5 Today I was going to write about pain, but I’m in too much pain to do it.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll be in less pain. I have a lot to write about my recent experience with pain but my neck pain is so bad right now I can’t look down and can barely move it from side to side. Tomorrow, I’ll try again. The docs found in a recent CT scan that I have severe disk degeneration in my neck. ‘They’ say that’s what causing my extreme pain at the moment and the pain cannot be attenuated by pain killers, including hydromorphone. I guess that cancer wasn’t enough for me.

In the meantime, as a bit of a primer, I’m reposting a blog post from earlier this year on the subject of pain.

The Conundrum of Pain…and Suffering: Part 1.

I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for a long time. It’s only now that I figured out how I wanted to organize my narrative. It’s complicated because there are so many aspects and approaches to both pain and suffering. The medical profession (and the medical ‘industry’) has its clear claim on the alleviation of pain and suffering. Philosophers and psychologists have also long been interested in the topic. Sociologists too. I won’t be quoting any sources this time. I will leave that for subsequent posts where I deal with specific scholarly and popular approaches to pain and suffering. To start, I want to suggest why I find pain and suffering of interesting.

Pain is not something that can be empirically determined. It cannot be objectively measured as far as I know. If you know otherwise, please let me know. That’s why doctors (MDs, that is) sometimes ask you: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is your pain right now?” You answer: “Gee, I don’t know.” And you just throw out a number because it’s such a hard question to answer. You don’t want to say 2 because then what the hell are they doing in their office? You don’t want to say 10 unless you’re writhing in pain on the floor by the examination table. A 7 is usually good for attracting attention without getting ‘the look’. Still, your doctor may be wary.

You can look at anyone, I don’t care whether they have just been badly damaged in a car crash, they have arthritis, psoriasis, lumbago (don’t you just love that word?), and/or gout. You can impute that they’re in pain, but it’s not visible. Pain is not visible. You cannot see pain. It hides in the crevices, nooks and crannies of your body but nobody can see it so how do we know it’s really there? We may see a person with a massive slashing knife wound to the chest and we assume that person is in pain, but we never see the pain so we don’t have any way of determining its intensity or how much shock or other factors have mitigated or attenuated it.

Recently we (Carolyn and I) spent some time in a hospital emergency department because Carolyn needed an emergency appendectomy. All is much better now, but it was obvious that the medical staff was at a loss the first time we went to emerg (that’s what they call it, you know) to figure out what the cause of Carolyn’s pain might be. They may have even wondered whether or not her pain was psychosomatic. They poked and prodded her, took blood and did a CT scan. Nothing of significance was found. I don’t know what the staff thought at the time. They told her she was a conundrum and looked great on paper. In any case, we were sent home with instructions to take antibiotics, pain killers, etc. When over the next few days the pain got worse for Carolyn we went back to emerg after Carolyn was told by her family doctor that she had a classic case of appendicitis. After a few more hours sitting in waiting rooms and getting more tests including a second CT scan, it was determined that indeed, Carolyn had acute appendicitis (which we subsequently found out was evident on the first CT scan). Time for surgery for a ruptured appendix. This entire scenario was upsetting and did not need to happen. Surgery after our first visit would have been routine and we probably would have come home the same night. As it stood, Carolyn spent two days in the hospital recovering. Now, this was all nasty and everything, but I have questions about the presence of pain as Carolyn described it and the CT scan that showed an inflamed appendix. Did they operate because of the pain or because of the CT scan? The CT scan confirmed that there was an organic problem and the assumption that Carolyn was in pain may or may not have factored into the decision to operate. I’m not sure how that works.

