The Summer of 2017.

When I was a child I had a little stuffed bear.  I couldn’t tell you what he originally looked like even though I still have him — almost 47 years of wear and tear from myself and of course now my daughter, on top of being mauled by various dogs through the years, have taken their toll.  In fact he’s more triage than bear at this point.  A sad faded yellow with a white belly, a hard surface where presumably at some point the nose was attached, and covered with my father’s best attempts at sewing him back together after one of the labs would get a hold of him.  Stuffing leaks from unfixed holes in his belly sometimes and both ears could use some reconstruction work.

I’ve thought a lot about that bear recently. This just hasn’t been my year, especially physically — three surgeries have left me looking like him in my mind (with a slightly worse tan); scars across my stomach, translucent skin, no eyebrows or hair, etc.  As I write this, in fact, today marks just over a week since I was last in the ICU at the hospital and the longest I’ve been out of PSL in the last three months.

I realized something (well a lot of somethings, but one big one) during all of that time.

I have cancer.

I hope that makes sense in a non-patronizing way — obviously I know I’ve had cancer for over 4 1/2 years now. But up until this year it felt manageable, almost surreal … something you can picture, form words around, but not really understand.  As Dr. Mikhael at the Mayo Clinic pointed out to me years ago I wouldn’t even know I had a terminal disease except people kept telling me I did (and making me take drugs for it).

But this year?  This year I’ve watched, helplessly, as my health has deteriorated to the point where on a few of these visits I (and others) were convinced I wasn’t going to be leaving the hospital again.  Worst of all, at least to me, was having so much time to really think about that.  At the risk of making too broad an assumption I think most people would prefer to die suddenly, painlessly, their affairs in order.  But there’s a special Hell in just waiting and kinda wishing to die that defies me to really explain it satisfactorily, in crying yourself to sleep in an uncomfortable hospital bed thinking it wouldn’t be so bad if you just didn’t wake up tomorrow.  Even though the consequences on those around you that you care the most about would be so brutal — that tipping point, emotionally, where you just stop caring and the pain of it all trumps the logical, the kind, the caring.  Where you just don’t want to feel anymore, anything.

It’s that inflection point that really scares me about death when I think about it — when I can say to myself that I’m sorry, Ariana, but daddy just couldn’t take it any more.

I haven’t updated for a while, I should probably tell this tale.

VTD-PACE round four fucked me up pretty good.  It did its work, in terms of my numbers (which typically I don’t have handy as I type this), but the price was too high — I’ve been a medical dumpster fire since the end of the treatment and the khyphoplasty for my back fracture.

Things started like the post-PACE hospitalization week always did each cycle, with this overwhelming mental, physical and emotional sense that something was seriously wrong. Each cycle that’s gotten worse but round 4’s was impressive — I was a basket case for a few days. I can’t even put to words, were I even willing to share the thoughts and imagery, of what was going through my head. I would hazard a guess that the massive amounts of steroids in this treatment causes this reaction, but regardless it’s the death of all hope, this black pit that you can’t get yourself out of except by waiting it out.

Then the cold hit.  Having just been hospitalized for pneumonia I wasn’t too worried as I felt decent-ish and had just had an IViG infusion, but then the sputum I was coughing up started being mostly blood (sorry for the gross image) and other symptoms started appearing (body pains, shortness of and difficulty catching my breath, etc.).  Back to the ER and into the hospital again.  Turns out not only did I still have (or had developed a new) pneumonia, but I had mold in my lungs.  Aspergillis, if you were curious, although I prefer to call it “Bob.”  Aspergillis sounds like somewhere you have dinner in the Hamptons after beating the slaves or whatever people who live in the Hamptons do for fun.

And that, btw, is the end of the MMJ treatments for now.  Which figures — I take something like 17 medications and the only one that truly helped is now lost to me.  Yeah that warning about how immune-compromised people should probably avoid certain things?  Not bullshit apparently.

The mold thing led to a deeper problem — one of the main concerns with PACE is the damage it can do to your kidneys and other organs.  Same as Myeloma, really.  For the kidneys your doctors in the hospital look at the “creatin” number every day from the midnight blood tests (that’s when they do them at PSL anyways) as a proxy for that damage being done. On top of being already irritated, some of the tests (CT scan with IV contrast) can damage the kidneys as well, and sure enough in trying to nail down what the mold was and what it was doing my creatin shot through the roof.  All of a sudden I’m meeting kidney specialists who are assuring me we “probably” wouldn’t have to do dialysis and any damage “probably” wouldn’t be permanent while debating if it’s even safe for me to have a Tylenol.

