Yes, interesting couple of days. I’m on a dex high right now after taking my week’s worth of chemo meds yesterday. Good time to write. For those of you who have been reading my blog, you’ll know that dex (dexamethasone) gets me stoned like I’m on twenty cups of good medium coffee. I get the shakes with it too. It’s a little difficult to keep my fingers on the right keys on my laptop. Still, it works for me.
Wow, how my life has changed in just a few months since my diagnosis. Again, for those of you who have been following me along over the past few months you’ll know that my diagnosis just confirmed for us that I was pretty sick for a long time, unable to do things I so enjoyed like drawing, printmaking, going out, working on non-profit boards including the board of the Cumberland Museum and Archives. The Museum Board is a great board and I’m hoping to get back to active involvement in a reasonable time, but to be realistic, it probably won’t be for a while yet. I need to figure out lots of things, including how much I can back off my pain meds and still be okay.
Because oncologists deal with organic disease, they don’t deal well with pain, which, as I’ve noted often in my past blog posts, is invisible and difficult to diagnose. I think that if doctors have themselves been touched by pain issues, either themselves or members of their families, they may have a better understanding of what people in pain experience. My orthopaedic surgeon came right out and told me that Western medicine isn’t good with pain.
No wonder so many people turn to alternatives to deal with pain, physical or psychic, even though there is no science behind their use. Simply, put all forms of medicine, effective or not can’t deal with the huge, overwhelming elephant in the room: death. Medicine, by definition, is about healing the body. There is no healing death. Faced with that wall of immovability, we as individuals grasp at straws. Some of us, I daresay many of us not captured by the statistics, turn to non-medical solutions to pain management. The most turned to alternative to modern medicines of all kinds is alcohol. It’s cheap, it’s legally available, and if you don’t push the social and legal boundaries around its use, you’ll be okay. You’ll be able to avoid opprobrium and jail. Of course, there’s a lot of controversy about addiction, its sources and possible solutions to substance abuse, but the reality is that mental illness is a huge part of the equation and underlies much of the ‘problems’ we humans have in dealing with life and its many challenges.
I’m with Gabor Maté when he argues that much of mental illness is engendered by early life trauma mixed with underlying facilitating organic, physiological, even cellular level factors. There is no doubt that genetics play a role in determining quality of life as it relates to pain and suffering. Maté argues that no issue is more relevant than early childhood trauma in determining how we deal with pain in later life. I don’t know if Maté’s argument will ever win the day, but if it does, you should be able to walk into your doctor’s office and expect to be asked right off: “Tell me about what it was like for you as a child. Tell me about your mom and dad. How did you get along with them.” I’m so tempted to write up a short(ish) questionnaire to address some of the issues around parent/child relations in early life. Somebody has probably already done it, but I haven’t done enough research to figure it out and besides, I have ideas of my own to test out. In any case, back to my main point in writing this blog post.
Wednesday at 1PM, Carolyn and I went to the hospital to meet with the staff in the Palliative Symptoms Management Clinic (or something like that). We met with the nurse, Adele (not sure I ever got her family name) and Dr. Barbara Fehlau, Inc. Dr. Fehlau used to work at the clinic where my family doctor is located in Comox. Now she works full time in palliative care and pain management using whatever techniques she finds useful which she proudly notes she found travelling all over the world. She didn’t say so specifically, but she alluded to the fact that modern Western medicine is pretty good at using drugs to deal with pain issues but lousy at any other treatment protocols. She has a pain clinic where she uses a range of techniques to alleviate pain including acupuncture. She’s a very strong proponent of meditation and says she meditates for forty minutes in the early morning and another forty minutes before bedtime. I used to meditate every day and for some unfathomable reason stopped. I have opinions about meditation and other ‘mindfulness’ activities but they will have to wait to be expressed in another post. In any case, Dr. Fehlau is calm, very controlled, and I am cautiously optimistic. She has a personal history of dealing with pain and told us that she was about to get knee replacement surgery. I’ve been to the pain clinic in Nanaimo and that worked to some extent but I’m still dogged by pain. The myeloma isn’t helping of course.
Okay, so now what? Well, Dr. Fehlau told me to call her clinic and get in to see her there so she could do some interventions. Then she talked about end of life issues and asked me if I was aware of the services offered in the Valley around end of life palliative care, MAID, etcetera. I said that I did know some things but there’s always more that can be learned. I’ll get on that.
Speaking of souls, do I have a belief system? She asked me about my belief system and if I had beliefs that some people find comforting as death approaches like a fast train in the dark. I said ‘physics’, that’s my belief system if I can even say I have any kind of belief system. I was never big on ‘soul’ music. Oh, I think that we humans are extremely creative in coming up with ways of finding some sense in death and the creation of the ‘soul’ is one of those. Whatever rocks your boat, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe it’s time I explain more about my philosophy of life, but it will have to wait too, getting in line with my ideas about meditation and other ‘mindfulness’ strategies.