Pain is not something that is determined objectively so how are medical personnel to know whether a person is in pain or is faking it? There are people out there who crave attention (or drugs) and will fake medical symptoms to get it. There are people who have what’s called indeterminate illnesses or diseases of indeterminate etiology like fibromyalgia. Some medical doctors and others associated with medicine still don’t believe that fibromyalgia is a thing. They argue that if only you’d relax, your pain would go away…that’s if you ever really had pain…wink, wink, nudge, nudge. It’s a tough call because pain is not visible. People may be grimacing and walking abnormally, and we assume they’re in pain, but we just don’t know for sure. There is probably more attention given to determining the etiology of pain in regular and emergency medicine than anything else. Guesswork has to play a major role along with targeted questioning. “Does it hurt here? No. Here? No. Then what about here? Okay, here then! Well then, we’ll just peel you off the ceiling now and figure out what to do for you. You will definitely need some painkilling meds. Get that IV hooked up. It’s certainly true that pain alone cannot trigger surgery. Just because I tell a doctor I’m in pain, that doesn’t justify her throwing me straight into the operating room. Subjective reports of pain must be supported by evidence of organic abnormality, or is it the other way around?

Killing pain is huge business. We don’t seem to like pain a lot unless we have a personality disorder and we’re masochistic. Big Pharma’s bread and butter is in killing pain. Opioids are huge business. They are used medically to mitigate physical pain symptoms, but they are also used on the street to deal with ‘psychic’ pain. [This is a topic for another blog post.]

Strangely enough, we often put ourselves through a lot of pain and suffering to accomplish a task that we’ve imposed on ourselves like running a marathon. Why run a marathon only to feel intense pain during and afterwards? What drives us to doing this kind of thing? [This is a topic for yet another blog post.]

Then, there are people, a very small minority, who cannot feel physical pain at all. They can put their hand on a hot stove element and not know that they are in trouble until they smell flesh burning. That’s not a scenario that appeals to me at all. In view of this it’s common to consider that pain has benefits in an evolutionary sense. It’s probably a damn good thing that we do feel pain. Too bad our pain is not obvious to others in an objective way. It would make life a lot less painful for a lot of us.

[Stay tuned. I learned today about myeloma and pain. I also learned that my kidney is fine and I can have beer and wine again.]

4 I got to ride in an ambulance!

No sirens or anything, but still. We drove to Victoria (I should say Carolyn drove to Victoria) last Wednesday for an appointment with an oncologist at the Victoria Cancer Clinic. Wednesday went well enough although I’m in severe pain and the stress is overwhelming. Despite my distress we had dinner at the hotel. That was great. The Inn at Laurel Point is a superb hotel and the staff is excellent.

On Thursday morning we got a cab (Carolyn wasn’t particularly interested in driving, parking, etc) to the Cancer Clinic which is right next to the Royal Jubilee Hospital. We waited for a bit then had a good appointment with the oncologist which lasted probably an hour and a bit.

After our appointment we decided to head into town to have lunch and do a little shopping. Big Mistake! Multiple Myeloma is not a forgiving disease and doing regular daily activities can be impossible. I was to find that out in spades. Instead of doing the logical thing and taking a cab back to the hotel I decided a walk would be good. Wrong! A walk is the last thing I needed. I was in severe pain by the time we got to the hotel. I lay down on the bed to see if I could dissipate the pain a bit and that seemed to work until I thought about getting up. Impossible! The pain was over the top, way over the top. Eventually I got out of bed by sliding off the end of it while in a critical state of pain. Well, a normal person might just have decided at that point to call an ambulance and get to the emergency department of the Royal Jubilee. Not me. I’m tougher than that, and way more stupid. So I took a schwack of T3s and went to bed. Hardly slept at all. We were supposed to drive home in the morning but that wasn’t going to happen. We called the oncology nurse and after a bit of discussion she told us to get an ambulance back to the hospital to get an MRI and to deal with the pain. So we called an ambulance and the paramedics came to our hotel room and got me on a gurney, etc., put me in an ambulance and took me to the emergency department. I think that will be the last time I let anyone talk me into going to emergency. I don’t blame the staff, they have their protocols, but the truth is I wasn’t there for a diagnosis. Nonetheless they took some blood (why, who knows) and had me sit in a waiting room with 60 or 70 other people. while I was in severe pain. Well, we were there for several hours. I got no pain meds for hours but finally got a CT scan, when what I needed was an MRI.

