Yesterday was my day at the hospital for my monthly infusion of Daratumumab, the monoclonal antibody. It along with other flavours of monoclonal antibodies have changed a lot about how medicine thinks about and treats cancer, arthritis, and other nasty ailments of us fragile mortals. Along with my Dara, I also take some dexamethasone, only 12 mgs for the month, and a few other meds designed to protect me from viral infection. It’s the dex that keeps me awake as I’ve noted many times on this blog.
So, instead of lying awake, allowing whatever thoughts I had rattle around in my brain causing no end of silly talk, I decided to read instead. Reading is a good way of filling in the night hours in what some people would call a ‘progressive’ way. However, I may need to revise the material that I choose to read at night. I haven’t read a lot of fiction in my life, focussing my reading time on sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and other sundry disciplines. I have read most of Kurt Vonnegut’s work, all of Emily St. John Mandel’s books and I did recently read several books by Kim Stanley Robinson, fictional accounts of the human colonization of Mars, New York under flood, and other similar topics. In his Mars trilogy one interesting commentary was on longevity. If people accepted a certain treatment, they could live hundreds of years instead of the paltry number of years generally allotted to our species. That fact, however, did not seem to mitigate the angst they felt about death and dying. In a book called Aurora, Robinson is at his most pessimistic about human excursions to other planets and their satellites in our solar system. His conclusions about the time it takes to travel from Earth to other planets are telling. Travelling to and back from a satellite of Venus, for example may take a hundred and seventy years or more with the need for cryogenic sleep. So, if you were one of the ‘lucky’ ones who won the lottery for space travel you would return to Earth after several decades of travel at a time when no one would know you, you would have no recognizable family and you would be relegated to the margins of society. I read Robinson at night. It was a bit hard to get to sleep after reading some of his stuff, but not impossible. Reading Barbara Ehrenreich and other non-fiction writers of her ilk is an entirely different story (no pun intended). Last night I finished reading her book Natural Causes: Life, Death, and the Illusion of Control. This book is firmly planted in reality. Problem is reality sucks sometimes. Ehrenreich is especially blunt when she writes about aging. Getting old is no cake walk. It’s not for the faint of heart although in our culture it’s not cool to ‘give in’ to the infirmities of age. Ehrenreich writes:
“But as even the most ebullient of the elderly eventually comes to realize aging is above all an accumulation of disabilities, often beginning well before Medicare eligibility or the arrival of the first Social Security check. Vision loss typically begins in one’s forties, bringing the need for reading glasses. Menopause strikes in a woman’s early fifties, along with the hollowing out of bones. Knee and lower back pain arise in the forties and fifties, compromising the mobility required for “successful aging.”” (from “Natural Causes: Life, Death and the Illusion of Control” by Barbara Ehrenreich)
“Not doing anything is the same as aging; health and longevity must be earned through constant activity. Even the tremors of Parkinson’s disease can be seen, optimistically, as a form of health-giving exercise, since they do, after all, burn calories. The one thing you should not be doing is sitting around and, say, reading a book about healthy aging. There are bright sides to aging, such as declines in ambition, competitiveness, and lust.”*
So, we must always put a happy face on adversity, be positive about everything, and keep moving. I don’t think my nine hours a day sitting with my computer on my lap would be morally acceptable. But you know what? I’m finding it a wee bit difficult to feel positive about dying. A Cumberland friend, Howard Jones, who died recently spent his last few days in the hospital. He couldn’t breathe on his own much anymore. Months ago, over coffee he confided that he didn’t know how long he could continue on oxygen with a life very much reduced to sitting or lying in bed. He could no longer walk in his beloved forest. I meant to visit him in the hospital when I was there for my usual chemo treatment, but I was cautioned not to because of my compromised situation. I should have gone anyways. Now it’s too late. We did text each other, but that’s not the same as a face-to-face visit. One day, the day he died as far as I know, he was the one to make the decision to go off oxygen, thus ensuring his death. I think that Howard died a good death.
The especially difficult decisions I know I will face in the near(ish) future will be whether I continue with the chemotherapy that has so far kept me alive. I will be thinking of Howard when the time comes. I expect that my (and my family’s) decision will hinge on the quality of life my treatments are now offering me and the intensity of their side effects. There is a question of how much benefit a few months of life can give in the face of much reduced quality of life. It will not be an easy decision. I love life, I love my family, my community and where I live. I am loathe to give that up, to know that the world will carry on without me. But it’s not like I or any of us have a choice in the matter. We all die. Some of us, however, are given the privilege of deciding when and how we die.
*I’m reading Ehrenreich as an ebook on a Kindle. The problem with that is that when I select a quotation to use on my post, it doesn’t give me a page number. I find that unacceptable and will see if I can find a work around.