Dexamethasone for the Win!

Last post I more or less said that I would not write about pain anymore. Well, that’s not really practical if I want to write about my life so that idea is out the window. Lately pain has been my life. It’s dominated everything that I do and don’t do (because of it). So, away we go.

Along with the general pain in my legs and back from the chemo treatments I get, I have serious neck issues that are fairly common in older people, that is, vertebrae that collapse or the passages in the spine shrink (stenosis). For all of you young’uns out there, this is your future. However, most people don’t have pain to accompany these age-related changes. I just happen to be one of the lucky ones to get excruciating pain in my neck that includes cramps and a low-grade throbbing pain. Most of this I can handle. The cramps require immediate attention much like a charley-horse in the leg muscles. I often wear a neck brace to keep my neck from moving too much and inducing the cramps. In fact, I’ve just put one on because looking down on my keyboard is a sure way of bringing on a cramp.

I’ve been exasperated with my neck pain because it severely limits my mobility and I want to do some painting, drawing, and boat work. As soon as I look down for any length of time, I get a cramp and that really cramps my style, if you know what I mean. So, I called my GP. He, I’m sure being sick and tired of me complaining about pain referred me to the Pain Clinic at the hospital in Nanaimo. They called me from the clinic surprisingly quickly and we set up a telephone appointment with Dr. Pariser, one of the doctors who works at the clinic. We decided on a procedure. It would take place on October 6th, yesterday. All that was left was the waiting.

Carolyn drove me down to Nanaimo yesterday morning when I got to see Dr. Pariser. We decided on a treatment that’s been around for a long time and that works fifty percent of the time and only after a month following the procedure. It (the procedure) involves injecting a steroid in the spinal cord to deaden the pain. It’s clinically referred to as an epidural. Epidurals are sometimes given to women during labour but they are not uncommon for lower back pain.

In my case the steroid was dexamethasone. I’ve often mentioned dexamethasone (dex) in my previous posts because it’s a staple medication of my chemotherapy and it has interesting side effects. I was a bit surprised when Dr. Pariser told me that he would be injecting dex into my neck, but he assured me that there would be no adverse effects from adding this dosage of dex into my mix along with my monthly oral 12 milligrams taken in conjunction with my infusion of Daratumumab at the hospital. Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of side effects from the dex injection in my neck. It didn’t take long to find out.

Before I tell you about the effects of the dex injection in my neck I want to tell you about another source of pain I’ve had recently that prompted a visit to my dentist. It started innocently enough with a bit of sensitivity in an upper left molar. It has a large crown which has been there for some twenty-five years. X-rays showed a probable need for a root canal. Well, that was fine and dandy, but when could that be scheduled. I was in pain NOW. My dentist was very concerned and referred me to a group of dental specialists in the Valley that specializes in this kind of work. Great. Their office called me and cheerfully informed me that I was booked for an appointment on November 15th. Yahoo! That’s all I needed: a six week wait for a consultation, never mind the procedure. After whining for a bit I got the appointment moved up to October 15th. That was some improvement but still a long way off given the level of pain I was in. I mean, this pain trumped all other pain in my body. It was excruciating, it was relentless.

So, yesterday when we drove to Nanaimo I was still in a lot of pain, but it had attenuated some due to an onslaught of hydromorphone. I take hydromorphone daily in a small dose for pain associated with my multiple myeloma, its side effects and the side effects from the chemo. I take a slow-release dosage morning and night, but I also have a stock of what’s called breakthrough medication for times when the slow-release dosage just doesn’t cut it anymore. Over the last while I used a lot of breakthrough hydromorphone. It has a lot of side effects that I don’t particularly enjoy, like insomnia, but too bad about that. I needed pain relief and damn the torpedos! It’s a good thing I had my breakthrough hydromorphone.

This is where serendipity comes in. I love serendipity. Dex can relieve pain. I had pain in my mouth as well as my neck so what would dex do for my molar pain? Well, I’m pleased to report that the dex pretty much killed the pain in my mouth, at least for now. I don’t expect the pain relief to last a long time, but any relief is welcome. I have the hiccups, a common dex side effect so I know it’s working. Strangely enough, I slept very well last night. Insomnia is also a common side effect, but it’s also a side effect of other meds I’m taking so who knows what’s going on in my body.

As a bit of a side note, if there are scientists reading this, scientists interested in pain and its management, you might want to think about a way of letting others know how much pain we’re in. That wouldn’t have any pain relief effects, but it may increase positively the way most people react to people with chronic pain. I mean, it’s hard to know if someone is in pain or not. People can fake it. There are clues in bodily function and blood work, but not many that show physically. Arthritis can sometimes show clearly in the body. In the last decade of his life, my father’s hands became deformed with arthritis. He was unable to open them, and he kept them clutched against his chest. Maybe, if our pain wasn’t obvious, if our limbs glowed blue or green that would be a clear indication of pain. Whatever. Work on it.

