telehealth conference with my Victoria-based oncologist yesterday morning that’s left me feeling a little empty. For one thing, although he called me by name when we made screen connection (It’s like Skype on steroids), he was not prepared in the slightest for the interview. He asked me how I was doing on a chemo cocktail he had withdrawn me from a few weeks ago. Then he asked me what he could do for me. Well, shit. He then got so focussed on the computer screen he was looking at with my charts all over it that I might as well have not been there. So, I asked him about my lab results. Yes, he said, everything is going very well. The drugs are working. Reason to celebrate, right? Yes, I suppose, but then he says that I had better get used to the shitty quality of life I have because that’s my future. Even if I go into remission. Well, slap me in the back of the head! It wasn’t that long ago that he sat before me and told me I’d regain some good quality of life in remission. Maybe he was having a bad day. Now I was having a bad day too. I felt that this guy needs a talking to about compassion. He rebuffed any attempt I made at personal conversation. He was cold and completely detached. Maybe he was having a bad day but maybe not. Maybe he’s like this most of the time. Then I thought, maybe my expectations are too high. Maybe I should think of him as a consultant, more than as a doctor treating me like my GP would. After all, I see him for five minutes every four months. So, whatever, I’m still bummed out. Distractions like writing, reading, and watching YouTube videos are good for me, but I can’t be distracted a hundred percent of the time. Any break, any crack in my distractions and the dark light of myeloma reminds me in no uncertain terms of my mortality.

Mukherjee is so informative. I learned a lot reading his book. I’m also reading a book on Medieval medicine and even a thousand years ago, ‘doctors’ recognized cancer for the killer that it is, but they looked for the causes in ‘black bile’ and other humours gone bad. Towards the end of his book Mukherjee gets real for me. It’s all fine and dandy to ‘know’ about cancer, to study it, to follow developments in its treatment, but now, cancer has me up close with its unrelenting presence. I leave you with two quotations from Mukherjee’s book. I am these quotations.

“The poet Jason Shinder wrote, “Cancer is a tremendous opportunity to have your face pressed right up against the glass of your mortality.” But what patients see through the glass is not a world outside cancer, but a world taken over by it—cancer reflected endlessly around them like a hall of mirrors.” (from “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee)

AND…

“Cancer is not a concentration camp, but it shares the quality of annihilation: it negates the possibility of life outside and beyond itself; it subsumes all living. The daily life of a patient becomes so intensely preoccupied with his or her illness that the world fades away.” (from “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee)

Read the book

Enough for now. Maybe I’ll have more gumption tomorrow.

Love.

Sunday morning. The huge snowfall we had over the past few days is slowly yielding to the onslaught of warmer temperatures and steady rain. It will still be a few days before we can extricate the car from its cocoon of snow and ice but that’s fine because we can always use the truck to get around. Having two vehicles is a bit of an indulgence, but the security of a backup is important to us right now.

Every once in a while we hear a loud thump as large chunks of snow and ice break off of the load on the various metal roofs we have like a calving Alaskan glacier and crash to the deck or the ground below. Metal roofing creates a nice slick runway for ice and snow to slide off the roofs. We need to be vigilant when we walk under the eaves of the house or outbuildings for fear of getting walloped. I’m pretty safe though because I haven’t left the house in days, since my last visit to the hospital on Thursday actually. I’m having a rough time of it right now and I don’t rightly know if it’s because of the chemo or the myeloma. I know by my lab results on Monday that my hemoglobin counts are down and that means anemia is getting worse. Who knows why. I just know I’m exhausted for no goddamn good reason. I don’t mind being exhausted. Exhaustion can be a reward, actually, after a long run or a good workout. Being exhausted after sleeping all night and most of the day is not what I consider a reward.

