A Time to Die?

Well, howdy there internet people, it’s me again. Visited my local GP/oncologist this morning. He showed us images of the growth that is happening alongside the left side of my spine. I think it’s trying to replace the kidney that I lost in 2002. It’s big enough. Just kidding, of course. The growth is pretty impressive, let me tell you. I’m not feeling any ill effects from it at the moment because it hasn’t gotten into my spine. If it had, I’d be paralyzed. It is large, however, and nothing to sneeze at. Probably not immediately life threatening, but I have enough other issues to think about that are threatening my life, not the least of which is my age.

I’m feeling very strange at the moment. I am still sentient from what I can tell, although I’ll leave it up to others to confirm. Sentient or not, I’m close to death. From what I’ve read about Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) people are often sentient until the last minute. Maybe I can shoot for that although being zonked out on morphine has its appeal too as I slip off into death.

My local GP/oncologist is in contact with the oncologist in Victoria at the BC Cancer Agency who looks after my file, and he (Macpherson in Victoria) doesn’t support the idea of my getting another shot with another chemo protocol. I’m done as far as he’s concerned. He expects more chemo would just be futile and would not enhance my life chances a whole lot. I will know the results of my latest bloodwork late next week and that will help me decide as to whether or not I push for a second opinion and for another chemo protocol. Whatever happens, as Carolyn points out, even a new protocol would likely give me just another nine months of life at best, so what’s the point?

It may be time for me to accept the increasingly obvious fact that my life is done. Well, I may have a few more months to live, but not years, certainly not years. I don’t know, but going off chemo may give me a few months of relief from side effects. That would be nice. Already, I’m starting to feel my lips again. Lips I couldn’t feel, constant sore eyes, and plugged ears were Daratumumab/lenalidomide side effects. Since I stopped infusing Dara things have settled down. Carfilzomib has its own issues, but so far I have been able to deal with them. Whatever happens, I could still take hydromorphone for pain, and maybe even increase my dosage. I mean, what the hell do I need a brain for anyway? [Well, maybe for writing a few more blog posts!]

Then, when the time comes, I just give the Hospice Society a call. I may opt to die in a Hospice bed, but I may decide to die at home, although I don’t thing I want to put my family through that. Caregiving is tough enough as it is. It’s true that watching me die might be okay with them. I don’t know. We’ll have to discuss it. MAID is definitely an option. We have discussed that.

I, along with many of my siblings and relatives, sat around and watched my mother die in her bed at The Dufferin in 2018, the care home in Coquitlam she lived in for many years with my father before he died in 2007. She had dementia quite badly for the last few years of her life, and as she lay there dying she had no idea about anything, which is consistent with the last 25 years of her life. The nurses just kept pumping morphine into her veins. That kept her quiet. I suppose I could tolerate an ending like that, but I don’t have dementia. I would probably be conscious and sentient until the end. That’s fine as long as I got the morphine too. I’m not a big fan of pain.

I told my local GP/oncologist that I may go for a second opinion. I may. I may not. Probably not. It all depends on how I come to accept my end times. I find it hard to even think about death and dying. It doesn’t come easily to my imagination. Oh, every once in a while I lay in bed just before falling asleep in the evening and I think “What the heck? When it’s done, it will be done. No regrets.” Then, I get scared. I imagine myself in a cardboard box on my way to the crematorium on the hill. That’s fine, but I need to know that I’m really dead before that happens. I’m not keen on feeling fire on my skin. Of course, I’m being silly. I will definitely be dead by then. My box is on a conveyor belt. There are a couple of bodies ahead of me laid out in fancy coffins. They’ll burn real good! I’ll have to wait to get turned into ash powder. But it will happen. Later, someone will give my family a package of ashes that will have been me. I don’t care what they do with it, but I hear that the family has a cemetery plot in Vancouver. My wonderful niece arranged that. So, that’s it.

Goodbye life.

PS: I’ll write my obituary sometime. Not just yet. You’ll have to wait for it a while longer.

Memory Works With A Little Effort

I’m not sure if you’ll be able to access this Atlantic article or not, so I’ll just summarize it a bit for you. It’s about memory or remembering and whether you remember events in the past from the first or third person perspective. I would expand the argument to include imagined events in the future.

When you remember a past event, say one that was particularly notable, do you remember it as you initially experienced it, or do you see yourself in it as a character, almost as an actor, in a play?

I’ll die soon. Soon is an indeterminate word, mind you. I’ve already commented in previous posts about the fact that I’ve not done all that well with chemotherapy. It seems that I’m probably a high-risk cancer patient in any case. I’ve been subjected to a number of different chemotherapy protocols. Now, according to the oncologist at the BC Cancer Centre in Victoria in charge of my case, I’m running out of options. At the moment I’m on a two-month trial with a drug called carfilzomib (trade name Kyprolis). So far, I’m entirely underwhelmed by its effectiveness. The next month will tell the tale. I’m not very hopeful given my recent bloodwork and my reactions to the chemo drugs. But, I haven’t completely abandoned hope. I may still get to live a few more months.

Recently I had a bit of a discussion with the family about MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying). It’s not something I need to consider immediately but eventually it will become an option, particularly when the levels of pain and immobility outweigh quality of life issues for me. I see no need to lie in bed in pain awaiting more or less imminent and sure death when there is the option of assisted suicide. I’ve tried to imagine my dying moments. I can do that from the third person perspective, but definitely not from the first person perspective although I know what it feels like to go under general anaesthetic. I imagine MAID as like going under general anaesthesia but never waking up again. I see myself lying on a gurney with a doctor setting up the meds and then injecting me first with morphine or something like that before administering the killer drug. I can imagine that. I can remember in the first person going into the Hospital to have my kidney removed in 2002. Now that I try, I can also see those events in the third person. Strange.

