Be a Blogger They Said!

I don’t know how many times I sat down with my computer with the intention of writing this blog post. It’s frustrating no end. I write a few words then my brain just clams up not even allowing a single word license to start a sentence.

I guess after over five hundred blog posts, I can legitimately call myself a blogger. However, right now I’m feeling that my blogging mojo is taking a bit of a vacation. The last time I wrote anything on this blog was on April 11th, 2021. It was always my objective to produce a blog post a week. I was particularly successful in that after my myeloma diagnosis in October, 2019. Lately my resolve has been ground down by the utter tedium of my biweekly Daratumumab infusions and the overwhelming fatigue that are side effects of chemo meds. I can blame my chemo meds for my lack of productivity. I think that’s legitimate. But it’s frustrating none the less. Well, I can’t write worth a damn but I can sleep, that’s for sure.

Sleep! Wow, do I ever get a lot of sleep. It’s not unusual for me to sleep for 12 hours, say from 8 PM until 7 AM. Moreover, I’ll often nap sitting in my chair or even crash in bed for an hour or two during the day. Take today for example. I slept soundly last night with just one pee stop, then woke up again around six o’clock needing to pee I thought but no, I didn’t pee. I went right back to sleep and woke up at 8:28, two minutes before my med alarm. I usually get up by 7:30 at the latest, but not this morning. I actually woke up with a start, confused by the dream I had just had, a dream with my bedroom appearing as a recurring elements.

Over the past few days I’ve dreamt every night, and I’ve been able to recall my dreams. They always start with me in bed in the bedroom, confused by the room, where it is, and how to get out of it. I didn’t have a weird dream last night, but the night before, I dreamed that I woke up but it was so dark, I had no idea where I was. So, what to do? Slowly I got out of bed feeling around for a wall. I felt around tentatively for some time before I touched a wall and started off to the right feeling for something, anything familiar. I found nothing for some time then I felt what could have been the closet doors. I’d gone too far! So I backed down the wall feeling carefully for the door. Finally I found the door and opened it! And found myself just outside the bedroom by the washroom. That’s when I woke up, I think. On another night I dreamed that I was sleeping in the bedroom but that I had to wake up to go pee. This time I found the door easily enough, went out to have a pee, then leaving the bathroom I quickly realized that I was not in our house and that this place was totally unfamiliar to me. I immediately thought “Alice in Wonderland.” And that was about it just as I woke up, thankfully in my own bed and in my own bedroom.

The thing is that in these recurring dreams over the past week or so, I always woke up feeling trapped in a sense, at least trapped in the sense that I couldn’t find a way out of the bedroom, or if I found my way out of the bedroom, it wasn’t always in a familiar place.

Of course I immediately tried a little self diagnosis. The feeling of being trapped or unable to find a familiar place I felt might be analogous to the way I feel sometimes about my cancer. It’s a dark place with nothing familiar about it. Carolyn came to that conclusion too as she observed me going in and out of the hospital, taking chemo meds and being exhausted all the time. She psychoanalyzed me and came to these conclusions maybe even before I did!

The cancer I have is obviously unfamiliar ground, but it’s just a preliminary to death and dying. Even in my waking life I feel trapped by my cancer. There’s no way out of it. Or rather there’s just one way out of it because it is incurable. The way I see it, when I die I fall into a box with no past, no present, and no future. It’s a place, really, where even I don’t exist. I is a character that is only relevant in life and has no reality in death. Dying, then, is a process of the I fading away into nothingness.

This is enough for today. I’ve been sweating buckets just getting these few words out. I’ll try to get another post out in a week. I hope that by then I don’t still have a plug in the part of my brain that writes!

I want my goddamned life back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

# 80 Fun and Games with Daratumumab

It’s been almost a month since my last post. It’s not that my life has been uneventful and I have nothing to write about. On the contrary, my life over the past month has been just plain weird. Living with chemo is by definition weird, but this month has proven to me just how weird it can get. Just living it has been weird enough. Writing about it near impossible until now.

I was probably optimistic in my last post about the effectiveness of Daratumumab as an addition to the usual chemo cocktail that is given to myeloma patients upon an initial diagnosis. I’m quite confident that Dara had a huge effect on my blood serum as evidenced by my lab results, which are anything but spectacular in the about face changes that have occurred over the past month in reducing the myeloma proteins in my blood. But at what cost?

