The Dude Abides.

Sitting here with my wife and daughter Saturday night, idly typing while a movie plays and  lost for a moment in what normalcy must feel like. You forget, you know. So many months, years, of the anxiety, the chronic pain, the never-ending appointments, the sleepless nights.  It’s so hard sometimes just to remember what normal was.

Amy and I got back from Nashville yesterday. I’m grateful she was able to come with me and for her parents stepping up and staying with Ariana and Trixie while we were gone. I would have been screwed if I had gone out there solo — just too much emotionally and physically for me now. But almost as importantly it gave me some alone time with my wife to just talk, something we haven’t done enough. Ever, really.

So after a relatively quick meeting and bloodwork on Wednesday, I showed up at the apheresis department at 7:30 am to have my T Cells harvested.  This is done by a process called leukapheresis (I linked a photo of this on Instagram and Twitter if you want to see it). So I had an IV put in each arm, and from 7:30 am until 3:15 pm it cycled my blood through a machine that separated out the white blood cells. I slept through the process for the most part, having not slept well for the previous few nights. Other than being extremely cold during the process it wasn’t too bad, although when it was done I was pretty wiped out.

Mentally and emotionally this was a really hard week. My disease has progressed fairly substantially … my bone marrow biopsy from the previous week was 95% Myeloma, the highest I’ve ever recorded.  I talked with Dr. Berdeja about that briefly during the harvest and while he thought they may just have hit a pocket of bad cells to get that number, it’s still pretty scary. The skeletal survey wasn’t much better … while I don’t even understand half the terms in the analysis, I know it’s not good:

“Small 5 mm and less fairly diffuse round lucencies throughout visible skull on lateral x-ray of skull.  Scattered similar small round lucencies in cervical spine and thoracic spine.  Moderate T12 compression fracture.  Moderate L2 compression fracture treated with vertebroplasty.  Right internal jugular Port-A-Cath in satisfactory position. Previous right upper quadrant abdominal surgery. Scattered small round lucencies in multiple ribs. Small round lucencies in mid left and right humeral diaphysis intramedullary. Ovoid lucency in left lateral upper acetabulum deep to cortex. Pelvic phleboliths. Small lucencies in proximal femoral diaphysys intramedullary.”

Even not understanding most of that (I’ll have the doctors explain it this week, have an oncology appointment on the 24th), I know it ain’t good. Also now I know why my goddamn back has been killing me even after having that L2 vertebrae fixed; apparently the vertebrae two above the fixed one is fractured as well. Christ. Not even sure what to do about that, but I guess I’ll find out.  Right now the name of the game is to not fuck up my qualification for this clinical trial so I’m walking on eggshells and making sure everything is run by Nashville.

Other than that and fatigue I’m having what I can only assume is neuropathy in my toes.  It started a few months ago and I let the oncologists here in Denver know, who told me to let them know if it starts to hurt. It kind of feels like a combination of all of your toes being on pins and needles and numb at the same time, hurts to the touch, but now is creeping towards my heels. Definitely makes walking a new and unpleasant experience, so I’m doubly thankful I’m done doing so in airports for at least five weeks. Although I did for the first time in my life get a courtesy cart ride this time, and man, that’s the bomb. I was so excited to not have to walk from the car rental place I gave the guy a $20.

Assuming all goes to plan, I will be re-evaluated on May 21st in Nashville, start chemotherapy on the 23rd for 3 days, and then admitted to the hospital on the 27th. I’ll get my re-engineered T Cells back on the 28th, be in the hospital for two weeks, and then outpatient in Nashville for two weeks. Before all of that they want me to do some form of chemotherapy as well which I’ll start this coming week — it apparently has to be one I’ve already done previously and has to end before May 8th so I’m “clean” for two weeks. My oncologist here and the one running the trial in Nashville have apparently already coordinated on that.

So that’s the mechanics and logistics of it all. I spend a lot of time trying not to think about it (and failing miserably). It’s just so … big. There’s so much riding on this, so much logistically to work out especially with a kiddo in school, so much danger. There’s no long-term knowledge of what happens with this, and there’s a good amount of risk involved (although they seem to be aware of how to deal with most contingencies). But it’s pretty scary. Spent a ton of time in my head this past week and I think the only thing that saved me, especially with the lack of sleep, was having Amy there.  I know we’re having problems now but the ability to just ask someone to spoon you for a bit while you cry quietly, versus having nothing there but empty space and feeling like nobody cares, is worlds apart.

As I said earlier we talked a lot on this trip. Neither of us are religious but at one point I was talking about how it’s taken all of this shit for the past five years to scour away the person I was (the bad parts). The fucked-up upbringing and ideals I had, the complete lack of knowing and experiencing what a good relationship and intimacy are supposed to be like; what a good person is, really. Although ironically now perhaps too late due to this disease, I feel like I’m on the right path as a person. Kinder, more thoughtful, more loving, less cynical. I have my moments, of course. But it’s a startling change from who I was, I can tell you that.

Amy commented that perhaps this is what had to happen, that this was the universes’ plan. This is something I’ve struggled with most of my life, really. Raised as a non-believing Catholic, finding out I had cancer put the kibosh on any sort of belief in a higher power. Which I think’s common with cancer patients or anyone else struggling with their health or things in their life — the constant emptiness that threatens to break you down when you just ask the constant “why me’s”, you know? Perhaps she’s right — it definitely made me think, and I will continue to do so.

