Confessions (and the weather)

The weather has been so unpredictable lately. The meteorologists at the Weather Office must be gnawing their fingernails off. It’s been great for the garden overall except now it would be good to have more heat and sun to ripen the berries. We’re eating a lot from the garden now. Cucumbers, lettuce (so much lettuce), tomatoes, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and lots more. I fell kind of bad that we can’t support the farmer’s markets, but no. We can’t do that. Of course the farmer’s markets have way more than just veggies and fruit, but then there are other reasons I don’t go to places where people gather, at least not regularly and not willingly.

We sat on the porch today looking over the front of the property and off toward the village. The clouds came through at different elevations, the higher ones travelling west to east and the lower ones southeast to northwest. It was sunny at intervals. It rained a bit. It was around 20˚C most of the day. Not at all unpleasant. Tilly was her usual goofy self entertaining us with her antics on the patio. She really is a laugh a minute, that is, when she’s not biting us. Sometimes she just wanders over and sits at the top of the driveway surveying the yard below. I’d love to know what kind of puppy thoughts are going through her head.

As usual for a Thursday I took my chemo oral drugs on the early morning then went to the hospital for my Bortezomib shot at 10:30. When I went in, there was just a short wait for the lab (not that I was going there), but when I came out, there was a lineup outside going almost around the building, probably thirty people, some in wheelchairs, some with walkers waiting for clearance to even step into the hospital. Some were going to the lab (for a long wait) but others were going for imaging or to the Bone people, or wherever. You stand in line whether you have an appointment or not.

Everybody gets the standard Covid-19 song and dance: Have you travelled out of the country in the last 14 days? Have you been in proximity of someone who has tested positive for Covid-19? Do you have a fever, cough? Etcetera? I usually stack up the nos at the very beginning of the process and that usually works but not today. Today I got the full meal deal. Everybody was getting it. No wonder the lineup is so long. Of course it has to be done. I’m really not complaining. The Covid-19 protocols these days appear to be just as unpredictable as the weather. Oh well, we carry on.

Just as unpredictable as the weather is how my body is going to react to my chemo drugs. It’s been a nasty ride lately with Bortezomib creating havoc with my nervous system, making my skin on my legs and torso very sensitive to painful to the touch. Added to the pain is a weakness in my legs that is now making it very difficult to move in ways I always previously took for granted, like tying my shoes or picking something off the floor. That’s very distressing. I must confess that I’ve had moments when I have felt pretty sorry for myself. Fuck cancer!

Now I’m on a very low dose of amitriptyline, a drug that was developed for depression (at 100 mg/dose) but was also discovered to help with pain at a dose of 10mg, the dose that I’m on. It has side effects, like they all do. Pile side effects on top of side effects. What drug is doing what is anybody’s guess. The pain in my legs and back is so distracting, and along with the usual dizziness I experience all the time, I get a pretty constant brain fog. I can still put together a coherent thought, but I have some difficulty communicating those thoughts sometimes. Not always. My brain is like the weather right now. Some coherent thinking. Some stoned time. Some sleepiness. Not always in the right order. Unpredictable is what it is.

The fact that I can even write this is due to some momentary clarity induced by another of my drugs, dexamethasone. It won’t last long, so I had better hurry and get this done. I’m really wondering right now about this whole business of oncology. Like, how is it that a drug can be approved to treat a condition, in my case, cancer, yet produce side effects that are debilitating, potentially for the long term? What’s the goal here?

It’s pretty obvious after reading The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010) (a book review here), that the objective of oncology, both clinical and research is to prolong life. Many people have died because of the effects of chemotherapy. As far as drug trials go the Golden Chalice is survivability. If they get 5 months more survivability with a drug that’s considered a successful trial. Since Mukherjee wrote his book, lots of progress has been made and lots of animals have been sacrificed to the cause, but they still can’t engineer Bortezomib to do good work and to avoid beating the crap out patients just in order to keep them alive. Of course, the instinct of self-preservation is strong in most of us to the point where we are more often than not willing to sacrifice a lot just to get more life out of the deal.

My chemotherapy is really working well as far as the myeloma is concerned, but at what cost? It’s a straightforward cost/benefit analysis and I’m working on that right now. I have a strong will to live, and I’ve seen people in a lot worse shape than I’m on stick it out and squeeze the last bit of life out of their decaying bodies that they can. So far I guess my actions have betrayed my values as is the case for most of us most of the time. More on this in my next post.

Overdiagnosis?

In my last post I left you hanging with suspense! Well, in this post I have a couple of issues to raise that should quell any after effects of inordinate suspense left behind from reading my last post. One is about overdiagnosis, which I promised to raise again, and the other is about cancer itself and what would happen if it didn’t exist.

