First Connection

Oriental Poppy

Recently, at twilight, a deer appeared in my driveway. Silent as the emerging darkness, she stepped carefully onto the gravel. Behind her, a creamy froth of clouds smeared the horizon; crickets chirruped in celebration of the declining day. I watched as the doe slipped into the tall field grasses. After several minutes, I walked out to where she had crossed the road and exposed herself to danger. The failing light hid her path. She had vanished, leaving behind only the scuff of her hooves in the gravel.

My cancer, multiple myeloma, is equally enigmatic. One moment, it is here and the next it is gone. I carry all the evidence of its existence but the substance cannot be grasped. I rely on my support group, sponsored by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, to keep me grounded in the realities of this disease. At the monthly meetings, I interact with individuals whose various presentations of the illness cover the entire spectrum of multiple myeloma.

Delphiniums at dusk

Always, there are new faces seeking to buttress themselves against the shock of a cancer diagnosis. Others are long-term members of the group, survivors of up to a decade or more of treatments. Some, like myself, have a passive variation. We responded well to our choice of therapy. A few have complications from the MM, which has advanced and evolved in spite of numerous therapies.

Due in part to my association with this group, I became a “First Connection” volunteer with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Periodically, a social worker with the LLS puts me in contact with a patient who has multiple myeloma. The idea is simple: connect an experienced person with a novice. In the course of the last eighteen months, under the auspices of this program, I have spoken with individuals from all across the United States. Most often, those I speak with are considering a stem cell transplant.

Spanky, finding his balance

Controversies surrounding transplants have blossomed due to the recent success of “novel agents” like revlimid and velcade. What was once the absolute standard of care, SCTs are now an exceptional treatment, recommended on the one hand and discouraged on the other. Some clinics believe the transplant procedure is too harsh on the body. They argue that the latest drugs deliver comparable remissions with less risk to the marrow environment. Other institutes extol the virtues of a transplant. They assert that a SCT (or two) plus extensive maintenance with the new drugs can deliver remissions that, for some patients, border on a cure. What’s one to do?

I can’t answer the question as to which protocol is best. This weekend I am celebrating the three-year anniversary of my own transplant. I naively went forward with the procedure seven months after diagnosis. It worked well for me. I enjoy excellent health; I have not had so much as a cold in over a year. The cancer boldly appeared in my blood when I sought the cause for persistent anemia. Then, it retreated when we fought back with chemo and a transplant. We still detect its footprint in my monthly blood labs. Essentially, though, it is well behaved… for the time being.

What I call a Monkey Flower

I keep it simple when talking with a newly diagnosed MMer through the First Connection program. Transplants are not, in and of themselves, curative. The procedure is arduous but I emphasize its tolerability. You will feel crummy for a period of four to six weeks. Following that, recovering your stamina will be slow but sure. Transplants are relatively safe. It’s not possible to foretell how you will respond; yet my leap of faith succeeded and I am not unique.

Everyone must make his or her own decision. Therefore, it behooves you to become informed. That is the first step in a lengthy journey with this disease. Yes, I was naïve with regard to stem cell transplants. Nonetheless, my wife and I performed the due diligence necessary to “own” our decision to undergo the procedure.

More happy flowers at dusk

Since that time, new treatments have advanced quickly. Now, the options are greater. Patients enjoy a wealth of choices. However, the decision on how to go forward can be confusing. Accordingly, one must be thorough in determining what works best for them. My choice had as much to do with logistics as it did an assessment of what I thought I could handle. Don’t be paralyzed by your doubt. Accept the uncertainty, trust your decision, and, most importantly, fight back.

Summer Solstice

Norway Maple Leaves

For three months, the west wind scoured our Hood River Valley with an abrasive, hygienic brush. It burnished the trees, leaving behind a lustrous sheen of renewal. During that time, the Oregon spring doled out single days of warmth. Plummeting temperatures followed each balmy interlude. Yet, in spite of inclement weather, the earth simmered. Right on schedule, the roots of field grasses spurred their shoots upwards and wildflowers stalked the delinquent sun.