Although to be honest I wish I could just stop, thinking that is. The gravity of all of this is sinking in and it’s tough to grasp at times. I didn’t feel so much like a guinea pig in the last clinical trial I participated in, partially because the main component was an established Myeloma drug that they were just adding another drug to (so I didn’t see much downside risk). This time though the reality of what we’re doing is seeping in and it’s scary. No idea of the long-term effects. Cutting edge sci-fi-ish technology. Only a handful of people on this planet have done anything like this. Which is an interesting thought in itself — am I just lucky for the opportunity, or one of the worst off? A bit of both I think.

And what do I do if it doesn’t work?

And what do I do if it does?  There’s a woman who just went through this study from Texas that I’m in a Facebook group with and have communicated with. She was in a similar place to my own in terms of disease progression.  She just got the news she’s now in complete remission.  Complete. Remission.

I’ve been doing this for so long, had every treatment fail after such short periods of time, that I can’t even really get my head around that. What would it even be like to not be in pain anymore? To be … normal? I try not to get my hopes up too too much because that way lies madness as well, but man.  Just … man.  I can’t imagine.  No more daddy’s too sick for this, or too tired for that.  No more pity.  No more tears of despair. I’ve lived with this stuff for so long it’s become my life … to actually contemplate feeling human again?  It’s a bit much.

Knowing me I’d probably just feel guilty that more people didn’t get to experience it.  Yeah I’m wired strange, I know.

Lots of questions, things to think about, things to avoid thinking about. I try, and sometimes succeed, in keeping my spirits up though. And chew Xanax like candy. At least I’m sleeping better … I added St. John’s Wort (spelling?) to my cocktail of nightly sleep meds (1mg of Xanax and 1mg of Ativan) and I’ve been sleeping through the night better.  Still have trouble shutting my brain off to get there but at least when I do it’s solid sleep.  Too solid, I just want to stay in bed every morning now.  But there you go, another tip from a 5-year Myeloma “expert.”

Anyhow, off to the local oncologist tomorrow for a talk about a bridging chemotherapy (think I mentioned that above) and to get an IViG infusion. Going to ask about my back and toes too — the name of the game right now is DO NOT FUCK UP YOUR QUALIFICATION FOR THE CLINICAL TRIAL. And make it through, one step after the other, somehow.  I feel like we’re coming to a crescendo with all of this, somehow. That one way or the other life with be altered permanently in the next few months. It’s chilling, but then again as low as I feel most days I welcome it.

CAR-T Begins.

I mentioned it on Twitter and Facebook but haven’t had a chance, or to be honest the desire (Pandora’s Box issues) to sit down and write this. But I got the call and I got into the expansion trial for Celgene/Bluebird’s bb2121 clinical trial.

Apparently I actually got in in January, but because I was receiving radiation for those tumors in my back and hip at the time the nurse in charge didn’t even mention it, just asked me some questions.

So I flew out to Nashville last week for the initial testing.  I went by myself, which was a mistake — it was all just a little too much, too real. I’ve been dealing with so much of this cancer alone but I just don’t have the mental and physical strength anymore, especially after the last few months.  I hadn’t slept the night before I flew out and my wife offered to drive me to the airport that morning since I was in such bad shape. Spent most of the trip just mentally trying to push myself to the next meeting, the next test, etc.

I had a TON of blood taken, got a new skeletal survey, met with the coordinator several times, signed all of the paperwork, met with the apheresis folks who will draw my T-Cells this coming week (I’ll get to that), and then on the 10th I had a bone marrow biopsy. I’m still hurting from that one — and it’s worth mentioning that if you drive yourself to one of those they won’t give you Ativan and Morphine, just a local.  So after having what felt like most of my pelvis clawed out of this tiny hole in my beltline I got to hop behind the wheel, drive to the airport, sit a few hours and then sit on a plane for 3 hours. One of the worst days I’ve had in a while.

And the week since … I still can’t bend over without extreme pain.  On the bright side my back isn’t bothering me as much, heh. Not like I could tell.

This Tuesday I fly back out to Nashville for a meeting at the clinic and then the next day (19th) they draw out my T-Cells. My wife agreed to come with me this time — like I said I just can’t do this stuff alone anymore. I was seriously losing it in the hotel last week and about the only lifeline I had was a very close family friend who tried to fly out to stay with me — talk about friendship. I feel like my mental and emotional fortitude has just crumbled, especially lately. I felt lonely sometimes (well, a lot) when I’d have to go to Scottsdale alone for the Mayo Clinic visits but I felt stronger back then, physically and otherwise. Now I feel infirm and some days each step seems like it’s just one too many to take. Hard to explain.

But like I said this time I have my wife with me, someone to hold my hand through this stuff.  I’ll be honest (when aren’t I), I’m fairly scared about all of this. New techniques, no idea of long-term effects.  So the way it works is they harvest my T-Cells, and then send them to a lab for 2-5 weeks to be reprogrammed to fight the Myeloma. I go back to Nashville then, do more tests and 3 days of chemotherapy, and then enter the hospital. They reintroduce my reprogrammed T-Cells and then I’m in the hospital for two weeks while apparently all hell breaks loose — your body fights against the new cells, which can be pretty dangerous. After making it through all of that I’m out-patient in Nashville for 2 more weeks in a hotel and then I get to come home, but I’ll be flying out there once a month for years apparently.  Pretty intense.  Too intense if I think about it too much.

