Grinding It Out

My oncologist called this past Wednesday to discuss changing my chemo cocktail. The one I had been on for less than a week caused a very bad rash around my whole midsection along with a mild fever. So, I stopped taking that set of meds and am now waiting for word from the pharmacy here at the hospital telling me that my new meds have arrived. I’ve got appointments lined up for the first week of December, but I may be called to come in earlier. It’s all par for the course. Hurry up and wait.

Thing is, this new set of meds has caused some pretty significant side effects for a couple of people I know with myeloma. We’ll have to keep a close watch on symptoms, especially those related to peripheral neuropathy. Can’t say I’m looking forward to the new meds but then again, I’m not too sure what the alternatives would be. I’ve sometimes thought about what would happen if I turned down any and all chemo. I know that there are drugs that are more palliative than chemo and I seriously wonder how many more years of good quality life I could get out of benign neglect rather than with aggressive intervention. These are just things I think about late at night when I’m falling asleep along with visualizing my death bed.

I’ve been reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Natural Causes. She’s a couple of years older than me and had a malignant tumour removed from a breast some time ago. She’s fit, she’s healthy but she also writes that: “I gradually came to realize that I was old enough to die.” She means that she’s had a good life, a fulfilling life, which is much more than is afforded many of us. She notes that the military considers eighteen year olds old enough to die and that there is no ‘best before date’ stamped on our asses. Some political leaders lead well into their eighties and nineties. That said, there is a time, when we reach seventy or so years of age when our obituary is likely to read “died of natural causes” than anything else. At a certain age, she argues, there is no need for an explanation for dying. It’s okay to die. Of course we should expect to die. Dying is as natural as being born although we generally consider it a travesty and a high order insult to life. I visualize myself dying, but I’m not convinced that the visualization can ever be very accurate. The closest I can come to visualizing the end of my life is when I’ve had a general anesthetic. Under a general anesthetic, the first drug they administer puts one under, makes one unconscious. If that’s the way I’m going to go, I can live with that. I watched as they put our last dog Wilco down a year ago August. First the sedative, then the lethal dose of whatever it is that kills. That kind of end would be fine with me. If I have to do it, and I don’t see any way out, this is what works for me.

Pain is an entirely other matter. I’ve had too much of that in my life and I don’t want to die under a heavy blanket of pain. Some pain would be alright, but nothing overwhelming. No pain would be the best, but that’s asking a lot of this aging, crumbling body to deliver. So, I’m willing to compromise and accept some pain when my dying time comes. I watched my mother as she lay dying in her nursing home bed almost two years ago now. She had Alzheimer’s and was unable to communicate at all verbally. She did communicate her pain, however. She was under high doses of morphine but we could tell when the morphine would wear off because she would get more and more agitated. I have no idea what she was experiencing, but I have the strong sense that it wasn’t at all pleasant. I was not there in her room when she actually took her last breath but as my sister recalls it, it was all fairly anti-climactic. Chances are very good that I won’t follow my mother’s example in death. For one thing, with myeloma I’m not likely to live long enough, and for another thing, I’ll probably still be sentient and able to make some decisions myself about my own death, unlike what happened to my mother. My mother was a very fine mother, cheeky as all get out sometimes and able to maintain a sense of humour before some pretty daunting odds at times. Dementia robbed her of end of life quality of life. That’s a shame. One of my sisters died a few years ago. She was four years older then me and had lung cancer. She was sentient for most of the time or her dying, but I wasn’t there when she finally gave up her last breath. I was a ferry ride away and unable to make it. She died a half hour before I got to the hospice centre where she ‘lived’. I know one thing for sure. She was pumped full of morphine for some time before she died and that effectively shut down her ability to decide anything.

Lately I’ve been experimenting a little with my pain meds. I’m on a large dose of hydromorphone (not related to morphine- a lot stronger, actually) taking two 1mg pills every four hours. I tried to back off some and take a lower dose every four hours for a day. I felt I could probably manage that because my pain was pretty much under control. Mistake! My pain is under control because I’m taking shitloads of hydromorphone. When I tried to back off, pain started to come back in my neck, ribs, right pelvic area, legs and shoulders. I knew that if I didn’t resume my twelve mg pill load a day that I would soon be completely incapacitated and bedridden. The decision was a no-brainer, but I was hoping for a better outcome.

One of the issues, of course, is that I haven’t really started treatments yet for multiple myeloma. I’ve been diagnosed and all that, but I haven’t had any chemotherapy to mitigate the effects of the disease, so it may be that in a few weeks or months and I go into remission that I’ll be able to back off my pain meds successfully. Wow, that would be cool. For now, I’ll continue ingesting lots of hydromorphone and maybe indulge in a beer or two, maybe even a tiny bit of scotch. It’s okay, all my specialists say a couple of beer are ok. I didn’t ask them about the scotch.