How do you fix things before it gets permanent?  Tons of fluids.  Unfortunately when you have liquid in your lungs already from pneumonia the last thing you want to do is flood your lungs.  That diuretic treatment I’ve talked about before that makes you pee a lot, Lasix? Bad for the kidneys too.

Were that all I’m sure things would have gone smoother, but then out of nowhere I start experiencing excruciating pain in my chest that popped up one random day in the hospital and got so bad I needed painkillers to breathe.

One thing to note here, btw — if you are ever in the hospital and even remotely suggest to a nurse that you have chest pain, prepare for a lot of tests, a lot of monitoring and to meet all kinds of new and seemingly unamused doctors.  Immediately.  In my case it was diagnosed as periocarditis, an irritation of the sac surrounding the heart.  The CBCI doc rounding when this was discovered thought it was probably brought on by the chemotherapy, but either way they began treating it (I forget with what — was in there for two weeks and lost track of time) and within a day or so I was feeling better.

To deal with the mold, the infectious disease doctors (more specialists) wanted a certain level of anti-fungal medication in my system.  For some reason these drugs in pill form are super expensive so before I was discharged we had to make sure not only that my creatin (read: kidney irritation) levels were plateaued or dropping, but that I had the anti-fungals doing the work AND the pharmacies had more anti-fungals for me AND the other drugs I was taking wouldn’t interfere.  Apparently you’re on these for quite a while too.  So I get prescriptions called in and get discharged after two weeks at PSL.

Keep in mind the whole time I’m missing my daughter and freaked out about what she’s thinking — that’s a long time to be away from a 5-year-old, much less in a hospital she can’t even visit (14-year-old age restriction).  We FaceTimed every night, of course, but even sitting up and taking my oxygen out for a bit must still have been scary.  I’m still missing all of my hair, including my eyebrows, so me sitting up in a hospital bed in a hospital gown isn’t exactly the most comforting image.

On the bright side at least I knew, relatively, that I was safe.  So days pass, I felt a lot better, say 80-90%, and a’ discharging we go.

The next day we go to pick up my anti-fungals and … the insurance company refused to cover them.  For several thousand dollars of medicine too, otherwise I would have just eaten the cost.  Not thrilled since this was supposed to have been taken care of before I was even discharged, I let the doctors know and we planned to deal with it at a follow-up appointment a few days later.

I’m trying to get the timeline in my head right at this point but basically I got discharged on Friday the 29th of September here with a Monday follow-up appointment at CBCI. That weekend I felt fine until Sunday, when I started feeling exhausted and ended up going to bed when we put our daughter to bed around 7 pm.  Had the worst nightmares of my life that night as my health deteriorated throughout the night. Thankfully my father was able to give me a ride to CBCI but my wife had me take my in-hospital bag and laptop, because sure enough they re-admitted me that day.  Some of the CBCI personnel I know noted at later visits how bad I looked that day.

I actually thought that was kind of it again, really. I think we in general have this perception, perhaps due to the gravity of it all, that you know when the end’s come. In reality what I’ve learned and come to expect is just a slide into oblivion — the system overloads, the failures mount up and at some point it’s just too much.  Needless to say I was not in a good head-space at this point.

Spent another week in the hospital, more tests, and go home — pneumonia again plus more of the periocarditis-related issues.  A night later and I can’t breathe deeply without severe, stabbing pain and even with home oxygen canisters I had to take a few minutes after climbing stairs to catch my breath.  Freaked out but having oxygen and an appointment at CBCI that coming week I tried to grit through it but I was terrified — not being able to breathe is pretty awful, as are the thoughts that go through your head.  Is this my life now?  What do I do if one of these O2 cans fails, just die?

I emailed the oncology team the night before my appointment and told them what was going on and was admitted to the ICU the next day.  Queue tons more tests including a bunch of echoes which showed that on top of some liquid in my lungs I now had a large amount of liquid in the pericardium sac around my heart, a condition called pericardial infusion. Since there’s a limited amount of space there the heart can’t function normally which was apparently causing the pain and the inability to breathe properly, as well as my randomly going into atrial fibrillation (I think that’s how you say it).  So from 50-70 beats per minute my heart rate would suddenly jump up into the 150’s.

Oddly I didn’t notice when this would happen except that all fucking hell would break loose on the monitors attached to me and a nurse would come running.  It would self correct in about 5-10 minutes, usually before they could even get an EKG set up.