With Ari still in school just the logistics of being in Nashville for those 5 weeks are going to be hard. The study, amazingly, pays for my hotel while I’m out there but not for the two weeks I’m in-patient. That’s a huge relief as these last-minute plane tickets have been breaking the bank. But ideally I’d like someone out there all the time, or at least while I’m out-patient (well I have to have someone when I’m out-patient, I’ll require a caregiver). I have no idea how to juggle that but we’re back-burnering that problem until we find out when the dates actually are. The bone marrow transplant I did in Scottsdale was much easier as Ari wasn’t in school then, so I just got us a condo for several months and we basically moved out there with her step-father coming to help for a month.

Who has offered to help again, because unlike my folks he seems to actually care about me. Sigh.

I feel like I’m standing at the foot of Everest, unequipped and unprepared, wondering how the fuck I’m supposed to climb it. I had hoped that something like this would have people coming out of the woodwork to help, emotionally and to just take some of the load off, and it has in some quarters, but those that should have been closest to me (namely, my parents) are being awful.  Really awful.  And it’s fucking me up worse than I like to admit.  I just don’t get it, or them, but it hurts. My anxiety level is at an all-time high, although the suicidal thoughts and hardcore depression are not like they were when I was taking that Ambien. I mean I’m depressed, for sure, but not like that.

Although I have found a new trick lately … two Ativan and a Xanax before bed.  It doesn’t knock me out but I sleep really well.

I know this is sort of all over the place. I’m all over the place today. Had a really bad day thanks to my folks yesterday, not feeling great, and like I said I’m scared of all of this. Not like 5 years of chemotherapy wasn’t “serious” but this feels, I dunno, SERIOUS. Scared of fucking it up, scared of all of the travel, the results, being away from my comfort zone, my daughter, etc.  Rough times.

People ask me a lot how I do “this.” It’s the same thing as thinking, like some do, that a cancer patient is some sort of hero or something for not just laying down and dying immediately. They express wonder at how I still go to work, etc.  I remember thinking about this when I landed in Nashville last week, exhausted, with a long walk to the car rental garage, and just looked down and focused on putting one foot in front of the other one when I really just wanted to lay down right there. That’s my life, really. When in doubt, forward motion. It’s not heroic. Maybe it’d be more heroic to just give up and say fuck this, to stop ruining everyone elses’ life around me with this fucking disease.  I dunno.

I just keep moving.  Or trying to, anyways. So next stop, Nashville. And although she doesn’t read my blog (don’t ask), thank you, Amy, for coming with me to hold my hand.

A Third Option.

So last week I sat down for an office visit with the nurse practitioner, Megan, from my oncology team. We talked about the various problems I’m having, from the full-body pain to the sweats/chills, the severe depression, you name it. At one point she asked if she could give me a hug which is about when I broke down. She also told me that for what it was worth, if I were gone (we were talking about suicide) that I would be missed at CBCI. It touched me. Megan is one of those special medical personnel that actually cares and it comes through every time I talk to her.

She also made good on her promise to try to solve all of these problems, emailing me an action plan and calling me with Dr. Matous on the line later in the day. So here’s what we’re planning on in no specific order:

  • Increasing the hydrocortisone steroid back up to the original dosage to see if it helps with the temperature issues. Which, I’m happy to say, it seems to have had an impact with. Still sweating for no apparent reason at times but it’s not as frequent, and I’m hoping that trend continues. That really was driving me batshit insane.
  • Increasing the Oxycontin dosage from 40 mg tabs to 60’s but only after we give the steroid change a chance to see if it has an affect. Since it has I still haven’t filled that prescription.
  • Lighting a fire under the social worker’s ass I talked to a few weeks ago that never got back to me. By the next day I had a spreadsheet of all of their recommended providers and have already picked a few for my wife to review (going to deal with our marital issues first). Score one for Megan.
  • Check my testosterone level — presumably I’ll hear about this in one of my next visits.
  • Schedule another MRI of my spine to see why I’m still in pain.

I had an MRI earlier that day on my liver to explore what that spot was that showed up.  Turns out it is a benign liver hemangioma, which apparently is a tangle of blood vessels.  Either way she said that was very, very good news. I had no idea how dangerous liver cancer was until looking it up after hearing this (for once I skipped Dr. Google)  so I probably should have been more relieved, but at least it’s nothing serious or that needs to be treated.

I left the oncologist having obviously been crying and had several nurses ask if they could hug me as I made my way out, red-eyed. That made me feel nice, although it was hard — I have such a lack of touch in my life, and in-person caring, that it had a big impact. Not used to people being sweet to me, although I wish I was. Always have, really, I’ve just been too introverted to allow it in my life I guess.

On the way home I got a call from the oncology team with the big news — after reviewing everything, they want me to go back on chemo. One of the only drugs I haven’t tried yet, Carfilzomib, specifically. I’ll be mixing it with Pomalyst and Prednisone — it’s actually supposed to be done with Dex as the steroid but I refuse to take that again, so Prednisone it is. Nashville just isn’t calling and Dr. Matous let me know that he talked to Dr. Morie Gertz, the main guy in myeloma at the Mayo Clinic, and Gertz said the wait list for the trial I want is “substantial.” My doctor is also concerned that I still may not be strong enough for a stem cell transplant, so we’re going to try this chemo regimen.

