PACE round four TBD

At the oncologist today for a Velcade shot and office visit to check blood counts.  Nothing’s needed yet but I have to come back in a few days since my absolute neutra-something count and my platelets are trending down.

According to Megan the NP, the Myeloma labs drawn today will dictate whether I do a fourth round of the VTD-PACE chemotherapy — should have the numbers by the end of the week.

Mixed on what I hope for.  After making a side joke about how I wish someone would tell my wife how hard these treatments are, Megan said each round of PACE is like doing induction chemotherapy for Leukemia.  That means nothing to me but apparently it’s a way to explain things to folks in the know?

Quick PACE Round 3 Wrap-Up.

I’ve been in recovery mode for the past week after being released from the hospital last Sunday.  Although I feel like I’m on the upswing now I’m still guarded, unsure entirely who’s talking when I speak.

I’m going to keep this entry more “just the facts, ma’am,” a trend I think I’ll be adopting a bit more here. Until I get the psych meds sorted and am not taking such massive doses of steroids I have a hard time trusting my thought process and the emotional wall springs massive leaks, which lately are driving me cringing from the thought of writing.  It just gets too damned dark.

Fun fucking disease.

So, some random facts:

  • Round three was like the others, only more so. That’s something that perhaps you just have to experience chemotherapy to get.
  • The MRI on my back showed nothing.  It still hurts, although it’s not as bad.  I can’t bend without pain unless I’m on a pain medication, which I will not take regularly.  Tried Fentanyl and OxyCodone and only the Oxy made a dent.
  • Had a ton of folks visit which was awesome.
  • Talked to my doctor who confirmed that if I handle it well (so far I have) that we could do a fourth round of this prior to another line of treatment.
  • Walked into the hospital with C. diff.  The antibiotic for that bit of fun is one of the worst tasting liquids I’ve ever had.  Four times a day.

That’s really about it. I felt like I was on death’s door after getting out of the hospital and I still have little to no energy, but the physical discomfort has at least mostly passed (except for the back pain).  Emotionally I’m a wreck, but then what’s new with that lately? I was hoping to try the swap to the new brain drug this coming week so as not to complicate things with the hospital, so we’ll see how that goes starting tomorrow.

Many worlds I’ve come since I first left home.

Tomorrow I go back into the hospital for a week for the third, and most likely final, round of VTD-PACE. I’m not worried about the hospital stay, although that’s a pain in the ass, but more what comes after.

This weekend, my wife and daughter went up to Breckenridge with my wife’s parents.  I stayed at home, not really in any shape for outside activities or prolonged sun exposure. I spent most of that time thinking about things, which rarely is a puppydog and rainbows activity for me. And missing my daughter.

I dunno, folks.  Although I hadn’t even really recognized it, last week was my four-year anniversary of this nightmare.  I wish I had something to celebrate besides simply surviving, a verb that still seems so alien all these years later.  It seems to be the key word, though, especially this year and with these treatments.  Yeah, I’m still around … but in pretty rough shape.  I find it difficult, in fact impossible right now except in an abstract way, to even see the light as it were.  No matter how I slice it I’m staring down the barrel at several more hospital stays, doctors visits, tests … the list never seems to end. We’re off the rails now and in the “here be monsters” part of the map where the decisions are not written in stone like they used to be, and the choices make the earlier therapies seem like fun by comparison.

Another round of this?  Unlikely, but possible.  Dr. Matous never does four of these and rarely three, but this chemotherapy is all that has really made a dent in the last year so three it is.  A stem cell transplant next?  I’m at a zero level of excitement for that, but if it’s what the doctor wants I’ll certainly pay attention — I didn’t spend all the time and money to get top of the line healthcare to just ignore it.  CAR-T?  After the SCT, but apparently that’s got some serious hospital time as well.

If I think too long about it all I’m overcome with … well, I dunno.  It’s not depression, although there’s certainly some of that mixed into this.  What’s the word for an overwhelming sense of “fuck me running?”  Not sure.  I’ve felt for a while now like things have taken a turn this year, not necessarily in a good direction, and this is more of the same.  I think I’m in that stage a lot of patients seem to get to at some point where the treatments are so intensive both physically and time-wise that I’m rebelling, at least internally, at the toll it’s taking. I’m exhausted all of the time now and I have lower back pain so severe that even a double-dose of Oxycodone combined with some of Colorado’s finest isn’t getting rid of it, making getting up from a chair or couch an adventure in pain.

I have an MRI scheduled for my back tomorrow, and on the bright side, hey, I’ll get the good drugs to deal with the pain.  Generally when you answer the “what’s your pain at” with tears and a minor scream when you get out of the hospital bed they give you the good stuff.  So helloooooooo Fentanyl, it’s been too long.