In any case, by the time I was in that black hole of an emergency department my pain was at a critical point so the ER doctor got me a hydromorphone drip and a prescription for hydromorphone. We got back into the truck but now had to stay another night because Carolyn can’t really drive after dark. Thankfully the Laurel Point Inn was able to accommodate us. I slept that night fully in the hands of my opioid angel. The hotel has a wheelchair which is good because by now I’m unable to walk because of the pain. In the morning we go downstairs, have some breakfast and then head for home. I knew that by the time I got home I’d be a basket case. More hydromorphone. Slept (I suppose we can call it that) when we got home. Now I sit here awaiting further instructions. I may have to get a wheelchair if I have to go any distance. The oncologist promises pain relief after I start chemo. I’m looking forward to that.

That’s it for today. I’m beat!

3 What? I’m giddy about seeing an oncologist?

Well, giddy might not be exactly the correct word to use here but it’s close. I’ve known for a month or so now that I have multiple myeloma, an incurable bone marrow cancer, but I have also been told that it’s treatable and some people live for some years after their diagnosis. But I’m not sure about anything yet because I have yet to see an oncologist. That changed yesterday, at least the anticipation part.

Yesterday, around 1 PM I got a call from the BC Cancer Agency in Victoria, telling me that I have an appointment with an oncologist at the clinic on Thursday, the 31st of October, Halloween morning, at 10:30 AM. I have no idea what to expect because I have no idea at what stage my cancer is at nor what treatment options there are. Oh, I can make up stories based on Dr. Google research, but that’s a futile pursuit. This disease is idiopathic. No two patients are alike. I guess that’s true for most cancers. There are commonalities and there are individualities. The only reason they can be treated at all is because of the commonalities. Without pathological patterns no illness could be treated. Still, the idiopathic aspects of this disease make it hard to compare experiences with others facing the same disease. We can commiserate, but that’s about as far as it goes. That said, there is comfort in commiseration.

So, this morning at 7:45 I attended the medical lab in Cumberland so they could take a dozen vials of blood and some urine (boy, did I have to pee when I got there) in anticipation of my appointment with the oncologist, but also with a nephrologist in Nanaimo on November 7th. On Saturday I have a CT scan and on Sunday I do a twenty-four hour urine collection for the nephrologist. I might already have told you this, but I am taking prednisone now and I’ve had an infusion of some drug the name of which I forget. So, in effect, my treatment has already started. I can’t wait to see what the oncologist has in store for me come Halloween morning.

2 Multiple Myeloma Makes Me Special!

I’m always a sociologist so whatever happens to me triggers an instinct I have to do check it out, do the research, connect the dots. In my book, the more information we have the better. At the moment, we have an information deficit and that’s frustrating but, hopefully, that’s about to change.

In any case, one of my first research stops is Statistics Canada. What’s there to learn there? Well, for one thing, multiple myeloma (MM) is a pretty rare form of cancer and that makes me special, don’t you think? Stats Can reports that there will be about 3000 people in Canada diagnosed this year with it. That’s not a very high number. Stats Can also projects that from 2018 to 2022 only 70 men in BC will be diagnosed with MM in my age group every year. Because doctors seldom encounter it, it can be difficult to diagnose, but back to that in a bit.