I’m mixed on it. Part of me is glad just to have a plan, although this is going to be a pain in the ass (Carfilzomib is an IV-administered chemo done several times a week) logistics-wise. But maybe it works, you know? In the meantime there’s more time for spots to open in the clinical trials and for my body to hopefully strengthen to do another stem cell transplant. Either way I’m not in limbo anymore, and I think that status was adding to my mental distress.

On the marital front I sat down with my wife, sometimes kneeling, and worked out a plan to make our marriage a primary focus in my life if she’d give me a chance to prove I’m not the Dex-monster I became for years. Not only was she amenable but since then I can tell she’s working on it as well, and while awkward at times, we’re making progress. We had two dates this past weekend that were a lot of fun, just the two of us, and like I said above we’re going to be doing some counseling to try to fix the main problems. Either way it’s been pleasant for the last week or so and felt like family more than I recall having felt before– there have been times when I’ve felt like I was an enemy combatant in my own home and flat-out hated by my wife.

I just can’t take the cancer PLUS the realization that my marriage is dead — it made me realize I just didn’t have much left to live for without my family, and fueled a lot, I think, of the suicidal and hopeless thoughts I’ve been plagued with for so long now.  This is just too much, too painful, to go through alone or pretending, knowing you are making your partner miserable and that they were, at times, rooting for you NOT to survive. So fingers crossed.  I am trying, and that’s all I can do.

 

Like I’m almost gone, yeah.

Sorry I didn’t post this on Tuesday; been in a bad headspace this week and wasn’t in the mood to write. Not sure I’m really ready either but I need to get a few things down and out of my brain basket.

So far so good on the VTD-PACE front.  I’ve been fairly tired but mostly just dealing with the repercussions of the massive Dex dosage.  I didn’t go into the exact dosing of this witch’s brew, but it’s:

  • Days 1, 4, 8, and 11: Bortezomib 1mg/m2 IV push over 3–5 seconds or SC
  • Day 1–4: Thalidomide 50–200mg orally daily at bedtime + dexamethasone 40mg orally daily
  • Days 1–4: Cyclophosphamide 300mg/m2 continuous IV infusion over 24 hours daily + etoposide 30mg/m2 continuous IV infusion over 24 hours daily + cisplatin 7.5mg/m2 continuous IV infusion over 24 hours daily + doxorubicin 7.5mg/m2 continuous IV infusion over 24 hours daily.

That was taken from here, BTW, which is a pretty handy web page for chemotherapy.

I’m not feeling good.  The problem is I’m not sure how to draw a demarcation line between what is happening as a result of the chemo versus what is happening as a result of marital issues.  I feel pretty deflated, at least from the previous week, and I can’t easily sort out what goes into what pile o’ sucking as easily as I wish.

Physically I feel pretty run-down, but OK for the most part.  GI is fine, blood counts have actually gone up slightly since last Friday when I was released (i.e., no transfusions needed) although they are all still pretty low.  Nausea daily, including a weird almost insta-vomit situation when I sit crunched forward a bit.  Pain is up there but I had a Neulasta shot Sunday which I think is the guilty party there.

My good attitude is pretty much gone, sadly, which I mostly attribute to my marriage. Not going into super details here but the net-net is that after so many months of peace, mostly driven (IMHO) by me beta’ing out of most issues to somehow make up for 3.5 years of Dex-driven Rich, we got into it this week and I’ve come to realize a few things that I had hoped were in the rear-view not only aren’t, but probably never will be. The unfortunate thing about trust is that once broken in a relationship, even a bad one (actually especially a bad one), there’s so much scar tissue left behind that it’s hard, if not impossible, to ever really get back to a pre-trust-issue place.

My wife thinks I’m Dexing out again. I may be, but I also was feeling really positive about things until Tuesday night and I’m not convinced she’s correct so much as anticipating and reacting to protect herself from a potential, not a reality. I don’t feel snippy, angry, negative (well I didn’t until that night, anyways).  This past weekend I just took it easy, watched my mouth and did the usual steroid thing the Doomed do when given this much of this crap:

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I posted that on Facebook and immediately had 8-9 friends tell me to come over.

Further, I don’t see any issues I brought up during our argument as anything abnormal. Sadly, although I’m happy that I chose multiple times to back off and cool down before I let something un-take-backable fly, all of this doubt has ruined my progress mentally/emotionally and left me adrift.  Now I feel like an enemy combatant again behind the lines when I’m home, and that sucks.  Mostly because I finally had let some hope creep in that we could reverse course on circling the drain, and every ounce of that is now gone.

Just once I would like actual SUPPORT during chemotherapy. Driving, errands, cooking — that’s great. It’s not SUPPORT, however, it’s busywork that would have been done anyway simply due to me working 50 a week.  I’ve driven myself to just about everything except some stem cell-related stuff years ago and roughly 2-3 appointments/hospitalizations. In four years.