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It’s amazing how many incidents and events I can recall if I put a little effort into it. I have seventy-five years of them to capture. Lots of fodder for remembering. I could write a book, although there is a lot that I would not share with you or anybody, private things.

This post is about me as I age from 1949 or so until now. My life isn’t over yet, but I’m getting close to a complete lifetime. I can track my parents’ lives, at least as far as major events go. My father was born in New Brunswick (1911), my mother in Alberta in 1924. They both died at the Dufferin Lodge in Coquitlam, my father in April, 2007 and my mother in January, 2018. Noting their dates of birth and death means nothing, of course. They are merely life’s parentheses. It’s what transpired between those dates that makes a life. The same goes for me, and you. Photographs tell a bit of the story, but in a static kind of way.

In the first picture, I’m standing there with my sister Denise. She was born in 1943, four years before me, to a mother who subsequently died in 1945 giving birth to what would have been her first son. Denise died on December 13th, 2004 of cancer. I’m not sure where this picture was taken. It looks like it could be in Sapperton, not far from the Royal Columbian Hospital. I would welcome correction on this from anyone in the family. By the time this picture was taken the family lived at 634 Alderson Avenue in Maillardille (Coquitlam).

In this picture I look to be maybe two years old. Denise would have been six. I am endowed with a natural Mohawk hair do. I still have it. I don’t remember anything of what was happening when this picture was taken. I was way too young. The photograph does nothing to jog my memory.

Denise and I always had an interesting relationship. She was pretty tough and I was mouthy. She threw a knife at me at the dinner table when I was probably a pre-teen. She missed, but it was close. That was memorable and I see it in the third person. But during my late, listless, teenage years, after returning from College St-Jean and not knowing up from down, I lived with her and her then husband, Roy, for six months or so, and often looked after the kids (which they had adopted). They had a fairly large home in Vancouver, off of 41st. The basement was made out to look like a TiKi lounge. Strange now, but not so for the times.

I worked with my father at a couple of re-manufacturing plants in Surrey and Langley. But I also worked at a planer mill in Fort Langley. I got drunk on occasion with some of the guys from work. It’s amazing we didn’t kill ourselves on the way home from work. One of the guys drove a convertible and that’s what we came home in most of the time. Mom and Dad had to know but they never said anything.

From the time I left College St-Jean until I enrolled in courses at Douglas College in New Westminster in 1970 or so, I worked at a number of odd jobs, mostly in the lumber or related industries. For a few months I worked at a plywood plant on Braid Street in New Westminster. I remember the smells and sounds of that place the most, but I also remember (in the first person) the work I did, piling pieces of veneer in bins in preparation for pressing them into plywood. The last job I had before going to Douglas College was at a sawmill in Marpole. I worked there for maybe six hours total. I recall being required to ‘clean up the chain’ of massive timbers. I did that for a bit but then I slipped and had one of the timbers fall on me as I fell off the platform. I could barely walk after that so I dragged myself to the first aid shack. Nobody there. So I struggled to my car (an Austin Healey Sprite) and drove myself to the hospital. I had back surgery then. Dr. Hill (I recall his name to this day) removed a disc in my lower back. Worker’s Compensation (now Worksafe BC) paid for everything including my first year of studies at Douglas College. There was never an inquiry as to what happened at the mill and as to why there was nobody in the first aid shack when I went there for help. Workers Compensation just paid for everything, no questions asked.

I find the series of photographs here helpful in some way in jogging my memory. The early ones don’t help at all but the later ones do. The one I posted of me doing my Knowledge Network tele course is still available to me as a video so I can go back and see myself over and over again if I so choose. I have many more photos too, but I’m not going to post all of them here.

All I wanted to do here is give the flavour of my life as I grew up, then grew down. We all have individual experiences of life. I often think of the many thousands of people who have died in conflict over the centuries, their lives often cut short by machetes, as in Rwanda in 1994. I suppose if a long life is a good thing, then I’ve had a good life.

Look at the forehead on that kid!
Me, maybe two years old
Me, five or six

Me in 1959 setting off for College St. Jean
Me at sixteen or so
Me doing television – late 1980s, early 90s.
Me not long ago

Chemo and life

July 27th, 2022.

It has been about twenty hours since my second infusion of carfilzomib. I take dexamethasone in conjunction with my infusion and that’s what I’m feeling the effects of predominantly at the moment. I’m dexed out, and I will be for a while yet. What concerns me the most is a repetition of the fever I got last Thursday as a side effect of carfilzomib. That fever at 38.9˚C sent me to Emerg for a long day on Thursday. The irony is that the fever is not caused by an infection, but that’s what the staff in Emerg will focus on. That’s what they know. And, of course, they do have to discount the possibility of an infection so they prescribe high doses of antibiotics. I don’t need antibiotics, but there ya go.

This time around, if I get a fever tomorrow AM (it started at 4 AM last week) I’ll know what to do about it. If my fever stays below 39˚C or so, I’ll stay at home, take a cold shower, use cold compresses and wait for it to pass. Last week the fever lasted maybe a day, and it fluctuated a lot during that time. It was funny in a way, because we went to Emerg for a second time last week on Thursday evening because my temperature had gone up to 38.9˚C. By the time we got there it had dropped to 36.6˚C. Well, that was a bit embarrassing. At that point they took some blood and put me in a room to then ignore me for 4 hours. By midnight we had had enough waiting and just went home. I don’t blame the Emerg staff. They couldn’t do anything in any case. But it would have been good to just send us home even if we hadn’t seen a doctor yet.