I’m in good company too when it comes to MM. Jim Carr, the Liberal Member of Parliament for Winnipeg Centre and Minister of International Trade in the Federal Cabinet, was diagnosed with MM the day of the election (Monday, Oct. 21st) when he went into the hospital complaining of flu-like symptoms. By Tuesday he was receiving chemotherapy and dialysis and by Thursday the CBC was reporting that the Minister said he was doing fine, felt okay and was going to continue serving his constituents and the Canadian People. I’m so happy for him. He won’t be cured, but he will probably be able to function quite well for some time to come. By contrast, my doctors knew I had MM three weeks ago and I have yet to see an oncologist and will have to drive 225 kilometres to Victoria for the pleasure. Living in the boonies as we do, access to specialized health care can be spotty at best and will only get worse if the Vancouver Health Authority has its way. (That’s the subject of another blog post but DecafNation, George Le Masurier’s excellent blog, has been on to this for some time). It’s true that an oncologist in Victoria is on my case and has already prescribed medications for me and I got an infusion of a drug a couple of days ago at the hospital here to help with the pain and ‘strengthen bone’. Still, I feel that I’m not getting the level of care I would have gotten if I were a member of the Canadian political aristocracy or if I lived in a large metropolitan centre. My age likely has something to do with it too. I’m an old guy and not likely to live too long anyway and besides, I’m no longer a contributing member of the economy having retired from teaching at North Island College in 2012. Does that sound like sour grapes? It may be, but socio-economic status (class, gender, age, and geographical location, etc.) has a lot to do with health care provision whether we like to admit it or not.

Alright, so back to my situation. I’ve probably had MM for a long time. I have low B12 and was diagnosed with pernicious anemia at one time by a locum (temporary replacement for my regular doctor) , but my doctor didn’t really accept this diagnosis and prescribed B12 monthly injections (which I do myself). The thing is, I had been going to my doctor for years complaining of being tired, having brain fog, being in lots of pain, and suffering from peripheral neuropathy. To give my doctor credit, he ordered MRIs of my brain and spinal cord, lower back, ultrasounds, etc., because there is a history of Multiple Sclerosis and other immunological diseases in my family. To add to this, I has a kidney removed in 2002 because of renal cell cancer, leaving me with one kidney. For a long time we tested my creatinine levels to ensure my kidney was functioning properly and it did for years. In the last three or four years however my kidney showed signs of being very unhappy. Creatinine levels were rising and still are, and I was getting weaker and weaker all the time with worsening symptoms.

My social life was taking a huge hit. Over the past few years I’ve had to pretty much give up going out in the evening because I’m exhausted. I had to give up life drawing, printmaking and sculpting. I had to resign from the Village of Cumberland’s Homelessness and Affordable Housing Committee and I had to resign as Chair of the Board of the Comox Valley Art Gallery (although frankly I had been doing that long enough). I can no longer go on long walks with Carolyn, something that we both really enjoyed.

After a while, I think my doctor kind of gave up trying to figure out what was wrong with me and I was beginning to wonder if it was all in my head.

About a month ago, all that changed. We had gone camping in Strathcona Park in August. I was not feeling great, but well enough to get the canoe out and paddle/sail/motor around a bit. A couple of times, however, we got into bucking huge headwinds and were forced to paddle hard. Carolyn and I are seasoned paddlers and we know what to do. I felt pretty strong and we handled it fine. Of course we had some muscle pain, but scotch helped out with that a bit! Then my daughter and her family joined us. One day as I was sitting at the camp site doing nothing, my back started hurting something awful. By the time I decided to take some ibuprofen (not to be taken by anyone with any kidney issues) my pain was pushing 9 or 9.5 on a 10 point scale. I was taking T3s like they were candy. When it was time to go home, my son-in-law drove the truck and trailer. I rode shotgun. I have driven very little since and not at all for the last month.

A short time later, I made an appointment to see my doctor to let him know about the back pain and my use of ibuprofen. He figured we had better do some blood testing and we did. He was headed out on vacation for three weeks so I wouldn’t be seeing him again until Oct. 22nd or so. Well, he called me on Friday at around 5:30 and told me that my kidney was leaking protein into my urine and that he had referred me to a kidney specialist in Nanaimo. That was a bit of a shock. I didn’t quite know what to say so I left it at that.

Over the weekend, Carolyn and I sat down and wrote down all of my symptoms and questions to which we wanted answers. On Monday, I called the medical clinic and got an appointment to see a locum to ask questions about what a protein leak meant and to lay out my symptoms. Well, he ordered more blood tests and imaging. We saw him again on Thursday by which time he already had a strong suspicion that I had multiple myeloma. On Friday he called and pretty much confirmed the diagnosis. On Monday we saw another locum and she ordered more tests and imaging as well as a bone marrow biopsy. She also referred me to the Cancer Clinic in Victoria.