A hand held.  Questions asked borne from caring, not rote. A hug. Hell I get more of that stuff from random employees at the oncologist.  Instead at home I deal with never-ending verbal reminders of how I ruined someone’s life and subtle but obvious tells that no matter what I do, how kind I am, there is no way back.  From a place that Dex took me, which seems kind of unfair.  Also gone with the rest is the faith that post-me my legacy will be my daughter being told how awesome I was, not how much of a steroided-out prick I was by someone who fell out of love years ago in this and is incapable of understanding how important that legacy is to me.

Granted I never was Mother Theresa but I wasn’t THAT fucking bad.

Tell you what — when you go through hard times you really do see what kind of human beings are around you.  Also, and this comes from someone who won a lot more in poker than they ever lost, someone sober’s first reaction is almost always the honest one. Tuck that away somewhere.

Unfortunately with my peace of mind went all of my serenity and ability to truly relax and rest at home, which is a shitty thing when you are trying to focus on a giant dose of chemo and effects that could be coming.

You get used to it, I guess.

I’m wondering when the other shoe drops with the cancer treatment.  This has caused a decent amount of anxiety on top of everything else. I tried to cancel a lab appointment next Monday, for example (that’s a two hour commitment to me given where I work and live versus my oncologist) and was told that they need to keep it to monitor my counts tightly. So that’s like two weeks post-hospitalization?

Anyhow, met with a doc for a scheduled follow-up Tuesday who had nothing new to add except for prescriptions for an anti-fungal and a anti-bacterial. Have another meeting and more tests with another doctor on Friday.

Had a bunch of epiphanies about life in the last few weeks that I was going to consolidate here but I don’t feel like it’s the time to get into those.  I did however decide that at my funeral, assuming anyone actually listens to my requests, they play this song.  Posted this up Friday when I left the hospital:

Was listening to that last Friday and realized that it meant a lot more to me than just a allegory for leaving the hospital after a week.

Sometimes I feel
Like I’m almost gone, yeah
A long, long, long way
Way from my home, yeah

Indeed.

The bad sevens.

Not even sure where to begin this.

I guess just the facts to start.  Tuesday night I started feeling a bit run down with a tiny productive cough and some minor nasal congestion.  Given all the craziness of the last two weeks (IViG, blood transfusions, bone marrow biopsy, the usual weekly chemo, the Neulasta shot, etc.), I was inclined to think it was just the aftershocks of all of that.  Wednesday I woke up and felt like Hell … low energy, body aches, the nasal/chest congestion.  Went to work but came home at lunch on my last personal drop of energy and slept until about 10 pm.  By then I had developed the sweats, chills and a 102.3 temperature.

Waiting until morning we contacted CBCI and they gave me an appointment, but after waiting an extra 30 minutes in their office past my appointment time we realized they were so slammed that I might as well just go to the ER downstairs.  The ER did the usual stuff (chest x-rays, cultures, blood tests) and decided I had pneumonia again, so the wife and kiddo went home to get Ari to pre-school while I waited for the inevitable admission to the hospital.  They brought me up to the oncology ward and I’ve been here ever since, fighting what they now tell me is the flu.  Let’s see … sweats, chills, full body pain, cough, nasal congestion, zero energy (due to damn near zero hemoglobin again), nausea and the kitchen sink.  Thankfully the wonderful nurses here have been a big help even slammed (I got the last bed in this ward, which for whatever reason I always feel guilty about), and the Dilaudid and now Oxycodone (Dilaudid works great but gives me a headache at the end of every dose) have gotten rid of the pain.

They’ve done nothing for my mental state.

Even though I was forced to skip chemo this week my counts are still really low, so I’ve had 3 transfusions in as many days.  More disconcerting, however, is I met with my oncologist today at the hospital to discuss my treatment and bone marrow biopsy results from Monday.  Since the beginning of March and this Daratumumab / Revlimid / steroid therapy my M-spike has gone from 4.4 to 3.5 in just over a month.  That’s great, right?  Problem is my kappa is going the opposite direction and I get the feeling that the doctors are a bit confused by that (apparently they usually march in the same direction).  Not sure where my IgG is but I’ll try to find it.  Anyways here’s the scary part — my plasma is 90%, according to the bone marrow biopsy.  As I understand it what that means is in the sample they took from my pelvis on Monday placed on a slide, 90% of the white blood cells are monoclonal (bad) plasma cells.

My oncologist didn’t say it, but I’ve done enough reading to know that that’s probably why my counts are so bad — the good blood cells are being crowded out by the bad ones.  He wants a few more data points so we’re going to continue this for a few more weeks but chances are he is going to change strategies soon.

I’ll be honest, I’m kind of heartbroken by all of this.  I’m just so tired of it all.  I’ve been slogging through this fucking mess for what, 4 years now?  And there hasn’t been a break.  Chemo after chemo after stem cell transplant after chemo after chemo ad nauseum.  Barely a partial remission, and when I took a two month chemo holiday this year for my surgery my numbers almost doubled.  I feel like this burden just gets heavier, and heavier, and heavier.

So here we are, realistically at what could be near the end of the journey I’m guessing?  I have 90% bad cells and my counts are low, so where do I go from there?  Now I have no idea.  And you know what?  If this is it, I’ll be honest — part of me doesn’t even care.  I read about these folks who have done 20 years with Myeloma and I don’t know that I have that strength even if I’m given the time.  I just need 13 more years to get Ariana out of high school and I feel like that’s being taken away now as well.

