Interesting Couple of Days

Yes, interesting couple of days. I’m on a dex high right now after taking my week’s worth of chemo meds yesterday. Good time to write. For those of you who have been reading my blog, you’ll know that dex (dexamethasone) gets me stoned like I’m on twenty cups of good medium coffee. I get the shakes with it too. It’s a little difficult to keep my fingers on the right keys on my laptop. Still, it works for me.

Wow, how my life has changed in just a few months since my diagnosis. Again, for those of you who have been following me along over the past few months you’ll know that my diagnosis just confirmed for us that I was pretty sick for a long time, unable to do things I so enjoyed like drawing, printmaking, going out, working on non-profit boards including the board of the Cumberland Museum and Archives. The Museum Board is a great board and I’m hoping to get back to active involvement in a reasonable time, but to be realistic, it probably won’t be for a while yet. I need to figure out lots of things, including how much I can back off my pain meds and still be okay.

Because oncologists deal with organic disease, they don’t deal well with pain, which, as I’ve noted often in my past blog posts, is invisible and difficult to diagnose. I think that if doctors have themselves been touched by pain issues, either themselves or members of their families, they may have a better understanding of what people in pain experience. My orthopaedic surgeon came right out and told me that Western medicine isn’t good with pain.

No wonder so many people turn to alternatives to deal with pain, physical or psychic, even though there is no science behind their use. Simply, put all forms of medicine, effective or not can’t deal with the huge, overwhelming elephant in the room: death. Medicine, by definition, is about healing the body. There is no healing death. Faced with that wall of immovability, we as individuals grasp at straws. Some of us, I daresay many of us not captured by the statistics, turn to non-medical solutions to pain management. The most turned to alternative to modern medicines of all kinds is alcohol. It’s cheap, it’s legally available, and if you don’t push the social and legal boundaries around its use, you’ll be okay. You’ll be able to avoid opprobrium and jail. Of course, there’s a lot of controversy about addiction, its sources and possible solutions to substance abuse, but the reality is that mental illness is a huge part of the equation and underlies much of the ‘problems’ we humans have in dealing with life and its many challenges.

Gabor Maté

I’m with Gabor Maté when he argues that much of mental illness is engendered by early life trauma mixed with underlying facilitating organic, physiological, even cellular level factors. There is no doubt that genetics play a role in determining quality of life as it relates to pain and suffering. Maté argues that no issue is more relevant than early childhood trauma in determining how we deal with pain in later life. I don’t know if Maté’s argument will ever win the day, but if it does, you should be able to walk into your doctor’s office and expect to be asked right off: “Tell me about what it was like for you as a child. Tell me about your mom and dad. How did you get along with them.” I’m so tempted to write up a short(ish) questionnaire to address some of the issues around parent/child relations in early life. Somebody has probably already done it, but I haven’t done enough research to figure it out and besides, I have ideas of my own to test out. In any case, back to my main point in writing this blog post.

Dr. Fehlau

Wednesday at 1PM, Carolyn and I went to the hospital to meet with the staff in the Palliative Symptoms Management Clinic (or something like that). We met with the nurse, Adele (not sure I ever got her family name) and Dr. Barbara Fehlau, Inc. Dr. Fehlau used to work at the clinic where my family doctor is located in Comox. Now she works full time in palliative care and pain management using whatever techniques she finds useful which she proudly notes she found travelling all over the world. She didn’t say so specifically, but she alluded to the fact that modern Western medicine is pretty good at using drugs to deal with pain issues but lousy at any other treatment protocols. She has a pain clinic where she uses a range of techniques to alleviate pain including acupuncture. She’s a very strong proponent of meditation and says she meditates for forty minutes in the early morning and another forty minutes before bedtime. I used to meditate every day and for some unfathomable reason stopped. I have opinions about meditation and other ‘mindfulness’ activities but they will have to wait to be expressed in another post. In any case, Dr. Fehlau is calm, very controlled, and I am cautiously optimistic. She has a personal history of dealing with pain and told us that she was about to get knee replacement surgery. I’ve been to the pain clinic in Nanaimo and that worked to some extent but I’m still dogged by pain. The myeloma isn’t helping of course.