So, in summary, dex was a clear winner for me yesterday and today. I still had a shake (liquid diet) for breakfast today like yesterday rather than my usual granola or toast, but I’ll carry on with that because I really like the shakes Carolyn makes! Besides, I expect my toothache to reappear as the dex wears off. So be it. Pain management is very complex because the pain never stays the same in terms of source or intensity. It’s like playing whack-a-mole, but with no fun involved.

Moments in my life #2: Withdrawing from opioids

It’s now 5:11 AM on Friday, August 27th, 2021. I just came downstairs to my recliner/writing station. I’ve been awake since 2 AM in a dexamethasone induced insomnia and decided that it was unproductive to just lie there thinking about nothing in particular (or a multiplication of musings about my life and career) when I could be downstairs at my computer where I could retain in writing some of the musings that had come to mind as I was lying in bed with my hands behind my head in a position not particularly inducive to bringing on sleep. So, if I had no possibility in my Dex determined insomnia to fall asleep, I might as well come downstairs. Princess Pretty Paws seemed to have no objection so here I am. She does expect that if I come downstairs, I will give her some “kitty crack”, marketed as cat treats or whatever. She’s addicted to her treats and will not be denied so I obliged and before sitting down I laid out a few bits of her favourite crack to munch on. She was appreciative if I can deduce that from her silence and aloofness. She’s now sitting in the kitchen awaiting another few bits of crack, but they’re not coming. She isn’t complaining so I won’t pay any more attention to her. If she meows a lot I may get up and indulge her. Oh wait, she’s just come over and is threatening to march all over my keyboard, so I’d better get up and give her a few treats. So, that’s that. Now I can get to the topic at hand, that is, withdrawing from opioids.

Some readers of this post might consider this offering as a confession of failure. It may be viewed that way, I guess, but it’s more, in my mind, a reflection on the vagaries of life and responses to unintended outcomes and life-threatening events. I was first diagnosed with multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer) in the fall of 2019. It was clear to Carolyn and me that I had been suffering from the effects of myeloma for many years and the resulting MRIs and CT scans confirmed that: for one thing, my femurs were being excavated by myeloma and my left femur had a ‘lytic lesion’ of 10 centimeters in length at the distal end closest to my knee and that the whole-body chronic pain I was dealing with which was clearly an effect of myeloma. That explained why I was in such constant pain all the time and increasingly unable to engage in the kinds of wonderful activities I had anticipated being able to engage in after my retirement in 2012. Of course, age plays a huge part in a body’s preparation for death, its entropy. We inevitably get weaker and have age-related physical symptoms that preclude strenuous activity. I don’t think that evolution had in mind (so to speak) that we would live so long. So now most of us over seventy have back and neck problems that tell us it’s time to slow down and forego the strenuous activities that were the hallmarks of earlier life. 

When I was finally diagnosed with myeloma, I was prescribed pain medications on top of the chemo meds I would be taking for the foreseeable future to deal specifically with my cancer. One of those meds was hydromorphone, a synthetic opioid much stronger than morphine. After some time, I was also prescribed other meds to deal with the neuropathic pain I was suffering brought on by myeloma. I was offered and take gabapentin. I was offered, took nortriptyline, then stopped taking it a few months back because I couldn’t stand the side effects it produced: unable to taste my food, enjoy eating, and I had dry mouth all the time. Enough of that. 

So, I’ve been taking a low dose of hydromorphone in two forms since late 2019. One form is a slow release 3 milligram tablet taken in the morning and 6 milligrams in the evening. It’s designed to produce ongoing relief from pain. I was also prescribed 2 milligram tablets of hydromorphone as a ‘breakthrough’ med if the pain got out of hand. I did take the breakthrough hydromorphone occasionally especially after I had indulged in some activity more strenuous than was good for me. It always worked if I took enough of it. The most I ever took was 18 milligrams, and that was only a couple of times. Taking the hydromorphone in that form eliminated some of the more egregious types of pain I endured, mostly in my thoracic area, lower back, neck, and legs, well in my whole body is what I’m saying.