In any case, I’m a little apprehensive about the next 24 hours. I really need this chemo regime to work so I need to deal with the side effects and not let them force a stop to the regime. Carfilzomib is one of the last possibilities for me apparently. After that, I’m on my own. That means facing my myeloma without any help from chemotherapy. The consequences of that are well, terminal. We all get there, but I was kinda hoping to see my 80th birthday. That’s not rational, of course, because whether I die today or in 4 years makes little difference. After I’m dead, there won’t be any regrets. So, my hopes and wishes for a longer life are purely emotional.

August 3rd, 2022

So, as of now I’ve completed the first cycle of carfilzomib/dexamethasone treatment. No fevers after the first infusion. That’s great. The thing is I need this protocol to work. I won’t know if it’s working until I get my next blood workup in a couple of weeks. I meet with my local GP oncologist on August 10th, but we won’t have the results of my blood tests by then. We will meet, though, so he can assess how I’m doing. Blood work is only one factor in making decisions about treatment, but it’s an important one.

As usual, I’m dexed out after my last infusion of carfilzomib and 12 milligrams of dexamethasone taken orally. The next forty-eight hours will tell the tale regarding other side effects. I’m feeling alright given the circumstances. Strangely enough I have more energy when I’m dexed out, at least until it wears off and at that point I need to lie down and maybe get a little sleep.

I’m currently reading a book by Tom Robbins entitled Jitterbug Perfume. It hit the New York Times Bestsellers List in 1985. I read most of Robbins’ books back then along with books by John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut. Ostensibly about coming up with the definitive perfume, the book is all about the fear of death, immortality and dying. I can’t seem to get away from reading (and writing) about death and dying. That’s not surprising, really, given my time of life. Strangely, I feel I need to apologize for being so focussed on death and dying. After all, death, according to Ernest Becker, is one of the twin pillars of evil in our world, the other pillar being disease. It seems I’m immersed in the twin pillars of evil. So be it. It’s my life right now. Chemo is my life too at the moment. It’s a tough row to hoe sometimes because the end is nigh. But, it seems that we need to always focus on the bright side of life. Talk of death and dying are not welcome in a world that vociferously denies death and dying.

I know too many people right now with cancer, some with cancers much more aggressive than mine. Some want to talk about it, some don’t. Some have died recently, some are still dealing with their disease. Whatever type of cancer we have, we all face the same end. The ‘authorities’ claim that my cancer, multiple myeloma, is incurable, but treatable. Fair enough. However, the treatment can be quite harsh and whether or not it’s worth it is a question we still need to confront. That’s the case for all types of cancer.

As the song says, it’s summer time…and the living is easy. Yeah, right. For all you joung’uns with not a care in the world, you need to take this maxim and run with it. I’m not in a position to run anywhere. That’s fine. We’re all at different stages of life. Have a great summer.

The habit of life and a new chemo protocol.

July 18th, 2022

So, we went to the Hospital this morning to the nuclear imaging department to get a baseline assessment of how well my heart is pumping blood. That’s in preparation for my initiation into a new chemotherapy regime starting tomorrow since the one I was just on including lenalidomide, dexamethasone, and Daratumumab wasn’t working anymore and it was producing some very interesting symptoms like temporary paralysis or what my GP considered seizures. These ‘seizures’ didn’t last for more than an hour or two, but had lasting effects like extreme fatigue and headaches. I thought I might be having a stroke or something of that nature, but that’s not likely. In any case, my GP ordered a CT scan of my head. It found nothing! ⁉️He also ordered an MRI of my lower back. That will happen at the end of August. That might be revealing. I’ve had issues with my lower back since I was twenty years old.

Also this morning I injected one milligram of vitamin B12 into my left thigh. I do this every Monday because I have an inability to absorb B12 from food. Sometimes I inject it into my right thigh, just for variety. If you’ve never been tested for B12 you might want to consider it if you have a lot of fatigue. That may not be easy if you don’t have a family doctor, but worth it, if for nothing else, to discount it.

Tomorrow afternoon I go back to the Hospital for my first infusion of carfilzomib (trade name is Kyprolis). It has some interesting side effects and reportedly is hard on the cardio-vascular system, but is touted as a solid replacement for Bortezomib (Velcade). It’s relatively new on the market.

All the things I note above are to give me a longer life. That’s the goal. I’m into that, but eventually I’ll have to kick the life habit. We are creatures of habit. (see my note below) Are we ever. And the biggest habit we have is life itself. No wonder we are so reluctant to give it up.

July 19th, 2022

Well, tomorrow is today. Went to the hospital’s Cancer Care Centre for a 1 PM appointment for an infusion of carfilzomib. I got a low dose infusion, forty-four milligrams. I experienced no adverse effects that I noticed. My next infusion, next Tuesday, will be one hundred and fifty-four milligrams. That will be the ongoing dose I get every week for three weeks, then I get a week off before going back for another round of three weeks. So, my life is pretty much tied to the hospital at the moment. I may be able to alter my regimen a bit, but I don’t want to mess with it. I think that consistency is a major part of chemotherapy and I want this protocol to work for me for the foreseeable future. My foreseeable future is shrinking every day. That’s fine. That’s life. It’s interesting as I watch myself go through what little is left of my life, the recognition that my energy levels are dropping fast and that I can’t do things I recently took for granted. I have no regrets. I understand evolution and the need for death. I’ve played my part and will continue to play my part until there is just nothing left of me.

July 20th, 2022

Yesterday was a day filled with anxiety and doubt for me. A new chemo regime is always stressful. Will it work? Will I experience nasty side effects? Is this my last kick at the can? So many questions.

Thankfully, the crew of nurses and support staff at the Cancer Care Centre are amazingly calm and systematic. They patiently answer all of my questions, and this time around I had lots of them.