One (or more) of my readers here have suggested that I don’t swear anywhere near enough in my narrative. Well, fuck that! I’ll swear if I want to, swear if I want to, swear if I want to. You’d swear too, if it happened to you! (Figure out the song this is based on). Fuck!

Tread lightly, you could break a bone!

I told you in my last post that I had gotten a skeletal CT scan a week ago Saturday, November 9th. I know what these scans are looking for and I was somewhat apprehensive about getting the results. I still haven’t heard from my oncologist about the scan and I won’t be talking to him about it until Wednesday, the 20th. However, my GP called me on Friday the 15th at 5:30 PM to talk to me. Truth is, whenever my GP calls at 5:30 on a Friday evening it’s never good news.

The first question he asks me is if I’d heard anything about the scan. I said no, nothing. He then proceeds to tell me that I have a four centimetre tumour (lesion) in my right femur. Now, that’s a fairly large lesion but it’s in a fairly large bone too. Still, one of the main problems with multiple myeloma is bone lesions. Patients can have several bone lesions simultaneously making their lives somewhat precarious. Any wrong move can lead to broken bones and immobility.

My GP is rightly concerned about this femoral lesion and tells me that I may need a full length splint to keep my leg immobilized but it’s Friday evening now and I’m in no shape to even consider getting one, especially if it means going to the ER. That’s not going to happen. Not in a hundred years!

After a time my GP and I settle on a plan to keep me more or less immobilized, at least until Monday. Carolyn and I get back to our dinner. A while later my GP calls again after having consulted with an orthopaedic surgeon. The surgeon tells him that I will probably need radiation on that tumour and that radiation treatments happen in Victoria. Until then, I need to keep my right leg as immobile as possible. We’re getting a wheelchair on Tuesday. That will help, and on Wednesday I talk to my oncologist about where we go from here in terms of chemotherapy and now radiation treatments.

You know what? I want some straight answers. That’s all. I know that straight answers are not as easy to come by as they should be, but I’d like a clear, unadulterated assessment of my prognosis at the moment, if you don’t mind. So far, my oncologist and I had not even discussed bone lesions and the treatments for them, and we assumed that the lenalidomide/dexamorphosone chemotherapy drug combination would work and that we would reassess in a year or so.

Yes, I understand that multiple myeloma is highly treatable although it’s incurable, but every myeloma patient presents with an idiopathic set of conditions making blanket prognostications about remissions and potential lifespans kind of useless, if not overly optimistic. So far I have no idea how bad a case of myeloma I presented with and my oncologist is not really interested in what stage I’m at. He says he’s much more interested in how a patient responds to treatments than where they might be on a staging continuum. That’s fine. I hope that sometime soon we will actually be able to assess just how I’m doing on a new course of chemotherapy drugs and that we will be able to conclude that what I’ve experienced so far is a temporary glitch in my treatment.

Whatever. I like taking road trips on winding roads in unfamiliar territory, but a nice stretch of open highway now and again can be exhilarating too. I’d like to see some open road for a change where obstacles can be seen a long way off and I can put the petal to the metal. Is that too much to ask for?

Multiple Myeloma Makes Me Special!

I’m always a sociologist so whatever happens to me triggers an instinct I have to do check it out, do the research, connect the dots. In my book, the more information we have the better. At the moment, we have an information deficit and that’s frustrating but, hopefully, that’s about to change.

In any case, one of my first research stops is Statistics Canada. What’s there to learn there? Well, for one thing, multiple myeloma (MM) is a pretty rare form of cancer and that makes me special, don’t you think? Stats Can reports that there will be about 3000 people in Canada diagnosed this year with it. That’s not a very high number. Stats Can also projects that from 2018 to 2022 only 70 men in BC will be diagnosed with MM in my age group every year. Because doctors seldom encounter it, it can be difficult to diagnose, but back to that in a bit.

I’m in good company too when it comes to MM. Jim Carr, the Liberal Member of Parliament for Winnipeg Centre and Minister of International Trade in the Federal Cabinet, was diagnosed with MM the day of the election (Monday, Oct. 21st) when he went into the hospital complaining of flu-like symptoms. By Tuesday he was receiving chemotherapy and dialysis and by Thursday the CBC was reporting that the Minister said he was doing fine, felt okay and was going to continue serving his constituents and the Canadian People. I’m so happy for him. He won’t be cured, but he will probably be able to function quite well for some time to come. By contrast, my doctors knew I had MM three weeks ago and I have yet to see an oncologist and will have to drive 225 kilometres to Victoria for the pleasure. Living in the boonies as we do, access to specialized health care can be spotty at best and will only get worse if the Vancouver Health Authority has its way. (That’s the subject of another blog post but DecafNation, George Le Masurier’s excellent blog, has been on to this for some time). It’s true that an oncologist in Victoria is on my case and has already prescribed medications for me and I got an infusion of a drug a couple of days ago at the hospital here to help with the pain and ‘strengthen bone’. Still, I feel that I’m not getting the level of care I would have gotten if I were a member of the Canadian political aristocracy or if I lived in a large metropolitan centre. My age likely has something to do with it too. I’m an old guy and not likely to live too long anyway and besides, I’m no longer a contributing member of the economy having retired from teaching at North Island College in 2012. Does that sound like sour grapes? It may be, but socio-economic status (class, gender, age, and geographical location, etc.) has a lot to do with health care provision whether we like to admit it or not.

