Confessions (and the weather)

The weather has been so unpredictable lately. The meteorologists at the Weather Office must be gnawing their fingernails off. It’s been great for the garden overall except now it would be good to have more heat and sun to ripen the berries. We’re eating a lot from the garden now. Cucumbers, lettuce (so much lettuce), tomatoes, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and lots more. I fell kind of bad that we can’t support the farmer’s markets, but no. We can’t do that. Of course the farmer’s markets have way more than just veggies and fruit, but then there are other reasons I don’t go to places where people gather, at least not regularly and not willingly.

We sat on the porch today looking over the front of the property and off toward the village. The clouds came through at different elevations, the higher ones travelling west to east and the lower ones southeast to northwest. It was sunny at intervals. It rained a bit. It was around 20˚C most of the day. Not at all unpleasant. Tilly was her usual goofy self entertaining us with her antics on the patio. She really is a laugh a minute, that is, when she’s not biting us. Sometimes she just wanders over and sits at the top of the driveway surveying the yard below. I’d love to know what kind of puppy thoughts are going through her head.

As usual for a Thursday I took my chemo oral drugs on the early morning then went to the hospital for my Bortezomib shot at 10:30. When I went in, there was just a short wait for the lab (not that I was going there), but when I came out, there was a lineup outside going almost around the building, probably thirty people, some in wheelchairs, some with walkers waiting for clearance to even step into the hospital. Some were going to the lab (for a long wait) but others were going for imaging or to the Bone people, or wherever. You stand in line whether you have an appointment or not.

Everybody gets the standard Covid-19 song and dance: Have you travelled out of the country in the last 14 days? Have you been in proximity of someone who has tested positive for Covid-19? Do you have a fever, cough? Etcetera? I usually stack up the nos at the very beginning of the process and that usually works but not today. Today I got the full meal deal. Everybody was getting it. No wonder the lineup is so long. Of course it has to be done. I’m really not complaining. The Covid-19 protocols these days appear to be just as unpredictable as the weather. Oh well, we carry on.

Just as unpredictable as the weather is how my body is going to react to my chemo drugs. It’s been a nasty ride lately with Bortezomib creating havoc with my nervous system, making my skin on my legs and torso very sensitive to painful to the touch. Added to the pain is a weakness in my legs that is now making it very difficult to move in ways I always previously took for granted, like tying my shoes or picking something off the floor. That’s very distressing. I must confess that I’ve had moments when I have felt pretty sorry for myself. Fuck cancer!

Now I’m on a very low dose of amitriptyline, a drug that was developed for depression (at 100 mg/dose) but was also discovered to help with pain at a dose of 10mg, the dose that I’m on. It has side effects, like they all do. Pile side effects on top of side effects. What drug is doing what is anybody’s guess. The pain in my legs and back is so distracting, and along with the usual dizziness I experience all the time, I get a pretty constant brain fog. I can still put together a coherent thought, but I have some difficulty communicating those thoughts sometimes. Not always. My brain is like the weather right now. Some coherent thinking. Some stoned time. Some sleepiness. Not always in the right order. Unpredictable is what it is.

The fact that I can even write this is due to some momentary clarity induced by another of my drugs, dexamethasone. It won’t last long, so I had better hurry and get this done. I’m really wondering right now about this whole business of oncology. Like, how is it that a drug can be approved to treat a condition, in my case, cancer, yet produce side effects that are debilitating, potentially for the long term? What’s the goal here?

It’s pretty obvious after reading The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010) (a book review here), that the objective of oncology, both clinical and research is to prolong life. Many people have died because of the effects of chemotherapy. As far as drug trials go the Golden Chalice is survivability. If they get 5 months more survivability with a drug that’s considered a successful trial. Since Mukherjee wrote his book, lots of progress has been made and lots of animals have been sacrificed to the cause, but they still can’t engineer Bortezomib to do good work and to avoid beating the crap out patients just in order to keep them alive. Of course, the instinct of self-preservation is strong in most of us to the point where we are more often than not willing to sacrifice a lot just to get more life out of the deal.

My chemotherapy is really working well as far as the myeloma is concerned, but at what cost? It’s a straightforward cost/benefit analysis and I’m working on that right now. I have a strong will to live, and I’ve seen people in a lot worse shape than I’m on stick it out and squeeze the last bit of life out of their decaying bodies that they can. So far I guess my actions have betrayed my values as is the case for most of us most of the time. More on this in my next post.

Describing Pain can be a Pain.

But first, how about a very short video of Princess drinking from the ‘fountain’ next to the deck? And how about following that with a picture of our new puppy? She comes home Saturday. Coming soonish, a second video about gardening and plant sales. Stay tuned.

Princess and the Fountain.
Puppy. No name yet.