My infusions of carfilzomib are just a half hour long compared to one and a half hours for Daratumumab in my last protocol. However, for the first three weeks this time around they have me stay for an hour after my infusion for observation. That’s a good move because anything new like this is cause for caution. We were out of there by three thirty. Still, It’s an afternoon a week, and I need to be close to the hospital. No travel abroad, that’s for sure. I’m fine with that. Not much interested in travel right now in any case.

One thing I’ve noticed since I’ve been off of Dara and lenalidomide is that some of the symptoms I’ve been experiencing around my face seem to be attenuating. I can now feel my lips coming back online and my eyes don’t feel as puffy and buggy-outy as they have been for some time now. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll feel a little more ‘normal’ now. I hope this trend continues. The sensation around my eyes is particularly disconcerting. Anything to relieve that is good news. I’m feeling optimistic about carfilzomib but there’s a ways to go yet before we have any sense of whether or not it’s working to keep me alive.

I sleep well these days. That’s great. Of course, dexamethasone will mess with my sleep. I expect that and adjust as needed. It means that I may just read a little longer after I go to bed or wake up later and need to read a bit again before I can get back to sleep. I’m reading Agatha Christie at the moment. She’s such a good writer. There’s lots of murder and mayhem in her books, but some great problem solving too. Poirot and Hastings are principle characters in many of her books. Their interactions create a wonderful backdrop for their crime solving endeavours. Hastings is a great foil for Poirot. He’s not too bright but he is willing, and enthusiastic. The books do a much better job that the television adaptations of Christie’s work in terms of the dynamics of the Poirot/Hastings relationship. Read on. I paid one dollar on Amazon for all of Christie’s work on Kindle. What a deal.

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Just a note to end this post thing:

The fact that we are creatures of habit will be our downfall as a species.* We can’t seem to kick habits we know are bad for us. We know that fossil fuels are in the process of polluting the planet to such a degree that we may very well not be able to reverse the process. The pollution is what is killing us, not the fossil fuels themselves. We keep driving our cars and trucks. That’s a habit hard to kick because we also have a habit of spending money, and we have to get that somehow. Working for others (employment) seems to be the main way we do that, but contract work is also quite common. Employment is a relatively recent way of organizing labour. I wonder how much longer it will last. What I can guarantee you is that it will go the way of the dodo bird just as everything else does.

One huge issue we face is the generational lag that dominates our lives. We tend to think that we can live the way our parents and grandparents lived. We buy big fishing boats and huge RVs to wander around the oceans and roads like the 20th Century had never passed. We all want to live in detached single family houses (around here at least). Well, our parents did it, why can’t we? Maybe it’s because fish are disappearing at an alarming rate and gas is so expensive and polluting. But we’ll carry on because that’s what we know. We do feel anxious about it. That anxiety sometimes gets squished out of our minds in strange ways such as in ‘freedom’ convoys and ridiculous conspiracy theories. Oh well, steady as she goes. We all get to the wall sooner or later.

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*All animals are essentially creatures of habit. We all develop habits of life, some learned, and some tropismatic. We cling to them as long as we can. So it goes. It works as much for bees, chickens, and elephants as much as it does for humans.

Evolutionary Theory vs. Structural-Functionalism.

[Don’t be too put off by the title of this post. It looks highfalutin. It may be, but the text isn’t.]

It’s a truism to say that our lives are finite and that we go through stages of development and change. But, it seems, sometimes we need to be reminded of obvious but possibly unwelcome realities. I’m sure we all understand that we follow a path of change starting at birth and ending at death. In between we move from infancy to childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood, and then to old age. Of course, not all of us get to go through every stage. For some of us, the stages get cut off and we die young or accidentally. We may contract a disease at any age that proves fatal. Governments document all of these things with vital statistics and publish all kinds of data on birth rates, types of mortality, morbidity*, et cetera. British Columbia offers a lot of this information online. Statistics Canada also gets into the act and publishes a lot of health related statistics. It’s not an exaggeration to note that we are obsessed with our health and wellness. How much of the internet is dedicated to health related websites? The woo flows freely and the sales of every magic potion, miracle diet, and supplement imaginable are on offer. And there is overwhelming evidence that at every turn we find ways to deny death. As I’ve often noted, one of Ernest Becker’s most salient observations is that the twin pillars of evil in our world are death and disease.

Our entire medical system is set up to discover and ‘fix’ any human organism that doesn’t conform to what we consider normal for any stage of development. It is often unsuccessful in that endeavour, but it doesn’t like to discuss its failures.

Pathology as I use it here describes a condition of abnormality (non-normality), a structural and functional situation wherein things have gone wrong in an organism. The underlying assumption of pathology is that organisms all have a normal condition, and if things cease to work as they are supposed to according to medical science, then they are considered pathological, or at least the cause of their malfunction is searched out and an attempt is made to restore the organism to normality. Medicine, and in fact, our whole culture, decided a long time ago what normal humans should look like and how they should behave. Yes, we all live and die, but pathology isn’t really interested in those realities. A pathological perspective is only interested in bringing a diseased organism back to normality.

Science and medicine have analyzed and dissected the human body in great detail especially over the past five hundred years. Leonardo da Vinci, born in 1452 was adept at dissection, and he led the way for countless others who carried on the tradition. Later, biologists analyzed the human body from many perspectives, broadly using anatomy and physiology as major categories, but focusing on systems (cardio-vascular, endocrine, etc.), organs, cells, and their functioning. I’m no biologist so I won’t pretend to understand the intricacies of the investigation of human biological life. However, it’s clear that our organs (heart, liver, kidneys, et cetera) are of great interest to medicine, particularly if and when they cease to function the way they are supposed to.