I can’t even mentally go there right now, I’ll be out the goddamn window.

Just once, I would have liked to had a blood test that showed whatever we were doing was working amazingly well.  But man, not one in four years now.  I can’t describe how brutal that is, week in and week out, to try to summon just a tiny drop of hope and watch it get squashed every time.  I’m tired of doctors and nurses and hospitals — I like the folks but seriously.  I can barely even work now I’m down here so much.  Sick of being afraid to kiss my daughter, and having to wash my hands like I have OCD.  The dumb thing is the IViG at least has been working — I haven’t really been sick since I started it except for this stupid flu (which I’m not sure IViG could deal with anyways).

I’d like to think I took a lot of this in stride.  I had to give up diving and my path to become a diving instructor, a real passion of mine, and even though I knew it was fucking dumb I kept up hopes that someday I could safely do that stuff again with my immune system.  I go to most of my appointments alone because even though I appreciate the support I don’t want to put this cloud over other people.  Plus I’ve found having folks there at times can make the emotional wall crack, especially if it’s my daughter.  I didn’t really even want much from life anymore — time with the people I care about, their health, and some quiet time to ponder things.

I give up, this entry is going nowhere.  Sorry.  I guess this is where I’m supposed to get religious as a cancer victim now, right?  Yeah.  Problem is the only God in my world is Random Number Jesus and he just keeps rolling the bad 7’s for me, one after the other.

Oh.  Have a positive attitude Rich!  Keep your chin up!

Yeah I’ll get right on that.

My hips are a code violation.

Eventful week, and not really in a good way.

So Friday I went in for the weekly Dara appointment, but there were problems with my CBC (“complete blood count”) results.  Namely that my red blood cell count was in the danger zone.

giphy

Sorry, Archer joke.  Here’s what the danger zone looks like, apparently, with my number and then the “OK” range in parenthesis and a description of what each one is (that I shamelessly copied/pasted from webmd.com):

  • Hematocrit 18.8% (40-54%).  This test measures the amount of space (volume) red blood cells take up in the blood.  The value is given as a percentage of red blood cells in a volume of blood.
  • Red Blood Cell 2.14 10 12/l (4.4-6.0 10 12/l).  RBC’s carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, and carry carbon dioxide back to the lungs.  If the count is low (anemia), the body may not be getting the oxygen it needs.
  • Hemoglobin 6 g/dl (14.2-18 g/dl).  the hemoglobin molecule fills up the red blood cells.  It carries oxygen and gives the blood cell its red color.  The hemoglobin test measures the amount of hemoglobin in blood and is a good measure of the blood’s ability to carry oxygen throughout the body.
  • Platelet Count 78 10 9/l (150-400 10 9l).  Platelets are the smallest type of blood cell.  They are important in blood clotting.  When bleeding occurs, the platelets swell, clump together, and form a sticky plug that helps stop the bleeding.  If there are too few platelets, uncontrolled bleeding may be a problem.

Anyhow, the doctors decided to keep the Dara appointment but prescribed two bags of blood.  Thankfully I ran my errands the day before, since that added four hours to my day.  Easter weekend itself wasn’t horrible although I was exhausted all weekend even with good sleep.  Saturday my daughter Ariana had belt testing at her TKD gym and did great, then Amy’s parents came up to celebrate Easter since my mother-in-law had to fly out Easter Sunday.  They set up an egg hunt outside which she loved.  Sunday we met my parents in Cherry Creek briefly after lunch at one of our favorite seafood restaurants, Blue Island Oyster Bar.

So Monday comes around and it’s IViG time.  The CBC from Monday looked about the same as Friday’s, just minor improvements.  Due to my numbers last week my doctors asked for a bone marrow biopsy, my fourth now, to give the doctors a better picture of what’s going on with my disease.  Not wanting to inconvenience anyone I opted for no anesthesia and just did it with a local — really didn’t hurt much at all and was vastly quicker than doing it with the fun drugs in the hospital.

Do those holes grow back, by the way?  I need to ask my doctors that.  Feel like my hips must look like Swiss cheese now.  Seeing as how my hips are, as far as I know, load-bearing, I’m pretty sure I’m not up to code anymore.

Had trouble sleeping last night, although I was in a great mood last night.  Oddly I think the non-Dex steroids might be IMPROVING my mood.  Lord knows I had enough between Friday and Monday, Jesus.  Even a good mood couldn’t keep the pain away though — spent most of the night uncomfortably sitting at my home office desk and fighting off what seems like a minor cold and a minor temperature (99, at 101 I’m supposed to call the doctor).  Came to work today since I missed Monday and will miss Thursday (Dara day this week) but popped an Oxy when I sat down and I’m just trying to relax and not move my hips.

Sorry for the inelegance of the first part of this entry — just sort of core dumping the last 4 days and I can’t think 100% clearly today thanks to the body aches and pains.  I wanted to jot some notes down about just that, however.  I’m wondering, as I’m sure a lot of the doomed do, if it’s possible to separate out what is causing what pain-wise.  While driving to work this morning I was thinking about this — whether the bone pain I am feeling is the Myeloma and not just side effects from something else.  Hard to know — I’ll ask the doctor but I’m guessing that there’s no way of knowing.

