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 coƶperate, 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. šŸ™‚ 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.

Calm down!

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck cancer!

Fuck Cancer mugs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking in the Mirror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I meditate on my last breath.

Yesterday afternoon Carolyn tucked me into bed. The zoledronic acid infusion I got Thursday at the hospital has left me feeling like I have a nasty flu combined with a smashing hangover. I fell asleep almost immediately but when I woke up I could hear the rain beating on our metal roof. I love that sound. Today, the dexamethasone is kicking in and it’s leaving me in a state of nervous fibrillation. I’ve never done speed, but I expect the sensation must be something like that. Now is a good time to write because I have this bizarre energy that needs an outlet. However, the dex gives me the shakes making it difficult to keep my fingers singly on the keys of my computer.

So, getting back to yesterday afternoon. Like I said I slept for some time and woke to the sound of rain pounding the metal roof. I just lay there. I find that lying in bed staring at the ceiling is not a bad way to pass the time. I could never do that before. I had the work ethic really bad when I was still gainfully employed and long after truth be told. Now, my body has taken charge of my reluctant mind and has forced me to sit still, to lie down and not feel guilty about it. Cancer has its upsides I guess, but I’m not sure that I fully subscribe to its methods. One thing for sure: There is no normal in my life anymore: sleep times vary, meals are still on schedule as are the ritual pill taking, but I can’t count on feeling the same way during each new cycle of chemotherapy that I felt on the previous one. Dex is predictable but the intensity of its effect varies. I only have to take it one more time on this course of chemo lasting until January. I start taking it again in late January when I start my second course of chemo with my fifth cycle. A course of chemo lasts approximately four weeks, a cycle, one week. At least that’s the pattern now. But I digress.

I’m lying on my bed focussed on the cedar beam that crosses the ceiling in the middle of our bedroom, light pouring in from the three windows just behind me at the head of the bed. I close my eyes and think about death. Well, more about dying than death, actually. It’s the process of dying that is absorbing me, not death itself which for too long we’ve considered the opposite of life. Dying is another thing altogether. Dying is the separation of consciousness and body. Consciousness in my estimation comes to an end at the point of death but my body, this collection of matter brought together by processes millions of years old, will immediately begin to become unglued. It loses its integrity as a collection of cells and begins to decompose, that is, to lose its composition.

I don’t have to tell you this. It’s hard to live for any length of time without coming across at least one death in the family, among friends, or by reading the news or obituaries on the local papers. We know about death although we don’t quite know what to make of it or how it pertains to us. It’s strange that for most of us we take for granted that ‘we’ don’t exist before our conception and birth and that ‘we’ become ‘we’ by a combination of hereditary traits, learned behaviour, and environmental factors. ‘We’ or ‘I’ are constructs. We are not born fully operational. We become ‘I’ over time, slowly developing personality traits, habits, and idiosycracies that define us as unique individuals. But we resist very strenuously the idea that if we come we must also go. But I digress again!

So, I’m back in my bedroom, lying on my back on my bed in that state of half sleep, very relaxed and I meditate. I meditate on my last breath. I’m thinking that dying is not much different than living. When we fall asleep and lose consciousness we have no idea whether we will awaken or not, we just take if for granted that we will. I’ve had two brothers-in-law die this past year. One died during the night in bed next to my sister. We say he died in his sleep. True enough. He wasn’t conscious when he took his last breath. Neither was my mother who died nearly two years ago, but she had demential and was so hopped up on morphine that I can’t say she died in her sleep. My sisters were there at the moment of her death. I missed it by a few hours. I was in pretty bad shape myself two years ago with symptoms on myeloma that went undiagnosed at the time. I was perennially exhausted, in a great deal of pain, and I couldn’t stand the vigil as my family surrounded my mom’s death bed waiting for her to take her last breath. I prefer to think of my dying as just another falling asleep kind of experience. My last one of course, but still.