So, I’ve written about this before, but it’s such an important part of my life right now that I can’t let it go. I, more than most people, understand that social convention governs a great deal of our behaviour. The study of social convention is on the curriculum of most introductory Sociology courses, so my familiarity with it goes a long way back. Convention and habit colour if not drive a lot of human interaction and that is true of our conversations as well as many other types of behaviour. We’ve come up with a number of conventions that, in my mind, work fine, but only if we don’t question them. For instance, asking “How are you?” is not really a query into the state of my health even though it does literally inquire about my wellbeing, doesn’t it? Needless to say, “How you doin’?” is a conventional and very common greeting. It’s not a question inquiring about pain now is it? The conventional answer to this greeting/question is “Fine.” “Hi, how are ya?” seems like the asker is interested in an answer, but mostly, that’s not the case. We’re supposed to say “Fine.” That’s it.

I don’t ask people how they are doing anymore. I mostly just say “Hello,” and get on with a conversation. For a while there, I would answer the question as though it were a real question. “How are you?” “Well, today, not so good,” I’d say. Or I’d say, “It depends.” That is not a satisfactory answer. I can tell that from the look on the asker’s face when I dare utter such an unconventional and unexpected riposte. Sometimes I would carry on with an extended answer, but I knew from the glaze over the asker’s eyes that that wasn’t a satisfying answer. Eventually I would say, “It’s okay, I’m fine.” After that we could all get on with our ‘normal’ lives. The thing is, I deal on a weekly basis with medical personnel of all kinds. Of course, they are as gripped by social convention as the rest of us, but it still throws me off with an oncologist asks me: “How are you, today?”

Just like everyone else, they seem to expect “Fine” as the appropriate answer. Of course, if I were fine, what the hell would I be doing talking to an oncologist about my chemo treatments? Obviously, “fine” is not appropriate as a response under the circumstances, but nor is asking “How are you?”

One time, a few months ago, I had a Zoom type meeting with an oncologist and he asked me “And what can I do for you today?” Well, that question kind of left me speechless, something that is quite an accomplishment if you know me. Of course, it’s a completely appropriate question if I’m in a retail store, walking up to a counter and a clerk asks me “And what can I do for you today?” or “What can I get for you today?” Yes, in that circumstance, this convention works for me, but when an oncologist asks me that question, I get flummoxed. In my usual smart ass way I get tempted to blurt out: “Well, you can tell me I’m cancer-free. How about that doc?” But then, things get awkward and embarrassment takes centre stage and nothing good comes of it.

So, being a sensitive kind of guy and always interested in having conversations go smoothly, my response to the oncologist that day was quite measured. He wasn’t prepared for the appointment, so all he did for the five minutes of the conversation was look at his computer screen, just glancing up every few seconds the camera in an uncomfortable way. He was probably having a bad day. In his line of business, bad days probably happen often, so I don’t take these things personally. In any case, I steered the conversation to my lab results, prognostications about future treatments, and about pain and exhaustion. As an aside, my experience so far is that oncologists don’t like to talk about pain. It seems to make them uncomfortable and fidgety. Tellingly, they leave pain management to GPs.

Well, to finally get to the topic of this post, I can understand their reluctance to talk about pain. It’s a ridiculous thing to talk about. It’s invisible, subjective, and it’s measurement borders on the hilarious. “So, Mr. Albert, on a scale of 1 to 101, how bad is your pain right now? Well, shit. Where do I go from here? Do I just tell them what they want to hear: “Oh, it’s about a 5.” “Okay, thank you, Mr. Albert. So the pain isn’t too bad right now then.” Note that last comment is made as a statement, not as a question. Asked as a question, I could answer something that is more akin to the truth than the bullshit conventional responses we are expected to give at these times. So I could say something like this, bear with me:

Well, at the site of my nephrectomy, the pain varies from 3 to 8 and in duration depending on my activity at the time. It can spike to 9 at times, just not right at this moment. My lower back is fine as long as I don’t move too quickly but that’s because of arthritis and disk degeneration. As you know, my Bortezomib induced peripheral neuropathy (BIPN) is neuralgic pain that is untouched by pain meds designed to deal with muscle or joint aches and pains. Right now, it’s at about a 7. My back starting just below my arms, and my legs down to my knees are burning. My left thigh is painful to the touch. I don’t know how to measure that. It’s a new thing for me. It seems that my BIPN somewhat attenuates during the day and I may actually be able to go to bed with it not bothering me much. At other times it’s excruciating and ridiculous. The pain at my right kidney is nasty at the moment, spiking up to a 7 at times. Lab tests tell us my kidney is fine so it’s the Bortezomib that’s the culprit, it seems.

Anyway, you get the picture. Describing pain simply and easily is impossible for someone with chronic and/or chemo-induced pain. No one can possibly understand how much pain I’m in or how much pain people with inflammatory illnesses and many other conditions suffer. It’s impossible for me to describe the various levels and types of pain I experience daily unless you’ve experienced it yourself in the same contexts that I have. Now, my GP takes my word for it. What else can he do?