So, now I’m back in my bed, staring at the ceiling with the light filtering through the blinds at the head of our bed. Dr. Fehlau, knows that I’m on the death train because of the myeloma I have and she is clear that my future can be counted now in months rather than years. Pain is one thing. Strategies for making peace with life when I have very little left is another thing. And what about Carolyn, Marika and Arianne. Carolyn is the love of my life and my daughters are very near and dear to me. I need them to be involved in the process of my dying but it’s not easy. Carolyn, being the person that she is, has been thinking a lot about what it means for me to die at home. She’ll need some help, but she can speak for herself around these issues. Help is available for respite and home support. Carolyn has to think about life without me too. She’s five years younger than me so that’s an advantage right there. With some help she may even be able to continue to live where we do now if that’s what she wants. Unfortunately it’s impossible to make too many plans too far ahead, but there are preparations that, made now, will help a lot when the time comes.
I may be premature in thinking about these things, but I really can’t help myself. I need to know. Do I want to consider Medical Aid In Dying? You bet. If if comes to that. One thing though: I am now connected to some of the end of life services in the Valley through Community Home Care. That’s a new one for me. Man, there’s so much to learn about dying!
This post is already long enough but I can’t help giving you a taste of how our daily conversations go these days. They would be completely incomprehensible to people not ‘informed’. So here is a typical early morning talk. Me and Carolyn.
Carolyn: How did you sleep?
Me: Well, last night Ben rocked me to sleep while looking after the issues around my injection site. I slept from 11:30 until 6:30 straight.
Carolyn: That’s great! So you talked about changing your hydro routine. What do you want to do about that?
Me: I’m thinking of taking two breakthroughs this morning then another two around mid-afternoon while I wait for Dr. Fehlau’s 4.5 prescription to come in. That should keep me going until eight when I can take a six slow-release. The dex is kicking in. Sleep tonight could be a challenge. The cyclo will slam me down though, counterbalancing the dex. The Duc has to do its work too. I’ll see about going poo earlier in the evening so that I don’t have to get up during the night. Maybe Ben can come help me sleep too. We’ll see.
[Carolyn is off this morning to pick up a prescription for me and to take care of some Museum business. We talk about the Museum a lot too and about other things. Come to think of it, I think some of those conversations would also be incomprehensible to the ‘uninformed.’]
See ya later.
2 thoughts on “31 Interesting Couple of Days”
Roger, it breaks my heart to think about the world without you in it. I still think of you as, first, a giant laugh. Giant. Bigger than life–like my dad and his brothers were–any one of the 4 could fill the room. Even oaks have a lifespan, though, and it is the way of all things to come together and to fall apart. Knitting and unraveling.
And drink deeply of all that is beautiful, loving, moving, meaningful in this time in-between whatever we were before, and whatever we will be after.
A long time ago I learned how to dissolve the boundaries of “me” and “not me”, and to experience, for a time, my continuity with the rest of the life force. Skin is actually kind of an arbitrary boundary. There are, I now know (thank you, David Suzuki) myriads of life forms within my body, in and on my skin. I am an ecosystem complete as far as they are concerned; when my body decays it will be a kind of micro-apocalypse. And all if what I carry around will join another ecological niche, and another, and another. As the dinosaurs could tell us, everything eventually changes and yet the life force is so incredibly strong that it re-invents it’s carriers again and again. Even if we destroy it all, life will again emerge from the ooze–this will take a long time in human reckoning, but maybe a blink of cosmic time. I found this kind of meditation immensely comforting. Like listening to the salmon at night. Going to the forest or the ocean helps. It’s a kind of truth-telling: everything really is connected. We are part of something eternal.
So my meaning system is not physics (that’s too impersonal for me) but biology, and I wrap that up in Christian mythology and ritual because doing so allows me to suspend disbelief and interact with it. Like talking to my big invisible friend. That part has come and gone and come back in my life; but the biological truth, and the practice of going to the woods and dissolving my boundaries to take in and let go of life energy sustained me in-between.
Monika has cancer. It’s just at the beginning of our journey, and to tell you the truth it appears that it’s going to be a relatively easy on. Looks like stage 1 rectal cancer, operable and not spread. Still, it has sharpened our perspective, woken me up in the wee hours, throwing me back and forth between “omg I can’t believe how much I love you;” and “omg you are driving me crazy. Why am I the only one worrying about this?”
Love to you two.
Thanks for this, Serena. Truth be told, biology for me is physics writ larger. I share your view of our place in the universe along with every other living organism present and future. The stuff that makes us has been around for a long time and will exist long after I am diffused into the universe. Cremation kind of subverts the ‘natural’ process of my body serving as lunch for the worms, but the carbon that ensues as a result of cremation and the molecules that escape into the air that were a part of me will carry on, moving in and out of living organisms (or not).
So sorry to hear about Monika. If it’s operable, that’s great although I cringe at the thought of anyone getting close to my rectum with a scalpel! Give Monika a big hug for me. Love you two too.
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