Needless to say, there are only one or two ways of being born that I know of, but millions of ways to die. I like to think that my last breath will be in the comfort of home or at least in a hospice, somewhere nice. Many, many millions of people worldwide don’t die under such benign circumstances. Violent death is common. Five thousand Canadians die in vehicle crashes a year, fifty thousand Americans meet the same fate. I don’t fancy that as a way of dying, but if it’s quick, maybe. I can’t imagine being hacked to death with a machete after watching my family meet the same fate in 1994 Rwanda, or being shot by a stray bullet in Aleppo leaving me wounded and watching the blood spill out of me. No, give me a peaceful, quiet place to die.

I’ve been diagnosed with an incurable cancer but I’m told that it’s more like a chronic treatable condition than a CANCER that kills fast and unannounced. I’ve got some time to think about my last breath. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. Certainly, I’ll roll with it. I remember clearly when I was a kid of twenty or so. I had a fairly serious back injury while working at a sawmill on Lulu Island and I needed back surgery to remove a disk in the lumbar area of my back. I was a kid in search of meaning in my life, not such an unusual thing. I remember lying in my hospital bed after the surgery, hanging over the edge puking my guts out and thinking to myself. I can milk this for everything it’s worth. I could stay on Compensation for a long time then go on disability or something along those lines. Or I could get out of the hospital and use this time to get my shit together. And that’s what I did. I got my shit together. I enrolled in the liberal arts program at Douglas College in New Westminster and never looked back. My injury allowed me time to think about my future without the pressure of work. That was luxurious, and it worked.

Now, I don’t need to get my shit together. It’s been together for a few decades and I’m happy with my shit. My encounter with cancer, in a way similar to my experience with my back surgery, is giving me time to think about my last breath, but to also remember that every breath I take until my last one is worth paying attention to and celebrating. Whatever I do until I take my last breath is not so important. Of course, I can’t help but do something and I will do things that have always mattered to me. It’s impossible to do nothing and still be alive. Even lying on the couch ‘doing nothing’ is doing something. Whatever I do will be the right thing at the time because it will be what I do. In any case it won’t matter one iota after I’m dead because ‘I’ won’t be around to care or experience regret or any other sentiment.

Today is not a good day.

Yesterday was okay. The day before was fine, but it’s hard to predict from day to day what my day will be like when I wake up in the morning. When I woke up this morning I knew that I wouldn’t be having a good day and contemplated just staying in bed. I try to maintain a modicum of a schedule so I like to get up around the same time every day although over the past couple of weeks my rising time has shifted a bit to the 8 AM side and is less inclined to stick to my former rigid 7:30 AM time.

I know my day won’t be a good one if I wake up from an unsound sleep with my body in full tingle mode, especially if it’s accompanied by the sensation of spiders crawling all over my legs. My reaction to my first cursory assessment of the state of my body is to hunker down, pull the covers over my head, and forget about it. But I don’t do that, do I. No, I get up, stagger into the bathroom clutching my cane in the hope that it will help me maintain my balance, and get myself into the living room where I usually plunk myself down into my recliner. I know I will spend the day in utter exhaustion reluctant to even get up to pee.

This pattern of not knowing until I wake up what my day will be like has been going on for years. That’s nothing new. I have no idea what differences in my daily routines will be wrought by the new chemical soup I will be ingesting in various ways as the oncologists stir up a new chemotherapy routine for me next week. The chemotherapy is bound to throw things out of whack in lots of ways some I can prepare for, some I can’t do anything about. Over the years, I’ve almost gotten used to being restricted in my mobility, but in fairly predictable ways. If I wanted to do something, like attend a meeting or go to a concert, I would know that if I did that I’d pay for two or three days after with exhaustion and pain. It was unthinkable to contemplate attending an event two days in a row or doing simple jobs around the property after a previous day of activity. My life has become less and less social over the years.