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1The 1 to 10 pain scale: I thought I understood it somewhat until I had a talk with a palliative care physician who told me that a 10 is pass out time. I have never passed out from pain as far as I can remember although I may have passed out from deliberately taking a pass out dose of meds on occasion, the only strategy. There were times when I assumed that a 10 was severe pain, but not pass out quality. So, if I said I was at an 8 or 9, that meant that I was sorely distressed by it, but I was tolerating it. A 5 meant that the pain was bad, but not completely distracting. A 4 or below meant I was in some pain, but not too nasty, maybe a nagging, throbbing, but fairly mild headache. After talking to the palliative care doc, I had to revise my scale. Now a 5 is “I’m in pain and it’s no fun. Do something about it!” A 4 is “It still hurts pretty bad!” A 2 might be: “Okay, I can deal with this, but it’s still bugging me.” I haven’t seen a 0 very often, but it does happen periodically for a short time when I’m lying down and not moving at all.

I Really Should Know Better…and Wisteria.

Yes, I really should know better. This is the pattern: I sense a marked improvement in my wellbeing. I start to do things. Maybe I do too much. I injure myself. Now I can’t do much again! Damn!

The problem is that I have myeloma, alright and I’m taking chemo meds, alright, but that doesn’t mean I will be distressed exclusively by cancer related issues. At the moment I’m experiencing pretty severe IT band pain. That means my left side, hip and upper leg are quite painful to the point of preventing me from sleeping. Of course I can take extra hydromorphone to alleviate the pain, but that has its consequences. If I take enough to get to sleep it’s like I have a hangover the next day. That’s not terribly pleasant and I don’t like it.

It’s so tempting, though, to do things! And there are lots of things to do. For instance, even though I shouldn’t be kneeling or getting down on the ground because of the lesions in my femur, I did that anyway while working to fix the irrigation in the garden a few days ago, just one of those things needing to get done. Now my back is chastising me for doing that, and it’s especially gleeful in its chastisements at 3 AM. As I sit here writing this, I can feel the pain slowly increasing in my lower back. I had surgery on my lower back about a hundred years ago, but the scar tissue still causes me pain now and again. Over the years I developed coping strategies to deal with lower back pain, but every once in a while my enthusiasm to get something done interferes with the caution I should be exercising in doing anything physical. I can still do things, but I just have to be smart about it. Unfortunately, sometimes my smarts abandon me and my frontal lobe meekly succumbs to the bullying from my amygdala. Brain wars. This part of my brain says “Yes, do that!” Another part says, “You know better than that!” Which brain part wins is sometimes a toss-up, but more often than not, the do-that part of my brain wins and my lower back sooner or later exacts the price. These days, as I get older and older, the price is exacted sooner than later and lasts way longer than I find reasonable.

I’m just coming to the end of my fifth chemo cycle. Today is a chemo day, but I only take one of the three drugs I normally take earlier in the cycle. So, no dex and no bortezomib. That means no dex high to counteract the cyclophosphamide downer that always happens on chemo day. Bummer. I got to looking forward to my dex days. I got a lot done on my dex days!

Today, I could barely do anything. We went out to the hospital lab this morning to prepare for my visits with doctors next week, then I waited in the car almost falling asleep while Carolyn did some shopping, first at Art Knapps (AK), then at Thrifty’s. I was pretty dozy, but I couldn’t sleep because I kept getting distracted by the parking lot antics of people coming and going from the stores. People coming and going from Art Knapp’s were quite entertaining. Apparently there is a number of people of all ages who shop at AK who can’t read or have attention-deficit issues. The new signage telling people that the former entrance is now an exit-only door flummoxed quite a few shoppers who couldn’t figure out the new rules.

Starbucks at Thrifty’s is still busy it seems. A number of people had coffees in hand as they got back into their cars. I was surprised at how many people came out of the store with only a couple of items in hand. One woman pulled up beside our car in a black twelve cylinder biturbo Mercedes hard top convertible, went into Thrifty’s just to come out a few minutes later with potted flowers, that’s it, just as a classy guy who parked his van across from us (clearly marked with his business name all over it) spit on the pavement every couple of steps he took as he walked towards the store, muttering to himself between spits. So much for shopping only once a week or being super cautious in Covid Times. How could I sleep with all this entertainment going on?

When we got home it was nap time. I slept for two hours. I hope I can sleep tonight after that.

Now, you can feast your eyes on this amazing forty year old wisteria that has a trunk at the front of the deck then snakes around along a structure about 7 feet off the ground for probably 10 metres. It’s beautifully aromatic and frames the table and chairs on the deck.

What better way to finish a blog post. Soon I will post a video of Carolyn’s amazing gardens. There’s no other way to show it off right now, so I’ve polished up my rudimentary video skills and enlisted my basic Sony video camera to put together a 20 minute video. I’m not a great narrator so I’m working on setting it up without talking too much. It’s Carolyn’s birthday on Monday so this video is partly a birthday present for her. Still in love after 47 years. It helps that we’re both a little crazy.