I can’t seem to get back to a more carefree, happier headspace lately. I blame the steroids first and foremost, but it’s not as bad as it was before — perhaps because I know what to look for now?  I just bite my lip and boggle at the things my brain comes up with (bitter retorts, nasty replies, constant critical comments, etc.) and only let the good stuff come out of my mouth. But I can’t fake happy like I can fake politeness, and my emotional wall seems dangerously porous again. How do you really explain why you suddenly start crying out of nowhere when your thoughts stray to cancer and your child?  When you have to grit your teeth and clutch the armrests of your chair so tight you snap one in half to get your head back out of that particular hole?  How when most people daydream about summery stuff you’re idly pondering your own funeral?  It’s definitely a weird mental space to inhabit.

How do I understand and come to terms with the person I’ve become when the thoughts I have, as horrible as they are, come naturally?  I mentally go through a checklist of what to bring and do for this next week-long stint and without skipping a beat note to write a goodbye letter to my daughter.  A goodbye letter.  To my daughter.

Jesus.

You try it.  Maybe it’s just me but I don’t know how to deal with things like that without opening the floodgates.  Which is a good look on top of the bald head and hairless face, let me tell ‘ya.

But yeah, as my health has been much more precarious this year I’ve realized if I were taken suddenly there’s nothing but scattered writings and pieces — I need to know there’s more, a direct connection.  So I have some writing to do.

That should be fun.

Decided I want the Dead’s “Brokedown Palace” played at my funeral, although not in an obnoxious “OK everyone listen to this song” way. Just on loop until the festivities, as it were, start.  Probably quote this in the aforementioned letter as well.  Something powerful about this song that has always made it stick in my mind:

Fare you well, my honey
Fare you well, my only true one
All the birds that were singing
Are flown, except you alone

Gonna leave this brokedown palace
On my hands and my knees, I will roll, roll, roll
Make myself a bed by the waterside
In my time, in my time, I will roll, roll, roll

In a bed, in a bed
By the waterside I will lay my head
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul

River gonna take me, sing me sweet and sleepy
Sing me sweet and sleepy all the way back home
It’s a far gone lullaby sung many years ago
Mama, Mama, many worlds I’ve come since I first left home

Going home, going home
By the waterside I will rest my bones
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul

Going to plant a weeping willow
On the bank’s green edge it will grow, grow, grow
Singing a lullaby beside the water
Lovers come and go, the river will roll, roll, roll

Fare you well, fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul.

Yes I listen to the Dead AND metal that makes even metalheads cringe at its heaviness.  The 4,000+ songs on my phone are an exercise in schizophrenic music habits.

Anyhow I’m just scrapping the barnacles off the soul here and preparing myself for the hospital stay, so sorry for the negative spiral.  Sadly I actually had something I was going to end with here that was positive, but of course chemobrain ate it before I could get fingers to keys.  Sigh.  Well one bright note, the GOP has failed to destroy our broken but somewhat functional healthcare system, so at least my Twitter feed will go back to cancer-related stuff instead of the incessant political Tweets.

Little victories.

See you in the hospital.  I’ll be the one eating a Chicago dog with a mustard stain on my hospital gown.

 

Reflecting on a past life.

A week out from round three of VTD-PACE and I’m trying to get my head around things.

Went in for a blood test Tuesday morning as I’ve been exhausted since Friday and sleeping like the dead (normally I’m a very light sleeper). On Friday, for example, I came home early from work since I couldn’t keep my eyes open and zonked out on a couch. I woke up around 5 pm and asked my wife why the cleaning girls didn’t come only to find out not only did they but they cleaned around me and I didn’t wake up.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you view these things, my numbers didn’t qualify for a transfusion. While I was happy to not have to sit in the hospital getting blood all afternoon I am somewhat concerned about how tired I’ve been if it’s not being caused by low blood counts — I’m guessing it’s either the cancer itself or, more likely, the toll all of these chemotherapy drugs are taking on my body?  Who knows at this point.

I’ve also been dealing with an almost debilitating level of lower back pain that I cannot point to a cause for and say “aha!” Been treating that in more natural ways but a few nights I’ve broken down and dipped into the opioid well.

I know the number one lesson from sports is never look past your next opponent, but — actually, that’s wrong.  That’s the number two rule; the number one rule of sports is never treat a groin pull with Icy Hot. But anyways I know it’s a mistake but I’ve been spending a lot of time looking past this third cycle and at that stem cell transplant looming on the horizon.  I’m just not a big fan of the concept right now — the first one I did was a major pain in the ass and wasn’t that effective, so I’m not sure what a second one is supposed to accomplish.  We’ll see.  I’m not in the habit of getting the best healthcare I can find and then questioning it but this is a pretty major decision to just sign off on without some serious thought attached.