Truth be told, I’m a little depressed. The time between chemotherapy treatments has given me time to think, and thinking often gets me into trouble. So, I did an evaluation of my life to date going over high and low points, achievements and regrets. Probably a mistake, but one I’ve frequently made so I’m familiar with it. I even looked at pictures of myself over the years, from the time I was around two years old to quite recently. I thought about the different stages of my life, my time at home with my family, my time away to boarding school in Edmonton, my crazy teen years, working with my father, college, university, marriage, teaching, volunteer work, art, woodwork, etcetera. Then on top of that I overlaid health issues that I’ve experienced. I don’t need to go over all of my health problems here, but I had a few broken bones along with the discovery in the early 90s that I was vitamin B12 deficient and that I would need to inject B12 into my leg every month or so for the rest of my life. The discovery of my B12 deficiency was made when I complained to my doctor about fatigue, brain fog, dizziness, and that sort of thing. In 2002 I had my left kidney removed because I had renal cell cancer. Later I had an appendectomy. Still, I complained of fatigue, brain fog, dizziness and vertigo. There is a high incidence of Multiple sclerosis in my family so we chased that for a while but found nothing. Recently I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma which makes sense of all the other symptoms I’ve been having. I’ve probably had ‘smouldering’ multiple myeloma for years. So, now, I come to this:

I’m 73 years old (very close to it). I have bone marrow cancer, one kidney, B12 deficiency, degenerative disk disease (in my neck), arthritis, and who knows what else ails me. I’m old enough to die as Barbara Eirenreich argues and I’m okay with that, but the suspense is killing me. I’m being told that I could live quite a few more years with a few good ones thrown in there too. Still, I have incurable cancer and old age is coming after me. I’m beginning to envy people who die of sudden heart attacks or massive strokes. They have no time to think about all the things there is to think about.

I’ve discussed this with a friend of mine who also has multiple myeloma and his idea is that he doesn’t focus on his disease at all, or on his age, or any other potential killer. No, he focusses on what needs to be done: the shed needs a new roof, the canoe needs a new skin, baseboards need to be installed, grandkids need hugs. Dying will take care of itself when there is no other option, when it goes to the top of the priority list and refuses to be ignored any longer. I find myself thinking the same way. Yes, I get a little depressed when the extent of the threats to my life are displayed in front of me, but I get over it pretty quickly.

And I think about life and death. They aren’t opposites as we generally think of them. They cannot exist without each other. My life, like the lives of the nine generations of my ancestors who have lived in Canada are blips or interludes in the continuity of time and space. Mushrooms are a good analogue for us, I think. They push up through the ground cover from the mycelium below, flowering for a bit then melting back into the biomass to contribute again to the mass of life on this planet. Of course, for most of us in the course of history, thinking of ourselves and our species primarily as biological phenomena hasn’t been enough. The fact that we are temporary agglomerations of matter is not terribly satisfying for us and our big brains. We’ve loathed death and we deny it in every way we can, individually and socially. I try to face death as I face life. I try to put my life, my history, the phases of my body’s growth and decay in the broadest context I can. I don’t care to give them more importance than they are entitled to in the context of life on this planet.

My post on the social inequality in Emergency Departments is coming but my next one is about our immune system, the traitor that it is.

Today I write about pain.

Before I do that, however, I want you all to feel free to contact me. If you have problems with privacy i.e., you don’t want your comments to appear in public, please let me know when you post comments, or pm me on Messenger or you can email me at rogalb@shaw.ca.

Things can change very quickly these days and positive things do happen! Oh, I still have myeloma and I started chemo yesterday. That seems fine. The pain in my neck has attenuated too. Who knows why. I can feel it lurking around my cervical spine, but for now it’s keeping a respectful distance. I can actually type and stay relatively focussed. I pay for that by not taking as much hydromorphone. AND my kidney is back to normal…for an old guy like me anyway and that’s very good news. I was thinking I may need a wheelchair to get around and we were making arrangements for that, but for the moment, I’m good. I’m feeling okay at the moment, ten times better than I felt two days ago, but that’s how it goes with chronic pain. Things can easily go back to shitty in a flash. Of course I know that I’m an old guy with cancer and I can see the exit door over there just beyond the bright white light, but I can’t see the handle yet, so I think I have some time. Besides, I can put that to the back of my mind. It doesn’t help at all to focus on things I can’t inevitably change and stick to the things that can get me, and others, better quality of life now and for the near future.