Lately I’ve been feeling that I might be able to forgo some of my pain meds because I’ve been feeling pretty good. My neck pain is still nasty and prevents me from painting and drawing. Sculpting, especially with a chainsaw, is out of the question. I tried backing off gabapentin and soon realized that that was a mistake. My neuropathic pain returned with a vengeance. I’m now taking a bit more Gaba than I had been. The reality is that every med I take has side effects. None are purely capable of producing pain relief without negative consequences. Dexamethasone, for example, one of my chemo meds, is a powerful pain killer, but has huge negative consequences over time resulting in severe bone deterioration. It’s a glucocorticoid (Google it). It is not to be taken lightly although in my desperate state over the pain in my neck, I will go to the Pain Clinic at the Nanaimo Hospital in October and have some Dex injected into my neck. According to the doctor there, it may help, it may not. What have I got to lose at my age by giving it a try?

Anyway, getting back to hydromorphone. Of course, I knew that taking an opioid was fraught with issues, not the least of which is addiction. However, faced with severe chronic pain in most parts of my body, hydromorphone produced some relief and allowed me to resume some of my former activities. I can still write. Problem is that there is a balancing act when taking opioids for pain relief. Take too much and you become brain-addled and incapable of much in the way of coherent thought. Take too little and the pain relief objective is undermined.

In the face of the negative consequences of taking a powerful opioid like hydromorphone, I decided recently that I would try to withdraw from it. I knew that I shouldn’t try going cold turkey, so I decided to do the right thing and go cold turkey. Go figure! I stopped taking it last Sunday. I figured that since I was on such a low dose, how could I possibly be addicted? Well, I am addicted and the proof of that was how my body reacted to the withdrawal. I’ve never experienced in my life the effects of withdrawal. I didn’t experience some of the more horrific effects like vomiting and diarrhea, but after a while I just couldn’t stand the overall drastic body dysphoria that was the outcome of withdrawal. There’s no way I could sleep. I was agitated to the point of distraction. I could not relax or stay still. I paced. I sat down. I paced again. It was awful.

Consequently, Carolyn and I decided that I should probably resume taking hydromorphone in the usual way until my appointment at the pain clinic to see what my cortisone injections might produce in the way of pain relief. At that time, I will consult with my family doctor to develop a proper plan for withdrawal. I am prepared, though, for the possibility that I will not be able to live without some chemistry enabling a life with a modicum of relief from the grinding chronic pain that is my constant daily companion. My pain meds, so far, have proven effective. It may be that I’m suffering from some sort of moral panic. I’ve done some self-psychotherapy and have concluded that there is a distinct possibility that I may be in a moral existential crisis. How could a big, strong guy like me need opioids? The answer to that question is still blowing in my mind’s wind and may be the subject of another blog post. 

 

#86. ???????

I woke up this morning at seven twenty three and got out of bed at seven twenty eight. In that five minutes between seven twenty three and seven twenty eight I had a couple of thinks1. These were little thinks, nothing momentous or earth-shattering. They were thinks about what I would do today. I decided on a couple of things to work on, writing a blog post is one and the other is going down to my studio to continue a clean up I started some time ago in preparation for some work I want to do.

Today is the day after my Daratumumab infusion at the hospital. That’s a bi-monthly event for me. We get to the hospital for a nine o’clock appointment. I grab a coffee after being logged in at the Wellness Centre then make my way to the Cancer Care Centre. After getting settled in they hook me up to an IV drip and then call the pharmacy to tell them I’ve arrived and that they can prep the Dara. Yesterday it took over an hour for the pharmacy to get the Dara to the Cancer Care Centre. I waited patiently but with a little frustration, I must admit. After about ten fifteen they released the Dara starting the infusion. I read my book for a bit but soon fell asleep. I woke up at eleven forty five. Cool. The infusion was almost done. It generally takes about one and a half hours. At about twelve twenty, Carolyn picked me up and we came home.

Along with the Dara, as you well know, I take dexamethasone and lenalidomide. These are the chemo drugs. Dara is not a chemo drug, but a monoclonal antibody. Click on the word Daratumumab in the paragraph above for some good information about Dara. Dex and Lena are very different drugs that do different things in the blood. Dexamethasone is a steroid and has some annoying side effects like interfering with sleep. That it did last night. I slept in fits and starts and got maybe four hours of sleep total. I won’t get much sleep until Monday.

My life these days is organized around my chemotherapy. Of course, my Dara infusions predominate, but the dex has the most immediate and dramatic effects aside from the hydromorphone. I most often go to bed before nine o’clock in the evening. I rarely go to sleep right away, however. Yesterday, I did fall asleep after going to bed at eight thirty. I woke up about forty-five minutes later with a start. I had gone to sleep with the cat laying between my legs. I dreamt that the cat had been joined by my brother. I woke up with nobody on the bed with me. I was startled when I woke up but relieved too because I find it uncomfortable to have the cat sleep with me. I mean, I could easily get her off the bed, but I’m a sucker for the cat. She rules.