Okay, so now what? Well, Dr. Fehlau told me to call her clinic and get in to see her there so she could do some interventions. Then she talked about end of life issues and asked me if I was aware of the services offered in the Valley around end of life palliative care, MAID, etcetera. I said that I did know some things but there’s always more that can be learned. I’ll get on that.

Speaking of souls, do I have a belief system? She asked me about my belief system and if I had beliefs that some people find comforting as death approaches like a fast train in the dark. I said ‘physics’, that’s my belief system if I can even say I have any kind of belief system. I was never big on ‘soul’ music. Oh, I think that we humans are extremely creative in coming up with ways of finding some sense in death and the creation of the ‘soul’ is one of those. Whatever rocks your boat, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe it’s time I explain more about my philosophy of life, but it will have to wait too, getting in line with my ideas about meditation and other ‘mindfulness’ strategies.

So, now I’m back in my bed, staring at the ceiling with the light filtering through the blinds at the head of our bed. Dr. Fehlau, knows that I’m on the death train because of the myeloma I have and she is clear that my future can be counted now in months rather than years. Pain is one thing. Strategies for making peace with life when I have very little left is another thing. And what about Carolyn, Marika and Arianne. Carolyn is the love of my life and my daughters are very near and dear to me. I need them to be involved in the process of my dying but it’s not easy. Carolyn, being the person that she is, has been thinking a lot about what it means for me to die at home. She’ll need some help, but she can speak for herself around these issues. Help is available for respite and home support. Carolyn has to think about life without me too. She’s five years younger than me so that’s an advantage right there. With some help she may even be able to continue to live where we do now if that’s what she wants. Unfortunately it’s impossible to make too many plans too far ahead, but there are preparations that, made now, will help a lot when the time comes.

I may be premature in thinking about these things, but I really can’t help myself. I need to know. Do I want to consider Medical Aid In Dying? You bet. If if comes to that. One thing though: I am now connected to some of the end of life services in the Valley through Community Home Care. That’s a new one for me. Man, there’s so much to learn about dying!

Addendum:

This post is already long enough but I can’t help giving you a taste of how our daily conversations go these days. They would be completely incomprehensible to people not ‘informed’. So here is a typical early morning talk. Me and Carolyn.

Carolyn: How did you sleep?

Me: Well, last night Ben rocked me to sleep while looking after the issues around my injection site. I slept from 11:30 until 6:30 straight.

Carolyn: That’s great! So you talked about changing your hydro routine. What do you want to do about that?

Me: I’m thinking of taking two breakthroughs this morning then another two around mid-afternoon while I wait for Dr. Fehlau’s 4.5 prescription to come in. That should keep me going until eight when I can take a six slow-release. The dex is kicking in. Sleep tonight could be a challenge. The cyclo will slam me down though, counterbalancing the dex. The Duc has to do its work too. I’ll see about going poo earlier in the evening so that I don’t have to get up during the night. Maybe Ben can come help me sleep too. We’ll see.

[Carolyn is off this morning to pick up a prescription for me and to take care of some Museum business. We talk about the Museum a lot too and about other things. Come to think of it, I think some of those conversations would also be incomprehensible to the ‘uninformed.’]

See ya later.

Living in the Shadow of Death

Strangely enough, I find myself wondering about what it would be like to live on death row.

We don’t have death rows in Canada, but there are about two thousand six hundred Americans in twenty-nine states right now sitting in cells awaiting their deaths by lethal injection or by other means, depending on the state. Most are still waiting for their date with the devil because they can appeal in so many ways and it seems that the average time now spent on death row is over sixteen years. There is an increasing hue and cry in the US about the time people have to spend on death row arguing that the wait itself is “cruel and unusual punishment.”