After consulting with CBCI and the specialists at PSL I ended up having surgery to fix the problem, which had ballooned into a full pericardial effusion, where the heart has so much fluid pressuring it that it can’t work correctly, and just short of a tamponade, when it stops being able to work).  The surgery was performed by this awesome guy named Dr. Parker with a ton of experience doing them and they took roughly a quart of fluid from the pericardium.  I now have a new 5″ scar between my belly button and my chest plus a hole where a grenade-shaped drain attached to the surgical site was attached for several days.  I’m on a few different antibiotics, antifungals and antivirals based on what they found when they analyzed the crap they drained out of me, but I’m alive.

Physically.

Mentally and emotionally I’m really struggling.  I relatively waltzed into 2017 by comparison, or as waltzy as you can get always knowing in the back of your head that you have a terminal disease. But after having 6″ of my colon removed, pneumonia twice, four rounds of salvage chemotherapy, mold in my lungs and now a quart of fluid drained from around my heart I just feel pistol-whipped.  I’ve lost a good 60+ pounds and look almost gaunt, a first for me, and not a good look combined with the lack of hair and eyebrows.  I get the chills out of nowhere, presumably from the weight loss, and energy drops I can’t explain.  I definitely do not feel right.

I guess I just feel like I’m cancer now, like this is some big waiting game.  Just when I’ve thought I had a grasp on my reality I’m shown this new level of horror and forced to face it and it keeps happening.  I’m tired.  God two days after I got out of the hospital the last time I had this awful Sunday where I could not stop either sweating or getting the chills and my skin was tingling and I was thanking whatever deity I could think of that I did not have a pistol in the house.  You just hit a limit.  But for some reason I just keep taking it, taking the pain, the heartbreak, the apologies to my daughter for not being able to be a more active or fun daddy sometimes.

Her hugs are about the only thing that helps, even though they break my heart.

I’m quieter now.  I’ve already experienced people not recognizing me physically thanks to this year but it feels different when I talk to people.  Awkward, a little.  I mean it’s always a lil’ awkward when you have cancer to talk to friends, we all know that, but this is different.  Like I’m an observer, almost, a third-party participant that doesn’t quite fit in.  Hard to explain.

On the bright side, if you can believe there is one, we got a puppy.  I really didn’t want a dog and my wife and daughter are allergic, but they found some hypo-allergenic cute five-month-old silky / Havanese mix. Not even sure I was leaving the hospital ever again I said yes, even though I prefer cats, but it’s worked out.  Beatrix is a bundle of love and a joy to just pet, and I think it’s what our family needed right now.  Besides pets pick owners, not the other way around.

And it’s not like I wasn’t already washing my hands like I had OCD with a kindergartner in the house anyways, right?

Lastly RIP to @CultPerfectMoms, someone I’ve followed on Twitter for quite a while now.  Her last blog post can be found here but she only lasted a few more weeks.  In a small way her struggle, and final acceptance, helped me when I was in the hospital to keep just taking a step forward even not knowing (or wanting to know) what was coming tomorrow to see my daughter again.  Thoughts and prayers to her family.

 

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.

“Good Morn– ” *SLAM*

Some days you just KNOW what’s coming.

So all of those chemotherapies they gave me as a cocktail from Hell last week? Pretty sure the side effects are kicking in today.  They certainly are kicking the crap out of my blood counts:

  • White blood cell count: 0.9 (4.50-11.00 10^9/L)
  • Red blood cell count: 2.34 (4.4-6.0 10^12/L)
  • Hemoglobin: 7.2 (14.2-18.0 g/dL)
  • Hematocrit: 21.3 (40.0-54%)
  • Platelets: 27 (150-400 10^9/L)

For those who aren’t hematologists, nurses or just one of us dying from a blood cancer, it’s the hemoglobin that, at least for me, has been so low as to necessitate a blood transfusion.  Seven is the threshold but there’s wiggle room, such as when you were at nine-something two days ago.  I knew something was up this morning when I woke up exhausted after a decent nights sleep. That’s always such a bummer … bad enough to have to wake up in the first place when you don’t want to get out of bed, but on top of it immediately experiencing the low blood count version of this:

giphy

That kills me every time.

So to back up a bit, I had an appointment today for labs and more Velcade.  My assigned nurse in the infusion center said that I didn’t actually need labs since there were some done two days ago.  I didn’t think that was correct, given expected blood count drops from the VTD-PACE, but I specifically wanted to see my hemoglobin in case I was right in thinking my exhaustion was being caused by low counts so I requested the test anyways.  Sure enough I needed blood, and there’s a lesson in there about being proactive with this stuff.  After four years I’ve become fairly well attuned to what my personal meat popsickle is going through.

Always be your own advocate!

Unfortunately it’s kind of a Pyrrhic victory. As in “great, you were right!  Now you’ll be here the rest of the day.”

Oh well.