As a quick aside, a major sociological school used (and still uses) what Emile Durkheim calls the organismic analogy. He suggests that society is much like the human body. He argues in his dissertation Rules of Sociological Method that there is no organic equivalence between human organs and social systems, but broadly, they share the same epistemological underpinnings. Human organs work in concert for the good and survival of the whole. That’s easy enough to understand. He then argues that human social systems, politics, family, economy, education, et cetera, must work in concert for the good of the whole society. Social pathology occurs when any one or other of the social systems that make up society fail to fulfill their function. The result is that the whole society is ‘sick’ or malfunctions. The problem with this perspective is that it’s not especially easy to find ‘a society’. From my point of view, societies are not be confused with countries or nation-states. They are not necessarily equivalent.

It’s easier to identify an individual human being than a society, or so it seems, until we ask the question: Is an individual human being a stand-alone organism? My answer is no. I could not and would not exist without air, food, water, et cetera. These elements are not necessarily a part of me, but they are essential for my life so excluding them from an analysis of what I am as a human is highly misleading. It suggests that we are somehow separate from the world that surrounds and sustains us. This is a foundational part of the individualism that characterizes our capitalistic world and it’s wrong.

So, broadly, we are captured by a world view that focusses on the structure and function of our organs in a biological sense and our social structures in a societal sense. This is why people often argue that what’s ‘wrong’ with our society is that the family isn’t doing its job, the economy is failing us, education is behind the times, and other simplistic criticisms. Figuring out how to fix it is another thing entirely.

In terms of the human body, if medicine finds that the heart is weak or not working properly, it tries to ‘fix’ it, that is to restore it to its presumed former state. It may conclude that a weak heart will have deleterious effects on the kidneys, and it may even find that a weak heart will threaten the organism as a whole. In contrast, an evolutionary perspective expects the heart to weaken as it ages. It expects that lungs will lose their ability to process oxygen. It expects that over time, muscles weaken, no matter what you do to counteract it. It expects death because death is built right into the model, unlike functionalism whereby death is left unconsidered or considered a clinical failure.

It’s true that an evolutionary perspective has made substantial inroads in science and even in medicine. It hasn’t in sociology, although it’s coming along**.

An evolutionary perspective follows the logic I present in my recent post: LIFE vs My Little Life. From this perspective, birth and death are normal human events. Death, especially, is not considered a defeat, it being an essential part of life. No death, no life. It’s as simple as that. That doesn’t mean we have to be happy about it. Just the amount of effort the human species has spent on denying death, on convincing itself that death is not the end of life, is testament to how unhappy we are with death and dying.

I don’t want to die, but I don’t have a say in the matter either.

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*morbidity refers to the incidence of ill-health in a population.

**see my (slightly outdated) dissertation on the topic published on this blog.

Myeloma and Pernicious Anemia: My Constant Companions

Pernicious Anemia

In January of this year I published a post about the connections between myeloma and pernicious anemia. In that post I misidentified pernicious anemia as a B12 deficiency. It’s not. Pernicious anemia is actually an autoimmune disease that produces antibodies to a protein called intrinsic factor that is produced in the gut and that is required to ‘extract’ B12 from food. It’s a devilishly difficult condition to diagnose. Low levels of B12 are obviously an important indicator, but there are other reasons that a person might have low B12 levels. Probably the best accessible article on pernicious anemia can be found on the Pernicious Anaemia Society’s website. It’s well worth reading.

Now, I have assumed for some time that I have pernicious anemia but I’m no longer certain. It turns out that 50% to 70% of people who have a B12 deficiency, which I definitely have, will have that deficiency caused by pernicious anemia. I have not been tested for intrinsic factor antibody, a test that would definitively confirm a diagnosis of pernicious anemia, so I don’t really know if I have it or not.

Whatever, I know for a fact that I have a B12 deficiency. In order to treat that deficiency I inject B12 (cobalamin) into my thigh every two weeks. However, because of my mixed record of injecting B12 over the past twenty-five years I may have what’s called  Autoimmune Metaplastic Atrophic Gastritis (AMAG). That just means that my B12 symptoms may never go away, even after my regular injections. Then again they may dissipate, but I have no confidence that that will happen.

An International study is now underway initiated by the Pernicious Anemia Society to try to understand the extent of the disease and to track the problems people have had with getting a proper diagnosis. It may be that we will get some answers, but I’m not holding my breath. At seventy-five years of age, I have a limited amount of breath left in me in any case so maybe I should hold on to some of my breath!

Myeloma

Yeah, well, myeloma. As I noted in my January post, the symptoms of myeloma and pernicious anemia overlap considerably. So, I have no idea what’s driving me nuts with peripheral neuropathy, numbness and tingling in my hands and feet, fuzzy brain, poor balance, weakness, especially in my legs, and bone pain, to name just a few of the symptoms I’m experiencing. It could be both the B12 issues and the myeloma that are teaming up to keep me in my place, and the chemotherapy is also no doubt contributing to my now radically re-assessed quality of life.

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So, that’s it. I’m old, I have a severe B12 deficiency that could be the result of pernicious anemia, and I have multiple myeloma, with its attendant chemotherapy.

As I lay in bed last night I harkened back to times in my life when I was still able to do things easily and effortlessly, things like canoeing, woodworking, building decks, garden structures, and a number of other physical things. I can still paint and draw, but with some difficulty. Writing is even getting to be an issue because I can barely feel the tips of my fingers on my left hand, my dominant hand.

It’s been difficult at times, not because of my physical abilities, but because of my attitude towards them. I’ve had challenges keeping the dark side away, the feeling that I can’t do things anymore like I used to, making me a lesser human being, somehow.

Carolyn and I both read the news and despair at the state of the world, but Carolyn seems to have a greater capacity than I do for keeping the dark side away and for maintaining a sense of perspective about the world. It’s true that the world is in a mess, but it’s always been in a mess if the press is to be believed. I have to keep reminding myself that the press, all of it, has a vested interest in propagating the dark side. That’s where the money is. Outrage and fear sells the goods. The bright side doesn’t.