I’m backing off my pain meds for a bit. I want to see where my baseline is. Getting the right dose of pain meds means constantly re-assessing pain levels. To be sure, pain varies a lot for me, not only in intensity but in kind. Lately I’ve experienced a dull, throbbing pain in my legs, particularly my right one. Every once in a while I get a spike of pain but that’s usually manageable. On my last visit to the hospital for my infusion of zeledronic acid, as I was sitting there in the chair with tubes sticking out of me, I got a cramp in my left side. I sometimes get cramps in my left side as an artifact of the surgery I had in 2002 to remove my left kidney. In any case, the nurses got very attentive all of a sudden as I writhed in my chair trying to find a comfortable position. They thought I was having a heart attack or something. It took me a while to assure them that it was just a cramp and not to worry. Pain is such a weird thing. I’ve had chronic pain for a couple of decades related to low levels of vitamin B12. Now, I have a hard time distinguishing between the chronic pain of the past few years and the new pain created by my myeloma. Not that it’s important, I guess, but doctors do want to know what kind of pain I’m having. I get pretty frustrated at times because I don’t know what’s causing my pain. It might be arthritis or degenerative disks too, but they don’t want to know about that pain. They want to know about pain associated with the myeloma. It’s not a simple thing to tell the difference. It’s funny: my orthopaedic surgeon in Campbell River asked me about pain in my right leg. I told him, yes, I have pain in my right leg, along my femur and even below the knee. Well, he said, that’s odd because your lytic lesion from your myeloma is at the distal end of your femur. Isn’t that where the pain is? Well, yes, but, but…

So, dealing with the symptoms of myeloma is one thing, explaining how I’m feeling is another thing entirely.

Some people love winter. They’re off skiing, snowshoeing, and doing other wintery stuff. I’m not a big fan. I’m a big fan of summer. You’ll never catch me complaining about how hot it is. Winter to me means short hours of daylight and long rainy nights. I am fortunate, though, in that we have a beautiful home to hunker down in and I have Carolyn as my caregiver. There’s always a hot cup of coffee ready for me in the morning and tea during the day. It’s clear I’m not the best of company a lot of the time but Carolyn is always there. I don’t know what people do if they don’t have community, family, and love, and find out later in life that they have incurable cancer. I’m feeling good knowing that I’m not on this road alone. Of course, dying is a lonely affair. You shouldn’t expect to have people accompany you into the grave like the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang Di, but having them along as companions until the last moments of life is as good as it gets in my books.

Calm down!

The piece of music posted here below came to my attention when one of my FB buddies, Ed Brooks, posted a link to it. It’s available on YouTube along with a lot of other fabulous and calming music by Arvo Pärt and others.

Yesterday was an especially challenging day for me and I was right bent out of shape because I felt so helpless and weak, totally exhausted, not being able to help Carolyn with the snow shovelling and needing to go to the hospital. At the end of the day yesterday I listened to this piece of music and it almost brought me to tears. I listened to it again as I lay in bed getting ready to fall asleep and it was like a lullaby. I actually fell asleep listening to it. I woke up later and played it again.

Today, I’m better. We went to the lab this morning for more bloodwork and that was fine. It’s bloody cold in Cumberland this morning and we have another snow warning in the forecast. Whatever. We can use the truck to get around until the end of next week. We were supposed to take it in Tuesday to get some body work on it, but Carolyn called the autobody shop and changed the appointment until Friday. I hope that delay will allow us to get the car out of the yard or at least at the bottom of our fifty metre driveway.

We see my Victoria based oncologist, Adrian Yee, on Tuesday via teleconference from a ‘studio’ at the Comox Valley hospital. Remote examination! At least I get to talk to him and discuss my progress. Like I said, I’m feeling better. I’ll know I’m really better when I can get down to my shop or studio and finish a painting or carve some wood. Today I’ll do some drawing. That’s a start, at least.

Have a good day all of you and count your blessings!

Fuck cancer!

Fuck Cancer mugs

[WARNING: this post contains references to visualizations some might consider offensive, and I regress to being a potty-mouth. Be forewarned.]

I’m not feeling particularly creative, effusive or positive today. In fact, I’m feeling hard done by, angry and unhappy. Hence the title of this post. In fact, I’m feeling fucking crappy, as crappy as ever, or even more so, because for the last three weeks or so I’ve had a cold to compound the effects of my myeloma and the chemo meds I’m taking. Most of the time all I’ve been able to do is sleep, or stare out the windows.

We just came back from the hospital an hour or so ago. Carolyn had to shovel huge piles of snow blocking our driveway and covering our truck just to get us there. Carolyn is my warrior! At the hospital, I got an injection of bortezomib (a proteasome inhibitor) into my abdomen and an infusion of zoledronic acid (a bone strengthening drug that has not-so-fun consequences for my kidney). They gave me 4 grams of zoledronic acid rather than the 3.5 I got last time. I have no idea why. They have a complex formula for deciding how much to give me including my weight and my lab results. Now, I’m just waiting for the chemo meds to kick the shit out of me as they surely will. At least dexamethasone gives me a bit of a boost of energy allowing me to carve a few words onto this ‘page’ out of my weary brain. The sculpture I’m carving I don’t feel is particularly elegant or fine, but my tools are dull so it’s what you get.