While in the infusion room at CBCI I noticed a FELLOW patient of my doctor that I had spoken to briefly once before.  I jotted down the blog address and gave it to him, a returned favor for a business card he had given me the previous encounter.

So for obvious reasons — well, at least obvious if you read the previous blog post — I’ve been thinking about the loneliness of cancer a bit lately.  It just seems like Myeloma itself is forcing an isolation on me … which probably is about as clear as mud.   Hmm … OK, see if this makes more sense: so there’s a 1 in about 143 chance, or 0.7%, that you’ll, err, catch?  Do you catch cancer? Well whatever. So it’s 0.7% you’ll come down with a terminal case of ze Myelomas.

But then what if you’re not even in the target demographic? I know this disease is striking at younger and younger folks but when I’ve been to three different top level Myeloma centers I’m the youngest in the waiting room by a good 20 years.  Minimum. I still would have yet to actually meet (and become great friends with) another person with Myeloma had it not been for a mutual friend.

Of that population, according to a slide I saw from ASCO earlier, only about 33% are online with some form of social media. So yeah, there’s only a handful of us that are easy to find.

Being singled out in society, even if quietly with a rare disease, is a weird feeling.  A VERY weird feeling.  Like last person on the planet feeling.  Not knowing anyone who can really 100% sympathize, no fucking clue how you got this … I mean humans are no different than the moles you hit in a whack-a-mole game — safety is with the group underneath. It’s written into our genetic code.  Danger is outside the herd, through the holes.

Nobody should have to fight alone.  Especially this fucker of a battle.  It’s just a bit too much to ask of someone — a lot too much, sometimes.

Anyways, hope if you get here, my friend, you know the door’s always open — email, Twitter, whatever.  Nobody has to go through this shit alone.  And I still have every intention of taking one of your classes!

Sat down with the wife last night. She says she’s still committed to our efforts and that, as I relayed Tuesday night’s fun and my thoughts this past week, we have “different recollections” of that night.  Time will tell.  This is another reason, however, why I truly feel some sort of social worker HAS to be involved with cancer patients. The side effects of these drugs can be overwhelming if you don’t know it’s coming.

What else … oh, the big ASCO meeting is going on in Chiraq this weekend. Oddly enough I didn’t know that (took about a week off social media this past week) until I talked to a cousin who is on his way there as part of the industry.  Someday I would like to go to something like that — although I have a feeling the Adult Entertainment Expo or the local Cannabis Cup has vastly cooler giveaways, at least if you are travel planning based on cancer-related life expectancy.  Plus you can get herpes easily at the AEE (there’s probably a booth that gives it away), although I’m not going to rule that out at the other two.

Either way I’ll re-Tweet (God, I swore I’d never say that phrase out-loud, sigh) anything interesting that us plebes can understand on Myeloma.

Hmmm.  You know that’d be a neat business to own, come to think of it … a travel agency for the Doomed.  Could call it “Fuck It Travel.” High-dollar vacations for people who decided their kids were too shitty to leave anything to and want to blow the savings on one last hurrah.  I like it.

And on that note, I’m done. And as usual, I apologize for what I’m doing to this unit of new blood tonight.

VTD-PACE, days 2-3.

Just a quick update. Other than some nausea and some 4 am hi-jinks with a separate IV things are going smoothly.  Not enjoying the Dex at ALL even though I am in a cheery mood, really.  Hoping the drug who’s name I’ve forgotten since Monday is helping with that.

The biggest issue, really, has been boredom. When I’m on high-dose painkillers, my usual regimen for being in the hospital (due to the flu or pneumonia), the little aches and pains don’t bother me.  I’ve found this time I can’t get super comfortable, so I’ve been sitting in a chair in my room on the laptop when I can. Sadly I have a brand new lap desk sitting at home but everyone I know outside of the hospital that would bring it down here is sick =/

Second would be the Dex … normally I would get 40 mg a week from what I’ve experienced with with it before.  With this chemo I’m getting 40 a DAY.  Let’s just say my restless legs have started their own band.  I’ve also put on over 15 pounds in 3 days!!! All water weight and being retained by the various chemicals, but now I’m on Lasix which helps you pee.

A LOT.

That’s a pill btw, not the eye surgery.  My nuts see just fine.

One risk I think I talked about before with this, and I keep forgetting the damned name of, is that the PACE works quickly and explodes the bad cells (and some good ones too I’m sure). So the nurses and doctors monitor various things like calcium and magnesium (think that’s right, I’m a lil’ fuzzy).  Anyways, my calcium is up so hopefully that means this is doing some work — that’s part of my good mood.  If you have to go through this it might as well work, right?