One thing I have quickly learned is that life in chemotherapy is completely unpredictable. Get used to a particular effect of the drugs and it’s sure to change the following week. So over the past month I’ve had to go to emergency at the local hospital a couple of times for bizarre spikes in my temperature. Normal body temperature is an average 37˚ Celsius or 98.6˚ Fahrenheit. My temperature is normally around 36.5˚C. We all have some variation in our body temperature depending on what we’re doing and what the environmental conditions are that we experience. All the instruction literature we get as chemo patients tells us that if our temperature goes up to 38˚C that we should immediately get ourselves to the hospital. Well, that happened one day early in the month and we dutifully got to the hospital.

Well, we went unprepared. How would we know? I was not equipped to spend three hours in the hospital never mind three days. I had no change of clothes, no toiletries and nothing to drink or eat. These were all things that I would need. I was upset because my phone was running out of power and I had no way of recharging it. I asked a nurse if there was anyway of charging it. She took it away with the promise of charging it. I inquired about it a few hours later and she had trouble finding it to start with and it had not been recharged at all. I called home and Carolyn sent up some much needed supplied including a phone charger. Still no changes of clothes however and no toiletries.

Initially I was put on a gurney then transferred to a bed in an isolation room because the staff knew that I had myeloma and hence über sensitive to infection. I was immediately hooked up to a whole set of monitoring equipment and an IV was used to pump me full of antibiotics. The fear was that I would go septic and that’s a death sentence. I slept fitfully the first night and broke out in a cold sweat every once in a while. I had a very local cellulite infection in my lower right leg but that was discounted as the source of my fever. Apparently the cellulite was coincidental.

Later that day I was moved to another room in the emergency ward right at the back of the ward with nobody around. It was quiet and they had by then removed all the wires that connected me to the monitoring equipment although the IV was left in place. I got something to eat. Hospital food is a standing joke, but it was no joke for me. I wasn’t expecting gourmet restaurant dining, but I didn’t know they could do that with eggs. I was hungry enough to force it down but a steady diet of that food would be a great weight loss plan.

Thankfully I was transferred to another ward on the third floor later that afternoon. The food didn’t improve but the surroundings sure did. I had a large room with an adjoining bathroom. I asked for toiletries and was provided with a toothbrush and toothpaste as well as a towel. My GP came to see me both while I was in emergency as well as when I was in D3 the ward I to which I was transferred from emergency. I was in the ward just a day and a half. My temperature had returned to normal by then. My GP informed me that I had a non-specific infection. They couldn’t determine why my temperature had risen as it did. The docs don’t like it when they can’t pinpoint the source of an infection. I figured that it must be an artefact of the chemo meds or my myeloma. The literature on my meds states clearly that fever can be a side effect of the drugs. That’s what I’m going with. As an aside, Carolyn just took my temperature and it was 35.4˚C. It has been as high as 38.3˚; clearly, it’s all over the place.

My GP sent me home, thankfully, the third day I was there. They couldn’t determine any cause of my fever so there was no point in keeping me in the hospital where space is at a premium. I was very happy to be going home but there was obviously something haywire somewhere so I was a bit apprehensive about it. From this day on Carolyn would take my temperature and it would fluctuate wildly but generally settle around 36.5˚C. An effect of my hospital stay is that I missed my first week of chemotherapy. We had to reschedule my program so that my chemo would start the following week on Thursday. That first few hours of chemo was a bit difficult as my body became accustomed to being assaulted by these foreign substances, especially the Daratumumab. I spent seven hours the first day and seven the next at the Cancer Care Centre at the hospital while they infused me with Daratumumab. I had a rough go of it to start with dry heaving and whatnot but it smoothed out and I have had no undue effects since.

Throughout the month my temperature fluctuated between 36.5˚C and 38˚C. It never stayed at 38˚C for any length of time so now the issue for us was when to go to the hospital and when to wait for my temperature to go down to something more normal. Well, the decision was made for me this week when on Monday I started feeling odd. My temperature was high but I was in no mood to go back to the emergency department at the hospital so we decided to wait and see. On Tuesday morning I was not feeling well at all and stayed in bed all day, something I had not previously done at all. My temperature fluctuated some during the day but was higher than normal most of the time. I noticed that my legs were sore but that was nothing new. I ‘slept’ that night but I think that unconscious would be a better description of what I experienced. On Wednesday morning early Carolyn called 911 and an ambulance came and took me to the hospital. I was effectively paralyzed from the waist down and had a high temperature.