…the European Court of Human Rights in 1989 ruled that extended periods on death row violated a provision of the European Convention of Human Rights that forbids “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” While acknowledging the legality of the death sentence in certain cases, it nonetheless forbade Britain to deport a German man to Virginia to face capital charges because he might spend years on death row facing “the anguish and mounting tension of living in the ever-present shadow of death.”

https://www.bnd.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/answer-man/article151691567.html

Right, “he might spend years on death row facing ‘the anguish and mounting tension of living in the ever-present shadow of death'”. Well, you know, I’m feeling a little like that myself, actually. I’ve been told I have an incurable cancer, but one that can be treated. It looks like I will go into remission sometime, probably in a few months, but who knows for how long. After that, if my myeloma doesn’t react to new treatments upon an inevitable relapse, I will surely die from organ failure. So, I wait and wait and wait not knowing if my next chemo treatment will work or not. The end result is preordained, however. No getting around that. How is this different from a death row inmate who applies for an appeal for his terminal sentence not knowing whether or not he will be successful? If he is successful this time, what about the next time? He knows that at some point the avenues for appeal will run out. When that happens he will suffer from organ failure like me, but that will be a systemic, total failure of all bodily systems as he lies there on a gurney in the execution room being administered a lethal injection of a deadly concoction of poison.

The analogy I use between my cancer diagnosis and a death row sentence is certainly not perfect. No analogy is. For instance, I don’t have to spend the bulk of my days in a small cell with bars. Nor do I have guards watching over me. That said, the comparison between my myeloma diagnosis and a death row sentence is fair if focussed on the psychological dimensions of an indeterminate cancer survival prognosis and an indeterminate execution date for the death row inmate. Chemotherapy is akin to an appeal: both buy some time but just postpone the inevitable.

I imagine that death row inmates are not pre-occupied twenty-four hours a day with the fact that they will eventually end up on the gurney in the execution room more than I am focussed all the time on the fact that my cancer is incurable, and hence terminal under the ‘right’ conditions. It’s just that the uncertainly of the situation is combined with the certainly of the outcome. That is disconcerting to say the least. I am definitely living “in the ever-present shadow of death”, but, of course, we all are. My shadow is possibly more opaque than yours at the moment, that’s all. Until I got my ‘death sentence’ I could go about my days thinking about projects I was doing, walks we would be going on, trips we would take. Now, it’s not so easy to do these things. Oh, it’s still possible, but utter exhaustion, chemo, lab and doctor visits, imaging sessions, etcetera, complicate things. I can only hope things will be different when I go into remission. I have a canoe that needs a new canvas skin and I have a sculpture I want to complete.

This all brings me back to the ‘value’ of sudden death. Sudden death does have a very important feature: its suddenness. No time to think about it, no time to live in anguish, etcetera. Looks like I won’t have the luxury of a sudden death. Maybe I will, we never know, but the way it’s going now, it’s not likely. So I have to figure out another tactic, or set of tactics to deal with the uncertainty of my life but with the certainty of my imminent death.

Problem is my death is not just about me. Yes, it’s an intensely personal experience, but other people are involved. Is it fair for anyone to focus so much on having a good death that they ignore everyone around them? Is it okay to be completely selfish about our own dying?

According to this op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, dying at home, although it seems like a reasonable thing to do, entails consequences, especially for care givers, and especially when home support and respite care are not available. This op-ed provides me with a not-so-subtle reminder to get my living will done. I probably shouldn’t procrastinate on that one.

A Balancing Act

So, yesterday we went to the hospital for my usual Thursday injection of bortezomib and to get the rest of the meds I take orally. This time it was a bit different because I am now on a full dose of cyclophosphomide. I was a bit trepidatious about it. I wondered if the symptoms going from a half dose to a full dose might produce twice the level of distress from the symptoms. Would I have more nausea? Doesn’t seem like it at the moment. Would I have more brain effects like lightheadedness and dizziness? Doesn’t seem like it for now. At this point it seems like it’s business as usual. I may lose my hair with the added dose of cycloformaldehyde (my name for cyclophosphomide) but that’s no big deal, I could also see darkening of skin colour and nails hardening, etcetera. Those effects are yet to be seen. Another side effect of my chemo meds is infertility. Gee, that’s really got me worried.

My tummy seems nicely settled at the moment. That’s good. Hydromorphone (hydro for short) tends to make one constipated. It sure as hell did that to me. However, most of the chemo meds I’m taking tend to produce diarrhea. Do they balance each other out? Not necessarily. Pooing regularly is very important to me now and I sure don’t need to rip my anus apart with constipation. Bring on the Dulcolax. One in the morning and one at night seem to do the trick, but I have to be on top of it because things change so quickly with chemotherapy. At the moment all is okay on the anal front. Oh, and my butt gives profuse thanks to our bidet toilet seat. That was one very wise purchase!

