#75. A Triple Whammy of Crap (and maybe a bit of good stuff too).

It’s been tough keeping my shit together over the past few weeks. I’m having trouble just sitting here composing this on my computer. Part of my problem is physical and part is a growing psychological ennui. I’m exhausted most of the time. Oh, I can get up and walk around a bit but sometimes that’s even too much.

Obviously myeloma has a lot to do with my unease even though I’m in remission, or I think I’m still in remission. I have a chat with my oncologist on the 22nd to confirm my status. It’s hard to know what to think anymore. My usual myeloma symptoms, peripheral neuropathy, itchiness, fatigue and weakness in my legs, are still evident, but now, I have something new to report to him.

I saw a dental specialist on December 21st. After I came to see him because of pain in my jaw, my regular dentist suggested I would probably need to have a tooth pulled and a cyst at the base of it cleaned out. Well, it turns out that the specialist I saw in Parksville figures that the pain and numbness in my jaw is not dentally related. It’s more likely myeloma induced and that the ‘cyst’ is more likely a lytic lesion. I’m still waiting for a call from him letting me know what the situation is. He has a connection with the BC Cancer Agency in Victoria so I expect he has better access than most of us to oncologists. I expect he’ll suggest radiation treatment, something we discussed on our December 21 consult, but my oncologist will decide on therapies.

Right now, I’m on a rollercoaster of symptoms and I can’t predict one day to the next how I’ll be or how much extra hydromorphone I’ll need to take to deal with the pain. My jaw is sucking up the hydromorphone, that’s for sure, but so is my back and a recurring, baffling pain in my left heel that forced me into a wheelchair at one point late last year. I can’t tell you how sick and tired I am of the pain. It leaves me physically and psychologically drained. Thank goodness I usually sleep quite well and Carolyn is envious of my ability to nap at a moment’s notice.

The title of this post is A Triple Whammy of Crap. Well, I’ve written about the pain and distress brought on by myeloma and its treatments. Myeloma and its related poop is the first part of my triple whammy. Now it’s time to move on to the other two elements of the triple whammy. First, a definition:

Triple Whammy

An online dictionary of idioms describes a triple whammy as “a combination of three different elements, circumstances, or actions that results in a particularly powerful force, outcome, or effect.”

I’ve already alluded to one element of my triple whammy, the myeloma and its treatments I deal with daily. The other two are the pandemic and American politics. So, myeloma, the pandemic (and associated restrictions) and American politics together contribute to generating in me a profound funk. With crap falling on us from all sides it’s hard to keep the smell of shit at bay.

The Pandemic

These days, we all have some sense of what it was like to live in 1918. The Spanish Flu was a powerful killer and didn’t discriminate except that wealthy people were better able to protect themselves from crowds than the poor could. That’s still the truth in 2021. The coronavirus COV-2 is adept at making many of us in the population very sick and puts a lot of pressure on the medical system as it forces hospitalizations.

One way the government and chief provincial medical officer in British Columbia have decided to combat COV-2 is by keeping us apart from each other so as to prevent the spread of the virus. Isolation is hardly ever good for a social species like us. There is a lot of evidence for what happens to people who are forced into isolation like solitary confinement in prison. They go wingy after a while. Children forced into isolation, say in an orphanage, die at much higher rate than children born and raised in poverty or in prison with their mothers.

So, in order to relieve the stress of isolation, people here find all kinds of ways of bending the rules, traveling to nearby destinations, or just getting on a plane to a warm destination because the government hasn’t outright banned travel, now has it? It just strongly recommends against it. Many politicians have decided to travel in any case, arguing that they haven’t broken any rules in doing so. Outraged commentators on social media have found all kinds of reasons to criticize them including their flouting of moral standards. Whatever.

I guess the bottom line here is that we are asked to wear masks and to keeping a physical distance from others whenever we step out of our homes. No hugs. For us that means no contact with our children and grandchildren. That sucks! We will follow the guidelines as we go along, but that doesn’t mean we’re happy about it.

American Politics

So, why would I include American politics as the last element in my triple whammy of crap? What the hell has American politics got to do with us? With me?

Well, apart from the fact that I have friends and relatives living in the United States and who have to live with the lies, the betrayals and the crap everyday, the profound disfunction of the American political system creates uncertainty for us, for all of us. The moral degeneracy in the US so easily spreads to the rest of us, especially those of us living close to the 49th parallel, and is impossible to avoid. The disrespect for democracy and the ready acceptance of oligarchy evident in the US could spread to us like a virus and infect our own fragile political systems.

Besides, the uncertainty is stressful as is the insanity. We get up in the morning not knowing what the hell Trump or his cronies in the Republican Divided Party are likely to conjure up and take up as a tool to wreck confidence in the American voting system or in any drive to greater social equality. I can tell you that I’ve had my critical judgments around the American voting system and the Electoral College in particular. That said, destroying the ship plank by plank as it sails off into the sunset may not be the best strategy for reform especially for everyone aboard.