I know the really bad side effects are days 7-10 once I’m home, but keeping my spirits up.

THIS.  WILL.  FUCKING. WORK.

That’s my prediction.

The nurses here at PSL are great on the cancer ward (and presumably elsewhere here) and have made this a lot easier.  Quick responses, intelligent ideas, etc.  Today’s nurse, the awesome Tara, is usually a charge nurse AND she lives with a coordinator for my care so I know I’m in good hands.  Add to that Kellie and Rita (mostly adding these here so I don’t forget the names for a thank you, btw) and it’s been a pretty smooth ride.

Been doing a ton of walking every day as well.  Not sure what that accomplishes but it breaks up the boredom and seems to be appreciate by the nursing and doctor staff.

Man this is a Facebook update, not a richvsmm post.  Guess that’s alright sometimes.  If it helps you rest easy that I haven’t turned into a Hallmark card, though; I did send Congressman Ken Buck from Colorado a “Rich” Tweet yesterday:

If it helps, though, my 5 1/2 year old Facetimed me yesterday without her mom’s help … after she got bored she just started staring at the TV over the top of the iPhone though so we cut it short, heh.

And here … we … go.

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VTD-PACE, first day of treatment.

Got to the hospital around 8:15ish in the morning. Pretty sedate day, really.  Port accessed, blood tests taken and then a lot of downtime before the pre-meds and the cocktail of Doom was ready.  I spent most of it sleeping … I’m on a new sleep aide that I started Saturday that is also supposed to help with the Dex side effects and I think it’s working a bit too well.  Thankfully I was able to just relax and get some rest today. My blood counts, for once in the last few months, were not bad enough to merit a transfusion too so yay!

For those who missed it and don’t know, VTD-PACE is a salvage chemotherapy.  Our plan is 1 of these treatments per month for 2-3 months followed by a stem cell transplant (auto, meaning my own stem cells).  This year my Myeloma started to get ornery and the numbers are a bit out of control, so “salvage.”

I’m currently getting Velcade (shot in stomach), Dex, Cisplatin, Cyclophosphamide, Adriamycin and Etoposide. I was told most of the side effects are the typical ones (nausea, fatigue, hair loss) but that each drug had it’s own idiosyncrasies in terms of dangerous ones. One can damage the heart, one can inflame the bladder, etc..  On top of that there’s a risk that the chemotherapy destroys the cells (there’s a name for this) in your blood stream that can end up causing kidney damage.  Those side effects are why I’ll be getting monitored every 6 hours until I’m released on Friday. The lenalidomide (sp?) will begin hopefully later this week as soon as it arrives (hospitals apparently don’t stock the stuff and mine hasn’t been sent yet but the oncologists are on top of it).

Because of my past with it I’m mostly concerned about the Dex. 40mg a day for 4 days or something equally as absurd. Hoping the new sleep aide who’s name I keep blanking on (I cheated and looked it up, “Zyprexa”) will help — it’s an anti-psychotic that also helps with sleep. Since I’m pretty sure they frown on blazing up a joint in the hospital room you go with whatcha’ got I guess.

I do feel hopeful by the way.  Never assume just because I tend to come across as bitter here that it equates to “hopeless.” I am bitter a bit, but it’s rare that I’m not thinking of something funny. That goes back to some MASH episode I watched decades ago, btw.  There was one I’ve never found again where Hawkeye (Alan Alda) is explaining to someone that the reason he and his friends do all of the crazy stuff is that if they didn’t, in the middle of a triage camp in Korea, they’d go insane from the horror. I 100% get that. Looking at photos of people wearing silly costumes and stuff to chemo it’s obvious to me that most of us get it.

I mean it sucks, right?  So have fucking fun with it. Met some really amazing people on staff at CBCI and the hospitals over the years just by making them laugh. After I finish this entry I have to make a list of documentaries I’ve loved for nurse Rita, another awesome nurse at PSL that I’ve worked with before.

Not only am I hopeful but I’m in a “fill it to the top and let’s kick this fucking thing’s ass” mood right now.  Enough’s enough, and if I have to live through the next two weeks with all the fun side effects, etc., I not only better get some good results or I’m, well, I dunno.  We’ll try something else and rock that. Whatever, you know?  I think being pragmatic and active in seeking treatment’s the best you can do in this situation, and I’m doing it.

With lots of cool stuff I snuck in from Trader Joe’s and hid in the closet.

Shhhh.

Nothing too deep to get into today — I’m in a good, positive mood and I’d rather not risk giving that up quite yet by getting into things. I’ve had to do some hardcore “don’t think about this” work in the last few days which, except for my daughter crying and telling me she didn’t want me to go” repeatedly (which broke me down last night) I’ve been mostly able to do. I’d like to write about my visit to the scuba shop I used to work at this week but we’ll see.  Trying to avoid the known triggers right now for obvious reasons.