That said, I don’t want to be captured by the dark side or the bright side. The world is a complex place. Life is finite and changes all the time. Mommy doesn’t have to change my diapers like she did seventy-three years ago, even if she were still alive. I don’t have to put a uniform on and go to elementary school. I never have to write a final exam or go on a job hunt ever again. Of course, I won’t experience the joy of the early days of fatherhood ever again either, of falling in love, nor of the thrill of discovering a wonderful, new camping spot.

I guess my point with all this rambling is that life is full of variety, both at the individual as well as at the socio-political level. Some things we call bad, some good. Those are judgment calls, which for us are adjudicated with reference to capitalist morality which itself is expressed in possessive individualism based on wealth and health. We look down on the poor and the unhealthy.

These judgments are not easy to counteract both at the individual and the political levels because they are so deeply rooted in our culture. They are so familiar to us that we consider them normal and reasonable. It’s easy to feel self-loathing for being poor or in ill-health. It’s almost expected of us. And those individual feelings are reinforced every day in a thousand ways by the vast majority of us as we compare ourselves to others, those with money or excellent health (mental and physical).

If I let myself I can easily be dragged onto the psychologically dark and barren landscape of blame and feelings of unworthiness. Enough of that now. I have a limited number of days, months, and years left to live. I cannot, I will not live them in fear and self-loathing.

Death is like a destination, one we have no choice in travelling towards. But, you know, some of the best trips I’ve taken have been at their finest and most exciting just before reaching our intended destination. Maybe that’s a good metaphor for the last bit of my life.

Ant Under Glass. Should I Kill It?

I’m finding it fascinating how I’m so unable to write at the moment. Well, of course I can write, but I’m flummoxed when it comes to writing a coherent blog post. My age may have something to do with it, but there’s more to it than that. In the past couple of weeks I’ve started writing a blog post four times and for pity’s sake, I can’t complete even one. I guess I’m losing it. That’s not something I want to accept, but as we get older we all lose multiple abilities. It’s inevitable. Eventually we lose all ability. That’s when we die. Dead people don’t have abilities. 

In some ways, I think I’m getting gun shy. People are dying all around me and I’m just here waiting for the sniper to pick me off. I’m keeping my head down, but that strategy will only be good for a time. The Sniper in Charge (SIC) will find me. I have no idea how long it will take for her/him to find me, but it will happen. That has me distracted, very distracted. You may find that this blog post reflects that distraction. It’s anything but coherent. But here goes anyway.

I learned the other day from a very young blogger and her father that mindset is everything in life. To some extent I agree. It’s self defeating to go into a project with the attitude that “I can’t do that.” Of course most of us can do that. Yes, we can. But that attitude is contingent on age and other characteristics we have that may make it impossible to have a ‘can do’ attitude. No matter how much I may want to, making babies is not possible anymore for Carolyn and I. We are both beyond that project. 

The young person I’m referring to here is female. She and her sister operate a small sawmill as part of the family’s logging, lumber, and firewood business. They are both still teens and are very active in life outside of their work. In many ways, they are exceptional. They work in a family business. I don’t know how common that is these days but they may very well be the only young women in North America operating a sawmill of any size. Most people would consider that Man’s work. Her father declared in an interview she did with him in a recent blog post that they come from a Judaeo-Christian tradition and are actively Christian, in that they pray to God and all that. That fact gives them access to a whole community of like-minded people giving them wide acceptance in the community for their business and other activities. That’s just life for them. I’m sure they don’t see their faith and status as God-fearing White Folk giving them any kind of advantage in life. They would argue that they have just made the right decisions in life and people who make the right decisions in life create advantage for themselves by their very actions. There are various interpretations as to the accuracy of this kind of view, but it seems to work for them. It doesn’t work for a very substantial part of the population as sociology has clearly demonstrated over decades of research. 

Well, I guess mindset is important for me too. I can either whine and complain about the fact I have a cancer that won’t go away and will eventually kill me, or I can just get on with things and ignore my ultimate demise. I’ve commented on a recent post that death is akin to a wall. I see it clearly on the horizon, but why focus on it? Actually, it’s hard not to focus on it, but it doesn’t make sense to do nothing else. It certainly is distracting, however. 

I just captured a carpenter ant. I’ve got it on my side table under a shot glass. I can observe it moving about. It really wants to get out of this predicament and constantly looks for ways out. When I tap the glass it goes absolutely still. It’s a winged ant which means that it is at a stage in its life when it is bound to search out a new home. At this time of year they come out of the woodwork, literally. This ant seems very confused. This small prison it’s in is thwarting its destiny, which is, along with its buddies, to eat our house, which is made of wood, so lunch is served. However, I’m not particular enamoured with its destiny because we have conflicting interests. So, what should I do with this ant? I could easily kill it, or keep it imprisoned until it dies, or I could release it so that it can start munching on my house. Even if I release it outside, it’s still liable to find a spot to have a nibble. Obviously it cannot eat us out of house and home, but we know from past experience that it can, along with its buddies, cause a lot of damage. So what do I do? 

Help me out here. What should I do?  

Ant Under Glass

I’ve struggled a lot lately about whether my glass is half full or half empty. I’ve lived seventy-five years. Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing? 

Whatever. 

Lately, I’ve often mused nostalgically about my past. My present is not what I would have it be, but I’ll write about that below.