Last night, my cat, Spanky, awakened me at one in the morning. He pushed his paw against my cheek. I rolled over. Undeterred, he hopped onto the bedside table and nudged my glasses to the floor with a clatter. I pretended to sleep. Then, he began wrestling with the strap to my camera. His attempt to attract my attention worked. He wanted me to know that summer had arrived. Reluctantly, I arose.

I get out of bed slowly. Neuropathy in my feet and lower legs makes me unsteady. Within moments, though, it is as if I shed the skin of disability. The numbness subsides with movement. I shuffled toward the entry. Spanky wove between my legs, nearly upending me in his frenzy to go out. I opened the door. After a brief pause to sniff for danger, he disappeared into the seething magic of the June night.

Spanky and Wildflowers

The seasonal transition energizes me. My body continues to improve its tolerance of the maintenance chemo’s side effects. My cat notwithstanding, I sleep well. I feel strong and rested for both work and play. My peripheral neuropathy reached a plateau in April. Since that time, the instances of nerve pain moderated. My M-spike holds steady at 0.5 mg/dL. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The six-mile walks I take 2-3 times a week are the best barometers of my health. Most often, I finish these jaunts refreshed and eager for the next opportunity. The anemia that bothered me when I first began taking Revlimid ceased as my body adjusted. I have vitality to spare that feels natural.

At times like this, my cancer, multiple myeloma, does not feel so scary. I don’t underestimate its resilience. I know numerous individuals whose experience with this illness parallels mine. Moreover, I know that all of us will eventually relapse. One person, dear to me, is fighting right now for every single day. Nevertheless, this cancer’s ability to advance after successful treatment does not intimidate me. For the time being, I enjoy a good quality of life. That is enough.

Full Moon

This morning, I awoke, as usual, at 5:30. I plodded to the kitchen to brew coffee. From there I returned to the front door and called for Spanky. He galloped across the deck and slipped inside, crowing all the while about his nighttime adventures. Seedpods lay tangled in the downy fur of his belly, remnants of his prowl in the pasture. The long grass had dampened his coat. After a snack and thorough cleaning, he lay curled on my lap, tired but contented. My hands rested on the keyboard, and I wondered what I was going to say.

Passover

Another wonderful stormy spring day.

Spring is putting on airs, choosing to arrive fashionably late. Each year our community celebrates its agricultural roots with Blossom Weekend. Normally, pear and apple trees, festooned with an array of white and pink blossoms, attract thousands of visitors. They arrive like bees, pollinating local merchants with disposable income. This year, nary a blossom presented itself. Instead, a cold windblown drizzle greeted the tourists. T. S. Eliot got it right when he said, “April is the cruelest month.”

It was two years ago in April, that I started back to work following a lengthy break to undergo a stem cell transplant for multiple myeloma. Other than periodic checkups, I have not missed a day. This January, I began a regimen of oral chemo with the wonder drug, revlimid. I take a daily maintenance dose of 10mg, three weeks on, one week off.

At the end of the last cycle, I experienced a significant drop in my energy level. For three days in a row, all I wanted to do was nap. At work, I felt as if I were walking uphill in sand. I attribute that slump to a low percentage of red blood cells. Soon, my energy picked up as my body replenished itself during the break.

Revlimid capsules

The drug has slowed the progression of my disease. Dr. M and I would like to see a further drop in the cancerous cells, which hold steady after months of slow growth. Accordingly, we will continue with this treatment into the fall as long as the side effects do not create more problems than the drug solves. The goal is to achieve another sustained remission.

Doubt, hope, physical side effects, remissions that tease us, and relapses that punish us; these are factors that make up the complicated equation of living with this blood cancer. I meditate about these things on my blog and my ruminations help me to work through the stress associated with a life threatening illness. The only thing, however, that truly alleviates the alienation of a cancer diagnosis is interacting with others undergoing the same experience.

Each month I attend a multiple myeloma support group hosted by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The value of these meetings extends well beyond their educational promise. I leave each get together not only wiser but also spiritually refreshed. It never fails that I glean something from the two-hour session that changes the way I think about others and myself. This past week was a general meeting. Rather than listen to a medical expert enlighten us about the disease, the moderators asked each of us to give a brief history of our diagnosis, treatments, and something we had learned along the way.

