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.

 

Insert title here.

Got a few things to get into today, so let’s get to it.

First, the good news.  Although premature, I have my first results from the VTD-PACE “kill it with fire” chemotherapy, and it looks like it’s actually working!  My oncologist is stoked (his exact word), in fact:

  • M-Spike down to 3.1 from 3.9
  • IgG down to 4,718 from 5,363
  • Kappa down to 575 from 1,314

The down-from’s are late April and May #’s. Given that the latest numbers should lag treatment by about two weeks, according to my oncologist team, that’s a big deal that they are dropping so rapidly already. It’s even a bigger positive given that I tolerated the treatment at, as the nurse practitioner said, a 9.5 out of 10 — basically breezing through it. Doesn’t feel like that, but I know it could be much worse. Outside of reactions to the drugs my biggest problems have been low blood counts (which are currently rebounding, finally), exhaustion and nausea.

So yay me.

I am having one problem that hopefully we addressed yesterday. Ever since treatment started I’ve had this weird nausea and upper stomach area pain where it hits instantly when I crunch my stomach forward — how to explain this, hmm.  Like when you are sitting down and lean forward on a table or desk? I get instantly sick to my stomach to the point where I could easily throw up.  I have a prescription for a new med to take which I’ve conveniently forgotten the name of and we’re doubling the Omeprazole dosage I already take for chemo-related GI stuff (I think it’s the steroids that cause that but who knows).  Hoping this new regimen works because I’m at a desk either working or playing for most of my waking hours.

The next cycle of VTD-PACE begins on the 19th. After discussing it with Megan (the NP) and my wife I’m going to do it in-patient again. The oncology team doesn’t care either way, but since I don’t mind the hospital it just seems safer to me. I think I walk around partially dehydrated most days and I’m concerned that doing this treatment outpatient, besides just being a pain in the ass given how far I live from the clinic, might put me in danger of the things they watch out for in the hospital (including some nastiness if you are dehydrated, apparently). I also have no easy way of getting down there if, for example, I need a 4 am transfusion and I’m at home.

OK so I’m only doing it in-patient because I can order ramen and Fat Sully’s pizza.  Shhhh.

BTW I’m currently in the process of putting together a long-overdue Excel spreadsheet showing my #’s for the past four years combined with what treatments I was on and when.  I’ll publish them here when I’m done — just waiting for some data from my current oncologist.  Plus I need to launch an archaeological mission under my desk to find all of my lab result paperwork from the first year of having this disease. I’ll wear a cool hat and bring a bullwhip. And if history’s any guide I’ll smash my head into the bottom of my desk as usual and curse like a sailor.

Next up, ASCO. Although ASCO is, according to my oncologists, usually more targeted at the big four cancers, there were two huge announcements regarding CAR-T successes from this last one.  First, Nanjing Legend Biotech announced startling results from an early stage trial of their anti-BCMA CAR-T cell drug, LCAR-B38M. Thirty-three out of 35 patients (94%) went into remission with an objective response rate of 100% — crazy stuff.  As my oncologist and several others on Twitter I’ve read have noted, however, Chinese trial results need to be taken with a grain of salt.

Closer to home, Bluebird Bio and Celgene announced amazing results about THEIR anti-BCMA CAR-T therapy, BB2121.  In a clinical trial of patients no longer responsive to a prior stem cell transplant and a median of seven prior therapies, the 15 patients (out of 18) that received the highest doses had some great response rates. Twenty-seven percent achieved a complete response, 47% achieved a very good partial response and the remaining four patients were in partial response.

As noted before my oncologist’s plan is to do 1-2 more VTD-PACE cycles followed by a stem cell transplant (my second) and then a CAR-T clinical trial, so it’s really encouraging to see this.  I also learned a tiny bit more about CAR-T trials this week — if I have to travel for one, for example, I need to plan on about a month.  Basically the process is similar in protocol to a stem cell transplant as I understand it — while your blood is shipped out to have whatever voodoo magic done to it that they do, you are in the hospital doing chemo to prepare to receive it back and then watched like a hawk.

But that’s a problem for another day.

Alright, time to dip into the jar o’ pithiness. Was twisted pretty good the other night and managed to write down one of the many epiphanies I have on nights like that. Here’s what I woke up to find:

Every day I’m around is one day older the little girl crying and screaming “I want my daddy” is in my nightmares about my death from cancer and how it will impact her life.  If I had to distill why I can’t think about my future without breaking down, it’s that.  That’s it, the entirety.  I feel like no matter what I do I cannot NOT cause her pain.  Does that make sense?

And yes, I do have the skill to make an entire room go from normal to awkward in one paragraph — why do you ask? Snicker.

Ariana (my daughter) has been on my mind a lot lately — with all of her activities plus the week-long hospitalizations and “salvage” chemos these days it’s hard not to. She just graduated from preschool, which was adorable. At her pre-kindergarten orientation they gave her a t-shirt that claimed “Class of 2030.” Crazy. She’s also in a new phase where she wants to help with everything I’m doing now, which I need to remember to encourage as much as possible.

Problem is, and this is unavoidable, it obviously brings up hard emotions as well. You have to understand my mindset.  For example there’s a new video game coming out in November that I skipped pre-ordering because my first mental instinct was to ask if I’ll even be around this November … pretty sure I will be but this is how I see the future beyond a few days out. I want to be here in 2030 to see her graduate, God damnit. I want to teach her to drive, be her best friend when she has bad days in school, and help teach her algebra.  I want to make her feel better about having to have braces, and share with her my favorite music and movies.  I want to take drum lessons with her, and most of all go on dive vacations with her.

Lately we’ve been doing duets of Disney tunes, mostly the Moana song “How Far I’ll Go.” She sings it all the time so I learned it on guitar the other night so we can play together. I love this but it breaks my heart too, you know?  Maybe she becomes a famous singer someday — but I won’t be here to see it, most likely.  That’s the problem with cancer.

Oh and yes I know there’s a 4-year-old and her daddy who’ve become internet-famous doing this, BTW. Ariana sings better than that girl and I seriously doubt her dad has anywhere near the Iron Maiden collection I have, so screw them and their infinite cuteness and talent.

Seriously, though, I just hope she remembers those nights we sat on the couch and how I smiled at her, you know? Maybe someday she’ll understand that smile and the tears that I was trying to hide.

All the good in my life, the things I truly care about, always have a “but …” tacked on the end. I know in some ways it keeps me grounded but it’s too much — it taints everything, gives it all a metallic aftertaste.  Thanks rare cancer! So yeah … every day I get is one more day closer to my goals (experiencing her life with her) and one day older and more capable, at least in my mind, she is of dealing with the aftermath should I pass away from this fucking disaster.

I really need to start writing down more of what I think about in the wee hours of the night when I’m happily medicated. I hate waking up and knowing I came up with some new Earth-shattering thought but forgot what it was.

Lastly, and so as not to end on a total bummer, I’ve decided that regardless of my blood counts I want to go diving again. Not tomorrow, but perhaps after the stem cell transplant I’m going to reassess where I’m at and see if my doctor will prescribe antibiotics and anti-fungals prophylactically so I can safely do so.  I’m in dire need of not only a vacation but the feeling of diving again — I can’t take it anymore. I want to float, weightless, without beeps and rings and doctor visits and text messages and chemotherapy and the rest of this turned-south always connected never-good-news life I’m trodding through.

Going into the usual Social Media blackout for the weekend, so have fun and see you on the flip side.  Next doctor’s appointment is next Wednesday so I’d imagine I’ll be writing something around then-ish.