So, in less than ten days, the locums had figured out that I had cancer and were moving fast to get me treatment. Possibly all that it took was a fresh set of eyes on my case. Certainly, the referral to the kidney specialist would have got me some results but I’m not scheduled to see him before November 7th. I wondered what my regular doctor would say when he got back from vacation. I am definitely pissed off that I went so long undiagnosed, but I don’t really blame my GP entirely for that. I may not have impressed on him the real state of my distress and MM is not easy to diagnose because it shares symptoms with so may other ailments. Besides, raving about past injustices will get me nowhere. I need to focus my full attention on the present and the future.

So, in any case and in the meantime, I called the Cancer Clinic and a person there confirmed my referral, gave me an ID number and said that I would be seeing such-and-such a doctor. Well, my regular doctor informed me just this past week that there had been a mix-up in the referral and that I would be seeing another doctor at the clinic. We have yet to hear from the Cancer Clinic. If I don’t hear from them by tomorrow afternoon I’ll be calling them again. We need some goddamn answers and I need to get some goddamn treatment. Stay tuned.

1 I Have Cancer. Damn!

I was recently diagnosed (late September) with multiple myeloma or bone marrow cancer. My bone marrow has gone buck wild and is producing way too much of a particular substance the pathologist euphemistically calls ‘muck’. I’ve probably had it for some years, but the symptoms are very similar to those of other diseases and conditions making it difficult to diagnose. I’ve not been well for years. The past two years have been especially difficult and the last four months almost unbearable. I’m still functioning, but at a much-reduced level than I’m used to. 

This isn’t the first time I’ve had cancer. I had kidney cell cancer in 2002 and had my left kidney removed in an operation that left me with one (fully functioning) kidney. Now my remaining kidney is compromised because of the multiple myeloma so things aren’t looking particularly good for me. There are still tests to be performed and a prognosis to be arrived at, but as soon as the test results are in the BC Cancer Agency in Victoria will give me a call and arrange an interview and set a course of chemotherapy. A lot will depend on the stage of my myeloma. Some people do very well with chemotherapy and new drugs are being developed every day to target the specific pathogen that’s attacking my blood. I still may squeeze a few more years out of this old body of mine yet, but the next few weeks will tell the tale. Multiple myeloma is not curable, but it is treatable. 

I’m not afraid of death. I’ve often written about death and the cultural systems we’ve created to deny death, which actually build on our natural, biological aversions to disease and death. As you can easily ascertain by reading my blog this has been my main focus over the past few years. Dying is another matter altogether. I’m not particularly afraid of that either, but it is full of unknowns. I’m going through the various stages people do when faced with this kind of diagnosis: grief, anger, sadness, self-pity although these feelings are fleeting, and I soon get on to more positive emotions. I feel some guilt too. Yes, guilt. Guilt that’s impossible to escape in this culture. Guilt for succumbing to disease and death, the twin evils that we’ve identified as the greatest threats to us. In moral terms, and culturally, we abhor weakness, physical or social. Sick or poor people are to be feared in our culture. We tend to marginalize both if we can, but that’s not always possible because the world is not as simple as that.  

I know I’m on my last legs. I’m almost 73 after all and have had a great life. Nobody gets through life avoiding death except in novels and movies. I have no idea how long I have to live, but whatever time I have I just hope that my quality of life improves enough so that I can finish some paintings I’ve been working on, maybe re-canvas our canoe and continue writing this blog. In fact, I’ll use this blog as a kind of journal chronicling the process of being ill, then diagnosed, then treated. Stay tuned. 

Please don’t suggest any treatments or diets or whatever. I won’t be going to Mexico for any heroic treatments. (If and when I feel better we may go to lie on a beach though.) I’m not desperate. I won’t be buying a juicer either and I’ll continue to eat the great, wholesome mostly unprocessed food that I currently eat but my body will follow, as it must, the second law of thermodynamics. I’m okay with that.