One thing I would like to mention, and I’ll be putting up some sort of Surgeon General’s warning page about this when I find the motivation (and some other blog fixes I have in mind). I write to exorcise things. I do it in a style that makes it read smoothly (well, most of the time) because I did things like this for a living and learned how — I think in column format now when I write. It works brilliantly most of the time but with a caveat — those who read it tend to only see the negative things I’m writing about and assume that’s me.

It’s only half at most, though, the Mr. Hyde half.

That being said, I firmly believe EVERY cancer patient has the thoughts I write about and similar reactions even if they keep them quiet. I made this blog public because I prefer straight talk and it was frustrating to me when I was first diagnosed to not be able to find that level of brutal honesty in most of the blogs I ran across. Which is fine, right? Look not only do I think it’s great if your faith or your indomitable positive spirit is what gets you through, but I envy you in a lot of ways if you’re that person. It’s just not how I operate, and as a result this blog is going to read as bitter, angry, crass … you name it. So if you need more positive emotions I won’t be offended, promise.  Hell hook me up and I’ll check them out!

But pssssstttt … if you too get frustrated with your personalized death sentence, rest assured that others have felt it, and I’ll be your voice if you don’t want to admit that to people. I understand that too. K? I bet there’s at least one person reading this who not only would never in a million years drop an f-bomb and cringes when I do. But staring at those ceiling titles one day trying to justify all of this in your mind, you dropped one. Even if it never crossed your lips. And that’s OK. Don’t say it out loud; I’ll say it for you and it’ll be our little secret. You deserve that F-bomb, my friend. Fuck cancer, and fuck chemotherapy, and fuck what it’s done to our lives, the experiences we’ve had to have, the fear of test results, the never-ending hypochondriac level of concern when something new happens, yada yada yada.

You aren’t alone. And as I’ve discovered four years into this, neither am I.  I’m amazed in just the last month how many really neat contacts I’ve made in various cancer communities and what I’ve learned. I’m happy to help you get started with that as well, if you ever need it — just message me.

As long as you promise to understand what this blog really is and that it’s not all of me, that is.  Hope that makes sense.

Will post updates when I can. Here’s a pic as promised … one interesting thing I hadn’t seen before is the amazing nurse Kellie put brown bags over two of the chemo drips. She told me that was because some of these chemos are light sensitive.  Trippy. She also recited from memory what each does and the side effects which impressed the hell out of me. You can see the bags over the IV bags here:

IMG_5920

And look, that’s almost a smile!  Well sorta, the really smiley pics were just fucking goofy and as you can see I have bed head, hah.

Also that GIANT bag on the right is a 24-hour infusion. That makes your urine red, apparently.  Things that it’s amazing to know about BEFORE it happens. So thanks again awesome nurse Kellie!

Also I am not photogenic. In 46 years I have come to accept this. Goofy ears, still a bit overweight (but getting better!) and the signature scowl do not a paparazzi’s wet dream make.

Have a fun week and I’ll be in touch.

 

VTD-PACE, another SCT … must be Christmas.

I, um, yeah.

Fuck.

Got a call that registered as my oncologist yesterday, so I was emotionally unprepared when instead of a scheduler confirming something it was my entire oncology team. I apparently came up at the office’s weekly meeting.

Have some bullet points.

  • This Friday we’re stopping the Daratumumab. It’s not working on any of the numbers at this point except possibly slowing the advance of the Myeloma slightly. I’d share the numbers but for some fucking reason all of my labs show up on HealthOne’s patient portal except my Myeloma labs. USEFUL.
  • After review the team wants to proceed with VTD-PACE. I went into detail on what I know about that treatment in this entry, but I meet with one of the team on Friday to learn more and schedule it. Ninety-six hour infusion of Dexamethasone + Thalidomide + Cisplatin + Doxorubicin + Cyclophosphamide + Etoposide + Bortezomib. The first one will be in-patient, the next ones outpatient depending on the outcome and complications of the first treatment.
  • I was told that with few patient exceptions PACE works as the “fire putter-outer,” which I need now.
  • After a 50% or more reduction in my M-Spike and IgG, which they expect to happen within 2-3 treatments, they want me to do a stem cell transplant (my 2nd) six weeks later (time to recover).  This would be August-ish.
  • Once that’s done, most likely a CAR-T clinical trial. They are starting one up in September at my oncology office, but if that’s full they will refer me out.