Done.

Any one of the three elements of the triple whammy I outline above can cause inordinate stress (and does!) but the three of them together leaves a trail of discomfort and uncertainty multiplied threefold. We’ll carry on, but it’s not easy. Thankfully there are countervailing forces to help balance things out a bit.

A nap in the afternoon for one. An African violet blooming its little heart out in December and January for another.

I’ll be backing off writing here for a time. I’m not sure for how long. I’ve got to get a sense of balance back into my life (if I ever can). The truth is I’m 74 years old and sick with myeloma. Many days all I want to do is sleep.

Many people tell me that the power to heal is within me. I just need to harness it, to think positively, and to ignore negative influences in my life. At 74, that’s easier said than done. It’s usually younger, healthier people who urge me to get my power pack in motion. Of course, nobody messes with death, positive thinking or not.

#74. Up Yours 2020!

I was thinking of writing a timely, thoughtful blog post for my last one of the year, then the pain around my jaw went a long way to discouraging that. Yes, I feel that there is something quite wrong with my jaw, a wrongness likely associated with myeloma.

I went to see my dentist a while before Christmas because I thought the pain in my jaw and the increasing numbness there was tooth related, but it turned out on closer inspection by a specialist that the lesion there is probably myeloma related. Such a ducky way of ending 2020.

Interesting! This is my seventy-fourth post on my experience with myeloma and it turns out that Monday is my seventy-fourth birthday. Coincidence? Of course. There’s no way I could engineer my life that closely.

I suppose I’m happy that I made it to my seventy-fourth birthday although with everything that’s going on these days, it’s hard for me to get too celebratory around my birthday.

Frankly, I’m much more concerned with what happens on January 5th, the day after my birthday. That’s when I get my blood tested for the presence of myeloma protein and other noxious nasties whose only goal in life is to kill me. I was found to be in remission when my blood was last tested three months ago. Now, we go at it again. We wait and see what the verdict is. I must say that this is getting somewhat irksome.

Oh well. So far this post has been about me and my problems. No sociology and no profundity. Just a little whining and sadness. I think I’ve earned it. But it does stop here.

BTW…I hope for your sakes that 2021 is at least twice as good as 2020.

#73. Surprises, Leo Panitch, and an African violet.

This will be a short pre-Christmas post, just to cheer you up a bit. The first part is a short comment on Leo Panitch, a Canadian scholar and academic most of you will never have heard of who died recently of Covid-19. The second part is a short update on my situation which keeps throwing up unwelcome surprises for us.

Leo Panitch (1945-2020)

Panitch was a Jewish kid from Winnipeg. I was a French Canadian kid from British Columbia (?), but we both were from working class families. Leo Panitch joined a panoply of incipient Marxist and leftist social scientists, many American, some draft-dodgers, who began to populate the halls of Canadian universities in the late 1960s, throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. He was one of the more thoughtful and moderate among them. He was a political economist, political scientist, and sociologist who wrote tons of books and articles on Marxist science relating to global economic development. I had a great deal of respect for his work. I ran into him a couple of times at conferences but we weren’t buddies or anything like that.

He died on Saturday, December 19th, 2020 of Covid-19. Just a short time before his death, he had contracted pneumonia, and even a bit earlier than that he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He must have been in a highly weakened state when he succumbed to Covid-19. I have no idea how long he had myeloma before he finally got a diagnosis but that disease has a way of smacking one down, keeping one weak and off balance. It’s a disease that is not easy to detect and its symptoms mimic the symptoms of many other conditions. I have no idea how long I had had myeloma before getting a diagnosis but that’s just about how I felt in December last year as I embarked on months of chemotherapy.

Panitch and I had some things in common. Certainly, we had multiple myeloma in common. We were both scholars but he worked mainly in universities whereas I worked in colleges. We shared an intellectual tradition of critical inquiry into the rise of global capitalism. He wrote a great deal, works that I was able to use in my teaching. I got involved in television based teaching and published very little that could be considered scholarship. I focussed on teaching as he did. His eulogies note that his work as a teacher was his most satisfying. His students certainly considered him a great teacher. He will be sorely missed.

Me and Myeloma Now

A few days ago, maybe 10, I was sitting in my chair when I noticed my lower left jaw was hurting a bit. One of my teeth seemed a bit wobbly and weak. It was nothing much. It remained like that for a few days, but as it got closer to the weekend and the pain seemed to increase slightly I figured I had better try to get in to see my dentist. I didn’t want to be chasing after a dentist this week or next week either.

So, my dentist is a great guy. He’s been the family dentist for over thirty years. We know each other very well. After I had been diagnosed with myeloma last year my oncologist said I should make sure to get checked up by my dentist, so I did. He was very upset with the diagnosis and was super attentive. I didn’t hesitate to contact him last week so that if I needed a tooth extracted that could happen before the holidays.