One gentleman’s moment stood out. He recounted how a counselor encouraged him to participate in art therapy as part of his recovery from a stem cell transplant. This opportunity enabled him to renew his values with a focus on creativity, purpose, wonder, discipline, and courage. Then, he proceeded to introduce us to the Jewish concept of Dayenu.

The Rabbi Spanky

Dayenu is a song that is part of the Jewish holiday of Passover. The word “Dayenu” means approximately, “it would have been enough for us.” Essentially, the song is about being grateful to God for all of the gifts he gave the Jewish people, such as taking them out of slavery, giving them the Torah and Shabbat, and had God only given one of the gifts, it would have still been enough.

Attending a support group will not cure my cancer. Nevertheless, it does cure me of the dread that occasionally shadows my optimism. Catharsis often accompanies the sharing. We testify to our individual fears. We bear witness to what has been lost. In addition, we rejoice in what renews us. Together, we discover that no matter where we are with respect to the disease, diverse paths to affirming life exist. Sometimes we just need another to point the way.

Renovation

Soon after the New Year I resumed my six-mile walks. Wet weather interrupted some outings; others surprised me with unexpected mid-winter sunshine. I work fulltime but my job is not physically demanding. Accordingly, these walks provide the best barometer of my health. This is especially so now that I have restarted drug treatment for cancer.

The before kitchen during demolition

Thus far, I seem to be managing the side effects of the oral chemo. The peripheral neuropathy in my feet has increased, pestering me with nerve pain. At times, it feels as if my feet are burning. I also experience muscle cramps in my lower legs. Both conditions, though, are transient; they come and they go.

If my support group is any proof, each presentation of multiple myeloma has its own temperament. Mine acts indifferently. Following my stem cell transplant, the disease remained stable for a long time. Dr. M and I watched over the last several months as the level of bad protein in my blood slouched along toward a relapse. We chose to begin treatment before the movement gathered momentum.

For oncologists, the bad protein, commonly called M-protein or the M-spike, constitutes the unique fingerprint for multiple myeloma. Remember, this is a cancer of the plasma cells in blood. Healthy plasma cells create antibodies to fight infection. Those antibodies reveal themselves in the blood as proteins.

Six weeks later

Proteins are the workhorses of a cell; they carry out the bulk of cellular functions. With multiple myeloma, the plasma cell/antibody/protein is abnormal. It occurs in conjunction with healthy plasma cells but provides no benefit. Instead, the switch for cell division is stuck in the “on” position allowing it to replicate itself at a torrid pace. Furthermore, the myeloma overrides the process of programmed cell death. Consequently, it floods the marrow environment, spills out into the bloodstream, and, well… there goes the neighborhood.

The recent death of Geraldine Ferraro underscores the tenacity of this disease. Ms Ferraro lived 12 years after her diagnosis. She utilized the prominence of her political career to advocate on behalf of all patients with MM. Ultimately, efforts to control the cancer’s prolific growth profile failed. Everyone in the myeloma community mourns her passing.

My personal disease profile continues its lethargic behavior. As I mentioned, the M-spike measures the concentration of the bad protein in blood. When tested two weeks ago, my number had decreased slightly. It’s too early to know if the new drug I’m taking caused the reduction. But I’m optimistic.

Spanky likes the heated ceramic tile floor

It’s easy to get hung up on one’s numbers. This is particularly so during the winter months when much of one’s activities are internalized because of the weather. The daily pill taking leading to each month’s labs kept reminding me of a reality it would be nice to forget.

Still, life goes on outside the internal workings of my blood. Recently, I found distraction from the tension of waiting for the periodic results. Our kitchen, long neglected, underwent a renovation comparable in degree to my stem cell transplant. We demolished the old and rebuilt it anew from the ground up.

We bought our home in 1978. It started out as a 600 sq. ft. bungalow but grew with our family. Over the years, we added one room after another, including a second floor. The kitchen, however, was always “next in line” for improvement. We had many setbacks to our good intentions: car repairs, college tuition, medical bills; it was always something.