Last night I took my usual dose of hydro (which I found out doing research a couple of days ago that it’s one of the drugs some states in the US use for lethal injections in capital punishment). Because I have my bortezomid injection earlier in the day and I’m prone to swelling and issues around the injection site, I was told to take Benadryl as a means of counteracting that. So, I took a couple of Benadryl and that helped me sleep for four hours or so, but the dexamethasone (dex) kept pushing back wanting to make me more hyper. I slept, like I said for four hours, but after that the dex won and I lay awake for most of the rest of the night. However, thankfully, the Benadryl did counteract the dex so that I wasn’t as hyper as I might get otherwise. I was quite relaxed, actually. Around four AM I took another one milligram of hydro because my hip was hurting me more than I am prepared to tolerate. That seemed to do it, the pain attenuated and I was more comfortable. Taking one milligram of hydro on another day under different conditions and it would have no effect. It’s all about timing and balance.

As I lay in bed last night unable to initially fall asleep I checked out the ceiling above our bed. A few weeks ago I noticed signs of wetness in the ceiling drywall. It’s pretty easy to tell if your roof is leaking and you have drywalled ceilings. The paint begins to ripple and buckle slightly as the water soaks through the drywall. I am prepared to put up with some of that, but we need to ensure that it isn’t getting much worse. We painted that ceiling not long ago so I had a baseline to work with. I don’t think it is getting worse, but the solution is to get up on the roof and tighten all the screws holding down the metal roof. Metal roof screws can loosen off over time and cause problems ten or fifteen years after installation so it’s a good idea to tighten them down periodically. We’ve done that, thanks to Tim (our son-in-law) on the studio roof, and the shop roof is only a couple of years old so no need to do anything with that roof. Now, it seems, we have to do the house. I’m not about to go up there, neither is Carolyn. We’ll have to hire somebody to do that, somebody steady on their feet and with good, non-arthritic hands.

Then I thought about the studio. It’s a bit of a mess at first glance, but I set it up to do some printing months ago and it does look like a mess. But it’s not really. Someone else looking at it or going in there sees mess (unless they’re an artist). It does need some tidying up, but I’m the only one who can do that, except for moving some of the heavier pieces of equipment and my sister-in-laws stuff. A number of people have shoved ‘stuff’ into the studio to get it out of the house and out of the way, but in doing so have damaged one of the paintings I was working on, punching a hole in the middle of it. It was bound to happen. Now I have to decide if it’s worth repairing that painting or not. Sooner or later I’m going to have to go into the studio and assess my capacity to work. I could maybe do a small woodcut or linocut or finish a painting or two. I’ve got lots I could do, but do I have the energy, and can I overcome the shakes that are a side effect of some of my chemo meds? And what about that arthritis? Those are the questions.

At one point last night, about twenty minutes after taking the extra one milligram of hydro, I lay on my back and realized, heh, I don’t have pain anywhere in my body! Holy shit. I can guarantee you that that is a rare occurrence. How did it happen? Well, as best as I can figure, I had all my various meds balanced out. The slow-release hydro was looking after my regular pain, the Benadryl was counteracting the dex as well as looking after the injection site issues. As long as I stayed still, I was painless! Of course, a few minutes later, when I decided to move to sleeping on my right side, I started getting pain in my thoracic area, something I’m quite familiar with. But heh! Lesson about balance taken!

Balance seems to be everything in my life at the moment. It sure wasn’t always a concern for me to the extent that it is now. Now, I could think about going into my studio and working, say, for an hour instead of for a whole day. I can think about going for short walks instead of running marathons thus balancing my need to rest with my need for exercise. I need to take time to think about how my meds work and how to get the most out of them without too much stress on my body and emotions. Age is a huge issues but instead of pining for the good ol’ days, finding age and cancer appropriate balance is working for me. Of course, I’m still going to die, but that will help out with the cosmic balance between life and death. More on this to come.

Well, this is a pain in the ass!

Literally. Although technically, the pain is in my hips. But as you know, hips are very close to asses so I feel justified in using the title above.

