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.

Moving on up.

So, I’m over the shock of my cancer diagnosis. It’s been four months, after all. That doesn’t mean I’m happy about it, but it does mean that we (and I have to include Carolyn in everything here) have moved on from the initial storm of emotions around the diagnosis to settling in for months of chemotherapy and complete disruption of our lives. We are moving into a new routine. Every day is almost predictable, at least for now. I can’t say that I’m bored at this point, but I certainly am getting restless. I’ve gone down to the studio a couple of times lately and poked around. I really do miss drawing and printmaking. I want to get back to them soon and I really want to finish a small sculpture I started last year. Problem is I’m so exhausted all the time.

Not all people with cancer have the same reaction to the disease itself nor to the chemo meds and the opioids. Not all cancer patients are anemic all the time and I’m told that not all experience a lot of pain or the exhaustion I’m feeling. Every cancer is different and close to two hundred types have been identified. Breast cancer is the most common followed by lung and prostate cancers although there are several different varieties of all three types of cancers. Multiple myeloma is very uncommon and is the rarest of the blood cancers. Lucky me.

This morning we saw the local oncology GP and he told us that everything is going well with my therapy but that for the third cycle starting tomorrow they will be punching up the cyclophosphomide (the main chemo med) to one hundred percent. I didn’t know this, or I forgot, but I haven’t been up to full dose on this chemical yet. The doctor said that they started me off slowly to ensure that I could tolerate the shit, but now they were going to have to ‘challenge’ me. I have no idea how that is going to affect the side effects I am inevitably going to get except to amplify them. Yep, that’s what I can expect, amplified side effects. Yum.

I also learned this morning that I have six more chemotherapy cycles before they can consider whether or not I’m in remission. That means I will know by late August or early September. Oh well, I didn’t want to do anything this summer anyway, now did I. The way I’m feeling at the moment, I’m thinking that I might be able to get out on some short excursions come the sunnier, warm weather, but laying about the back yard by the pond sipping a cold drink doesn’t seem so bad either. Today is the last day of my previous cycle and the best of the whole lot because I’ve had a bit of a ‘holiday’ from my meds. Tomorrow, I’m back in the trenches with full-blown cyclo, dex, and bortozemib. I had an infusion of zoledronic acid today too, that’s a bone strenghtening drug. It gives me a raging headache so I take a couple of acetaminophen to help deal with that.

I have to get back to the hospital in a couple of hours for a CT scan of my right femur and cervical spine area. My orthopaedic surgeon wants to check my cervical spine for any changes in my degenerative disk disease and arthritis, my other nemeses. He also wants to determine if the excavators in my femur are in any danger of breaking through the bone or not. I’ve been experiencing more pain in the area lately and he wants to stay on top of that. Good for him. I like his attitude.

Enough for now.

Interesting Days

Bortozomib Blues

Well, it’s Monday morning around ten o’clock. The last four or five days have been really interesting. Last Thursday I went to the hospital for my weekly injection of bortozemib, the proteasome inhibitor that I take along with my chemo meds and dexamethasone. My bortozemib injections have always left a type of raised, red rash at the injection site on my belly. To try to alleviate the itching and swelling I took fifty mg of Benadryl to try to counteract the rash and swelling caused by the bortozemib. We also applied Benadryl cream to the injection site. The rash doesn’t hurt per se, but it’s super itchy and I feel like I need to reach down inside of the injection site to scratch my insides. It’s very annoying. Probably more important, though, is staying on this course of treatment. We had to stop a previous attempt at treatment with another chemo cocktail because the injections of the drug I was getting during that treatment were causing a huge rash, fiery red and raised, covering most of my midsection. This time I wanted to keep the rash under control so I could carry on with this chemo cocktail.

This past Thursday, the oncology nurses looked at the rash I was getting from my injections (which seemed to be getting worse week by week) and decided to bring in a doctor to see if there was anything we could do to mitigate it. After some consultation, they decided to inject the bortozemib into my right arm instead of my belly. Along with that strategy, they recommended taking more Benadryl. Well, I can say that the strategy was a success as far as the action at the injection site is concerned. There is way less irritation, rash, and swelling at the injection site in my arm than in my tummy. Today, five days after the injection, the irritation is minimal. However, now I had to deal with the effects of increased doses of Benadryl.