This experience in the ER was light years different from the previous one. This time I felt respected and was treated with kindness and care. The ER doctor called for some blood and urine tests. Everything came back normal. I could stand now and take a step or two but I was very unsteady on my feet. We all decided that I should go home.

The issue that dogs us now is determining the causes of my fevers. I spoke with my local oncology GP and we decided that I would forego my Daratumumab infusion this week to see if that might make a difference to my temperature fluctuations. The jury is still out on that one. More on this in my next post which will be sooner than later.

#79. My Numbers!

This is the post I’ve been looking forward to writing for some time now. It documents a radical improvement in my myeloma situation. Now, if only I could find a way to rapidly decrease the problems and pain I get from arthritis and degenerative disk syndrome, I would almost be back to a normal life. Of course, I keep forgetting that I’m 74 years old and that I’ll never be able to do the things now that I used to do just ten years ago. But enough grousing about my limitations, it’s time to focus on some recent victories that have everything to do with my numbers.

For me, the one thing that came along with the diagnosis of multiple myeloma or bone marrow cancer was (and is) an obsession and fascination with my numbers. I wrote about this earlier in a blog post on December 17th, 2019 (https://rogerjgalbert.com/2019/12/17/access-to-medical-records/). Now is a good time to revisit my obsession with my numbers because I’ve recently had some pretty spectacular changes in some of my critical numbers. I concur with Paul Kleutghen when he writes:”We (patients and caregivers) have all become so attuned to focusing on numbers that any excursion out of the “normal” causes worries and sleepless nights.”* I generally don’t lose sleep over anything, but, like Kleutghen, I am focussed on my numbers, and I get pretty upset if my numbers are going in the wrong direction or stand outside of the reference numbers.** Of course it’s an entirely different story when my numbers go in the right direction. Numbers are important to me and you’ll see why in this post.

My numbers refers to the lab results I get from frequent visits to the Vancouver Island Heath Authority (VIHA) lab in Courtenay, or to the hospital lab. As a regular thing I get checks of my blood, my white blood cells, red blood cells, monocytes, hemoglobin, neutrophils, eosinophils, basophils, etcetera. I also get regular tests of my kidney function by analysis of creatinine in my blood serum. (I have access to all my lab results through an online VIHA service called MyHealth.). By the way, a really good source of information about reading our lab results can be found here: http://media.myelomacentral.com/wp-content/uploads/UnderstandingYourLabResults.pdf.

Once a month or so I get tested for more myeloma specific indicators in my blood serum. These are paraproteins and free light chains, both kappa and lambda. Our blood has both Free Light Chains and Heavy Chains. These are simply descriptions of the organization of proteins in our blood serum. Without getting into too much technical detail it’s important to note that some myeloma patients are kappa free light chain myeloma patients and some are lambda free light chain myeloma patients. I’m a lambda kind of guy.

So, I went on a new chemo regimen in January. It’s composed of dexamethasone, a glucocorticoid, lenalidomide, a chemo drug (they’re not sure how it works) and Daratumumab, a monoclonal antibody. If your eyes haven’t glassed over yet from all the technical jargon I invite you to have a look at the table below I got from MyHealth. It refers to my Lambda Free Light Chains from June, 2020 to February 26th, 2021. It’s a very informative table. The red numbers highlight times when the lab results indicated that I had lambda free light chains higher than the reference range, which is conveniently given on the right in the table. You can see that from September 30th, 2020 until January 27th, 2021 that the myeloma was getting more active again in my blood, a conclusion supported by the redness of the numbers therein. Not only that, but you can see that the amount of free light chains in my blood was increasing rapidly during that time from 44.2 milligrams per litre of blood on September 30th 2020 to 201 milligrams per litre of blood on January 27, 2021, but in fact had been increasing from June 30, 2020. That was a very worrying trend because the more free light chains in my blood the sicker I get.

