33 A Sensation Reminiscent of Hunger.

Today is my med day. This morning between bites of granola I threw into my mouth about twenty pills from a shot glass. It turns out a shot glass is the perfect thing for taking a shit load of pills. Now I sit back in my chair, my computer on my lap. Carolyn is sitting on the love seat in the bay window across from me doing a word game thing on her iPad. Beyond her, out the window, I see the trees and shrubs in the front yard, still devoid of leaves, but showing budding signs of renewal.

Last night Carolyn and I watched a couple of episodes of the dark (ish) Star Trek Picard series on Netflix. One of the characters in the series is Rio, the captain on the starship-for-hire that Picard has engaged to fight the Romulans or whatever he’s up to. In the opening scene of the first episode last night Rio is seen reading a book. The book he’s reading, first published in 1920 is called The Tragic Sense of Life by Miguel de Unamuno, a Basque Spanish writer and university don who wrote with pride that he hardly ever left Spain.

I heard about this Picard episode and the book a few days ago and because Rio sums up the book by saying that the book is about dealing with existential angst in the face of death (or something like that) I bought a Kindle copy for less than two bucks but I could have read it for free on the internet archive (oh well). So, I’ve been reading this book and it’s confounding me, not because of its intellectual profundity, but because it’s so weird. Unamuno is dealing with his existential angst alright but his writing is bizarre to say the least. I’ll leave it for another blog post to deal with it and my own existential angst. Still, it’s relevant now because my body is changing so rapidly because of the onslaught of the chemo meds that I find it impossible not to think about it all the time, and to think about where this is all going. I’ve been sick for a long time, mostly because of the myeloma but for other reasons too. What my chemo meds are doing is exacerbating the problems I’ve had for some time, but with a new, perverse twist.

For the moment, I just want to say that I’m pissed, not with anyone or anything in particular, but just generally. Maybe it’s because my experience with the chemo meds doesn’t quite line up with my expectations based on what is in the documentation we receive with the chemo meds. When we start taking chemo meds, there is a very ritualistic thing that happens (rivalling ceremonial status) when we go to the hospital and are given lots of sheets of information on the meds. The information sheets are, in my estimation, designed to include as many warnings about side effects as possible without scaring people so badly they just refuse to take meds at all. That does happen.

The thing is that cancer is such an idiosyncratic set of two hundred or so diseases that one person may get diarrhea from the meds while another person may get constipation from the same meds. Invariably, the information sheets include all the usual suspects: diarrhea, constipation, peripheral neuropathy, hair loss, sterility (cyclophosphamide), headache, dry mouth, weight loss, and loss of appetite. A person may also get lower back pain, swelling of feet or lower legs, painful urination, anemia along with tiredness or weakness, shortness of breath and skin rash or itching. I’m getting most of these except the diarrhea and the lower extremity swelling. Another thing is that I haven’t had a normal feeling of hunger since I’ve been on the meds. Carolyn asks me if I’m hungry. I don’t know how to answer that question. It’s frustrating. This morning, though, I had a sensation reminiscent of hunger. Hence the title of this post. That was okay.

It would be nice to be told early on that you won’t have a normal poo or pee while on the meds and even for some time afterwards, that the itching isn’t just normal itching relieved by a bit of a scratch. No, the itching I’m experiencing is deep, almost impervious to scratching. My skin is changing. There was no warning about that. It’s getting coarser but no less oily. My back has been bugging me for decades. The chemo meds may be making the pain in that area worse, but I don’t know. My feet are always cold and I can hardly feel my soles. Again, that was happening before my diagnosis, so I don’t know if and what’s going on there, but I have my suspicions.

Thirty or more years ago, I was diagnosed with a B12 deficiency. B12 is critical for health and low counts of B12 in the blood can be deadly. I self-injected B12 for a long time then stopped because I didn’t think it was doing me any good. I felt no better injecting it. Then my count dropped to a very critical low. I started injecting again but it may be that the damage was already done. There is a connection between B12 deficiency, pernicious anemia, and multiple myeloma that we’ve been able to find in the scientific literature, but try to get anybody in the oncology community around here interested in that.* There’s no way. Our blood is highly complex as you might imagine so it should be logical to think that any compound that is crucial to our survival and is blood related would elicit curiosity and interest in the oncological and hematological communities. It may be that it is, but my experience is that B12 is not taken at all seriously by oncologists. It seems that oncologists have their well-worn, familiar roads to follow and deviating from those roads, that is, going off-road for a bit of a rip, does not seem to compute for them.** I’m thinking that based on my experience there just may be more to the B12/myeloma connection that first meets the eye and that it may be a fruitful area for more research. It’s probably not a coincidence that the symptoms of pernicious anemia and multiple myeloma are so similar, symptoms that I’ve been experiencing for decades.

  • *To be fair, I haven’t conducted a survey or anything of the sort. My observations come from casual conversations with medical staff.
  • **That’s definitely the message from Mukherjee’s book The Emperor of All Maladies.