I contacted his office on Thursday. By Friday afternoon, he had arranged for me to get a special imaging session set up at a local dental surgeon’s office. With that, I then had a consultation with my dentist himself on Friday afternoon. Using the x-ray images he determined that I had a tooth that was dead and a cyst just below it. Both would have to come out. At the same time, though, anticipating an extraction and possible problems with the cyst, he was able to call in some favours and got me into an office of dental surgery in Parksville sometime on Monday (yesterday). We got a call from Parksville on Monday morning asking if we could be there by 11:45. Yes, of course we could…even in the snow!

We just made it for 11:45, Carolyn driving carefully in the snow and slush as we passed four or five cars in the ditch. Turns out, this doctor in Parksville is a real star and was familiar with multiple myeloma. After talking for some time and going over my symptoms, especially the numbness in my jaw, and the location of the pain, we determined that the dark spot (typical of myeloma lesions) on the x-ray we had taken the day before was in all likelihood a myeloma lesion and had nothing to do with my teeth. Well, that changes everything, doesn’t it? I wasn’t expecting that.

I was expecting to go down there and come back with one less tooth. That was not to be. Instead, this doctor arranged to contact my oncologist in Victoria so that they could together decide what to do, if anything. I get blood tests on January 5th, and I have an appointment with my oncologist on January 22nd.

At this point I have no idea what to think. I should know in a month whether the myeloma has retuned or not. If not, that would be great! If it has returned, then we decide on a new course of chemotherapy. Not something I look forward to.

Whatever! Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays or any other greeting you may like!

We have high hopes for 2021. We need this virus to get lost but we don’t want to go back to things as they were. What do you want to keep from the past and what would you like to unload?

I love this little African violet we have in the bathroom. As you can see most of the flowers have died off quite some time ago. The plant was bare for a while. Then, all of a sudden, this flower emerges and it’s still blooming its head off. I like that. It’s been recently joined by another blossom! So cool.

Merry African Christmas!

#67 Remission!

I spoke with my new BC Cancer Agency oncologist yesterday. We had a nice chat about our alma mater and the weather, but we also discussed my myeloma. Of course we did!

He told me that I am effectively in remission. There is no trace of the myeloma protein in my serum. That, I would say, is great news. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have cancer anymore. Myeloma is incurable but it is treatable. The hope is that I can go some time without needing chemo.

While I don’t have any trace of the myeloma paraprotein in my serum, I still have issues related to myeloma and I have to live with the side effects of the chemotherapy I was on between December 2019 and June 2020. I have lots of peripheral neuropathy or nerve induced pain and weakness in my legs. I also have back pain for which I need to take opioids. My oncologist has ordered a spinal MRI to see if we can pinpoint the specific cause of the pain. I do have residual pain from surgeries I had on my lumbar disks and from the removal of my left kidney in 2002 because of kidney cell cancer. To help us figure it all out I have pain specialists (palliative care doctors) on the job. With them, we’re trying to determine what kinds of medication I need to take and how much.

It’s complicated because there is some pain that is muscular in origin, other pain that comes from problems with connective tissue and then there’s nerve-induced pain. Different meds are required for the different types of pain. For example, opioids aren’t much good against neurological pain but they work on muscle-based pain and to some extent on connective tissue pain. Right now I’m on two main pain medications and a couple more on standby. Hydromorphone isn’t much good for neurological pain but it works for my back pain although the dose is critical. My age is working against me too. It’s normal in ageing to have weakened muscles and degenerative connective tissues. My body is ganging up on me! But I’m fighting back!

One thing I aim to do is increase my physical exercise as much as I can. That means walking more. I have to be careful because my balance isn’t great, but I can walk maybe two kilometres a day using one or two canes. I can also, on rainy days, use our semi-recumbent bike for twenty minutes a day. We also have light weights I can use and stretchy cables (?).

That’s enough for now. I just wanted to give you the good news. Today is such a great fall day. This red maple in front of the house is living up to its name. Every day it gets redder, then it seems like overnight all the leaves are on the ground.

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AND, haha…there’s a snowfall warning for tonight and Friday morning at higher elevations (which could mean Cumberland). ❄️🌨❄️❄️❄️⛄️ Sleep tight!

#65. Musings, Flowers, and In Memoriam.

Musings

It’s October 5th, 2020. That means it’s pretty much a year since I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. I expected that this month would be my last one in my first course of chemotherapy. As it turns out it was not my last month because I decided a couple of months ago to forgo my last two cycles of chemo treatments because of the neurological damage I was experiencing. Chemo was doing away with the myeloma protein in my blood but it was also killing me. That’s not good, so we decided to stop.

Who knows what happens now. I went to the lab last week for some blood tests in anticipation of visits with oncologists later this month. I have the results: they show that my Lambda Free Light Chains (a type of blood protein that is used as a marker for myeloma) are trending up, now out of the zone the medical profession has decided is the reference (some would say, normal) zone. That is not good news, in my opinion. The increase in my Lambda Free Light Chains hasn’t been dramatic, but it sure concerned me.