Another view

Now, at last, the work is completed. The mild weather in January and February helped make the upheaval of our living space tolerable. We waited 30 years for this and six weeks of frozen dinners during construction seemed a small price to pay. In fact, the delayed gratification due to previous sacrifices only sweetens our appreciation of the finished product.

The kitchen overhaul had helped me to focus on matters other than my health. From hereon, spring will take over where the renovation left off. Yesterday, between rain showers, I scratched with a hoe at the perennial beds in my garden. Afterwards, my youngest son joined me for a therapeutic walk. All the medicine I need, at least for my soul, can be found in the verdant pastures, the activity of wildlife, and good company.

Choices

In January, I met with Dr. M. Once again, my cancer showed signs of awakening. I feel good. I am not overtly symptomatic. Nevertheless, the myeloma stretched and yawned. After a nearly 2 1/2-year nap, my drug-free remission was about to end.

When in doubt, trust your instincts.

Since last October, we’ve discussed a course of action. I digested statistics from clinical trial findings. The doctor weighed in with his experience. Opinions from several other respected sources aided me in my deliberations. Finally, I assessed my own treatment history. No doubt, the chemo I received in 2008 altered the environment of my bone marrow. Those drugs subdued the disease. Over time, though, the cancer adapted and the surviving cells began to grow.

During the intervening months while thinking about what to do, MM claimed the lives of two members of my support group and an online acquaintance. That, coupled with the undeniable activity of my disease, broke the resolve to withhold treatment. I agreed to begin a maintenance therapy of 10mg of revlimid daily, three weeks on, one week off … indefinitely.

My rationale is a gut decision as much as it is about the clinical findings. Stable disease lulls one into complacency. This creates a Hamlet-like dilemma for the patient. Do you strike out at the cancer, or wait? No matter what you decide, it’s a coin toss with your life in the balance. Heads or tails; make the call.

A pretty winter morning, then the rains came.

Elsewhere, life goes on indifferent to my stewing over the choices. Winter arrived with enthusiasm. Ski resorts opened early. The season’s frigid momentum persisted through the holidays, clenching the long nights in an icy grip. Then, with New Year’s arrival, its hold loosened when the rains of El Niño drenched the western states.

At home, our modest sized Hood River, swollen to flood stage, growled with boulders tumbling downstream. Pear farmers renewed the premiums on their crop insurance as the thawing ground awakened the roots of trees accustomed to dormancy.

Dormancy, as blood cancer patients and farmers know, is a good thing. Temporary inactivity helps plants rest and rejuvenate. Nature’s balance depends on a period of suspended animation that unleashes itself in a nurturing climate. Too early, and the plant is vulnerable; too late and it may not mature.

Sleeping trees-That's Mt. Adams to the north.

Cancer, on the other hand, is more about co-existence with a situation that is out of balance. A patient, such as I, attempts to stay one step ahead. If eliminating the disease is unlikely, then perhaps suppressing it can moderate the ill effects. With luck, a durable remission is possible. In fact, given the dynamics of research into multiple myeloma, surviving until new treatments become available is a reasonable strategy.

Am I convinced about my decision? No. But I feel fortunate to have choices. The dirty little secret about revlimid is that a 21-day supply of this miraculous drug can cost over $10,000.00. That is not a misprint. Obviously, I don’t pay that. I have health insurance that happens to cover the drug. But for those that don’t, the choices about their cancer treatment are much more difficult than mine.

Oh Happy Day!