Alright, so back to my situation. I’ve probably had MM for a long time. I have low B12 and was diagnosed with pernicious anemia at one time by a locum (temporary replacement for my regular doctor) , but my doctor didn’t really accept this diagnosis and prescribed B12 monthly injections (which I do myself). The thing is, I had been going to my doctor for years complaining of being tired, having brain fog, being in lots of pain, and suffering from peripheral neuropathy. To give my doctor credit, he ordered MRIs of my brain and spinal cord, lower back, ultrasounds, etc., because there is a history of Multiple Sclerosis and other immunological diseases in my family. To add to this, I has a kidney removed in 2002 because of renal cell cancer, leaving me with one kidney. For a long time we tested my creatinine levels to ensure my kidney was functioning properly and it did for years. In the last three or four years however my kidney showed signs of being very unhappy. Creatinine levels were rising and still are, and I was getting weaker and weaker all the time with worsening symptoms.

My social life was taking a huge hit. Over the past few years I’ve had to pretty much give up going out in the evening because I’m exhausted. I had to give up life drawing, printmaking and sculpting. I had to resign from the Village of Cumberland’s Homelessness and Affordable Housing Committee and I had to resign as Chair of the Board of the Comox Valley Art Gallery (although frankly I had been doing that long enough). I can no longer go on long walks with Carolyn, something that we both really enjoyed.

After a while, I think my doctor kind of gave up trying to figure out what was wrong with me and I was beginning to wonder if it was all in my head.

About a month ago, all that changed. We had gone camping in Strathcona Park in August. I was not feeling great, but well enough to get the canoe out and paddle/sail/motor around a bit. A couple of times, however, we got into bucking huge headwinds and were forced to paddle hard. Carolyn and I are seasoned paddlers and we know what to do. I felt pretty strong and we handled it fine. Of course we had some muscle pain, but scotch helped out with that a bit! Then my daughter and her family joined us. One day as I was sitting at the camp site doing nothing, my back started hurting something awful. By the time I decided to take some ibuprofen (not to be taken by anyone with any kidney issues) my pain was pushing 9 or 9.5 on a 10 point scale. I was taking T3s like they were candy. When it was time to go home, my son-in-law drove the truck and trailer. I rode shotgun. I have driven very little since and not at all for the last month.

A short time later, I made an appointment to see my doctor to let him know about the back pain and my use of ibuprofen. He figured we had better do some blood testing and we did. He was headed out on vacation for three weeks so I wouldn’t be seeing him again until Oct. 22nd or so. Well, he called me on Friday at around 5:30 and told me that my kidney was leaking protein into my urine and that he had referred me to a kidney specialist in Nanaimo. That was a bit of a shock. I didn’t quite know what to say so I left it at that.

Over the weekend, Carolyn and I sat down and wrote down all of my symptoms and questions to which we wanted answers. On Monday, I called the medical clinic and got an appointment to see a locum to ask questions about what a protein leak meant and to lay out my symptoms. Well, he ordered more blood tests and imaging. We saw him again on Thursday by which time he already had a strong suspicion that I had multiple myeloma. On Friday he called and pretty much confirmed the diagnosis. On Monday we saw another locum and she ordered more tests and imaging as well as a bone marrow biopsy. She also referred me to the Cancer Clinic in Victoria.

So, in less than ten days, the locums had figured out that I had cancer and were moving fast to get me treatment. Possibly all that it took was a fresh set of eyes on my case. Certainly, the referral to the kidney specialist would have got me some results but I’m not scheduled to see him before November 7th. I wondered what my regular doctor would say when he got back from vacation. I am definitely pissed off that I went so long undiagnosed, but I don’t really blame my GP entirely for that. I may not have impressed on him the real state of my distress and MM is not easy to diagnose because it shares symptoms with so may other ailments. Besides, raving about past injustices will get me nowhere. I need to focus my full attention on the present and the future.

So, in any case and in the meantime, I called the Cancer Clinic and a person there confirmed my referral, gave me an ID number and said that I would be seeing such-and-such a doctor. Well, my regular doctor informed me just this past week that there had been a mix-up in the referral and that I would be seeing another doctor at the clinic. We have yet to hear from the Cancer Clinic. If I don’t hear from them by tomorrow afternoon I’ll be calling them again. We need some goddamn answers and I need to get some goddamn treatment. Stay tuned.

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.