Things have been odd lately around me.  I feel like everything is a bit off, from flavors all the way to my initial reactions to events. As a result I’ve been more tight-lipped than usual because I don’t know where my reactions are coming from — the drugs? Depression? My brain is awash in chemicals and unfamiliar responses and I can’t tell any more.  One thought pervades through it all, however, and that is how much I am missing diving. Part of that is the purely hedonistic angle — life just isn’t nearly as fun for me without diving, and after four years I am Jonesing so badly it’s not funny.  I miss the serenity, the comradery, the feeling of being someone special when I was assisting classes or dive guiding at the aquarium here, the exotic locales, the water.

The WATER. Why I ever allowed myself to live in a land-locked state is beyond me.

One of my old favorite things to do was burn a few days vacation time and assist classes at a local reservoir during the week with a favorite instructor friend.  Not only did we work well together but after the students left we’d bust out the mini grill and cook up some burgers or brats and relax, go for a fun dive, etc.  Missing that bigtime.

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That’s me exploring outside a wreck in Cozumel, picture by a close friend.

Along with those yearnings has come a strong undercurrent of resentment about my disease. Granted that’s always been there to some degree, but lately it’s been more prevalent in my thoughts.  I would guess this is coming from all of the introspection this PACE therapy has forced upon me — I’m always feeling poorly these days and there’s no time to even recover before the next round and another week in the hospital, another slew of follow-up appointments, more transfusions, etc.  Combine that with the lack of hair and how I look lately and I feel like I’m not even Rich anymore, I’m just Myeloma.  As a result I’m resisting, mentally and emotionally, rebelling without a real target.

I miss my old life, who I used to be. I feel like I could be a better person now if I were allowed to return to it free of these diseased shackles but with the full knowledge of where I’ve been and how precarious things can be.

But that’s neither here nor there at the moment.  I have an appointment with the oncologists tomorrow morning and on the 19th we start the third and final round of VTD-PACE, followed by six weeks of recovery and then a stem cell transplant.  Time to focus on what’s right in front of me and just try to keep the dreams of the past life alive until I can get there again.

PACE round 2 wrap-up and other precious moments.

Drip.  Drip.  Drip.

People who watch grass grow or paint dry have no idea how much more engaging it is to watch IV fluids.  Sitting at CBCI getting the monthly IViG and trying to find a path home with this blog entry, but there’s a part of me that wants to play the cancerous version of “how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop” (ancient commercial reference) with my IV.  Although with chemobrain I’d probably blow the count halfway through and then be pissed for a month.

“5,400,001. 5,400–“

Nurse: “Can I get you anything?”

“5,400,0–, err, 5,4 … GOD DAMNIT.”

First the good news. As hard as it’s been on me physically, the two rounds of this “kill it with fire” chemo are getting the job done.  From a peak in early May my M-Spike has gone from 3.9 to 2.8 (and according to an email I just got, 2.3 as of Monday), igG is down to 3,786 from 6,041 and my Kappa is down to 436.8 from 1,178.6. Not bad, although I had greedily hoped for even more drastic results for several reasons; perhaps most of all because if you are going to go through the hassles, the GI issues, the pain, the fatigue, being in the hospital for a week, the mustard stains on your favorite t-shirt from ordering gourmet hotdogs delivered to the hospital (what, that could happen to other people), etc., you want to get your money’s worth. The results were good enough, however, for my doctor to want one more cycle as per our meeting this past Friday.

Sigh.  I go back in on the 19th. If you work at Billy’s Gourmet Hot Dogs then congratulations, I’ll be paying for your next vacation.

At the meeting last Friday I also met Dr. Matous’s transplant coordinator, Dana, who gave me THE BINDER. Having gotten one from the Mayo Clinic when I did my first stem cell transplant and now one from CBCI I’m assuming this is standard practice, but for the uninitiated THE BINDER is a collection of information on what to expect, rules, diet, scheduling, yada yada yada.  I read through it this weekend and was amused to see that there was a special callout about marijuana in the rules — specifically, ixnay on the opeday during the hospitalization and afterwards, including edibles (that part makes no sense to me, but OK). Although they did separate out marijuana from the “recreational drugs” category, so that’s progress. I’ve been an activist for medical marijuana for several years now so seeing stuff like that makes me believe that attitudes are indeed changing at the higher levels, especially in healthcare.