Well, it’s probably time for an update on Mama Bear and LIFE! How sweet it is :) Before I begin, i’ll apologize in advance if my grammar and/or sanity get lost in translation. The repairmen came to fix a bunch of things in the apartment, so you know what THAT means! Yep, i’ve been inhaling the wonderful fragrances of GLUE, DRYWALL, and PAINT for the last 5-6 hours. joy. 
Anyway…
Mama Bear had her check up with the good doctor on Tuesday to see if we would need to go through with another transplant. Fuck. The days leading up to the appointment were filled with absolute DREAD as I had been almost 100% sure that she would have to go in (which would have been the following Thursday aka TWO.DAYS.LATER). Over the break, I had the chance to go back to the Tom Baker Cancer Centre for one of her chemo sessions and was able to look over her blood work. Her CBCs were pretty stable, but her Total Protein, which is a mix of both good protein and BAD protein (aka Myeloma protein), had gone up a little. Based on our history, rises in the total protein have never been because of the good protein going up. Aside from that, her Beta-2-Microglobulin levels had also gone up a little as well… Recent discussions on the ListServ on this matter have informed me that it is a new prognostic measure for myeloma patients. In other words, you do not want this number going up. Of course, I didn’t tell her any of this because I didn’t want her to worry. But all these things combined led me to believe that a transplant would definitely happen. Needless to say, it wouldn’t have been a very good start to the new year. But, to my surprise, my mom answered the phone with sunshine in her voice, saying that her m-spike (myeloma protein) had actually gone DOWN from 13 to 11. Granted, it’s not a lot, but any decrease is a step in the right direction, yes? That was a SHOCK. Our doctor had also said that her FreeLite Chain things (i’m still unsure about what these are exactly, so i’ll have to research it a bit more) went down a lot. Apparently, it is a better indicator of where you’re at than the m-spike? This, i’m not too convinced. I’m a little skeptical. Why had we never looked at these numbers in all the appointments before???? So, it’s still something that requires a little more investigation on my part. But I do trust our doctor. He’s a very good man, I just don’t understand what’s really happening and need to gain a little more information/control on my part. Anyway, he recommended, instead of a transplant, adding on another drug, Revlimid, to her current regimen. That brings the total to a chemo cocktail of 4 different drugs: Dexamethasone (Dex), Revlimid, Bortezomib (Velcade), and Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan). Technically, Dex is a steroid, but whatever. A drug is a drug. I’m not the most elated with adding another drug to her regimen, as the body can only handle so much. And with the recent findings that Revlimid can cause secondary cancers, well… yeah. But I suppose it’s better than the alternative, yes? I’m pretty sure another transplant is due down the road, but right now is probably one of the worst times to do one. Flus, slippery ice, cold weather, etc. do NOT make for an easy recovery. Regardless though, I’m extremely grateful that that day was filled with good news, more so that my mom didn’t have to receive any bad news. I could tell BOTH my parents were relieved. It’s funny though. The night before, I prayed, like any other night. But instead I decided to ask just that the appointment would go well. Just one thing, not a whole list of things like my overall family’s health, happiness, etc. One precise, specific thing. And it’s like God, or someone, heard my prayers. So since then i’ve just been sending up prayers of gratitude and thanks. Aside from the obvious, I have nothing to ask for right now and plenty to be thankful for. I can tell we’re all growing a little weary of this, but anytime you receive good news, it   fuels the fires that push you forward. A dear friend of ours, whom we met during this whole ordeal, recently came thisclose to dying. From what I was told, his numbers came back so high they asked the technicians if there was a mistake, perhaps in a decimal placement or something. But nope, they were the real numbers. This was all in the post-transplant recovery in the hospital, so you can imagine just how discouraging that would have been. This is hard for me to write because it could happen to anyone affected with cancer, but it was suggested that they call family members to say their good-byes. That…is just heartbreaking. But. One morning, the numbers came back and…THEYWEREZERO!!! Miracles happen, my friends. Keep the faith and never give up. 