32 This is no fun at all.

Well, this is no fun at all.

I’m not silly enough to believe that a life with myeloma would be fun, but I’m kind of disappointed that it’s been such an unmitigated downer. I am, I can now see, destined to drag this goddamned disease with me into the grave. Come on, I knew that! Still, a bit of a break now and then would be welcome. Is that too much to ask?

Actually, I think the nastiness I’m experiencing in spades right now stems mostly from the chemo meds rather than from the myeloma itself. This past week would support my idea that the meds are as bad as the disease at the moment for making me feel tired, dizzy, and in pain.

I went to the hospital on Thursday for my bortezomib shot after taking all the rest of my chemo drugs in the early morning. I expect Thursdays to be non-days, and this one was certainly that. A non-day is one when I can’t gather enough strength to do much of anything. However, Friday and Saturday also turned out to be non-days and Sunday wasn’t much better.

I felt a little beaten down. Of course, I should have expected it because my local oncology GP did warn me that they were going to ‘challenge’ me with my chemo med doses. No more mamby-pamby half doses for me! I was to get the full meal deal! Yes, indeed. Silly me.

Then I figured that maybe I needed a good dose of positive thinking to counteract all of these drugs. Maybe all I needed was a little endorphin fix. After all, I used to teach positive thinking on the Knowledge Network back in the ‘good ol’ days’ of 1986 to 1992. I used to teach as Ehrenreich points out “that on many levels, individual and social, it is good to be ‘positive,’ certainly better than being withdrawn, aggrieved, or chronically sad.”*

The problem is I’ve learned a few things since the early 1990s, not the least of which are the limitations of positive thinking. The American Cancer Society on its website states very clearly:

An important part of coping with a cancer diagnosis is recognizing emotions and feelings. Treatment that deals with our emotions and relationships (sometimes called psychosocial interventions) can help people with cancer feel more upbeat and have a better quality of life. But there’s no good evidence to support the idea that these interventions can reduce the risk of cancer, keep cancer from coming back, or help the person with cancer live longer. Still, things like group support, individual therapy, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques can be used to help reduce distress and cope with the emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis.

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/attitudes-and-cancer.html

So, it seems that belonging to a support group has some positive effects, not on survival or anything like that, but in feeling less tired and in stress reduction. There is a support group in the Valley. I haven’t attended any of the meetings yet. I’ve been too goddamn exhausted to do that until now, but maybe next month! Then, maybe I’ll be less tired!

The American Cancer Society, on its website, starts off with this: When a person is told they have cancer, they might find themselves wondering:

  • Did I bring the cancer on myself?
  • Can my emotions really make cancer grow or affect the outcome of my treatment?
  • Can I control the tumor growth by visualizing how my body is fighting the cancer or by thinking myself well?
  • Would relaxation or keeping a “positive attitude” help cure my cancer?

I can easily reply an emphatic NO! to all these questions and the website goes on to refute each in turn.

Ehrenreich writes:

In the rational explanation that many psychologists would offer today, optimism improves health, personal efficacy, confidence, and resilience, making it easier for us to accomplish our goals. A far less rational theory also runs rampant in American ideology—the idea that our thoughts can, in some mysterious way, directly affect the physical world. Negative thoughts somehow produce negative outcomes, while positive thoughts realize themselves in the form of health, prosperity, and success.✤

The upshot of the idea that negative thoughts produce negative outcomes is the notion that people bring their diseases on to themselves by thinking negatively. Never mind that this idea is completely debunked by the American Cancer Society and people like Barbara Ehrenreich, there is a strong current of belief ‘out there’ that we are the victims of our own negativity. That goes for people with chronic illnesses, auto-immune diseases, and cancer. If you’ve got it the ‘reasoning’ goes you’ve brought it upon yourself.

This of course dovetails nicely with the predominant capitalist morality in our culture which states that individuals are inherently responsible for their actions and weakness of all kinds is abhorred, shunned, and denigrated. If people exhibit any signs of weakness, whether they are poor or in ill-health, it stands to reason that they must be responsible for their condition. That’s why people, especially those caught up in a full-blown subscription to capitalist morality, often go to great lengths to hide their poverty and ill-health. They are also the ones that tend to judge most harshly the poor, the homeless, the disenfranchised, the physically disabled, the chronically ill and the aged, even if they themselves could be included in any one of the categories I just mentioned.

Myeloma is a disease of the bone marrow. It’s entirely organic. As of yet there is no cure for it. It will not respond to positive thoughts or negative ones either, for that matter. Ehrenreich writes that “There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.” ✦ If there’s anything I strive toward it’s existential courage. However, if you catch me in a moment of deep angst over my imminent (yes, ten years is imminent) death, cut me some slack. I can’t always be perfect!

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*Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. 2009. Kindle Edition, Location 89.

✤Ibid., Location 125.

✦Ibid., location 145.