Then I started the new course of chemotherapy and the lambda free light chains in my blood went from 201 to 11.7 mg/l a number well within the reference range. That”s why I got so excited when I saw the ‘normal’ 11.7 mg/L on February 26th, just a few days ago. In my discussion with my oncologist in Victoria, he said that we shouldn’t expect to see any positive results for two to three months and here I went from a high of 201 to 11.7 in a month! Now, that is cause for celebration. It means that the Daratumumab is my buddy and is working better than expected. Hallelujah!

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*https://www.myelomacrowd.org/living-with-abnormal-free-light-chain-ratios/

**reference numbers are a range of numbers within which numbers should fit in a ‘normal’ person. Reference numbers are where the majority of people would fit in terms of their standing on any particular measure. It’s a range because there is understandable variation from patient to patient. For example for Kappa Free Light Chains the reference range is 3.30 – 19.40 mg/L.

#78. LIFE vs My little life.

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.

#77 I Carry On.

#77 Mid-February. Snow blankets the property but thankfully it didn’t fall when I was scheduled for chemotherapy at the hospital. It looks like it is respecting my hospital schedule of appointments. My next appointment for chemo is on the 18th, Thursday. I was successful with my first dose of chemo drugs last week, but there was a glitch in my chemo dates. I developed a fever on February 2nd in the afternoon. My temperature reached 39˚C on the 3rd. One thing we are told over and over again as myeloma patients is to go to the hospital if you develop a fever at all. So, off to the hospital I went. I ended up in the Emergency department for a day or so before they wheeled me up to D3, a ward on the third floor of the hospital. Thankfully I wasn’t there long. My docs tried to figure out what caused the fever, but they weren’t successful. They pumped me full of antibiotics in case of sepsis, a very reasonable thing to do. I developed some cellulitis in my right ankle, but that did not prove to be the source of infection. It may be that the fever was a product of a random myeloma issue. One thing is certain. I do not want to repeat that hospital experience. 

What the Emergency Department interlude produced was a delay in the start of my second round of chemo. Turns out I started with the first full day of infusion on February 11th followed by a slightly shorter day on the 12th. I was supposed to start this course of therapy on February 3rd

I’m not sure what to think at the moment. My first dose of daratumumab infused was successful. I had only a slight reaction to it. That’s really good. I hope the rest of the daratumumab infusions go as well. If they do, after having weekly sessions for a couple of months, then bi-weekly ones, I end up with infusions once a month for as long as this cocktail of daratumumab, lenalinomide and dexamethasone works. I’m hoping for a long respite from active myeloma. Of course, as I’ve often repeated, myeloma is incurable, but it is treatable. Given all the challenges I face, I’m determined to make my 80th birthday, that’s six years from now. 

For the time being, my hospital visits for daratumumab infusions regulate my life. It’s really not so bad. The nurses in the Cancer Care facility at the hospital are great and make me as comfortable as possible for my infusions. One thing that may throw a wrench in the works is the very likely possibility that I will need radiation therapy on my jaw. I will have to travel to Victoria for that. I consult on the phone with a radiation oncologist tomorrow morning. I’m not sure what we can accomplish on the phone, but it’s a start. The pain in my jaw is pretty insistent. 

My family is my salvation. Carolyn is amazing and makes sure I get my meds when I need them. I take quite a cabinet full of meds twice a day. I’m hoping to modify the number of drugs I’m taking. I may be taking too much in the way of pain management. The effect of my pain meds is dizziness. In the mornings I can predict exactly when the dizziness will come on. It doesn’t bother me in the afternoon because meds have worn off by then. 

Throughout all of my myeloma life I try to keep a real connection with the action around me on the property. We’re getting a number of birds at the feeders. The jays are right into the suet and now we’ve got some woodpeckers, varied thrushes, and towhees coming to the feeder. Some flickers join the other birds competing for the suet. The smaller birds like the finches, pine siskins, goldfinches, and nut hatches focus on the black sunflower seeds and nyger seed in the feeders themselves. It’s sunny today and the snow is melting. Tilly, our Bernese/Shepherd cross loves this weather and makes nests in the snow on the deck. 

She spends way more time outside now than inside. She is a sweetie although I wish she wouldn’t bark quite as much as she does.

I’m refractory!

That means that, regrettably, I’m no longer in remission. Myeloma is back doing its destructive thing in my bones. Well, technically, myeloma never went away and as my local oncologist often repeats myeloma is incurable but treatable. As he says, we can beat it down but we can’t beat it to death.