I didn’t think I could sleep that many hours straight. Last Friday I was more or less fine during the day and into the evening. We even went out for an hour or so late in the afternoon. Later, at around eight o’clock in the evening, I took fifty milligrams of Benadryl to try to really hit the rash before it got going. Well, that worked. Even though the dexamethasone usually keeps me awake all night, this night was different and I slept all night. In the morning I took some more Benadryl and was less than alert after that. In fact, I was pretty much stoned the whole day. Remember, I’m taking hydromorphone, a synthetic opioid, for pain already. Stacking Benadryl on top of that left me incapable of much of anything, especially clear thinking. Reading and writing were beyond me. Saturday night I went to bed around eight o’clock, fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow and stayed that way until seven-thirty on Sunday morning except for a couple of pee breaks. Even then, I was still semi-stoned. Sunday was a day of backing off the Benadryl! We found that the swelling and the rash around my injection site on my arm were not too bad. We applied some ice and that helped calm down the swelling too. Today, the itch is pretty much gone. I’m pretty happy about that.

So, the moral of the story seems to be that I have to get stoned to mitigate the swelling and rash that are caused by the bortozemib. Oh well, if that’s the price I have to pay, so be it.

Lab Work

Today was one of my regular lab days. I have standing requisitions at the lab every two weeks for one set of tests, once a month for another set, and once every three months for a set ordered by my kidney specialist. The techs are getting to know me at the lab in Cumberland. Today I gave up five vials of blood and a container of urine. Later today I’ll be able to access the results of some of the tests online via MyHealth. I’ll do that and carry on here then.

Okay, so it’s five o’clock and I checked my lab results. The few results that are in point to numbers back within reference ranges or in very positive, normalizing trends. Works for me.

Thursday will be another interesting day. We’ll be going to Campbell River Hospital to get my right femur x-rayed and for a consultation with the orthopaedic surgeon. I’m kind of worried about the excavations in my femur. I’m hoping the chemo and the zoledronic acid have done something to stabilize my bone marrow over the past couple of months. We’ll know more next week.

About pain, cold sweats, hallucinations, delayed chemotherapy, rashes and, other fun stuff.

[A note: I’m used to writing posts here of approximately a thousand words. Because I’m so fatigued with anemia and other conditions that affect my concentration, for the foreseeable future I’ll make my blog posts a little shorter. That way I will be able to continue writing and not tire myself out too much.]

I started the chemotherapy drugs, lenalidomide and dexamethasone last Thursday morning. I was to take one lenalidomide tablet and five dexamethasone, continue with the lenalidomide for three more weeks and five dexamethasone tablets every Thursday morning until they were done. Frankly, it was a relief to finally get going on a treatment for my multiple myeloma (MM), any treatment. Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and me. They never go according to plan, and this was not about to become an exception to the rule.

It must have been Saturday (I got a CT scan that day) when I noticed that my butt was getting really itchy. Well, naturally, I scratched it. I knew it isn’t a good thing to scratch an itch, but I just couldn’t help myself. The welts just got bigger and hotter and covered my whole midsection. I developed a slight fever. Carolyn, my very competent care aide spread some lotion on my backside and up under my armpits to relieve some of the itching. Damn good thing too because I was close to losing it.

Well, it turns out that the reason I developed this rash in the first place is that I happen to be allergic to my main chemotherapy drug, lenalidomide. Now, that’s not cool! Lenalidomide is an oral therapy drug, and for that reason is very convenient to take. So, it’s the weekend, I’m itchy as hell, but I persist in taking my chemo meds. On Tuesday, yesterday, I call the oncology nurse in Victoria who seemed quite concerned about the rash. She tells me that she would try to track down my oncologist to get some idea of what to do. My regular oncologist was out of the Cancer Centre at meetings but she tracked down his colleague who told the nurse to tell me to cease taking lenolidomide immediately. So, great. Here I am, not a week into taking my first course of chemo meds and now I can’t take them anymore! What the hell is that all about, universe?