So, in her book Natural Causes, Barbara Ehrenreich addresses what she calls overdiagnosis. This is a situation wherein currently powerful imaging techniques can, for example, ‘see’ many more, and smaller, lumps in a person’s neck than was previously possible. The question is then put to the patient: “We’ve found a lump in your neck. What would you like us to do?” Patient, very concerned: “Is it cancer?” Doctor: “We don’t know, but we can always remove it.” Patient: “Well, let’s not take any chances. Let’s get rid of it.” Ehrenreich claims that in seventy to eighty percent of these cases in the US the surgery was unnecessary.

I have my own example of overdiagnosis. I had a parotid gland removed from the left side of my face years ago. There was evidence that it was enlarged, but nothing to say it was malignant. I had a choice to make and opted to have it removed. It was unnecessary surgery. Because of it I was left with insensitivity on the left side of my face and a scar leading from my ear down the side of my neck. It’s a crapshoot. How many people do you think would turn down the surgery?

Recently, Dr. Brian Goldman of the CBC’s program White Coat, Black Art, wrote in his blog about overdiagnosis. He writes that overdiagnosis “means identifying problems that weren’t causing symptoms and were never going to cause the patient harm.” The source for most of his information is a study led by Prof. Paul Glasziou, director of the Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare at Bond University in Australia. It used data collected over a thirty year period by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. The results are quite astounding. Goldman writes:

The researchers found that, in men, 42 per cent of prostate cancers, 42 per cent of kidney cancers and 58 per cent of melanomas were overdiagnosed. In women, 22 per cent of breast cancers, 58 per cent of kidney cancers and 54 per cent of melanomas were overdiagnosed.

Overdiagnosis can arise from overly prescribed testing including screening tests like mammography. Increasingly sensitive imaging equipment can detect smaller and smaller lesions and tumours, benign or malignant. It’s often difficult to tell whether a tumour is benign or malignant. In the case of kidney cancers, invasive biopsies are not often carried out for fear of spreading cancer cells to adjacent lymph glands. So, surgery is a crapshoot. Do we operate or not? The default position is surgery because few people would be willing to take the risk of leaving a possibly benign tumour in their bodies.

To take this even further, Goldman’s blog post argues that even “incidental abnormalities” or cancers that would never have caused symptoms or led to full-blown rapid onset pathological mitosis are being surgically extirpated. We probably all have asymptomatic cancer cells in our bodies that may never result in any health threat because of them.

In the September 11, 2017 issue of The New Yorker Siddhartha Mukherjee is back at it with a thoroughly provocative article entitled: Cancer’s Invasion Equation: We can detect tumors earlier than ever before. Can we predict whether they’re going to be dangerous?

Good question. The gist of Mukherjee’s argument in this article is that two things are required for a full-blown cancer to make itself known which he metaphorically refers to as the seed and the soil. This metaphor he borrowed from a 19th Century English doctor interested in cancer research, Stephen Paget. His idea was that a cancer cell (the seed) would grow only if the local bodily ecosystem (the soil) was conducive to that growth. It could happen that the cancer cell falls on barren ‘soil’ and does not grow and divide. On top of that, on close examination cancer cells could be found that would never produce any symptoms. Some cancer researchers were now becoming human ecologists. Some even began to ask why people don’t get cancer and not just why they do when they do.

In my case, I may have carried the myeloma ‘oncogene’ for a long time but my ‘soil’ wasn’t yet ready to receive it. It may be that it was just a matter of time in my case, age being a big factor, but there may have been others that contributed too to creating the right conditions for my myeloma to go from dormant (smoldering) to active. Now, there’s no turning back for me. The seed has been planted and the hemoglobin garden in my bones is turning into an oncological garden.

There’s a final note towards the latter part of Mukherjee’s book The Emperor of all Maladies that makes me realize how little we know about cancer at this stage and about the process of dying and what that entails. Mukherjee writes:

“Taken to its logical extreme, the cancer cell’s capacity to consistently imitate, corrupt, and pervert normal physiology thus raises the ominous question of what “normalcy” is. “Cancer,” Carla said, “is my new normal,” and quite possibly cancer is our normalcy as well, that we are inherently destined to slouch towards a malignant end. Indeed, as the fraction of those affected by cancer creeps inexorably in some nations from one in four to one in three to one in two, cancer will, indeed, be the new normal—an inevitability. The question then will not be if we will encounter this immortal illness in our lives, but when.” (from “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee)

So, how exactly does the body shut down as it’s dying? Cancer may very well be one (a very important one) of the mechanisms that is ‘natural’ in its role in having us die. Maybe cancer is not the pathological evil that it’s made out to be. What would happen if cancer did not exist? How would we die then? What does it mean to die of natural causes? How can we figure that out? Stay tuned. I think science and medicine have a lot to learn about us yet.