I really wish I had more psychic energy to put together these posts. Right now it’s very difficult partly because I have low physical energy levels but I also have to deal with the reality of being 74 years old with a cancer that won’t go away and that takes up a fair bit of brain space.

So, next week I’m back on chemotherapy. This course of therapy is very different from the first course I went through last year. The very first primary chemo drug I was on is called lenalinomide. I was on it for less than a month before I broke out in a nasty rash around my midsection. At that point my oncologist pulled the plug on it and put me on another med called Bortezomib. I was on it for 7 months or so before I ended it. I was supposed to be on it for 9 months but after 7 months I was in such pain and had such loss of mobility that I felt I had no choice but to stop the therapy. It took a few weeks for the symptoms to partially dissipate, but I felt a lot better soon enough. I always wondered though, in the back of my mind. when the myeloma was going to reactivate because I knew that it would. Now we know.

I start chemo on Feb. 3rd. I’ll be on an IV for most of the day. I’ll return the next day for a repeat performance, then once a week after that. The main med star for this course of therapy is Daratumumab. It’s a very different drug than I’ve previously been on and we’re very hopeful that it will perform well. In addition to the Dara, I’ll be getting a very low dose of lenalinomide. Although it gave me a huge rash the first time around my oncologist decided to give it another try starting at a very low dose. They’ll also closely monitor any allergic reaction I have to the lenalinomide. I’ll also get a regular dose of dexamethasone, which is a corticosteroid. It produces some strange effects, but I’m accustomed to them and I’m sure I’ll get along well with dex.

Along with my regular chemo meds I’ll be taking an assortment of other drugs to help with allergic reactions and to help prevent blood clotting.

One complication I’m now facing for the first time is the possibility that I’ll need radiation treatment on my jaw. Myeloma is a disease of the bones. I have some fairly large lesions in my femurs. They’ve been well monitored. Now, however, over the past while I’ve been getting some very strange feelings in my lower left jaw. I’m losing feeling in it and if I touch it in the wrong (right?) place, I get an electrified stabbing pain. I have a phone interview with a radiation oncologist on February 17th. I’m not sure what she can determine over the phone, but we’ll see.

One thing for certain is the fact that I’ll be spending a lot of time at the hospital over the next six months. After that things will slow down and I’ll have to go into the hospital only once a month for as long as this course of meds works.

African violet

Now, look at this African violet. She is a wonder! I never expected her to bloom as long as she has. She actually put out more petals over the past few weeks. What an inspiration she is!

#75. A Triple Whammy of Crap (and maybe a bit of good stuff too).

It’s been tough keeping my shit together over the past few weeks. I’m having trouble just sitting here composing this on my computer. Part of my problem is physical and part is a growing psychological ennui. I’m exhausted most of the time. Oh, I can get up and walk around a bit but sometimes that’s even too much.

Obviously myeloma has a lot to do with my unease even though I’m in remission, or I think I’m still in remission. I have a chat with my oncologist on the 22nd to confirm my status. It’s hard to know what to think anymore. My usual myeloma symptoms, peripheral neuropathy, itchiness, fatigue and weakness in my legs, are still evident, but now, I have something new to report to him.

I saw a dental specialist on December 21st. After I came to see him because of pain in my jaw, my regular dentist suggested I would probably need to have a tooth pulled and a cyst at the base of it cleaned out. Well, it turns out that the specialist I saw in Parksville figures that the pain and numbness in my jaw is not dentally related. It’s more likely myeloma induced and that the ‘cyst’ is more likely a lytic lesion. I’m still waiting for a call from him letting me know what the situation is. He has a connection with the BC Cancer Agency in Victoria so I expect he has better access than most of us to oncologists. I expect he’ll suggest radiation treatment, something we discussed on our December 21 consult, but my oncologist will decide on therapies.

Right now, I’m on a rollercoaster of symptoms and I can’t predict one day to the next how I’ll be or how much extra hydromorphone I’ll need to take to deal with the pain. My jaw is sucking up the hydromorphone, that’s for sure, but so is my back and a recurring, baffling pain in my left heel that forced me into a wheelchair at one point late last year. I can’t tell you how sick and tired I am of the pain. It leaves me physically and psychologically drained. Thank goodness I usually sleep quite well and Carolyn is envious of my ability to nap at a moment’s notice.

