Funny, but I don’t feel like a dying man, nor am I eager to find out what that’s like. No matter what the medical experts think, I don’t feel as though I’m dying.
All the indicators are there: I’m dying. I’m old and I have myeloma. Myeloma is incurable and I’ve probably had it for at least a decade, but I was only diagnosed with it in the fall of 2019. At that point I already had lytic lesions (caused by myeloma) in my femurs, especially my right femur. I suffered through chemotherapy for almost three years before abandoning that course of action in September, 2022. Now, I’m palliative. That means that I have a medical team that aims to reduce my pain to tolerable levels. As soon as they hear ‘palliative’ many people immediately assume end-of-life, but the two don’t necessarily equate. I’m still mobile. I just had my driver’s licence renewed (although I rarely drive), I’m getting back into drawing and watercolour. I’m writing, obviously. I’m not bedridden.
We are all so different. Myeloma is especially idiosyncratic. In fact, there are several types of myeloma affecting individuals in various ways. One of the distinct problems with oncology today in an outback like British Columbia is that there are few resources that are dedicated to dealing with cancer. It can look like there are lots of resources, but there aren’t really when it comes to dealing with diseases like myeloma and its treatments. If you check out the BC Cancer Agency’s (BCCA) website, you’ll learn that almost 30,000 new cases of cancer were reported in 2019, the year I was diagnosed. It would take an inordinate amount of money and other resources to deal with that number of new cases, let alone the number of people already identified with cancer in the years before 2019. The numbers are staggering. The challenge daunting.
When I was diagnosed in 2019 I was put on a standard chemotherapy protocol. That didn’t work. It caused a rash around my midsection that was incredibly itchy. Considering the failure of the first protocol, I was put on another protocol, this time with three drugs. Anyway, over the next few months, the protocol failures outnumbered the successes so that, eventually, just a couple of months ago I quit chemo altogether. There may have been another drug I could have potentially used, but it would have required very close, ongoing, and individualized care. An oncologist at BCCA told me that they just didn’t have the resources to deal with that kind of individualized need, that is, for me. So, here I am, palliative.
I want to write about Jim Carr for a paragraph or two. He was a Canadian Federal Minister of International Trade Diversification elected in Winnipeg, Manitoba, first in 2015, then again in 2019 at which time he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He was in his late 60s at the time and received a stem cell transplant and dialysis along with chemotherapy. He died on December 12th, 2022. He gave his last speech to the House of Commons on December 6th. I can’t be certain about this, but it may be that Carr had a form of myeloma that specifically attacks the kidneys. His early treatment with dialysis indicates to me that his kidneys were failing, probably the thing that ultimately led to his death. So, was it myeloma or kidney failure that killed him? I have no information about any of his symptoms. I only have what was reported in the news. Still, a few things come to mind about his case. The news reports indicate that he was diagnosed in the fall of 2019, just as I was. It appears the chemo treatments didn’t work for him any more than they worked for me. In fact, I strongly suspect that had I not had any chemotherapy I’d be no worse off for it now. Chemotherapy must not have worked for Carr either otherwise he would have shown more positive results and lived longer.
The fact that Carr was up and about giving a speech to the House of Commons on December 6th and died on the 12thindicates to me* that kidney failure ultimately precipitated his death. The oncologist we spoke with at the BC Cancer Agency after I had decided to quit chemotherapy insisted that I would not likely die precipitously but would experience a slow degeneration of my health over a period of months if not years. The fact is that people die of myeloma for a number of reasons and over various periods of time between diagnosis and death. As I’ve noted before, myeloma is notoriously difficult to diagnose so people like me might have myeloma for years before being officially diagnosed. That might have been the case for Jim Carr too. For all I know he might have been one of those people who doesn’t easily talk about how he feels and would want to ‘tough it out’.
One observation around the news reports of Carr’s myeloma diagnosis is that Carr could fight this. Of course, people want to say ‘the right thing’, at times like this. Commentators from Trudeau to Joly to any number of politicians, federal and provincial stated things like: Carr has been “a leader in many fights, and this one is another one [he] will win.”** Well, no, he could not win the fight, nor can any of us. Besides, it’s not a fight. Myeloma is incurable. It can be treated to some extent, but even in the face of all the positive talk from the oncology community, nobody walks away from myeloma alive, and ultimately, no one walks away from life alive.
*a rank medical outsider to be sure but a keen observer nonetheless of my own illness and that of others.