So, pain. My last blog post was about Carolyn’s experiences at the Emergency Department here in Courtenay. My penultimate posts were about my visit to the oncologist in Victoria and my subsequent disastrous ER visit the following day. I sit here somewhat unable to piece together accurately in sequence what happened to me since last Wednesday. Truth is I’ve seen two specialists since then, have had a ct scan with another one scheduled for tomorrow which showed that I have severe disk degeneration in my neck that is, along with arthritis, creating the pain vortex in my neck. My neck pain has been a roller coaster of severity. I have a neck brace that helps with that too as you can see from the photo below. Hi!

My office

Now, this is where it gets interesting because my oncologist tells me that my neck pain has nothing to do with my myeloma. It has everything to do with my disk degeneration and arthritis. So, I ask: does the myeloma contribute at all to pain in my body? Of course it does, comes the answer. It attacks your bones. The ct scan did not find the right kinds of lesions on my cervical spine, so they were not the source of my neck pain. Well, okay. I guess I can go along with the argument that my nasty bulging disks are responsible. I mean I had surgery on my lower back decades ago to alleviate a ruptured disk problem so I’m familiar with that. Still, recently I’ve had over the top thoracic skeletal pain which really was caused by my myeloma so whatever. I’m getting a ct scan tomorrow to check that out among other things.

So, what I’ve been able to piece together through moments of excruciating pain and hallucinating sedation, is that the pain I’m experiencing the most severely seems to be concentrated in the bony/connective parts of my body that had already suffered trauma. I’m thinking specifically of the area on my left thorax where my kidney as removed, the lower back cervical area where I had a disk removed, the left heel where I had planers fasciitis, that sort of thing. My neck too and my shoulders where I had rotator cuff tears, both sides due to falls and long term overuse issues.

I started asking this question to whoever would listen: is there an association between myeloma and increased intensity of pain in areas of previous bone trauma? Answer: I don’t think so, but probably not. Question: Do you know of any research between myeloma and where it affects the body most? Answer: Not that I know of. I had a chat with my daughters about this. They’re no slouches when it comes to research: One of them works in the field of non-profit housing and the other in biomedical research. They are my truly trusted experts. But, I have access to a lot of material too because I’m still associated with North Island College as emeritus and have library privileges.

Okay, that still leaves me dealing with my own experience of pain and those of others (read the comment by Tanya Wood based on my last post), some of whom have chosen to remain anonymous. I’m especially concerned with Emergency Departments and with receptionists (gatekeepers) in GP offices who, I know are just doing their jobs, but who, when I call to simply ask that can the doctor just tell me if I can increase my dosage of hydromorphone says: “Well, the doctor will have to see you for that” To which I answer: I can barely move. I have excruciating pain and can barely get out of my chair. Can he just tell me quickly about increasing my already existing prescription with pills I already have?” “Well, no, the doctor will have to see you.” So, I couldn’t take anymore of that and told her we’d get back to them. Later, Carolyn called and talked to someone else who said someone would be in touch. My doctor called me later in the day when he had done his patient visits for the day, something he as often done in the past and I knew he would do again. So, all day I was left figuring out how many more hydromorphone pills to take before overdosing. I’m not at all suicidal, so that’s a concern. I’ve known of many people who have died from accidental overdoses. I wasn’t about to be one of them, but my pain was so intense it was a good thing I wasn’t standing at a subway station waiting for a train anytime last week. I may just have acted compulsively and jumped onto the tracks. Of course that’s a little hyperbole, but that’s okay among friends, isn’t it?

I wrote to Tanya Wood (who’s husband, Darren, died a couple of years from complications resulting from a tragic accident) in response to her heart wrenching comment that ER departments are microcosms of our culture. They operate using the same moral assumptions as everyone else in society. We have deep-seating cultural aversions to death and disease. Most of those are built on our huge biological insecurities. I paraphrase here Ernest Becker who wrote something like: Disease takes away our ability to enjoy the pleasures of life and death does that permanently. He calls death and disease the twin pillars of evil for us. [You need to read some of my early posts to get a sense of how brilliant I feel Becker was.]