The title of this post is A Triple Whammy of Crap. Well, I’ve written about the pain and distress brought on by myeloma and its treatments. Myeloma and its related poop is the first part of my triple whammy. Now it’s time to move on to the other two elements of the triple whammy. First, a definition:

Triple Whammy

An online dictionary of idioms describes a triple whammy as “a combination of three different elements, circumstances, or actions that results in a particularly powerful force, outcome, or effect.”

I’ve already alluded to one element of my triple whammy, the myeloma and its treatments I deal with daily. The other two are the pandemic and American politics. So, myeloma, the pandemic (and associated restrictions) and American politics together contribute to generating in me a profound funk. With crap falling on us from all sides it’s hard to keep the smell of shit at bay.

The Pandemic

These days, we all have some sense of what it was like to live in 1918. The Spanish Flu was a powerful killer and didn’t discriminate except that wealthy people were better able to protect themselves from crowds than the poor could. That’s still the truth in 2021. The coronavirus COV-2 is adept at making many of us in the population very sick and puts a lot of pressure on the medical system as it forces hospitalizations.

One way the government and chief provincial medical officer in British Columbia have decided to combat COV-2 is by keeping us apart from each other so as to prevent the spread of the virus. Isolation is hardly ever good for a social species like us. There is a lot of evidence for what happens to people who are forced into isolation like solitary confinement in prison. They go wingy after a while. Children forced into isolation, say in an orphanage, die at much higher rate than children born and raised in poverty or in prison with their mothers.

So, in order to relieve the stress of isolation, people here find all kinds of ways of bending the rules, traveling to nearby destinations, or just getting on a plane to a warm destination because the government hasn’t outright banned travel, now has it? It just strongly recommends against it. Many politicians have decided to travel in any case, arguing that they haven’t broken any rules in doing so. Outraged commentators on social media have found all kinds of reasons to criticize them including their flouting of moral standards. Whatever.

I guess the bottom line here is that we are asked to wear masks and to keeping a physical distance from others whenever we step out of our homes. No hugs. For us that means no contact with our children and grandchildren. That sucks! We will follow the guidelines as we go along, but that doesn’t mean we’re happy about it.

American Politics

So, why would I include American politics as the last element in my triple whammy of crap? What the hell has American politics got to do with us? With me?

Well, apart from the fact that I have friends and relatives living in the United States and who have to live with the lies, the betrayals and the crap everyday, the profound disfunction of the American political system creates uncertainty for us, for all of us. The moral degeneracy in the US so easily spreads to the rest of us, especially those of us living close to the 49th parallel, and is impossible to avoid. The disrespect for democracy and the ready acceptance of oligarchy evident in the US could spread to us like a virus and infect our own fragile political systems.

Besides, the uncertainty is stressful as is the insanity. We get up in the morning not knowing what the hell Trump or his cronies in the Republican Divided Party are likely to conjure up and take up as a tool to wreck confidence in the American voting system or in any drive to greater social equality. I can tell you that I’ve had my critical judgments around the American voting system and the Electoral College in particular. That said, destroying the ship plank by plank as it sails off into the sunset may not be the best strategy for reform especially for everyone aboard.

Done.

Any one of the three elements of the triple whammy I outline above can cause inordinate stress (and does!) but the three of them together leaves a trail of discomfort and uncertainty multiplied threefold. We’ll carry on, but it’s not easy. Thankfully there are countervailing forces to help balance things out a bit.

A nap in the afternoon for one. An African violet blooming its little heart out in December and January for another.

I’ll be backing off writing here for a time. I’m not sure for how long. I’ve got to get a sense of balance back into my life (if I ever can). The truth is I’m 74 years old and sick with myeloma. Many days all I want to do is sleep.

Many people tell me that the power to heal is within me. I just need to harness it, to think positively, and to ignore negative influences in my life. At 74, that’s easier said than done. It’s usually younger, healthier people who urge me to get my power pack in motion. Of course, nobody messes with death, positive thinking or not.

#73. Surprises, Leo Panitch, and an African violet.

This will be a short pre-Christmas post, just to cheer you up a bit. The first part is a short comment on Leo Panitch, a Canadian scholar and academic most of you will never have heard of who died recently of Covid-19. The second part is a short update on my situation which keeps throwing up unwelcome surprises for us.

