32 This is no fun at all.

Well, this is no fun at all.

I’m not silly enough to believe that a life with myeloma would be fun, but I’m kind of disappointed that it’s been such an unmitigated downer. I am, I can now see, destined to drag this goddamned disease with me into the grave. Come on, I knew that! Still, a bit of a break now and then would be welcome. Is that too much to ask?

Actually, I think the nastiness I’m experiencing in spades right now stems mostly from the chemo meds rather than from the myeloma itself. This past week would support my idea that the meds are as bad as the disease at the moment for making me feel tired, dizzy, and in pain.

I went to the hospital on Thursday for my bortezomib shot after taking all the rest of my chemo drugs in the early morning. I expect Thursdays to be non-days, and this one was certainly that. A non-day is one when I can’t gather enough strength to do much of anything. However, Friday and Saturday also turned out to be non-days and Sunday wasn’t much better.

I felt a little beaten down. Of course, I should have expected it because my local oncology GP did warn me that they were going to ‘challenge’ me with my chemo med doses. No more mamby-pamby half doses for me! I was to get the full meal deal! Yes, indeed. Silly me.

Then I figured that maybe I needed a good dose of positive thinking to counteract all of these drugs. Maybe all I needed was a little endorphin fix. After all, I used to teach positive thinking on the Knowledge Network back in the ‘good ol’ days’ of 1986 to 1992. I used to teach as Ehrenreich points out “that on many levels, individual and social, it is good to be ‘positive,’ certainly better than being withdrawn, aggrieved, or chronically sad.”*

The problem is I’ve learned a few things since the early 1990s, not the least of which are the limitations of positive thinking. The American Cancer Society on its website states very clearly:

An important part of coping with a cancer diagnosis is recognizing emotions and feelings. Treatment that deals with our emotions and relationships (sometimes called psychosocial interventions) can help people with cancer feel more upbeat and have a better quality of life. But there’s no good evidence to support the idea that these interventions can reduce the risk of cancer, keep cancer from coming back, or help the person with cancer live longer. Still, things like group support, individual therapy, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques can be used to help reduce distress and cope with the emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis.

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/attitudes-and-cancer.html

So, it seems that belonging to a support group has some positive effects, not on survival or anything like that, but in feeling less tired and in stress reduction. There is a support group in the Valley. I haven’t attended any of the meetings yet. I’ve been too goddamn exhausted to do that until now, but maybe next month! Then, maybe I’ll be less tired!

The American Cancer Society, on its website, starts off with this: When a person is told they have cancer, they might find themselves wondering:

  • Did I bring the cancer on myself?
  • Can my emotions really make cancer grow or affect the outcome of my treatment?
  • Can I control the tumor growth by visualizing how my body is fighting the cancer or by thinking myself well?
  • Would relaxation or keeping a “positive attitude” help cure my cancer?

I can easily reply an emphatic NO! to all these questions and the website goes on to refute each in turn.

Ehrenreich writes:

In the rational explanation that many psychologists would offer today, optimism improves health, personal efficacy, confidence, and resilience, making it easier for us to accomplish our goals. A far less rational theory also runs rampant in American ideology—the idea that our thoughts can, in some mysterious way, directly affect the physical world. Negative thoughts somehow produce negative outcomes, while positive thoughts realize themselves in the form of health, prosperity, and success.✤

The upshot of the idea that negative thoughts produce negative outcomes is the notion that people bring their diseases on to themselves by thinking negatively. Never mind that this idea is completely debunked by the American Cancer Society and people like Barbara Ehrenreich, there is a strong current of belief ‘out there’ that we are the victims of our own negativity. That goes for people with chronic illnesses, auto-immune diseases, and cancer. If you’ve got it the ‘reasoning’ goes you’ve brought it upon yourself.

This of course dovetails nicely with the predominant capitalist morality in our culture which states that individuals are inherently responsible for their actions and weakness of all kinds is abhorred, shunned, and denigrated. If people exhibit any signs of weakness, whether they are poor or in ill-health, it stands to reason that they must be responsible for their condition. That’s why people, especially those caught up in a full-blown subscription to capitalist morality, often go to great lengths to hide their poverty and ill-health. They are also the ones that tend to judge most harshly the poor, the homeless, the disenfranchised, the physically disabled, the chronically ill and the aged, even if they themselves could be included in any one of the categories I just mentioned.

Myeloma is a disease of the bone marrow. It’s entirely organic. As of yet there is no cure for it. It will not respond to positive thoughts or negative ones either, for that matter. Ehrenreich writes that “There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.” ✦ If there’s anything I strive toward it’s existential courage. However, if you catch me in a moment of deep angst over my imminent (yes, ten years is imminent) death, cut me some slack. I can’t always be perfect!

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*Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. 2009. Kindle Edition, Location 89.

✤Ibid., Location 125.

✦Ibid., location 145.

24 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.

17 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.