I contacted Dr. Malcolm Brigden’s office in Victoria. Brigden is the oncologist assigned to me by the BC Cancer Agency. His assistant, after consulting with the good doctor, advised that there was no clinical reason for me to have my meeting with said Dr. Brigden brought forward as I had requested because Light Chain numbers go up and down all the time.

That’s not what I’m seeing in the test results but I’m no oncologist. Still, I’m seeing a definite trend in one direction.

So we wait until October 21t to drive to Victoria for a fifteen minute appointment with said Dr. Brigden. The issue for me (for us, including the family) is where I’m at in terms of treatment. Brigden will decide what to do now that I’ve been off of chemotherapy for three months. He may decide to do nothing and wait for my next set of blood tests. He may decide to get me started on another course of chemo. I expect he’ll choose the former, that is he’ll choose to do nothing and wait for test results three months down the road. Whatever. I have some research to do about how Lambda Free Light Chains react in remission but before a new course of treatment is initiated. You may detect a note of cynicism in my composition here. If you did, you’d be right. I’ve read a fair bit about oncology, both the research and clinical aspects of it and I can’t help but feel that clinicians are all over the map in terms of treatment options and approaches. There are no real standards in the field. That is partly due to the idiopathic nature of myeloma. There is no one treatment option for patients in relapse.

I guess I need to be patient. I find patience a little difficult to achieve these days, but I need to cultivate a ‘letting go’ approach to this ‘problem.’

________________________________________________________________________

In Memoriam. Thinking of you.

Sarah Kerr died on October 3rd after maybe six years of suffering with colon cancer. In 2018 she gave an interview to the Comox Valley Record in which she claims to have had over 60 chemo treatments over the previous five years. That’s just not the way it works for myeloma. I got one over the last year. In the same interview she reports on various different alternative therapies she tried including vitamin C infusions (@$200/week). Her quality of life was severely affected by her chemo treatments.I didn’t know Sarah very well. She was more of an acquaintance than a friend. I knew her from my pre-retirement North Island College days with Sarah making pots and just generally being around the Art Department. She was a Facebook friend too. We had a large number of FB friends in common.

The last time I spoke with Sarah was a few weeks ago on my way into the Cancer Care Centre at the hospital here. She was just heading out after a treatment. Neither of us had much time to chat. Sarah was obviously much distressed. I don’t know anything about colon cancer but I know she suffered tremendously from it. It was unrelenting. No more, Sarah.

Dennis Renaud died on September 30, 2020. He worked for many years at the Courtenay Return-it Centre. I got to know him a bit over the years partly because we were both French-Canadians from outside Quebec. He had Joseph in his name too. Many French-Canadians of a certain generation do. The women have Mary somewhere in their name.

The thing I noticed about Dennis was the way he worked. I’m always impressed by people who work in jobs that could be seen as extremely mundane and boring, but who seem to try to get the most out of every action they undertake as they work. It was obvious to me watching Dennis work that he was always looking for the most efficient way of moving cans and bottles along from the desk to the roller conveyers behind him. He could count bottle and cans very quickly and he never lost a beat. He was one of the most efficient workers I knew.

I didn’t know Dennis socially. He was a FB friend for some time, but he wasn’t that active on social media. In April of this year he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Five months later he was dead. He was two years younger than me. A good, former Catholic, sort of French Canadian kid, like me.

In a way I envy you Dennis. No lingering around with chemo treatment after chemo treatment with shit for quality of life. I think Sarah might just agree with me and in a way she might envy you too.

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Flowers.

I love begonias. Carolyn grew these in a hanging pot just outside the back door. I saw the every time I walked to the back yard, a half dozen times a day. These flowers are deadly difficult to render realistically. I need a lot more practice to do them well. I’m learning, though. In ‘nature’ there are no lines but drawing this flower requires that I draw lines. The trick is to make the lines disappear into the contours of the subject. It’s not possible with ink, at least it’s not easy. Besides I love the effect ink gives a piece and if I want to look at a begonia not translated via the synapses of my brain I just look at the photo. The begonia I draw tells me as much about my synapses and my brain as it does about the subject matter.

This is quite impressionistic. Definitely not ‘realistic.’

The begonias below, one behind the other are stunning in my mind.

I draw them using a .3 copic pen and then use watercolour on them. This time I use a wet watercolour technique. I haven’t finished this piece yet as you can see. The next one I do will be done with no ink, just watercolour directly on paper with no preparatory drawing. We’ll see how that goes.

And now just look at all the other beautiful flowers that are still blooming in the garden in early October!

If you feel so moved you might just want to ‘like’ my post!

62 Meh…and sporangia.

Not much motivated to write about my myeloma journey right now. My last post was on August 23rd. Today is Monday, September 14th. For some time I tried and succeeded in putting out a blog post almost every week but lately with the uncertainty around my treatment, I’ve lost interest. So, it’s been three weeks since my last post.

