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.

My Brain Hurts!

We went for a walk this morning around the airport on the River Walkway in Courtenay. It was overcast and coolish, quite pleasant as far as weather goes for this time of year. The ducks are getting up to their mating ways and even the redwing blackbirds have started singing. I think one or two of them may be rushing it, trying to get a head start on the mating action. It’s a good walk for me because it’s flat and paved. I’m still not that steady on my feet and I’m not sure about that lytic lesion in my right femur that lately seems to be getting a little more ‘present’, insisting that it not be forgotten.

My brain, frontal lobe really, also insists that it not be ignored. It tells me that it needs more and more information about the bad boys excavating my bones, crowding out and bullying the good boys that are working hard to make hemoglobin for me. It threatens never to let me rest until it’s satisfied, and from what I can tell, it’s a long way from being satisfied. I have been feeding it, though. It’s not being ignored even though it does sometimes have to take a seat and wait until other parts of my body are willing to participate. My amygdala is pretty insistent these days. The various parts of my brain don’t always want to be nice and play together. Some days they are more likely to coöperate, generally those two or three days, Mondays to Thursdays, just before I get a new load of chemo drugs on Thursday mornings. On other days, organized rebellion reigns. Thursday evening is my hyper time, no sleep. Fridays are a mix of hyper, lightheadedness, dizziness and near disorientation. My whole body tingles and my feet are somewhere between freezing and very cold. Saturday my bortozemib injection (which I get on Thursday at the hospital) site on my stomach starts to get inflamed and begins to itch. I have to take antihistamine to counteract that, but I’m a bit worried that the inflammation is getting worse with every injection. The area around the injection site gets very hot and red, and itchy beyond description. This is when Carolyn and I pore over the literature on the various drugs I’m taking trying to get a handle on what I’m experiencing in terms of side effects and indulging my frontal lobe with a bit of a snack. From what my oncologist told us in our last interview, I could be on this particular chemo protocol for at least another six months so I’d better get used to it. Of course, things constantly change as we go along so past experience is not necessarily a good measure of what I can expect in the future. Right now, getting ‘used to’ anything seems like a little far-fetched.

Thankfully, there are periods of time when I can sneak in a bit of reading and even some writing. It’s a good thing that I write fairly quickly because I often am too preoccupied with my symptoms to concentrate for any length of time or keep a train of thought going. My trains of thought are always getting derailed. Generally, if I get an hour or so of reading or writing in at a time, I’m happy. That works for me because what the hell else have I got to do?

Lately I’ve been reading a variety of things. I get a bit overloaded with books, articles and other materials dealing with cancer every now and then and that’s when I pick up a book on Medieval Europe. Right now I’m reading a book called The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe, (2002) by Patrick J. Geary. It’s an easy read. Just right for bedtime. The composition is a bit clunky and Geary probably needs a better editor, but eventually he makes his point, not that I’m going to discuss it here. The books, reviews, and reports that have claimed most of my attention lately have been on the topic of cancer. Too bad I wasn’t reading them on a nice beach on the Tropic of Cancer. 🙂 They are important for feeding my frontal lobe.

I mentioned in a previous blog post Barbara Ehrenreich’s book: Natural Causes. It’s polemical and iconoclastic to the core. I love Ehrenreich for the way she hounds the medical profession and business for excesses of enthusiasm for making money at the expense of the quality of life of patients. In this book she rails against overdiagnosis, a point to which I return later, and the false emphasis on building the immune system to fight cancer and other serious illnesses. She notes that macrophages, special white blood cells are an important aspect of our immune systems in that they attack and destroy invading bacteria and other infections at wound sites. The problem is that they can also provide cancer cells with conduits for metastasis, creating the means by which cancers can spread to distant parts of the body. She argues that we shouldn’t be such cheerleaders for our immune systems because they could very well be traitors in our midsts.

I just finished reading another of her books: Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (2009). This book trashes one of the most iconic delusions of American life, the power of positive thinking. In Natural Causes she applies this idea to medicine, the wellness industry and cancer treatment when undue optimism detracts from realistic appraisals of health and illness. She argues that from the perspective of wellness and mindfulness whereby we have control over our bodies, every death is a suicide. The argument goes that if we control our bodies with our minds and we die, it must mean that our minds wanted us to die! Well, there ya go. I guess mindfulness has its limits. Ehrenreich is not too keen on negative thinking either though. She argues for critical thinking, not positive or negative thinking. Fair enough.

