18 Looking in the Mirror.

[This is a reprint of a post I wrote in January of 2020. I reproduce it here in honour of Elizabeth (Bunny) Shannon who was especially drawn to it. Bunny died of cancer last month. She was a friend and an extraordinary person. I am privileged to have known her]

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.

14 Now we wait.

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

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

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

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

13 It is all so surreal.

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

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

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

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

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

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

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

3 What? I’m giddy about seeing an oncologist?

Well, giddy might not be exactly the correct word to use here but it’s close. I’ve known for a month or so now that I have multiple myeloma, an incurable bone marrow cancer, but I have also been told that it’s treatable and some people live for some years after their diagnosis. But I’m not sure about anything yet because I have yet to see an oncologist. That changed yesterday, at least the anticipation part.

Yesterday, around 1 PM I got a call from the BC Cancer Agency in Victoria, telling me that I have an appointment with an oncologist at the clinic on Thursday, the 31st of October, Halloween morning, at 10:30 AM. I have no idea what to expect because I have no idea at what stage my cancer is at nor what treatment options there are. Oh, I can make up stories based on Dr. Google research, but that’s a futile pursuit. This disease is idiopathic. No two patients are alike. I guess that’s true for most cancers. There are commonalities and there are individualities. The only reason they can be treated at all is because of the commonalities. Without pathological patterns no illness could be treated. Still, the idiopathic aspects of this disease make it hard to compare experiences with others facing the same disease. We can commiserate, but that’s about as far as it goes. That said, there is comfort in commiseration.

So, this morning at 7:45 I attended the medical lab in Cumberland so they could take a dozen vials of blood and some urine (boy, did I have to pee when I got there) in anticipation of my appointment with the oncologist, but also with a nephrologist in Nanaimo on November 7th. On Saturday I have a CT scan and on Sunday I do a twenty-four hour urine collection for the nephrologist. I might already have told you this, but I am taking prednisone now and I’ve had an infusion of some drug the name of which I forget. So, in effect, my treatment has already started. I can’t wait to see what the oncologist has in store for me come Halloween morning.

1 I Have Cancer. Damn!

I was recently diagnosed (late September) with multiple myeloma or bone marrow cancer. My bone marrow has gone buck wild and is producing way too much of a particular substance the pathologist euphemistically calls ‘muck’. I’ve probably had it for some years, but the symptoms are very similar to those of other diseases and conditions making it difficult to diagnose. I’ve not been well for years. The past two years have been especially difficult and the last four months almost unbearable. I’m still functioning, but at a much-reduced level than I’m used to. 

This isn’t the first time I’ve had cancer. I had kidney cell cancer in 2002 and had my left kidney removed in an operation that left me with one (fully functioning) kidney. Now my remaining kidney is compromised because of the multiple myeloma so things aren’t looking particularly good for me. There are still tests to be performed and a prognosis to be arrived at, but as soon as the test results are in the BC Cancer Agency in Victoria will give me a call and arrange an interview and set a course of chemotherapy. A lot will depend on the stage of my myeloma. Some people do very well with chemotherapy and new drugs are being developed every day to target the specific pathogen that’s attacking my blood. I still may squeeze a few more years out of this old body of mine yet, but the next few weeks will tell the tale. Multiple myeloma is not curable, but it is treatable. 

I’m not afraid of death. I’ve often written about death and the cultural systems we’ve created to deny death, which actually build on our natural, biological aversions to disease and death. As you can easily ascertain by reading my blog this has been my main focus over the past few years. Dying is another matter altogether. I’m not particularly afraid of that either, but it is full of unknowns. I’m going through the various stages people do when faced with this kind of diagnosis: grief, anger, sadness, self-pity although these feelings are fleeting, and I soon get on to more positive emotions. I feel some guilt too. Yes, guilt. Guilt that’s impossible to escape in this culture. Guilt for succumbing to disease and death, the twin evils that we’ve identified as the greatest threats to us. In moral terms, and culturally, we abhor weakness, physical or social. Sick or poor people are to be feared in our culture. We tend to marginalize both if we can, but that’s not always possible because the world is not as simple as that.  

I know I’m on my last legs. I’m almost 73 after all and have had a great life. Nobody gets through life avoiding death except in novels and movies. I have no idea how long I have to live, but whatever time I have I just hope that my quality of life improves enough so that I can finish some paintings I’ve been working on, maybe re-canvas our canoe and continue writing this blog. In fact, I’ll use this blog as a kind of journal chronicling the process of being ill, then diagnosed, then treated. Stay tuned. 

Please don’t suggest any treatments or diets or whatever. I won’t be going to Mexico for any heroic treatments. (If and when I feel better we may go to lie on a beach though.) I’m not desperate. I won’t be buying a juicer either and I’ll continue to eat the great, wholesome mostly unprocessed food that I currently eat but my body will follow, as it must, the second law of thermodynamics. I’m okay with that.