I talk to my local oncologist in a couple of days for fifteen minutes or so but he doesn’t make the major decisions around my treatment. I have a meeting scheduled for the consulting oncologist next month, but I have no expectations around that consultation. It will be the first time I talk to this guy. He’s new in town. I’ll be just another file to him.

From my last set of blood tests I know that my blood is pretty much normal. That will change. Technically, if I’m considered in remission they’ll do more blood tests every three months and reconsider my situation then. But right now, I don’t know if I’m in remission or not.

I already told you that I decided to cut my chemotherapy short about six weeks ago now because one of my chemo drugs was playing havoc with the way my muscles are supposed to respond to the neurological signals controlling them. My thigh muscles are particularly affected by bortezomib (trade name: Velcade), the offending drug, to the point where I experienced severe pain and weakness in my legs, especially in my thighs. That situation seems to be improving slowly. I’m taking some good pain meds and they are helping the situation, and I’m seeing a physiotherapist, but I think just being off chemo is making a big difference.

It’s been a roller coaster ride over the last few months. I’m tired of it. Thankfully, being off chemo is giving me some respite although I still have great fatigue and restricted mobility. I am doing better and I’m happy about that. Lately I’ve been able to draw and paint a little and use my microscope, telescope, and iPhone to put together some interested projects. I can’t do anything for more than a couple of hours at a time, but that’s infinitely better than staring at the ceiling all day long. I’m actually enjoying myself. I have a secret dream, however, that I shared with my physiotherapist. I shouldn’t tell you because if it doesn’t happen I’ll be sadly disappointed, but I’m determined to get into (and out of) our canoe next month and paddle around for an hour or so without assistance and without dropping like a heap on the ground unable to get up. That would be cool. I also want to drag the trailer to Strathcona Park next month for a couple of days of camping. My real secret though is that I want to restore our canoe. I can’t face that task right now, but maybe later this year, who knows. Over the past while I’ve accumulated most of the materials and tools needed for the job. Now I just need energy and strength in my legs.

In any case, while I wait to see what will become of me and how much time I have to live, I’ve been able to occupy my time productively within the limits of my illness. Well, it wouldn’t do to just idle away my time now, would it and just passively wait to die? No! In our world idleness is the work of the devil! Can’t have that.

Wait, I can see it now. I’m on my death bed, hours if not minutes from expiring permanently, but I think that I’ve left something unfinished. No! Can’t do that. Must…live…long…enough…to finish…this…blog…post. And I do. And I die happy.

Of course worrying about a bucket list or unfinished projects or missed communications is all moot. After we’re dead, there is nothing. Concepts like regret are irrelevant. Even if one believes in an afterlife, I can’t imagine anyone thinking that afterlife would be taken up with regrets about things left undone or unaccomplished in life. What a drag that would be.

One thing that’s given me a lot of pleasure lately, as I note above, is exploring the microscopic world with my microscopes and iPhone. And I’ve discovered that I can use my iPhone to record an image on my spotting scope. I’ve posted those images on Facebook so I won’t post them again here. However I will post here a couple of videos I did of sword fern sporangia. I posted a video here of an exploding sporangia some time ago while it was still attached to the leaf. This time I scraped the sporangia off of the fern leaf and that provoked them to open up en masse. The videos are at two levels of magnification. There’s a close-up one and one at a lower level of magnification.

The spores are quite visible after the sporangia have evicted them. They’re the little beige dots littering the area not covered by sporangia. I want a microscope powerful enough to have a closer look at spores, but what is interesting to me even at this level of magnification is that we normally associate movement with animal life and here we have a plant that is moving…with purpose.

I love that as I look at the world through a microscope it’s obvious that all living things on this planet have a lot in common. Carolyn and I watched a YouTube video (NOVA) the other night on DNA called What Darwin Didn’t Know. It really reinforced the fact that DNA is ubiquitous and that life is much more unitary that we think. We really are all in this together. It would be awesome if we could develop respect for all life, all of us that is, including Monsanto and Bayer executives, oil company boards, politicians and all of us. Of course, respect for life also means respect for death, because they are not separable. Life depends on death. We don’t respect death now. We fear it. What would respect for death look like?

PS: I hope the videos work for you. If not, please let me know. For those of you receiving email notifications of my blog posts, you may need to go to the blog site to see them rather that stay on your email to view them.

PS2: My next blog post will be completely different from what you’re accustomed to read here. It’s about a brother I would have had if he had survived childbirth.

59 Perturbatious Times (and wee bugs)

So, the last three weeks since my last post have been momentous (for me) because, as I’ve noted before, I was faced with the devil’s choice of carrying on with the chemotherapy that was sapping my mobility, or of putting my chemo into abeyance. It’s been very stressful for me and for my family, especially for Carolyn.

Before I get into my decision and the reasons for it, I just want to say that I’ve had really incredible support from the oncology staff at the hospital, as well as from the palliative care staff, especially Dr. Marie-Clare Hopwood and Adele, one of the nurses at the Centre. Pain is a huge issue and a major hindrance for healing. The challenge for palliative care staff is to manage pain in the face of severe illness.