I’ll be honest, I’m a lil’ freaked out.  Just a little, mind you, but there’s something truly un-nerving about watching parts of your body and its systems fail.  The irony that what’s beating me up so bad (presuming this is chemo drug-related) is actually working so far hasn’t escaped me either.  It would be nice to catch a little break here — I have yet to really have phenomenal results from any of the five or six treatments I’ve done so far, which really is a bit scary.

So is the NOT knowing.  Which drug’s working on me?  Revlimid or Dara?  That’s the problem with so many variables.  I was demo’ing a new app on my iPhone last night to help me track dosages for hospital and doctor visits since I can’t remember all of this stuff, and the sheer number of things I take always makes me wonder how you really know which one’s putting in the real work.

Anyways it will be interesting to see what they do Thursday with my Dara treatment.

Deja vu — ouch!

You know when you are at your desk Monday morning chasing Percocets with a soy latte that it was either a really good, or really bad, weekend.

Friday my white blood cell and other counts were bad enough that Dr. Matous and his nurse practitioner agreed that if we’re starting a new Revlimid cycle there’s going to be a problem at my numbers and the current dosage.  As a result they decided to change my Revlimid to 15mg every other day (from 15mg daily) and got me approval for a shot of Amgen’s Neulasta, a $7,000 drug that stimulates the body into making more white blood cells.  The last time I had this, or something similar, was when they were harvesting my stem cells for transplant 3 years ago, although I think then I had Neupogen.  As I recall, the primary difference as I understand it is Neulasta lastas longer.

When a typo becomes a bad joke on the next Geraldo.

Minor problem arises … the insurance companies apparently won’t approve a Neulasta shot within 24 hours of chemotherapy.  Solution?  Either drive back to CBCI on Saturday or wear an injector that, 27 hours later, will automatically give me the shot.  Not wanting to drive all the way downtown AGAIN I opted for the injector being stuck to the back of my arm.  They look, and are about the size of, a container of dental floss:

onpro-device

When they put the injector on you it pokes through the skin and then starts blinking green.  27ish hours later it beeps and then injects you.  Pretty wild stuff.  Kind of nerve-wracking too, though … I mean it’s $7,000 of medicine just taped to you on the hope it works right.  What do you do if it screws up, call the insurance company on Monday for another one?  Felt kind of anxious walking around with it, as well as anxious that it’d start and I’d watch $7,000 of Neulasta run down my arm instead of into it because I had bumped it once or twice.

In the midst of all of this going on, however, I forgot how painful this drug can be.

It’s hard to describe what these drugs can make you feel like.  I had severe bone pain in my back, especially lower back, hips and legs, as well as a shooting pain in my skull.  I’m assuming this is somewhat similar to what the bone pain of Myeloma is like when it gets to that point?  Either way it SUUUUUUUUUUCKS.  I don’t even have a comparison I can make to help you understand this, but it’s easily the worst pain I’ve ever had in those locations.  When I had the Neupogen during my stem cell harvest I was just laying there and for all I know they even gave me painkillers.  Walking around in your normal life though?  Yeesh.

They tell you that for whatever reason Claritin helps with that pain, but if it did I didn’t notice.   I slept about 11 hours Saturday night and then the pain started.  By Sunday night I was in rough shape and started raiding the household stash o’ Percocets (which worked really well, btw).

So here we are, low on sleep and high on opioids.

Which incidentally is a great country music song title.

Nothing really pithy to get into today.  Days of pain generally force a recognition of my  situation that, as I’ve talked about before here, I mentally deal with normally by  distracting myself.  I was so goddamn tired all weekend, however, that I didn’t even have the strength to do that.  My wife, however, was blown away by how helpful I was to her on Saturday, so that’s a good thing — she had a gall stone attack Friday night and was in the ER from about 1 am to 12 pm Saturday and in bad shape pain-wise.  My continuing efforts to make up for the last several years of DexRich are in fact working (at least until the next major fail), which makes me happy, and having had my gall bladder already removed for exactly what happened to her this weekend I was able to offer some solid advice and doctor referrals.

Ahh, that was one thing I wanted to get into today.  So Fridayish I did something I rarely do, which is interact on Twitter with some of the more well-known names in Myeloma. I appreciate that it’s useful but I seriously hate Twitter.  As a writer, even a hack, it’s depressing how much Twitter just eats the beauty of language and the art of phrasing things and turns adults into people who substitute “u” for “you” like a 16-year-old texting someone just to make a character limit.  Regardless, I was, respectfully, calling out someone over some information on Dex on a slide from some Myeloma-y conference.  In seeing the slide I realized that it was just the usual boilerplate stuff I see and once again showed no real understanding of what patients go through, at least to me.  Having had my life and who I actually am pretty much rewritten by Dex it’s a sore subject with me.