You also can’t have nail clippers or a razor. You can however have people bring you restaurant food which seems odd since at the Mayo they were pretty adamant about not eating food that hadn’t just been cooked and served to you, but hey, if I can get delivery while in the hospital for three weeks then it will make things a lot more pleasant.  I’ve noticed that, much like staying in Vegas, no matter how good the food is (and PSL’s is pretty good) you still feel like you’re living in a Denny’s after a week or so.

Speaking of razors, when I entered the hospital for round two of this chemo I started losing my hair in earnest thanks to the first cycle. Irritatingly I only started losing it in the middle of my head, making me look like a poster child for those spraypaint your head infomercials for baldness, so with nothing better to do I busted out my shaving razor and shaved my head during my inpatient stay. As an encore all of the dark hairs fell out of the goatee section of my beard and mustache, so I shaved that all off too. Unfortunately I think in doing so it opened somewhat of a Pandora’s Box without me even knowing it that has fueled some of the depression I’ve been feeling lately. I think it’s a pretty common tale in the cancer world, but since only one previous treatment threatened hair loss (my first stem cell transplant in 2014) and it didn’t really happen I never gave it much thought.

Now I find myself staring into mirrors or purposely ignoring them; I feel like I look like Uncle Fester from the Adams Family. It reminds me a bit of year one when I was first coming to grips with this fucking nightmare while doing chemo during the day (Velcade shots) and feeling an intense isolation as I walked out of my office building when everyone else was going to lunch. Perhaps it’s silly but I find myself battling self-conscious thoughts, something I thought I had been done with by forty-six. I have to consciously look past the feelings of embarrassment now even though I know it’s ridiculous. Might as well get used to it, though, as with another round of this followed by a stem cell transplant I won’t have a beard again until around Christmas-time.  Grrr.

I imagine that seems a petty concern when you are facing a terminal disease. Honestly I never thought it would be a big deal to me, especially since I’ve had my head shav– err, shaved?  Shorn? Whatever, I’ve been getting the brain basket done with a #1 razor for a year or more and had a full beard since my goatee started growing back after the first stem cell transplant. It’s different than I thought it would be though, adding a visceral in-your-face reminder of this disease that I can’t avoid around reflective surfaces.  Didn’t see that coming.

I did, however, talk to my oncology team’s nurse practitioner about depression today. I’m reasonably sure, when I examine things from a distance, that I am in fact depressed. Duh, obviously, but I mean on a level where I would like to go after relief medically so I can function. After consulting with a few psychologists on staff, the oncologists want me to taper off of Lexapro, which I started when I was first diagnosed (suicidal thoughts, general depression) and start taking Effexor. Hoping this works since I was at the max dose of Lexapro and lately I’ve been feeling like it may not be working very well. Fingers crossed because I really do not need a healthy side dish of depression along with my heaping pile o’ cancer.  Especially heading into a gauntlet of some fairly hardcore regimens this year.

One way or another, one way or another,
One way or another, this darkness got to give.

Been listening to the Dead a lot recently (that snippet is from New Speedway Boogie, an old favorite of mine), partially because I’ve been watching this great documentary mini-series on Amazon about them and really it’s just been a while since they lead the mental rotation of what I feel like listening to.  I get in a Dead mood about three times a year and then binge on the live stuff for a week, which you can now download a fuckton of from iTunes. Which still seems weird and out of place to me, just like it does when I download old punk music, but we do live in a convenience-centric world now.

But I digress as usual.  Today at CBCI I also asked if I could get a “why” as to why we’re doing a stem cell transplant, especially when the first one didn’t really do much and subsequent ones are, as I was told when I was at Mayo, only 75% as effective as the first one. Not that I don’t trust my oncology team, but I’ve now been asked this twice by folks and neither time have I really had a satisfactory answer. If I’m going to deal with the incredible hassle, danger and three long weeks without seeing my little one I need to know for myself why I’m doing it beyond just a vague “to reduce my numbers.” Should have an answer next week as they are going to discuss this question at their Thursday meeting.

Thinking about transplants reminds me of a good stem cell transplant story, however.  Back in 2014 when I did my first one I moved my family to Scottsdale for several months and set up my laptop to Skype with my daughter every night (who was three at the time).  So the first night I get on Skype all excited to see Ariana who, after maybe one minute of talking to me, turns off camera to her mother and asks “How do I change the channel?”

Edit: Almost forgot. Found out an old friend was struck down with a brain aneurysm this past weekend and is fighting for his life. I’m not the praying type but if you can spare a few seconds to send some positive vibes for Rob S. and his family I’d sure appreciate it — his kids don’t deserve to grow up fatherless and I have no doubt he has a ton left to offer the world. Thanks.