That’s where I come in. I provide the pain, they provide the relief. Ideally, at least.

Well, I’m pleased to say that in some ways, with certain aspects of my pain, I’m getting some relief with the helpful prescription writing skills that Dr. Hopwood brings to the table. It turns out (and I’ve probably already told you this) that opiates, including hydromorphone, are not much good at attenuating neuropathic pain, that is pain that originates in the nervous system. Most of my pain over the past couple of months has been dominated by neuropathic pain in my back and legs. It turns out the neural systems in my back and legs aren’t doing a great job of controlling the large muscles of my lower body. Fact is, the muscles in my legs dance constantly with fasciculations.* You may experience the odd fasciculation, but my legs are alive with them to the point where my legs have less than ideal control coming from the nerves that are supposed to make them move without us thinking about it, I lose my balance constantly, and use two canes to walk.

How often do you get a house call from a doctor?

Well, Dr. Hopwood and Adele came over to the house a few days ago for a consultation. We all sat on the deck at a proper distance apart and Adele and Dr. Hopwood wore face masks. We talked for quite some time before Dr. Hopwood arrived at a strategy to help with the pain in my back and legs. I won’t get into details, but it doesn’t involve more opiates. I’ve been on the regime that Dr. Hopwood recommended for almost a week now and it’s going well so far. I have other pain issues, but they have to be resolved in other ways. More on that later.

This past Wednesday during a regular consultation with my GP oncologist, Dr. Bakshi, I put it to him that I felt my mobility was being severely compromised and that my quality of life was being significantly eroded, especially in the last two months or so. For instance, over the past couple of months my legs have given way on me four times and I’ve found myself on the ground with no ability to get up. Thankfully, there was always somebody with me to help me get back up.

I told him I was seriously considering abandoning my current course of chemo. I was gratified to find that he was in complete sympathy with me. He said that I had successfully completed more than 80% of my suggested nine cycles of chemotherapy which would have taken me to October 6th. So, I made the decision to put my chemo into abeyance. What does that mean?

Well, it means that I’m off chemo for the foreseeable future. My last blood work shows that my blood is normal with very little paraprotein, good liver and kidney function. Now we just have to wait to see when the myeloma will again haunt my bones, veins, and arteries, because it surely will. It’s just a matter of time. Of course, I still have intense neurological pain and severe weakness in my legs. That won’t go away any time soon, if ever. We just have to wait and see.

*A fasciculation, or muscle twitch, is a spontaneous, involuntary muscle contraction and relaxation, involving fine muscle fibers. They are common, with as much as 70% of people experiencing them. They can be benign, or associated with more serious conditions. When no cause or pathology is identified, they are diagnosed as benign fasciculation syndrome. (Wikipedia)

Now for some wee bugs. I bought a 1000 power microscope on the internet that is pretty cheap but operates in conjunction with an app on my iPhone. It takes photos and videos. I find it fascinating that this little microscope can ‘see’ things I can’t see at all with my naked eye. I may use some of these photos as a basis for art work.

I caught these little guys at very high magnification on the backside of wisteria leaves. I have no idea what they are called. Any idea? I think they’re mites, but ???

56 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.

55 Two sickos, a baby and a garden.

Carolyn has her hands full these days, does she ever. I’m experiencing some particularly nasty side effects of one of my chemo meds weakening my legs to the point of near collapse, and last week we found Princess, our cat, in severe distress requiring long stays at the vets and heroic efforts to save her life. On top of that, there’s the puppy we brought into our lives. She’s a wonderful addition to the family, but she’s a rambunctious puppy, demanding of attention and needing some training to stop her from biting us incessantly, ripping our clothes and our bodies. Then there’s the garden.

The Garden

Speaking of the garden. It’s unbelievable this year. We’ve been eating lettuce from the garden for weeks but now the peas are coming on strong and the broccoli, cauliflower, and kohlrabi are in the pot. Some of the raspberries are ready to pick, the tomatoes are coming on as well as the zucchini and cucumbers. We’ve never had much luck with root vegetables, but this year it looks like the potatoes, carrots and beets will produce lots of tasty treats. The garlic is a bit behind this year but should be ready to pick in a week or so.

The cedar trees are loaded with cones this year to the point where they’re dragging the branches down. My favourite flowers, the lilies, are opening everywhere on the garden and this year we have a rare pond iris bloom. Such a delightful show! The birds are active too and the squirrels are busy picking the not-yet-ripe cherries. Looking out the living room window right now I’m seeing an American goldfinch, a purple finch, a couple of woodpeckers going after the suet attached to the feeder and a congeries of species, mostly thrushes, towhees, chickadees, and finches. At the pond is where we more often see kinglets and warblers. Of course, hummingbirds dash about in their usual frenzy all over the garden. So much to eat these days for all the birds.