The book that is most relevant to cancer is one that I quoted from in my last post. It’s called The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (2010) by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It’s a sweeping analysis of cancer detection and treatment over the past few centuries. Of course, most of the cancer action has occurred over the past few decades and many of the protagonists in the book are still alive. Mukherjee interviewed many of them for his book, bringing to life the stories he tells about the development of cancer treatment drugs and protocols. I had no idea that there was such a divide between clinicians and scientists in the cancer world. Biologists and other scientists, Mukherjee notes, have often been at odds over knowledge and treatment. Oncologists want to treat patients. Scientists want to know more about the disease and its genesis. What’s clear is that cancer treatment using surgery, radiation and chemotherapy has moved ahead in leaps and bounds in the last thirty years. ‘Success’ in treatment, often measured in months of survival, has grown exponentially over the last three decades. Drugs called ‘biologics’ are increasingly used to target specific types of cancers in certain types of people. In other words, cancer treatments are becoming more individualized, more targeted. This is all very encouraging, especially for someone like me who has cancer. However, there are problems and the sky ahead is not without clouds.

That’s the topic of my next post. This one’s already long enough. Stay tuned.

The Unrelenting Presence.

Carolyn and I have just finished reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. The author, an oncologist and Renaissance man, who won a Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction for this work in 2011, masterfully addresses the war on cancer over the past few centuries or so, but with a special focus on more recent events and ‘successes’ relating to specific cancers and new treatments. Cancer, as the books so often argue, is not one disease but lots of different diseases. They all have one thing in common, though: pathological mitosis.

I’m not going to review the book today. I will, though, sometime soon. I’m kind of bummed out right now and not really in the mood to write a long blog post. I took my chemo meds again today. That’s always a fun time, but I’m still confused about just what accounts for how I’m feeling. Sometimes we call these feelings ‘symptoms’ but I don’t like that word much. I’m not sure why. For instance, this afternoon I felt exhausted, and lightheaded, somewhat dizzy too so I went to bed for a nap. As I lay there my body was tingling all over. Is that a feeling or a symptom? If it’s a symptom, is it a symptom of my myeloma, the chemo meds or something else? It’s still tingly, but not as intensively as this afternoon.

I’m bummed, but I should be celebrating, I guess. I had a five minute telehealth conference with my Victoria-based oncologist yesterday morning that’s left me feeling a little empty. For one thing, although he called me by name when we made screen connection (It’s like Skype on steroids), he was not prepared in the slightest for the interview. He asked me how I was doing on a chemo cocktail he had withdrawn me from a few weeks ago. Then he asked me what he could do for me. Well, shit. He then got so focussed on the computer screen he was looking at with my charts all over it that I might as well have not been there. So, I asked him about my lab results. Yes, he said, everything is going very well. The drugs are working. Reason to celebrate, right? Yes, I suppose, but then he says that I had better get used to the shitty quality of life I have because that’s my future. Even if I go into remission. Well, slap me in the back of the head! It wasn’t that long ago that he sat before me and told me I’d regain some good quality of life in remission. Maybe he was having a bad day. Now I was having a bad day too. I felt that this guy needs a talking to about compassion. He rebuffed any attempt I made at personal conversation. He was cold and completely detached. Maybe he was having a bad day but maybe not. Maybe he’s like this most of the time. Then I thought, maybe my expectations are too high. Maybe I should think of him as a consultant, more than as a doctor treating me like my GP would. After all, I see him for five minutes every four months. So, whatever, I’m still bummed out. Distractions like writing, reading, and watching YouTube videos are good for me, but I can’t be distracted a hundred percent of the time. Any break, any crack in my distractions and the dark light of myeloma reminds me in no uncertain terms of my mortality.

Mukherjee is so informative. I learned a lot reading his book. I’m also reading a book on Medieval medicine and even a thousand years ago, ‘doctors’ recognized cancer for the killer that it is, but they looked for the causes in ‘black bile’ and other humours gone bad. Towards the end of his book Mukherjee gets real for me. It’s all fine and dandy to ‘know’ about cancer, to study it, to follow developments in its treatment, but now, cancer has me up close with its unrelenting presence. I leave you with two quotations from Mukherjee’s book. I am these quotations.

“The poet Jason Shinder wrote, “Cancer is a tremendous opportunity to have your face pressed right up against the glass of your mortality.” But what patients see through the glass is not a world outside cancer, but a world taken over by it—cancer reflected endlessly around them like a hall of mirrors.” (from “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee)

AND…

“Cancer is not a concentration camp, but it shares the quality of annihilation: it negates the possibility of life outside and beyond itself; it subsumes all living. The daily life of a patient becomes so intensely preoccupied with his or her illness that the world fades away.” (from “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee)

Read the book

Enough for now. Maybe I’ll have more gumption tomorrow.