Do you like the mugs? Carolyn had them made by a very talented potter in the Valley who had previously made a set of mugs we bought from her that resemble these a lot except for the swear words.

Yeah, fuck cancer! I’m so sick and tired of being sick and tired! And now, to compound my shit, I have to worry about peripheral neuropathy. [I have complained about this before, but read about it again for fun.] I’ve had peripheral neuropathy for some time, many years actually. Peripheral neuropathy (PN) is a condition where the peripheral body parts, arms and legs to be precise, get to feeling numb, painful, and full of weird sensations like having bugs crawling all over them (something I’m feeling a lot at the moment). One of the side effects of the cocktail of chemo meds I’m taking is peripheral neuropathy. Left untreated it can lead to immobility, loss of sensation and life in a wheelchair. This is one of the nasty side effects of my meds, one that has forced a friend of mine who also has myeloma off this particular cocktail that’s often referred to as CyBorD. I’ve written about this before. I have to keep a close watch to determine whether or not the symptoms of PN are getting worse or not. It’s just one more thing to keep my mind occupied with my illness. Fuck cancer!

Did I say Fuck Cancer? Right, I did. And I mean it. I’m not sure what else I would prefer to die from, but cancer is not the companion I would have wished for on my way to the crematorium. Maybe a six-ton weight falling from the sky onto my head would be preferable, I don’t know. I have no way to assess the quality of various means of dying nor the means of communicating the results of any research I might do on the subject to you after the fact.

I may have already written about this…remember that brain fog is a classic side effect of anemia and myeloma, repetitiousness and forgetfulness probably are too… I read somewhere that an artist was asked if he wanted to be cremated or buried after he died. Instead of answering as you or I might he replied: “Surprise me!” Yeah, that’s the way I feel about it. I won’t be around to give a shit one way or another, but I have said I want to be cremated. I have had too many nasty dreams about being buried to want that as an option. Now, though, I’m starting to have moments when I visualize the crematorium attendant pushing my body into the furnace and my skin starting to cook like a pig on a spit as the fire gets hotter and hotter. I know, it’s gross and morbid. Sorry for bringing it up.

So, to change the subject, I’ve had a few moments of lucidity lately between bouts of feeling really nasty because of this cold, and I’m reading (in bed) about my ancestors here in Canada. My family goes back a long way as immigrants to Canada, back to early in the 18th Century actually on both my maternal and paternal sides. I’m finding out that my Norman ancestors called LeGuerrier (the warrior in French) were very likely actual warriors. A thousand years ago the Normans were highly trained and fierce warriors. They not only conquered England in 1066, but (I’ve just read) also became rulers in Sicily after they were invited there to help deal with an enemy. According to a book I’m reading they were often called on as mercenaries. One of the Norman rulers in Sicily was called Roger. His son Roger II took over after Roger I died and he was not known for his tender generosity. Roger that! In any case, the first Leguerrier in Canada can be traced back to 1748. He came earlier than that, but that date is the first mention of him in ‘the books’. He died a fairly old man. Infant mortality was very common then but so was death at any age. From what I’ve been reading living to reproductive age almost seems to have been the exception rather than the rule. These days I’m thinking about my ancestors, their lives and their deaths, and my place in the lineage. My grandpa Leguerrier died at the age of 76 in 1975 from stomach cancer if I remember correctly. My father died in 2007 at 96 years of age. We all come and go. Some of us live longer that others of the same generation but in the case of my grandpa Leguerrier and my father who were only fourteen years apart in age, I think I prefer to follow my grandpa’s lead because my father died after years of very poor quality of life, unable to feed himself because his hands were so distorted by arthritis. He was deaf, had been for years, and he was either in bed or in a wheelchair. To make matters worse, my mother had severe dementia and didn’t even recognize him on his deathbed. She was heard to point to him and say: “Who is that old man in the bed there anyway?” My mother died two years ago at 94 years of age. I can’t imagine she knew she was dying at the time. I’m not sure she knew that she was alive. Hey, wait a minute…

Looking in the Mirror.