So, in a sense, I’m not surprised at the cavalier attitude most staff members have towards people coming into Emergency departments everywhere. Don’t get me wrong. There are some very dedicated and caring medical staff working in ERs doing a mostly thankless job which, I’m sure, can be extremely rewarding at times too but the system is stacked against them and they will, I’m certain, be looking for different work soon if they don’t toe the line. And, of course, as I’ve already noted in a previous post that pain is invisible so ER staff can’t just take your word for it. Not only that, but if you come in really agitated that you’re in extreme pain and need some meds now they may tag you as a troublemaker and make you wait all that much longer for help. There’s a big screen tv in the ER waiting room at the Royal Jubilee Hospital explaining in great detail why you must wait and why. There are signs saying no foul language or threats or whatever will be tolerated. There are security people everywhere dressed just like police. I wonder what they would do if somebody with Turette’s Syndrome came in following a car crash or, as is quite common, some people can’t utter a full sentence without ‘fuck’ in it at least once. These people may just suffer from undeveloped communicative skills but they are probably not dangerous. The message is clear: if you want treatment here you had better stay calm, cool, and collected. Of course, precautions must be taken, but I’m not sure that blanket prohibitions are the way to do it.

Pain, in our culture, is associated with weakness and most people are loathe to talk about it even to the point of not seeing a doctor because they’re embarrassed about the location of their pain or don’t want to admit weakness. Weakness of any kind is just not acceptable. Do you see any weak superheroes in the movies? Well, some of them show some slight or passing weaknesses but they always triumph over them in the glorious light of their super strength. That’s in the movies. In Diehard movies the hero falls off of an eighteen storey building onto the top of a moving van below, rolls of of that onto the sidewalk where he encounters villains walking towards him shooting up a storm with their AR-15s (or whatever), gets hit, falls through the open door of a bar, sidles up to the bartender and asks for a scotch on the rocks. The young, gorgeous, female bartender gives him his drink and comments on the two gaping bullet wounds on his shoulder. He respond in true superhero in training fashion: “These, nah, just flesh wounds.”

Real heroes are immune to pain it seems so if you really want to be a superhero, boys and girls, don’t complain about pain!

Pain doesn’t kill. It’s a sign that something organic is out of whack and needs attention. Failure to attend to pain often results in dire consequences for the patient but any complaint of pain is not treated initially by medical staff as an organic issue, but rather as a moral one. We are all assumed to be moral degenerates unless proven otherwise by the cognoscenti. Of course that’s not true in every case, but the underlying assumptions are always there. Overlying all of this too is the assumption that there is an acceptable amount of demonstration allowed with different levels of injury. So, for a broken leg, some amount of whimpering is allowed, and for the pain I went in with some moaning and groaning is okay, but only when there’s movement happening otherwise sitting quietly is what’s expected. In any case they have a scale of acceptable pain demonstration. Don’t mess up their expectations and assumptions. But as I said, our reaction to pain culturally is really screwed up so you’d have to think that in an ER that would be doubly evident. It’s not right but that’s the way it is. Is there anything we can do about it? Maybe, but it’s complicated and requires a lot of knowledge and challenges to authority. Authority does not like being challenged. That itself is a challenge since authority has all the lawyers it wants to line up against you, often using your money. But lets poke the beast a little and see if it demonstrate any signs of weakness or pain.

I’m not dead yet, and I’m coming for you, VIHA, and related government departments and agencies. You’re trying to get rid of pathology services entirely in the North Island and that’s a travesty. Some of you in the business may need to retake your Hippocratic oath. More on this later. I need to do more research to know exactly what the situation is, but when I’m ready you’ll know about it.

So, for now, I’ve seen my oncologist, my kidney specialist, my pathologist and now I need to have my beer specialist on my team. I won’t be going out to see him anytime soon, but I heard he might just deliver. Damn, there’s so much more to say!

One of my previous posts about disability and people in wheelchairs. It might be of interest after reading this post.