Me

It’s been tough lately. I’m in quite a bit of neuropathic pain from one of my chemo drugs, something I’ve already written about a couple of posts back. My legs want to give out on me and if I should ever get down on the ground, I can’t get back up on my own. It’s downright discouraging. One of the main problems with this is finding the right pain med to deal with it. Hydromorphone is ineffective against neuropathic pain although I’m always tempted to take it so that I get stoned enough to be able to sleep. But I don’t like that strategy so I’m looking to other ways of getting by. I’m cutting back on my hydromorphone and taking more acetaminophen. That seems to allow me to sleep better while avoiding some of the worse brain fog and intense fatigue that I get from the opiates.

It may be that some of the back and leg pain I’m feeling is from conditions other than those produced by myeloma or chemo. To see if there’s a mechanical issue, my local oncology GP has ordered an MRI to check things out. He also suggested I think about taking Gabapentin or Lyrica, but I’m not having anything to do with those drugs. They may help in some ways, but they can create lots of problems I don’t need. I’m talking to the palliative care people too and they may have suggestions. In the meantime we wait and hope the pain attenuates. I’m operating at a very reduced capacity at the moment. Must carry on, though. No point in quitting now.

Thank goodness I have Carolyn and the garden for solace.

Princess Pretty Paws

Princess is at least ten years old and has been very healthy since we got her two or three years ago. Last week we got the puppy and Princess disappeared. At first I thought there might be a connection, but Princess is not the kind of cat to run away. In any case, Carolyn found her upstairs a few days ago. She was obviously in distress. We think that she may have been hiding out in the crawlspace as she got sicker and sicker. So Carolyn immediately took her to the vet. Princess stayed there a few hours for observation and tests. The vet was at a loss to figure out what was wrong with her. The one real anomaly in her blood was a high bilirubin count indicating a liver problem. We thought it might be poisoning, but that wasn’t the case.

It turns out she has a serious problem with a bowel infection or something along those lines and she has inflamed organs. So what to do? Well, some people might have decided to put her down but that’s not our style. More tests and more again. She saw the vet three days last week as well as today, on Sunday. We have a great vet!

Princess has been on a feeding tube for three days now and we seem to have that under control. She’s on lots of meds that we give her at feeding time. Her fever has dropped, she’s eating (through the tube) and she’s getting more active. She’s not throwing up and she’s using the litter box. All good signs. So we carry on and see how it goes. We keep our fingers crossed. No point in giving up on her now!

Matilda (Tilly)

Matilda (Tilly)

Tilly is a Bernese Mountain Dog, Shepherd and Maremma Italian sheep dog cross. She’s nine weeks old and is a gift from our amazing daughters and their families. She has a great personality but like most puppies of that age is teething and biting is something she does indiscriminately. She plays rough. She bites whatever comes along: cardboard boxes, chewy toys, table legs, blankets, and us, of course. Carolyn’s arms are scratched up quite badly as you might expect. Mine are less so. We’ve found some puppy social classes for her and with some training she’ll be just fine. She’ll grow into a wonderful, mellow girl. For the moment though, she is a handful. There’s no turning our backs on her for a second. She’s very fond of the fountain next to the deck and lays on the rock taking a nip at the fountain from time to time. She’s figured out how to get under the deck and she goes from one end of it to the other under there. She figures that’s a real hoot. She loves her treats and is now responding readily to the sit command but she might just ignore that if she she wants to play, meaning attack and bite us. To be fair, she can be gentle too and plays by herself quite well. She’s not always bitey.

We’ll have to be very vigilant when Princess starts wandering around the house and property. We don’t want Tilly chasing her. It will be a challenge.

So there’s sorrow in the household at the moment but there’s a lot of joy and hope too. Be careful out there in the Time of Covid-19!

54 Describing Pain can be a Pain.

But first, how about a very short video of Princess drinking from the ‘fountain’ next to the deck? And how about following that with a picture of our new puppy? She comes home Saturday. Coming soonish, a second video about gardening and plant sales. Stay tuned.

Princess and the Fountain.
Puppy. No name yet.

So, I’ve written about this before, but it’s such an important part of my life right now that I can’t let it go. I, more than most people, understand that social convention governs a great deal of our behaviour. The study of social convention is on the curriculum of most introductory Sociology courses, so my familiarity with it goes a long way back. Convention and habit colour if not drive a lot of human interaction and that is true of our conversations as well as many other types of behaviour. We’ve come up with a number of conventions that, in my mind, work fine, but only if we don’t question them. For instance, asking “How are you?” is not really a query into the state of my health even though it does literally inquire about my wellbeing, doesn’t it? Needless to say, “How you doin’?” is a conventional and very common greeting. It’s not a question inquiring about pain now is it? The conventional answer to this greeting/question is “Fine.” “Hi, how are ya?” seems like the asker is interested in an answer, but mostly, that’s not the case. We’re supposed to say “Fine.” That’s it.