Again, zero disrespect intended towards anyone involved but look at the pic link in the tweet I’m replying to and read the columns on that Powerpoint slide.  Now read this, a quote from drugs.com (my 5 seconds of Google research):

The most commonly occurring side effects have included alteration in glucose tolerance, behavioral and mood changes, increased appetite, and weight gain; the incidence generally correlates with dosage, timing of administration, and duration of treatment … A wide range of psychiatric reactions including affective disorders (e.g., irritable, euphoric, depressed, labile mood, and suicidal ideation) psychotic reactions (e.g., mania, delusions, hallucinations, aggravation of schizophrenia), behavioral disturbances, irritability, anxiety, sleep disturbances and cognitive dysfunction (e.g., confusion, amnesia) have been reported. These reactions have been reported in adults and children. In adults, the occurrence of severe reactions has been estimated to be about 5% to 6%.[Ref]

Frequency not reported: Depression, affective disorders, anxiety, emotional instability, euphoria, insomnia, mood swings, personality changes, psychic disorders, confusional states, anxiety, abnormal behavior, irritability, aggravated schizophrenia …

So to preface what I’m about to say, I know NOTHING compared to whoever @IMFnurseMyeloma is.  She’s a Mayo Clinic nurse who deals with MM all the time, I’m just a member of the MM doomed tribe.  That being said, the “Managing Steroid Side Effects” of her slide is side-effect management for the stuff to solve side effects from pretty much every drug I’ve ever taken — take with food, take some stomach stuff if you have “discomfort.”

I’d also note that in the drugs.com article they list a lot of what I went through, and others I’ve talked to, as only happening in 5% of patients.  Since they’ve happened in 100% of the people I’ve talked to I’d argue that statistic.

What I won’t argue is a simple bullet point addition to that list — TALK TO SOMEONE ABOUT THESE SIDE EFFECTS THE MINUTE YOU ARE PRESCRIBED THIS DRUG.  You may never experience the emotional and psychiatric side-effects but I, and others, have been broken by them.  Be informed, OK?  Suicidal thoughts, total lack of sleep, personality changes, irritability, emotional instability, even weight gain and the psychiatric damage that can cause — those are serious things, folks.  Those are what I call “suck-starting the shotgun in the basement” side effects. That’s real, and I’ve experienced it and not even realized at the time that some of these bizarre thoughts and reactions were being caused by one of the drugs I was taking and not my situation (which is hard to separate).  And since a lot of times you don’t see the onset of these (i.e., gradual changes), you may not even realize it.

For those without this experience, try to imagine you are diagnosed with cancer.  While survival rates, thankfully, seem to be up across the board for most types of cancer, that’s still probably the most serious, and depressing, news you’ll ever get.  In a 2012 study I found online, the risk of suicide spikes in the weeks immediately following a cancer diagnosis by 13 times in the first week and 5 times twelve weeks later.  It’s still three times as likely a year later.  Also thanks to the deplorable state of insurance and healthcare combined with drug pricing issues, add all of the financial issues that cancer victims have to deal with.  Then to ice this cake, add a drug to it that’s going to make you retain water so your weight goes up (another giant source of depression and one that can become a brutal circle).  You are experiencing the entire spectrum of negative thinking due to your diagnosis and how serious life just became, and now you’re thrown onto the rollercoaster of Dex.

And that’s not a focus, much less even a discussion point on the bullet list?

Err, eeek.

I can say for myself that the entire reason I began therapy was due to having suicidal thoughts over my diagnosis.  Which a lot of us do, honestly — who wants to live in pain / fear for their life?  I spent a decent amount of time pondering whether, since children have a tendency to “reset” their memories around age five, if it would be better to step out of the picture and let my life insurance take over as daddy.  Ultimately she’s the reason I didn’t pursue this line of reasoning and instead sought out professional help.

My point is simply that a little talking to your provider about how to spot and deal with the mental component is important — a lot more than “take with food,” which while I’m certainly not a doctor I can say with a lot of confidence will not save your marriage when you have become such a bitter, irritable jackass that it and every other relationship you are having is falling apart.  Again, no disrespect to whoever created this slide, it just reads like everything else I see in cancer, which is medical personnel downplaying the serious aspects of what we’re dealing with.

 

Also, given that half of my Twitter feed is articles about the importance of patient-provider communication and patients’ input on treatment, I wonder sometimes if it’s stuff like this that helps cause that divide.  Why isn’t talking with a mental health professional part of the initial diagnosis process?  Maybe it is in places, but personally I think it should be across the board — the absence makes you feel like that part is ignored or not a “real” problem … but I’m here to tell you it’s as real as it gets.

And to cop lines from the UFC advertising, apparently.

Also if you are a provider, think about the impact having someone ready to talk to on diagnosis would have.  Here’s a patient about to get the worst news of their life (or close to it), and, “um, see ya’ and best of luck with that!  We’ll start up poisoning you on Thursday.”  Now imagine how much more comforting if someone was there as part of an active team (not just if you find out they exist) ready to explain how the diagnosis, and some of the medications, may affect you and what to look out for and to check in at set intervals or as needed.

To me that’s just a smart choice that costs nothing.  How many times has an on-staff social worker / therapist / etc. been sitting in their office doing nothing while 2 doors away someone got the “you have cancer” spiel?

Seeking mental and emotional healthcare, especially prophylactically, is not a sign of weakness, emasculating, something to be embarrassed by, etc.  It’s not an admission of being crazy or even that you have a problem — it’s just smart planning.  Please don’t ignore this aspect of treatment.  Every oncology office I’ve been to has some sort of help along these lines, usually free (your mileage may vary of course), specifically to deal with this stuff, although they don’t always let you know about it.

Use it.

Anywho, enough of me playing Surgeon General today.  Not even sure who ours is right now, come to think of it.

With Trump in office it’s probably Doc McStuffins.