Leo Panitch (1945-2020)

Panitch was a Jewish kid from Winnipeg. I was a French Canadian kid from British Columbia (?), but we both were from working class families. Leo Panitch joined a panoply of incipient Marxist and leftist social scientists, many American, some draft-dodgers, who began to populate the halls of Canadian universities in the late 1960s, throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. He was one of the more thoughtful and moderate among them. He was a political economist, political scientist, and sociologist who wrote tons of books and articles on Marxist science relating to global economic development. I had a great deal of respect for his work. I ran into him a couple of times at conferences but we weren’t buddies or anything like that.

He died on Saturday, December 19th, 2020 of Covid-19. Just a short time before his death, he had contracted pneumonia, and even a bit earlier than that he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He must have been in a highly weakened state when he succumbed to Covid-19. I have no idea how long he had myeloma before he finally got a diagnosis but that disease has a way of smacking one down, keeping one weak and off balance. It’s a disease that is not easy to detect and its symptoms mimic the symptoms of many other conditions. I have no idea how long I had had myeloma before getting a diagnosis but that’s just about how I felt in December last year as I embarked on months of chemotherapy.

Panitch and I had some things in common. Certainly, we had multiple myeloma in common. We were both scholars but he worked mainly in universities whereas I worked in colleges. We shared an intellectual tradition of critical inquiry into the rise of global capitalism. He wrote a great deal, works that I was able to use in my teaching. I got involved in television based teaching and published very little that could be considered scholarship. I focussed on teaching as he did. His eulogies note that his work as a teacher was his most satisfying. His students certainly considered him a great teacher. He will be sorely missed.

Me and Myeloma Now

A few days ago, maybe 10, I was sitting in my chair when I noticed my lower left jaw was hurting a bit. One of my teeth seemed a bit wobbly and weak. It was nothing much. It remained like that for a few days, but as it got closer to the weekend and the pain seemed to increase slightly I figured I had better try to get in to see my dentist. I didn’t want to be chasing after a dentist this week or next week either.

So, my dentist is a great guy. He’s been the family dentist for over thirty years. We know each other very well. After I had been diagnosed with myeloma last year my oncologist said I should make sure to get checked up by my dentist, so I did. He was very upset with the diagnosis and was super attentive. I didn’t hesitate to contact him last week so that if I needed a tooth extracted that could happen before the holidays.

I contacted his office on Thursday. By Friday afternoon, he had arranged for me to get a special imaging session set up at a local dental surgeon’s office. With that, I then had a consultation with my dentist himself on Friday afternoon. Using the x-ray images he determined that I had a tooth that was dead and a cyst just below it. Both would have to come out. At the same time, though, anticipating an extraction and possible problems with the cyst, he was able to call in some favours and got me into an office of dental surgery in Parksville sometime on Monday (yesterday). We got a call from Parksville on Monday morning asking if we could be there by 11:45. Yes, of course we could…even in the snow!

We just made it for 11:45, Carolyn driving carefully in the snow and slush as we passed four or five cars in the ditch. Turns out, this doctor in Parksville is a real star and was familiar with multiple myeloma. After talking for some time and going over my symptoms, especially the numbness in my jaw, and the location of the pain, we determined that the dark spot (typical of myeloma lesions) on the x-ray we had taken the day before was in all likelihood a myeloma lesion and had nothing to do with my teeth. Well, that changes everything, doesn’t it? I wasn’t expecting that.

I was expecting to go down there and come back with one less tooth. That was not to be. Instead, this doctor arranged to contact my oncologist in Victoria so that they could together decide what to do, if anything. I get blood tests on January 5th, and I have an appointment with my oncologist on January 22nd.

At this point I have no idea what to think. I should know in a month whether the myeloma has retuned or not. If not, that would be great! If it has returned, then we decide on a new course of chemotherapy. Not something I look forward to.

Whatever! Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays or any other greeting you may like!

We have high hopes for 2021. We need this virus to get lost but we don’t want to go back to things as they were. What do you want to keep from the past and what would you like to unload?

I love this little African violet we have in the bathroom. As you can see most of the flowers have died off quite some time ago. The plant was bare for a while. Then, all of a sudden, this flower emerges and it’s still blooming its head off. I like that. It’s been recently joined by another blossom! So cool.