I don’t ask people how they are doing anymore. I mostly just say “Hello,” and get on with a conversation. For a while there, I would answer the question as though it were a real question. “How are you?” “Well, today, not so good,” I’d say. Or I’d say, “It depends.” That is not a satisfactory answer. I can tell that from the look on the asker’s face when I dare utter such an unconventional and unexpected riposte. Sometimes I would carry on with an extended answer, but I knew from the glaze over the asker’s eyes that that wasn’t a satisfying answer. Eventually I would say, “It’s okay, I’m fine.” After that we could all get on with our ‘normal’ lives. The thing is, I deal on a weekly basis with medical personnel of all kinds. Of course, they are as gripped by social convention as the rest of us, but it still throws me off with an oncologist asks me: “How are you, today?”

Just like everyone else, they seem to expect “Fine” as the appropriate answer. Of course, if I were fine, what the hell would I be doing talking to an oncologist about my chemo treatments? Obviously, “fine” is not appropriate as a response under the circumstances, but nor is asking “How are you?”

One time, a few months ago, I had a Zoom type meeting with an oncologist and he asked me “And what can I do for you today?” Well, that question kind of left me speechless, something that is quite an accomplishment if you know me. Of course, it’s a completely appropriate question if I’m in a retail store, walking up to a counter and a clerk asks me “And what can I do for you today?” or “What can I get for you today?” Yes, in that circumstance, this convention works for me, but when an oncologist asks me that question, I get flummoxed. In my usual smart ass way I get tempted to blurt out: “Well, you can tell me I’m cancer-free. How about that doc?” But then, things get awkward and embarrassment takes centre stage and nothing good comes of it.

So, being a sensitive kind of guy and always interested in having conversations go smoothly, my response to the oncologist that day was quite measured. He wasn’t prepared for the appointment, so all he did for the five minutes of the conversation was look at his computer screen, just glancing up every few seconds the camera in an uncomfortable way. He was probably having a bad day. In his line of business, bad days probably happen often, so I don’t take these things personally. In any case, I steered the conversation to my lab results, prognostications about future treatments, and about pain and exhaustion. As an aside, my experience so far is that oncologists don’t like to talk about pain. It seems to make them uncomfortable and fidgety. Tellingly, they leave pain management to GPs.

Well, to finally get to the topic of this post, I can understand their reluctance to talk about pain. It’s a ridiculous thing to talk about. It’s invisible, subjective, and it’s measurement borders on the hilarious. “So, Mr. Albert, on a scale of 1 to 101, how bad is your pain right now? Well, shit. Where do I go from here? Do I just tell them what they want to hear: “Oh, it’s about a 5.” “Okay, thank you, Mr. Albert. So the pain isn’t too bad right now then.” Note that last comment is made as a statement, not as a question. Asked as a question, I could answer something that is more akin to the truth than the bullshit conventional responses we are expected to give at these times. So I could say something like this, bear with me:

Well, at the site of my nephrectomy, the pain varies from 3 to 8 and in duration depending on my activity at the time. It can spike to 9 at times, just not right at this moment. My lower back is fine as long as I don’t move too quickly but that’s because of arthritis and disk degeneration. As you know, my Bortezomib induced peripheral neuropathy (BIPN) is neuralgic pain that is untouched by pain meds designed to deal with muscle or joint aches and pains. Right now, it’s at about a 7. My back starting just below my arms, and my legs down to my knees are burning. My left thigh is painful to the touch. I don’t know how to measure that. It’s a new thing for me. It seems that my BIPN somewhat attenuates during the day and I may actually be able to go to bed with it not bothering me much. At other times it’s excruciating and ridiculous. The pain at my right kidney is nasty at the moment, spiking up to a 7 at times. Lab tests tell us my kidney is fine so it’s the Bortezomib that’s the culprit, it seems.

Anyway, you get the picture. Describing pain simply and easily is impossible for someone with chronic and/or chemo-induced pain. No one can possibly understand how much pain I’m in or how much pain people with inflammatory illnesses and many other conditions suffer. It’s impossible for me to describe the various levels and types of pain I experience daily unless you’ve experienced it yourself in the same contexts that I have. Now, my GP takes my word for it. What else can he do?

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1The 1 to 10 pain scale: I thought I understood it somewhat until I had a talk with a palliative care physician who told me that a 10 is pass out time. I have never passed out from pain as far as I can remember although I may have passed out from deliberately taking a pass out dose of meds on occasion, the only strategy. There were times when I assumed that a 10 was severe pain, but not pass out quality. So, if I said I was at an 8 or 9, that meant that I was sorely distressed by it, but I was tolerating it. A 5 meant that the pain was bad, but not completely distracting. A 4 or below meant I was in some pain, but not too nasty, maybe a nagging, throbbing, but fairly mild headache. After talking to the palliative care doc, I had to revise my scale. Now a 5 is “I’m in pain and it’s no fun. Do something about it!” A 4 is “It still hurts pretty bad!” A 2 might be: “Okay, I can deal with this, but it’s still bugging me.” I haven’t seen a 0 very often, but it does happen periodically for a short time when I’m lying down and not moving at all.