My hips have been giving me a bit of grief lately but usually only in bed at night. They don’t hurt during the course of the day. I tend to sleep on my side, usually my right side. I’ve noticed over the past few weeks, however, that over the course of a night, I might have to shift my body from my right side to my left side every hour or so. I could take more hydromorphone I guess, to alleviate the pain, but I feel like I need to have some idea of what’s going on in my body. Trying to eliminate all pain all the time seems ridiculous to me. Us humans are built in such a way as pain is pretty much a given whether from overuse, as in doing too much exercise, from injury via trauma, or from things like appendicitis. I want to know what’s going on in my body and it’s pretty hard to do that if I’m always zonked out on opioids.

Pain, pain, pain! I’ve had lots of that in my lifetime although just looking at me you wouldn’t know that. I look pretty good for an old guy. Still, pain has been an expected companion most of my life. Mygawd, in my early twenties I had a laminectomy, a disk removed in my the lower back because of a planer mill accident, but I’ve already mentioned that in a previous blog post. I had to be peeled off the ceiling a number of times from that one. No pain has ever stopped me from doing things, however. It may have stiffled my dreams of being a world-class athlete, but it never stopped me from running and walking fairly long distances, and farting around in my shop and studio. Of course, I had to be careful. Sometimes my back would send out signals for me to back off, and I would, not being a complete idiot.

A few years ago, though, I had had enough with pain and my doctor had had enough of me complaining about pain, I guess, so he sent me to a pain clinic in Nanaimo. Well, that was interesting. I assume that pain clinics are good for pain caused by overt trauma and that sort of thing. My experience is that as far as chronic pain is concerned, they struggle with coming up with good solutions. At the end of my time at the clinic, they were thinking of implanting a tens machine in my side at the site of my 2002 kidney surgery. The site of my kidney surgery from 2002 still pains me. However, I wasn’t about to have a tens machine implanted in my body so the clinic and I parted company. The clinic still exists doing lots of good, I’m sure, and I still exist too, still in pain. Well, there ya go!

Over the last few months, as you know, I have been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer, just another reason to have pain. I have no shortage of reasons to have pain. Now, however, my family doctor is only too happy to prescribe opiates. He’s always been fairly liberal when it comes to prescribing pain medications, but now I especially appreciate his willingness to treat my pain with whatever it takes. One thing is that treating the pain from my bone marrow cancer also has the benefit of dealing with some of my chronic pain issues. That has been good although I’m still in pain. I’m certainly not trying to eradicate all my pain. Feeling pain means I’m still alive. Of course eating sticky buns has the same effect, but that’s a lot more pleasant than feeling pain as an indicator that there is still life in these old (now eroded) bones.

My oncologist, however, seems to be clueless about pain. When we visited him in Victoria last year I was in a lot of pain, obviously so, I thought. He told me to take a couple of Tylenol. He, he, he. A couple of Tylenol? Sure, dude.I can’t imagine he’s ever felt any kind of acute pain so he just can’t relate. Ibuprofen works well for me, but I can’t take anti-inflammatory meds because I have only one kidney. Pity. I think I could avoid a lot of opioid use if I could take anti-inflammatory meds. In any case, my oncologist, in exasperation, I think, because I keep telling him that I’m in pain, and he doesn’t want to hear that, decided that I should go to a pain clinic. Well, I was not particularly receptive to that, but after a little deliberation with Carolyn, I decided to humour him. So. off I go to the pain clinic only it’s not called that.

Yesterday, I got a call from ‘Leanne’ from the Palliative Symptom Management Clinic which has a branch here in the Comox Valley. Now before you get all weirded out by the word ‘Palliative’ in the title, don’t worry, I’m not getting signed up for end-of-life care just yet. Palliative care, it turns out, refers to pain management in general. We’ve come to associate it with end-of-life care, but it doesn’t have to refer to that. Leanna had lots of questions for me like: do you have a gun in the house? Are you depressed? Do you have place for the nurses to park when they come to visit you?

I’m looking forward to seeing what this palliative care group can do for me. The doctors involved may have good advice for how to manage my pain meds. Eventually they can hook me up to a huge bottle of morphine and I can blissfully drift off to permanent unconsciousness, but not just yet. My lab results are indicating that I’m heading toward remission so back off with the bottle of morphine!