Merry African Christmas!

#70 Fun With Meds.

I’m finally able to write a few paragraphs. My neck has been such a problem lately that I haven’t been able to write much or draw and paint much either. It’s because my neck gets spasms easily if I look down at the computer screen for too long. Ten minutes at a time is about all I can handle. However, I remembered that acetaminophen works quite well for neck pain. I took a couple last night for my arthritis and degenerative disks in my neck and that seemed to help. I took a couple at around 8 AM this morning and now, although I still have neck pain, it’s manageable. We’ll see how long it works. I want to go outside and play.

Funny how I used to take acetaminophen regularly for some kinds of pain and it worked marginally well. Then I forgot about it when I got into stronger meds after my cancer diagnosis. Hydromorphone is my go to pain reliever now, but I’m also taking a low dose of gabapentin on the advice of my palliative care docs.

Palliative care docs are specialists in pain management. They often get linked with end-of-life care, but their mandate is much broader than that and is tied to pain management generally. We talk every week, usually on Wednesdays always working to fine tune my meds to balance pain with my need to be able to do some activity. Of course, as my pain doc told me this week they could easily make me pain free. I’d be pretty much catatonic though so we’ll probably save that for when I’m closer to dying. No, the objective with my pain docs is to balance pain management with quality of life.

I must say that lately it’s been a bit of an odd dance. We tried nortriptyline but it made me excessively sleepy without doing much to lessen my pain levels. We tried a really low dose of gabapentin. That hasn’t seemed to have worked very well so we’re now increasing my dose of gabapentin to a bit of a higher dose to see if that makes a difference. That’s always on top of my basic hydromorphone slow release tablets that I take morning and evening.

I suggested to my pain doc yesterday that I should just go off of all pain meds to just see what happens. She said that I probably shouldn’t do that because the pain would be unbearable without some intervention. I have to agree, but it’s frustrating. It’s hard to know which med is doing what when I take a cocktail of meds. It would be simple to back off to just one med, but that wouldn’t work either because as I noted before, neurological pain is different from muscle pain with is different from bone pain, arthritis and disk disease. I need different meds for the various kinds of pain I have so a cocktail is required. Simple would be nice, but it’s not practical.

So, I sit here now banging away on my computer keyboard. My neck pain is manageable but really annoying. I’m hoping the increased dose of gabapentin will deal with the neurological pain I have in my legs, but we’ll see. It takes a while to kick in. I’ve had two MRIs this week. The first one was on Monday and imaged my lower back. The one yesterday was for my upper back and neck. I’m not sure how they may help with diagnosis or with determining what drugs will work for me, but at least they will give us a good baseline for subsequent tests.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the time I have left. I have incurable cancer so it’s like I’m on death row waiting to see if my next appeal (chemo course) works or not. I’m technically in remission right now. We’ll know in January how that’s going. I’m scheduled for blood tests on January 5th, the day after my 74th birthday. That will mark seven months that I’ve been off of chemotherapy. I hope those little bastard myeloma proteins take a long vacation and I can stay off of chemo for a while longer.

Inevitably though, chemo won’t work anymore and that will be that. Bring on the morphine and call in hospice and MAID people at that point. When I get to the point that I can’t DO anything anymore, I will probably welcome my exit from this mortal coil. The thing I regret is putting my family through a long, prolonged, slow exit. Maybe it would be better to pull the plug sooner than later. But I’m not ready to make that decision. So, we carry on, balancing meds, counting on chemo to beat back the myeloma proteins when they get out of hand, and hoping for the best.

I haven’t written at all about politics lately. I’m tempted to, but my neck pain may decide how much I can write, draw and paint. Politics is fun, but it’s not at the top of my list of priorities at the moment. Cancer has a way of focussing my attention narrowly on my life and possibility. I’m still interested in BC politics, Trump, etcetera, but they just aren’t centre of mind like they used to be for me when I was teaching. The pandemic is close to mind too, of course. I’d love to see my family as much as I can. Covid makes that impossible. Cancer and Covid are dominating my life right now. Not the best of scenarios, but I do have Carolyn to commiserate with and to share my Covid isolation.

I’m not sure how we can talk about happiness in the circumstances we are in. I’m not happy about any of this shit but that doesn’t help much either. It’s just that how in hell can anybody be happy right now?