For now, I want to write about moments in my past that were particularly instructive for me. You all know that I have cancer. That’s not news. However, some of you may not know that I was diagnosed with kidney cell cancer in 2002. From what I was told, I had what they call a lesion on my left kidney. In this case a ‘lesion’ means a fairly large growth protruding from my kidney. They were loathe to do a biopsy because any puncture of the lesion or any attempt to remove the growth by aspiration was going to spread the cancer far and wide. So, they scheduled me for surgery. I was fortunate to have a very good local urologist perform the surgery with my GP attending (he’s an internist as well as a family physician).

My Nephrectomy

When my time came for my nephrectomy (removal of my kidney) on February 17th, 2002, Carolyn drove me to the hospital early in the morning and left me there to find my way to the surgical unit. I wasn’t there long before they ushered me into the operating room. I was set at ease to see so many people I knew there, including a nurse who was a former student, my GP and the surgeon. I didn’t know the anesthetist although I had met him earlier in the hospital for a pre-surgical interview. 

So, taking my kidney out would be a straightforward affair if you knew what you were doing! Thankfully, the urologist knew what he was doing. In order not to spread the cancer far and wide, he opted to open me up using a 35 centimetre incision between my ribs on underside of my left arm to my midsection but lower on my body. They essentially cut me in half so they could gently lift my kidney out of my body without messing with the surrounding tissue and risking metastasis. I heard later that my GP was humbled by the process of cutting me in half and putting me back together. 

After the kidney was removed and they made sure they hadn’t left anything in there that shouldn’t have been there, they stapled me shut and sent me off to a room upstairs. I was there for a few days. I had a morphine pump to make sure I had no pain but it did have a governor on it so I didn’t overdose. That was kind of them, I think. 

I went home after six or seven days. We had just moved to Cumberland on an acre. There was lots of work to do. I couldn’t do any of it. Thankfully a number of my family members came over. There was lots of help and Carolyn was healthy, as she still is so I watched as my family and some friends helped us move in and get the yard together. 

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Visit to Cancer Care Centre 

We saw my local GP/oncologist this morning. These meetings are always interesting. I’ve been off chemo for a month and I’ll be off again for another month so that we can more properly assess how I react while not on the chemo meds. I’m also off hydromorphone (opioid), having gone through the nasty process of withdrawal over the past few days. I’ve never taken a very high dose of it, but I have been on it a long time. That makes it a bit of a challenge to stop taking it. I’ve also cut way back on gabapentin, which is a drug initially used for epilepsy, but has been used for all kinds of ailments since (maybe overused). I really have no idea how it’s affecting me because I have had such a mix of medications over the past couple of years that there’s no way I can tell what med is having what effect. It’s supposed to help with my peripheral neuropathy. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. I really don’t know. It’s just a bit confusing and frustrating. 

I was in the Cancer Care Centre at the hospital this morning, as I said, to meet my GP/oncologist, and I saw a few of the usual suspects getting treatment. There was an older woman (probably a bit older than me) getting an infusion in Chair #4. I’ve seen her a number of times before. This time she was with her husband (I presume) who sat in a chair beside her. We nodded to each other. A young woman came by us as we waited to see the doctor. She was in Chair #3 I think. She was dragging her IV pole along beside her as she made her way to the bathroom close by, something I’ve done many times. IV poles, with bags of meds hanging from them with a line entering the arm somewhere, are on casters but they still rattle away as they are dragged along. I thought to myself: “This is my life. I share it with people I don’t know and some I do know, people who share my struggle to one extent or other. What we share is cancer.” But we also share the care and love that the staff gives us. Notwithstanding, every one of us will die. We may survive a year, two, ten, or twenty, but we must die. I’m not complaining about that. It is what it is.

I’ve spent a good part of my life studying life and death. I’m a sociologist, but I’ve not contained myself within that discipline. I’ve struggled to see the big picture of life on this planet and how life cannot exist without death. I know it’s something I’ve brought up before, but it’s always on my mind. 

We’re coming on to spring. My favourite season. Plants spring up everywhere. They count on the decay from previous years to fuel their growth. Life is not a cycle. It’s more like a spiral, with an inevitable end. To think of the seasons as cyclical is a mistake, a comforting mistake, I guess. I’m thinking we have a built-in biological aversion to death. From what I’ve observed, we share that aversion with most other animals. Life is the big draw, death and disease are the ultimate enemy. Our whole culture is built on that false premise. Silly us. 

This spring for me is not like the spring of my tenth year, nor of my fortieth year. I’m hoping this is not my last spring. I’m thinking it won’t be, but the future is promised to no one. 

75 UP

So, this post is about what’s up with me now. I’ve reconciled myself with the fact of my frailty, which I share with all living things. It stands to reason that my body is not as it was twenty or even ten years ago. All individuals of all species, plant and animal have a life course. We’re all born. Even trees, but some of those individuals die young (like the trees that are being cut in the hills above Cumberland), some trees live out what must be considered the outer limit of life’s potential, in the Carmanah Valley, for instance, no thanks to BC’s forest industry. Some of us humans die young. Some die hacked to death in a stupid race war in Rwanda in 1994. Others die horrible deaths in the ovens of Auschwitz. Still others, of all species, die of inborn problems, with their DNA or or whatever. In the end we are all frail, even the biggest and toughest among us, and vulnerable. For most plants and animals eventually, the soft, squishy material that we’re made of becomes increasingly brittle and inelastic as we age and approach our inevitable ends. My squishy material is definitely becoming worn out. It still has some bounciness in it, but nothing like it had years ago, and there’s no turning back. But on with the story.

Being one who kind of likes living (even given what I write above) I dutifully injected B12 into my legs (alternating left and right) once a day for a week mid-January and since then I’ve injected once a week.*That should replenish my B12 levels and keep me going. It may take some time for increased amounts of B12 in my blood to make a difference to my energy levels, but I can be patient as I know that results will come. Of course, I’m fighting a losing battle. We all are. Death will catch up with me regardless of how much B12 I inject or how many chemo drugs I take. I find it almost funny that we talk about medicine, police, firefighters, paramedics, etcetera as saving lives. The best they can do, in reality, is allow life to go on a bit longer, to postpone death. In any case, I have my B12 situation under control.