This has broken me for the last 24 hours. Normally, or whatever the Hell that even means anymore after four years of chemotherapies and an SCT in another state, I can mentally compartmentalize bad news and just examine it in small, controllable chunks. Things like this, however, make my emotional wall about as effective as one made of sand in the face of a hurricane. I flip from this surreal sort of disbelief that this is happening, and happening so soon, to outright breaking down.

It’s hard to describe what it’s like to not be able to look at your own daughter without losing it. I have zero control right now.  I just … I can’t.  Not today, sorry.

Was sitting here thinking about how to express how I’ve felt since yesterday. With the exception of last night, when I bleached my brain out with a combination of the darkest, grittiest metal I have cranked so loud it hurt and a ridiculous amount of Crazy Train, I can’t even type the words. It’s too painful.

This is about as close as I can approximate:

Shame that show never lived up to its pilot.

As a cancer victim I’ve often marveled, usually in a disappointed sort of way, about the way my perception of life has changed after four years of this disaster. One example is how on that call yesterday I was told to probably expect more transfusions. Ever since the first one I’ve always felt guilty about being transfused, like there was someone more deserving or needy of that blood than me. I feel the same about staying in a busy hospital, like there’s always someone more deserving or needing that room and I need to apologize for taking up space and time.

The dark epiphany is realizing that no, those things exist for people like me. There’s a snap to reality there about how really sick you are that can be pretty brutal, this sudden and painful paradigm shift between looking at the worst-case scenario world you thought you understood and the universe making sure you know full-well that you are in fact in the epicenter of this nightmare.

I don’t know if that’s explainable in a real sense to people who haven’t experienced it. Let me put it this way: you know you have a terminal disease. But there are days when you KNOW you have a terminal disease.

Different levels of comprehension and reality sinking in.

Probably not going to be writing again until next week from the hospital (I promise I’ll include pics). I’ve penned a lot in the last few days, publicly and privately, and I just need Pandora’s Box closed again for now and to get off this pedestal and fade into the shadows to recharge so I can function.

On another note, as a relatively new user on Twitter I discovered two things this week:

  • You can “mute” people that your friends RT so you no longer see the RT’s. Way too much political stuff lately for someone who sits in front of several news feeds all day. I just want to hear and share cancer-related stuff so that was pretty cool — I can keep reading people’s Tweets but cull out with a lil’ work most of the non-cancer stuff I keep having to scroll past. I say this like it’s some new thing but I’m sure everyone but me knew it. I can say, however, that after a good hour of work today I have scrubbed my feed clean and it’s like a whole new experience.
  • When your feed is 99% cancer-related news and you’ve been following 5-10 new people a day from all sorts of flavors of Doom, DO NOT READ YOURSELF AWAKE IN BED WITH IT.  I can handle most stuff but I have ZERO defense against child cancer stories, which were the first things I saw from yesterday. Sobbing yourself awake as you imagine what it must feel like to be told as a parent that the therapies are being stopped and to just enjoy your remaining time together is … I can’t even imagine. I do know I’d rather be the recipient of the soap in a sock code red beating from Full Metal Jacket than ever have that experience in bed again.

I can’t turn this entry positive. I give up.

Cya’s.

Stuck in the middle with you (and $10k of Revlimid)

An email I had to send to my oncology team’s nurse navigator today regarding Revlimid (AKA “Rev”).  Please put this song on before reading:

So non-funny story.

(1) I talked to Accredo or whoever the specialty pharmacy is I get the Rev from a few weeks ago about how when this bottle of 15 mg Rev is done do NOT send me any more as a new order will be prescribed with a different dosage.

(2) Accredo calls my wife, who was not privy to this, and has HER go through all the Celgene surveys, listen to the nurse, etc. and Fedex’s out the 15 mg.

(3) I find out that night and immediately call but it’s too late.  Person on phone and I agree I’ll just not sign for it and it will go back to Accredo, as I’m concerned that BC/BS will not allow them to send me a newer dosage if I have a bottle already at whatever un-Godly price per pill they are charging now and/or this bottle will be a waste.

(4) I get an email the next day that I signed for the delivery (I was not home, nor was wife, neighbors, squirrels, etc.).

(5) I call Accredo and let them know, a rep from whom then (after talking to supervisor) informs me I should just hold onto the bottle, they can’t take something back after it’s left the warehouse, and that the insurance company should be OK with another order being sent if it’s at another dosage level.

These people are all insane to me and I’m pretty sure I got the Fedex driver fired — I’d feel bad but I can’t tell you the # of times I’ve begged them to just drop off my meds and they refuse due to the signature thing, causing me to miss work, have to drive somewhere to get the drugs, re-delivers, sending to office instead, yada yada yada.