We saw my orthopaedic surgeon yesterday and he’s ordered another CT scan of my right femur, the one with the bone excavations. He just wants to make sure the lesion isn’t getting any bigger because it has been more painful lately. So, next week I see my family doctor on Monday, then I go into the hospital on Wednesday for a visit with my local oncology GP, and to get a zoledronic acid infusion. I’ll probably get a CT scan this week too. On Thursday I go back in to start a new chemotherapy cycle, my third! Never a dull moment. Wish me luck!

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.

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.

Love.

Sunday morning. The huge snowfall we had over the past few days is slowly yielding to the onslaught of warmer temperatures and steady rain. It will still be a few days before we can extricate the car from its cocoon of snow and ice but that’s fine because we can always use the truck to get around. Having two vehicles is a bit of an indulgence, but the security of a backup is important to us right now.

Every once in a while we hear a loud thump as large chunks of snow and ice break off of the load on the various metal roofs we have like a calving Alaskan glacier and crash to the deck or the ground below. Metal roofing creates a nice slick runway for ice and snow to slide off the roofs. We need to be vigilant when we walk under the eaves of the house or outbuildings for fear of getting walloped. I’m pretty safe though because I haven’t left the house in days, since my last visit to the hospital on Thursday actually. I’m having a rough time of it right now and I don’t rightly know if it’s because of the chemo or the myeloma. I know by my lab results on Monday that my hemoglobin counts are down and that means anemia is getting worse. Who knows why. I just know I’m exhausted for no goddamn good reason. I don’t mind being exhausted. Exhaustion can be a reward, actually, after a long run or a good workout. Being exhausted after sleeping all night and most of the day is not what I consider a reward.

I’m backing off my pain meds for a bit. I want to see where my baseline is. Getting the right dose of pain meds means constantly re-assessing pain levels. To be sure, pain varies a lot for me, not only in intensity but in kind. Lately I’ve experienced a dull, throbbing pain in my legs, particularly my right one. Every once in a while I get a spike of pain but that’s usually manageable. On my last visit to the hospital for my infusion of zeledronic acid, as I was sitting there in the chair with tubes sticking out of me, I got a cramp in my left side. I sometimes get cramps in my left side as an artifact of the surgery I had in 2002 to remove my left kidney. In any case, the nurses got very attentive all of a sudden as I writhed in my chair trying to find a comfortable position. They thought I was having a heart attack or something. It took me a while to assure them that it was just a cramp and not to worry. Pain is such a weird thing. I’ve had chronic pain for a couple of decades related to low levels of vitamin B12. Now, I have a hard time distinguishing between the chronic pain of the past few years and the new pain created by my myeloma. Not that it’s important, I guess, but doctors do want to know what kind of pain I’m having. I get pretty frustrated at times because I don’t know what’s causing my pain. It might be arthritis or degenerative disks too, but they don’t want to know about that pain. They want to know about pain associated with the myeloma. It’s not a simple thing to tell the difference. It’s funny: my orthopaedic surgeon in Campbell River asked me about pain in my right leg. I told him, yes, I have pain in my right leg, along my femur and even below the knee. Well, he said, that’s odd because your lytic lesion from your myeloma is at the distal end of your femur. Isn’t that where the pain is? Well, yes, but, but…

So, dealing with the symptoms of myeloma is one thing, explaining how I’m feeling is another thing entirely.

Some people love winter. They’re off skiing, snowshoeing, and doing other wintery stuff. I’m not a big fan. I’m a big fan of summer. You’ll never catch me complaining about how hot it is. Winter to me means short hours of daylight and long rainy nights. I am fortunate, though, in that we have a beautiful home to hunker down in and I have Carolyn as my caregiver. There’s always a hot cup of coffee ready for me in the morning and tea during the day. It’s clear I’m not the best of company a lot of the time but Carolyn is always there. I don’t know what people do if they don’t have community, family, and love, and find out later in life that they have incurable cancer. I’m feeling good knowing that I’m not on this road alone. Of course, dying is a lonely affair. You shouldn’t expect to have people accompany you into the grave like the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang Di, but having them along as companions until the last moments of life is as good as it gets in my books.