When I look in the mirror I see an old man. I don’t see an old man with cancer. I just see an old man with a white beard, not much hair, and wrinkly skin. Melanoma (skin cancer) often leaves visible, sometimes unsightly and disfiguring lesions. I don’t have melanoma, although my father did. No, I have myeloma (bone marrow cancer) and its damage is all done on the inside, invisibly. So, I guess I can keep expecting people who see me say: “Wow, you’re looking good!” I guess I DO look good! Now, the last thing I want is to discourage people from telling me how good I look, so keep it up! However, the invisibility of my condition is deceiving. I remember when I was a kid my friends and I used to work on our cars. That was still possible when I was a kid. Often we’d stand around looking into the engine compartment (often of my 1956 Pontiac four-door hardtop) wondering what could possibly be wrong as if just staring at the engine would give us some kind of clue. The engine was always sparkly clean and there was nothing obviously gone awry. If I had money by some quirk of circumstance I might take the car to a mechanic. If not, we might borrow my dad’s tools and start taking things apart. That usually ended up badly. Yes, the most undesirable conditions in life are often on the inside, impossible to see or diagnose by just looking at the person or car in question. I find it best to consult mechanics when our car shows signs of disfunction. I find it best to consult medical specialists for treatment related to my body. I guess I could try to treat myself using any number of the ‘cures’ available on Dr. Google, but I would like to live a while longer, thanks. Besides, I’m not that desperate.

Speaking of medical specialists, we saw my local oncologist today. I see him every five weeks. The result of our visit is that I will carry on with a second course of chemotherapy. We’ll evaluate how well it went in five weeks. My first course of treatment seems to have gone as well as could be expected. The little excavator in my bone marrow is slowly running out of gas and my red blood cell garden is growing again. I’m still exhausted and that won’t change for some time yet, but things are certainly going in the right direction for now. I think I just might be a model patient. So, where does this all leave me?

Well, I may be on my way towards remission. If and when I do go into remission, and that’s by no means guaranteed at this point, that would buy me some time. By that I mean that I may have a few years more to live, though inevitably, either the myeloma will kill me or some other condition will. I won’t be walking away from this situation, brush the dust from my sleeves and carry on. No, I’m on a one way street. So are you, of course, but I can see that damned barrier at the end of the street. I’m hoping that you’re still far enough away from it that you can live in blissful denial for a while longer. I don’t have that luxury. So now what do I do with my life?

That question came up in a recent Facebook thread, albeit expressed in a different way, but with the same effect, I believe. The question comes down to this: If you knew that you had a given amount of time left to live (six months, two years, whatever), what would you do with your time? Would you to be seized by an overwhelming sense of urgency? Would you be determined to cram as much activity and experience into your remaining time as possible? Or would you curl up in a fetal position in a corner of your bedroom quivering and whimpering while you await your inevitable demise? If you have the money and the energy you might want to get out there and travel the world. If you have a spouse, that might complicate things more or less because they may not want the same things you do and may not want to get caught up in your sense of urgency. The last thing you need when facing terminal cancer is marital discord. I think there’s a lot to be said for just carrying on with life as before.

If you have the energy and the money then good on ya. If you travelled a lot before your diagnosis then travel after. Your eventual energy deficits will tell you when to stop. If you were fairly sedentary, more into being at home and puttering around the yard, then that would be something you might want to continue doing. The stress of travel may not be that good for you. Looking around the Cancer Centre at the North Island Hospital this morning I didn’t see a lot of people with obvious enough vigour to engage in a lot of physical activity. In any case, back to my situation.

My exhaustion prevents me from doing much in the way of physical activity. If I do go for a walk I pay for it later. Travelling is impossible. At one point I thought it might be possible, say, to take a direct flight to Puerto Vallarta back and forth from Comox, but there are a number of contingencies that make that next to impossible that have more to do with arthritis and disk degeneration than cancer. Besides, I take chemo drugs once a week orally but also by injection at the hospital. For three or four days after I take my meds I feel crappy, really crappy so the chances of enjoying myself on a beach somewhere are slim to none.

So what do I want to do, and what do I actually do? Well, I want to work on our canoe, finish some paintings, do odd jobs around the property and visit family and friends in Vancouver and further afield. What I actually do is sit and lie down a lot. As I sit and lie down, I read, and sometimes I even write. At the moment I’m reading social history around the Middle Ages and doing a bit of research on my family roots in Normandy. That’s something I would have done anyway, but I do miss working in my shop and studio and going for long walks with Carolyn and our imaginary dog. My oncologist thinks I will regain my energy, at least as much as an old man can expect. If so, that would be great. I’d love to get back to canoeing, camping and puttering.