Sooo … I have a full bottle of 15mg Rev now.  If Team Awesome (you folks) wants me to go to 10mg a day or what we had previously discussed I’ll need that new ‘script soonish. Or I can continue at 7.5mg every other day, or up it to 15mg again if a comparison of my #’s @ 15mg were appreciably better than now. Obviously it’s all up to ya’ll.  If someone could let me know by my appointment on Friday I’d appreciate it! Think I’m down to 5ish pills, so 10 days at current regimen.

Appreciate you as always,

-[REDACTED]

Clowns to the left of me and jokers to the right indeed.

Incoming rant. Magic 8 Ball, will there be F-bombs?

*shake shake shake*

“You may rely on it.”

Beyond what I said in that email, what irritates me is now it’s MY fucking problem. I spend the majority of my time trying to reduce responsibilities and stay out of the middle of drama so I can spend my limited energy on important and positive things like my daughter, but sure enough, here I am in the middle again. Thanks, jerks. Because what every cancer patient needs is more stress, much less a married one with two sets of parents living in the same state that don’t get along but since mine are the pain in the ass I get to navigate every holiday (like Mother’s Day) like a corpsman on a battlefield and deal with the PTSD afterward. Because you know, let’s have the fucking cancer patient deal with our bullshit, right?

Sorry, apparently I had some hidden aftershocks coming from this past weekend of family juggling. Anyways …

What’s more, I also appreciate (BZZZZTTTTT) the amazing sense of guilt that has descended over me due to this. Here I am linking articles about, commenting about and participating in chats and DM’s about the drug companies and their ridiculous drug prices and now I’m put in the position of potentially wasting what I believe is the most expensive cancer drug on the market when there are real human beings out there dying due to not having it. I have a guilt problem, granted, but this just takes it to a new level. Not like my treatments are doing a goddamn thing for me anyways based on the numbers and how I feel but I always feel guilty about having “Cadillac” insurance. Yeah I worked hard for it, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach that others don’t have that privilege or the medicine and quality of care they need. Everyone deserves “Cadillac” treatment … we’re fucking human beings FFS, what could be more important than our fellow travelers in this shitshow?

Now throw this on that pre-existing pile o’ guilt. Can’t wait until I get home tonight so I can sprint to Rich’s Cancer Safe for a Xanax like I usually sprint to pee when getting home after sitting in traffic.

Oh but that isn’t even all of it. I also now have this voice in my head telling me that, while I KNOW my oncology team will choose the option best for me, there’s no possible way the fact that I have a bottle of the wrong dosage isn’t going to enter into what we do about this.

God damnit man.

All I can think of to do at this point, assuming I do change dosages, is to find out from the oncologists if there’s someone I can just give it to that doesn’t have the insurance coverage I do and let them have it. I can’t keep this. It’s a sealed bottle that’s still inside the bio-hazard warning bag inside a never-opened Fedex envelope. If that doesn’t work I don’t know what to do — I’d give it away on Twitter but all I need is for someone to take it and then misuse it or have an adverse reaction and sue me into oblivion.

Look universe: somehow you gave me this disease. I’m still angry about that due to what it’s taken and will take away from me, but who knows? Maybe I die in a car accident tonight on the drive home and the cancer isn’t even a factor. So I forgive you, even though I hate you and wish I had your address so I could Fedex you (SIGNATURE REQUIRED) some trained genital-gnawing wolverines. Daily. But really, knowing that I may survive this and die to something totally unrelated I try to be pragmatic and positive in my own snarky dark humor sorta way. I take all of my drugs, I go to all of my appointments, and I’m as proactive as I know how to be with my own care. And now I’m trying to get out there and help others, even if it’s just giving them a Twitter-bound virtual hug.

I don’t even ask for much: I’ll take your fucking nausea, your “fatigue” (*snarls while pointing at previous entry*), your bone pain, Dex pretty much ruining my marriage, the drug-related weight gain, the friends I’ve lost, the dreams I’ve had to give up, the sacrifices and things I’ve lost so far in my daughter’s life, yada yada yada. I try not to complain, taking it all in one day at a time just like everyone other Doomed cancer-riddled fucker on this rock. And you know what, you cruel bastard?  I can still smile. In fact I can laugh with the best of them and do my damndest to make others laugh too, even about something as brutal as Myeloma.

I’ll be your Huckleberry, you monstrous prick.  Just give me a fair shot at 12 1/2 more years to watch my 5 1/2-year-old grow up.

AND STOP.

FUCKING.

WITH.

ME.

ENOUGH ALREADY.

End o’ rant.