A preoccupation I have these days relates to the purpose of life and how to determine what to do with the time I have left to live. I have all kinds of time every day to think about things so off I go. Obviously there will be some physical restrictions that hamper the kinds of activities I can do; after all, I am seventy-four years old. One serious big think I’m having these days is coming to grips with the kinds of activities I am still capable of doing amongst the many I did during my younger years. I don’t want to simply lay back and avoid any activities that would require of me exertion that might tire me or leave me incapable of doing anything for a couple of days afterwards. I’m still strong enough, but I’m not as well coordinated as I used to be. I’m learning that I have to strike a balance between what I want to do and what I’m really capable of doing. There is a slew of activities I did when I was younger that are beyond me now. I have to be realistic about these things. I cranked up the chainsaw the other day and chopped a bit of wood. That was fine. I could do that. But what I want to do in terms of sculpture would require that I use saws and chisels for a sustained period of time. I don’t know if I have the sustainability to sculpt, but I know I can paint and draw. Whether I have the desire to do these things is another question.

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1 This is a verb being used as a noun, but it’s probably not original.

#84. One Day at a Time

Spring is a magical time for me. I never tire of looking out the windows at the many flowers, ferns, plants and trees as they come out in response to the warmth in the soil and other encouraging signs of Spring. On most days, the sun is there to warm my face. When it rains, the droplets glisten on the leaves as the hummingbirds dart back and forth between the feeder and their favourite perch. The wisteria is blossoming and will soon be in full flower, providing a shade canopy for the deck in anticipation of those lazy, hazy days of summer.

Wisteria

Occasionally I will take a slow stroll through the gardens aided by my cane and revel in the glorious, delicious scents that emanate from the many flowers that are now in full bloom. Right now the crab-apple tree with its ten or twelve foot canopy is showing off its clusters of blossoms and establishing its perfumed dominance as it spreads out next to the driveway. In the vegetable garden, without the benefit of a sweet scent, the rhubarb has already provided us with a delicious desert and promises more. The garlic is as hardy as ever this year and will supply us with all that we could possibly want for the coming year.

I seem to be feeling better as time goes by. Springtime has that effect on me. Of course, I’m 74 and I have the emperor of all maladies as well as various and sundry ailments related to my vertebrae competing to see which of them can make my life most miserable. All of them can and do contribute to the waves of pain that frequently sweep over me, and that inspire me to reach for the opiates and the acetaminophen. That said, I expect improvement in my situation in the coming weeks as I move into a new phase of chemotherapy having Daratumumab infusions once a month but staying the course with lenalidomide and dexamethasone. Of course, because of the nature of myeloma I can only think in the short term, five years tops. I have another handicap that makes my situation somewhat different than others and that’s the fact that I have only one kidney. I lost my left kidney to kidney cell cancer in 2002. The pain in my left side due to the nephrectomy (kidney removal) has not let me forget it either. My left side is a constant source of pain.

I should say that cancer has not been my only tormentor. In my youth I lost a lumbar disk to a sawmill accident leaving my lower back especially vulnerable to re-injury. Given all the physical ailments and challenges I’ve faced over my lifetime, I’ve managed to stay physically active running and cycling as well as working in my shop and studio. Now, the limitations I face are those of old age and cancer. I just have to be super vigilant and not do stupid things, things that could leave me physically incapacitated.

Back to my chemo life, I checked my numbers earlier this afternoon. That means that I consulted MyHealth, an online access to lab results, imaging, appointments, etc., to see what all the blood tests I get periodically can tell me about my state of health. I have results as of May 4th, 2021. Looking at the results you’d have to conclude that you were looking at the blood serum of a very healthy person of my age. It seems that the chemo meds that I’m on now are doing the trick, that is they are suppressing my myeloma down to levels seen in healthy individuals.

Too bad my blood serum won’t maintain that level of normality for any length of time. My myeloma is kept at bay as long as I keep taking my chemo meds. Stop taking my meds and the myeloma wants to kill, kill, kill. The amount of time between when I stop taking my meds and the resurgence of the disease can vary a lot. The last time I stopped taking my chemo meds it was only a matter of a couple of months before my myeloma was back and as active as ever.

With this new chemo regimen it looks like I may get a better result than I got last time. It also looks like I’ll have a long-term relationship with some of my chemo meds. I’m not sure which ones at the moment.