When I get closer to dying I will know it, and I expect I will have time to think about it, but there really isn’t much thinking that is productive about dying, at least not for me. I’ll know when it’s time for palliative care. I don’t want to live as long as the oncologists might want to keep me alive. I’ll make the decision when the time comes. I don’t think it will be a really hard decision. I know that beginnings are impossible without endings. My ending is a lot closer now than my beginning! That’s fine. Frankly, I’m much more concerned with my family than I am with myself. They are the ones left behind to mourn. But both of my parents are dead and we got on with life after their deaths. My family will do the same when I’m gone. That’s what we do as humans. Like it or not, accept it or not, rage against it or cower in a dark corner, the end result is the same. Don’t sweat it.

Welcome to CancerLand* AND Happy Birthday to me!

Well, another festive season is in the books. This one was no different than many in the past with family, food, and drink (in moderation, of course) along with the requisite tree and lights. This year, however, the family arrived on the weekend prior to Christmas and stayed much longer than usual. That’s because our daughters, their husbands and children (one of our daughters carries the full responsibility for the production of our three grandchildren) wanted to stick around to spend some time with us. I love that they wanted to be with their sick old dad. They are such a delight to have around and I was very sad to see them go back home to Vancouver.

Wow, has my life ever changed over the past few months. I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in early October, 2019, and since then I’ve been brought slowly yet inexorably into CancerLand. There’s no doubt that I had multiple myeloma long before the official diagnosis. The symptoms were clear in hindsight. It’s probably been well over five years. But it’s been only since November, really, that I’ve gotten my passport to CancerLand. I’m fully a resident now, brought into the institutional fold. That means frequent visits to the lab and to the hospital with calls to oncology nurses interspersed. I mean, I have a diagnosis! I’m legit! I have my badge and my pass to the ER.ª  I’m not just another whiny patient going to see my doctor to complain about being tired. I’m a CANCER PATIENT!

Speaking of being a cancer patient, I’ve now completed my first course of chemotherapy. It lasted about a month. My stomach is bruised from subcutaneous injections of bortozemib and my brain is bruised by weekly oral doses of cyclophosphamide and dexamethasone as well as zoledronic acid infusions once a month. I’m subject to a true cocktail of poison. Oh well. I used to drink more scotch than was probably good for me on occasion and people sometimes refer to alcohol as poison so, there ya go. Poison for poison.

Now we wait. We wait for the results of lab tests on Monday and what the oncologist will tell us on Wednesday based on those results. Will I be continuing with this same cocktail? Are the numbers going in the right direction? Can I realistically expect remission in the next few months? What? What? What?

Tomorrow is my seventy-third birthday. That means I start working on my seventy-fourth year tomorrow. For a guy who thought at twenty years old that he’d never live to be twenty-six, I’ve done pretty well. I can’t complain about my life. I must say, though, that there are a few things I might do differently if I had to do them over again, but I don’t dwell on those things anymore. I don’t have time. I didn’t have time when I was twenty-six either, but I didn’t know that back then. Time has passed so quickly, it’s frightening. If I had been able to really understand when I was twenty years old how in the blink of an eye I would be seventy-three I might have taken some things more seriously and dismissed other things as unimportant. But that’s the way it goes. There may be some twenty year olds out there who understand how fleeting life is, but I haven’t met them. Trying to convince them of that fact is not going to be very fruitful so meh…

I haven’t put together a New Year’s resolution. Should I? Maybe I can resolve to stay alive this year. Is that good enough? I’ve realized that in my state of being, committing to a long-term project to save the world is probably overly optimistic, but a resolution to stay alive in 2020 is reasonable, I think. I just might be able to see it through too. Wish me luck!

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*”Welcome to Cancerland.” (from “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” by Barbara Ehrenreich). The title of this post is taken from this book. Ehrenreich uses this title as an introduction to the way she became medicalized after having been diagnosed with breast cancer. Start reading it for free: http://a.co/3h6SgyT

ª I do have a pass to the ER. I have a letter of introduction to the ER staff from the BC Cancer Centre telling them that if I show up to the ER they have a number of tests to do stat! If my temperature goes over 38˚ C, I need to get myself to the hospital ER for a possible antibiotic infusion. An elevated temperature indicates an infection of some kind, something I don’t need right now.