I was pretty bummed out for a time there, but then I realized that this is not an uncommon turn of events in oncology. In fact, about 40% of people enrolled in the lenalidomide/dexamethasone regimen turn out not to be able to tolerate the drugs.

A Cancer Clinic receptionist called this morning to set up a telephone consultation with my oncologist for the 20th, next Wednesday. At that time I should learn more about my next course of treatment as well as what they learned from my last CT scan. Strangely enough, I also got a call from the hospital here in Courtenay telling my that I needed to call them and set up a second course of treatment. She mentioned lenalidomide and I said it’s unlikely that it would be for lenalidomide because in all likelihood, I’m allergic to it and I was told to stop taking it. I guess it takes a while for messages to get from Victoria to Courtenay and back. I soon learned to take all phone calls from the hospital or the Cancer Clinic with a grain of salt and usually wait for confirmation from a third source before moving on with anything.

In my next post I’ll address the fun topics of pain, hallucinations, and cold sweats.

I was going to write a post about the social triage that happens in emergency departments everywhere, and I will get around to that, but for now I have other more pressing issues to deal with. I’m intent on documenting my experiences with myeloma as completely as possible so, for the moment, that will be my priority for this blog. One strange thing that’s happened to me is that I have a recurring dream about the emergency department at the Royal Jubilee Hospital. More on that to come.

Lose your job to automation: Mourn or celebrate?

The three links below of several hundreds that can be found on the internet news sources these days indicate clearly the rapidly accelerating advance of automated technology moving towards the elimination of jobs.

Walmart

Australia

Japan

So far, the action seems to be very widespread but is moving especially rapidly in retail as is clear from the evidence in Australia, Japan and the US. The rationale used to justify automation by Walmart management in the US is creative and ridiculous at the same time. Nobody in management wants to say that their companies are trying to reduce or eliminate their workforces altogether. But that’s exactly what’s happening.

Karl Marx predicted this very outcome in the mid-19th Century arguing that in their efforts to control or reduce their costs of production, businesses, after overproducing in the search for profits, turn to automation to control their labour force and return to profitability. The process has been going on for a long time.

It seems perfectly reasonable for businesses to try to become more ‘efficient’ by automating jobs that are tedious and repetitive, often dangerous. For individual businesses this seems like an effective strategy to control their costs and their processes. The problem is that there is anarchy in the business world, no coordination, and competition prevents cooperation between businesses in the same field of operations. The result is that there is a reduction in the aggregate number of workers in any given area and the reality is that bots don’t buy anything. Workers are also consumers so doing away with workers is doing away with your very own customers. Nobody I know in business is worried about taking customers away from their competitors, but if Walmart eliminates much of its labour force by automation that will inevitably also reduce its customer base.

So, the question is should you mourn or celebrate the loss of your job through automation? The answer is yes and no. The actual issue is not jobs, but income. You should definitely mourn loss of income. The loss of a job not so much. Jobs, i.e, employment, are not really in sync with the human capacity to work. Humans, as Veblen is quick to point out, are programmed to work, but if they are presented with meaningless, repetitive, boring work that is really to make someone else look good or get rich, they balk. So doing away with boring, stupid, meaningless jobs is a good thing in my mind. Several countries are now toying with a guaranteed basic income. It will take some time yet for the importance of this strategy to become more widespread.

We’re at a real crossroads at the moment. With the advent of advanced robotics, automation, and especially artificial intelligence, work will be required of fewer and fewer people for shorter and shorter lengths of time. There will be, in a very short period of time, a huge surplus of people as workers and a shortage of people as consumers. The elimination of tedious labour could result in an explosion of creative energy as people are freed to think for themselves and act according to their talents and abilities. However, they will need income to be able to do that.

One thing for sure, there will have to be a greater distribution of wealth because it does no one any good to hoard cash and take money out of circulation. It sure doesn’t help corporations involved in the sale of consumer goods. From this perspective, banks and financial institutions are at loggerheads with consumer driven businesses. There will have to evolve a very different ethic, one at odds with the current capitalist Neo-liberal one that I wrote about in my last blog post.