The way these things work, chemo meds only work for a certain length of time after which a new cocktail of chemo meds needs to replace the meds that are no longer working. It looks like the Daratumumab/lenalidomide/dexamethasone triumvirate is going to give me a longer period of remission than I had the last time I went off chemo meds. I’m hoping for years of remission but that’s yet to be determined. If I could get a modicum of mobility as well as ability to use shop tools and studio materials even for a few months I’d be happy. So far my Dara/Lena/Dex trio is doing the trick. I hope it continues that way and buys me some more time.

All I can do is take it one day at a time.

#79. My Numbers!

This is the post I’ve been looking forward to writing for some time now. It documents a radical improvement in my myeloma situation. Now, if only I could find a way to rapidly decrease the problems and pain I get from arthritis and degenerative disk syndrome, I would almost be back to a normal life. Of course, I keep forgetting that I’m 74 years old and that I’ll never be able to do the things now that I used to do just ten years ago. But enough grousing about my limitations, it’s time to focus on some recent victories that have everything to do with my numbers.

For me, the one thing that came along with the diagnosis of multiple myeloma or bone marrow cancer was (and is) an obsession and fascination with my numbers. I wrote about this earlier in a blog post on December 17th, 2019 (https://rogerjgalbert.com/2019/12/17/access-to-medical-records/). Now is a good time to revisit my obsession with my numbers because I’ve recently had some pretty spectacular changes in some of my critical numbers. I concur with Paul Kleutghen when he writes:”We (patients and caregivers) have all become so attuned to focusing on numbers that any excursion out of the “normal” causes worries and sleepless nights.”* I generally don’t lose sleep over anything, but, like Kleutghen, I am focussed on my numbers, and I get pretty upset if my numbers are going in the wrong direction or stand outside of the reference numbers.** Of course it’s an entirely different story when my numbers go in the right direction. Numbers are important to me and you’ll see why in this post.

My numbers refers to the lab results I get from frequent visits to the Vancouver Island Heath Authority (VIHA) lab in Courtenay, or to the hospital lab. As a regular thing I get checks of my blood, my white blood cells, red blood cells, monocytes, hemoglobin, neutrophils, eosinophils, basophils, etcetera. I also get regular tests of my kidney function by analysis of creatinine in my blood serum. (I have access to all my lab results through an online VIHA service called MyHealth.). By the way, a really good source of information about reading our lab results can be found here: http://media.myelomacentral.com/wp-content/uploads/UnderstandingYourLabResults.pdf.

Once a month or so I get tested for more myeloma specific indicators in my blood serum. These are paraproteins and free light chains, both kappa and lambda. Our blood has both Free Light Chains and Heavy Chains. These are simply descriptions of the organization of proteins in our blood serum. Without getting into too much technical detail it’s important to note that some myeloma patients are kappa free light chain myeloma patients and some are lambda free light chain myeloma patients. I’m a lambda kind of guy.

So, I went on a new chemo regimen in January. It’s composed of dexamethasone, a glucocorticoid, lenalidomide, a chemo drug (they’re not sure how it works) and Daratumumab, a monoclonal antibody. If your eyes haven’t glassed over yet from all the technical jargon I invite you to have a look at the table below I got from MyHealth. It refers to my Lambda Free Light Chains from June, 2020 to February 26th, 2021. It’s a very informative table. The red numbers highlight times when the lab results indicated that I had lambda free light chains higher than the reference range, which is conveniently given on the right in the table. You can see that from September 30th, 2020 until January 27th, 2021 that the myeloma was getting more active again in my blood, a conclusion supported by the redness of the numbers therein. Not only that, but you can see that the amount of free light chains in my blood was increasing rapidly during that time from 44.2 milligrams per litre of blood on September 30th 2020 to 201 milligrams per litre of blood on January 27, 2021, but in fact had been increasing from June 30, 2020. That was a very worrying trend because the more free light chains in my blood the sicker I get.

Then I started the new course of chemotherapy and the lambda free light chains in my blood went from 201 to 11.7 mg/l a number well within the reference range. That”s why I got so excited when I saw the ‘normal’ 11.7 mg/L on February 26th, just a few days ago. In my discussion with my oncologist in Victoria, he said that we shouldn’t expect to see any positive results for two to three months and here I went from a high of 201 to 11.7 in a month! Now, that is cause for celebration. It means that the Daratumumab is my buddy and is working better than expected. Hallelujah!

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*https://www.myelomacrowd.org/living-with-abnormal-free-light-chain-ratios/

**reference numbers are a range of numbers within which numbers should fit in a ‘normal’ person. Reference numbers are where the majority of people would fit in terms of their standing on any particular measure. It’s a range because there is understandable variation from patient to patient. For example for Kappa Free Light Chains the reference range is 3.30 – 19.40 mg/L.