In terms of myeloma, I’m off chemo drugs for at least a month. Myeloma protein is barely detectable in my blood so this is a good time to lay off for a while and see how things go. It would be grand to get some relief from side effects for a time. Next month sometime they’ll check my blood again to see what the status of my paraproteins(myeloma proteins) are. I can easily go back on chemo if the bloodwork shows a rise in paraproteins. During our last phone call my local GP/oncologist uttered the word remission. I hope he’s right but only time will tell.

Another thing has come to plague me. It looks like it’s true that nastiness comes in threes. I’m getting a CT scan on Monday of my left jaw. I saw an endodontist a while ago because of excruciating pain in one of my left upper molars. He figures I need a root canal. Well, that’s probably true, but because I had a lesion in my left lower jaw that required radiation treatment earlier this year, I wanted some assurance that this issue with my upper jaw wasn’t also due to myeloma. It may be that I should be more trusting, but the symptoms caused by a myeloma lesion and a rotten tooth are similar so I just wanted a little reassurance. I got that when I spoke with an oncologist at the BC Cancer Agency in Victoria last month. She ordered the CT scan the results of which will determine whether I get a root canal or more radiation. My, my. Life can be complicated.

In the meantime, I’m back to doing some drawing. I got a very cheap but good set of coloured pencils for my birthday last month, so I did a couple of drawings. Here they are:

Christmas cactus head on view.
Christmas cactus side view.

I have one more I want to do with the coloured pencils using a different profile. Then I want to do a couple more in watercolour on proper paper, and maybe in acrylic on a large canvas. I’ll have to assess my level of energy before I undertake a large(ish) canvas, but I seem to be getting stronger every day now.

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*If you haven’t read my post from January 13, 2022, you might want to do so now. It outlines my experience with B12 deficiency and pernicious anemia.

Happy New Year (sort of)!

The conventional thing to do at this time of year is to reminisce about events of the past year and pick out highlights and possibly low lights, in this case, of 2021. Well, I would do that except that my brain is quite mushy right now. I’m not sure why. It may be the chemo meds. They have a variety of side effects that vary from week to week. This week my meds may have decided to afflict me with a sludgy brain to go along with my barely functioning legs. 

Then there’s the fact that 2021 was, to be charitable, less than a stellar year. Chemotherapy and monoclonal antibody infusions every four weeks for a morning at the hospital can put a damper on life. Part of the problem with the chemotherapy pills I take every day is that I experience a surprising range of side effects. While all this goes on, I have a lot of difficulty writing. I can’t seem to hold onto an idea or a train of thought for any length of time. I’ve tried to put together a couple of blog posts over the past three weeks, but they’ve turned out resembling alphabet soup rather than carefully crafted narratives. Right now, I seem to be experiencing a slight window of lucidity, but that may just be self-delusion on my part. I have no idea how long this window will be open. You be the judge. 

Today is January 1st, 2022. The first day of the year is supposed to be infused with positive thoughts, merriment, and optimism. I guess saying that 2022 will not be the year that I die qualifies as optimism, or maybe reckless self-delusion. I turn 75 years old in a few days. I know I’ve written it before on this blog, but I say it again: How in the hell did that happen? It seems to me that I was forty years old yesterday. Now seventy-five? WTF. Following Barbara Ehrenreich (who is my age) I have noted in the past that I’m old enough to die. That’s true, but still, I have confidence that people will not have to publish an obituary about me in 2022. 

My memory has gone for a crap. I don’t have dementia, that’s for sure. But still, I guess that’s to be expected of a person my age. I retired from twenty-nine years of teaching at North Island College in 2012, but I had been teaching in the Lower Mainland since 1976. Since my retirement, I have somehow mislaid recollection of so many things. I do have this blog to jog my memory. I started it in late 2012 and have produced over 300 posts since then. That’s a lot of bits and bytes engraved somewhere in a computer hard drive or on the cloud, whatever and wherever that is. I think that the number of words I’ve clicked out probably amounts to at least a five-hundred-page book. I know that since my cancer diagnosis in the fall of 2019 I’ve put together the equivalent of a three-hundred-page book chronicling my experience with myeloma, its side effects, and chemotherapy with its side effects. Now, I’m not sure what I’ll do with this blog. Unfortunately, I have very little energy to do much of anything physical. The oncologists in my life are very reluctant to tell patients what to expect of a life with cancer, especially one like myeloma. Gawande is clear on that:

“Studies find that although doctors usually tell patients when a cancer is not curable, most are reluctant to give a specific prognosis, even when pressed. More than 40 percent of oncologists admit to offering treatments that they believe are unlikely to work. In an era in which the relationship between patient and doctor is increasingly miscast in retail terms — “the customer is always right”—doctors are especially hesitant to trample on a patient’s expectations. You worry far more about being overly pessimistic than you do about being overly optimistic. And talking about dying is enormously fraught.” (from “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande)

I have found that with old age and a crumbling infrastructure, and as I note above, a lot of physical activity is out of the question. Coming to terms with that reality is very difficult, I can tell you.  Carolyn and I have done some camping over the years since our retirement. Sometimes we were accompanied by family. Most often we were out there by ourselves. We spent most of our time camping in Strathcona Park. I hope to be able to go camping again, but I don’t have a lot of strength and energy. That’s something I have to work on so that I can DO STUFF this coming spring and summer. 

Now, I don’t have to think about physical activity. We have a blizzard outside and snow 50 centimeters thick. So, I read. I have five books on the go right now. I’ll discuss them soon in a post!