So that pretty much brings you up to speed on where the family is at. In other news, I’m just about to start the Phase II of my fundraiser and awareness campaign “Monsters Against Myeloma”. If you’ve been following the blog, you’ll probably know what it is :) Someone had heard about our cause and very graciously donated their own tickets to Lady Gaga’s concert in Salt Lake City in March. So i’m supersupersuper excited (and supersupersuper busy) to get this thing up and running ASAP, hopefully by the start/middle of next week! I plan on contacting the media within a couple days to get the word out. So if any of you, my beloved readers, know anyone in the Salt Lake City area wanting to go to a Lady Gaga concert (c’monnn, who WOULDN’T?!), please let them know about our event! I realize fundraising can seem a bit daunting sometimes, but our last winner from the summer won two tickets with $250 dollars raised (most of our donations have come from those just wanting to support the cause). It’s a lot of money, but also very do-able! So we’ve got that in the works. I also am in the midst of applying for any sort of volunteer position at the Edmonton Cross Cancer Institute, just to show my gratitude. Over the course of my mom’s treatment, the volunteers and nurses really were the unsung heroes. I cannot even begin to tell you how much these men and women do, how much love and care pours out of them. While doctors are amazing, these people are truly the faces of care and treatment and are severely underrated in our society. So I really want to try and give back to the community to show my gratitude and help others who are going through what I went through just over a year ago. If any of you, my readers, have not been directly affected by cancer, I would highly recommend volunteering at a local cancer center. Yes, it will be very uncomfortable at first. I remember the first day we went in for treatment. Dear lord, that was horrible and very unsettling. But you get used to it, as with all things, and have the opportunity (because it really is an opportunity) to meet the most amazing and courageous people, and have your lives changed. Forever. 
Either than that, school is keeping me on the hustle as usual, studying lecture notes (yeah, right), looking for internships, and getting involved. BUSYBUSYBUSY! 


Hope all is well with you, my readers.
Sending good vibes into the universe and you.

L

The Cat Came Back

Curly hard at work.

Recently, the cat who keeps me company at the Post Office, Curly, disappeared. She adopted our office as her home seven years ago. She spends her day sleeping in a chair atop a red, white, and blue blanket knitted for her by one of our customers. At night and when the office is closed, we place her outside to fend for herself.

This year, winter came early to the Hood River Valley. Our first snow fell on November 9th. Then, just in time for Thanksgiving, the weather turned cold, very cold. While acclimating to the season’s onslaught, I was also grappling with my doctor’s suggestion to renew treatment for my blood cancer, multiple myeloma.

I understand the proactive thrust of Dr M’s idea. Clinical trials demonstrate that low dose oral chemo can extend remissions in patients who have undergone a stem cell transplant. Nonetheless, I waver. The fact that I feel good makes me hesitate. Why set the clock ticking on treatment now? Shouldn’t I wait until I’m symptomatic?

Our home after a recent snow storm

As I contemplated what to do, the cold snap broke and torrential rains threatened to flood the valley. Last week, the snow returned. Several brief storms dusted the trees, decorating the shoulder of each branch with white epaulets. Then, the full moon joined with the solstice and bore the gift of a lunar eclipse. In years gone by, such heavenly triangulation would have prompted pagans to sacrifice an animal. After all, angry Gods must be appeased.

That was when Curly disappeared.

In a world full of unpredictability, Curly’s steadfast appearance at our back door each morning, is appreciated. Throughout my workday, the transactional banter that accompanies the selling of stamps often includes an inquiry about Curly. Customers want assurance that she is safe. In this way, she acts as a touchstone helping to forge bonds in the community that would otherwise be absent.

After four days of worrisome questions from admirers, my faithful companion reappeared. She seemed no worse for wear, just hungry and sporting a suspiciously torn claw on her back foot. I theorize that she entered a building from which she could not escape.

Curly’s return brought to mind an old folk song: The Cat Came Back. The tale it tells speaks to the resilience of cats, uncanny in their ability to land on their feet in the direst of circumstances. As the song progresses, it takes on sinister overtones. The cat not only comes back but does so with a vengeance that grows in proportion to the effort to be rid of him.

Spanky, another cat who comes back a lot

Something similar occurs when cancers relapse. Remissions imply that one’s cancer has disappeared. With many blood cancers, however, the disease exists undetected in a dormant state. It is myeloma’s capacity to evolve that makes it, thus far, incurable. The cancer has resourcefulness equivalent to a cat with nine lives; its true regenerative force, though, may actually be infinite.

In a New York Times article, The Cancer Sleeper Cell, by Siddartha Mukherjee, the author postulates: “Chemotherapy unleashes a ruthless Darwinian battle in every tumor. A relapsed cancer is the ultimate survivor of that battle, the direct descendant of the fittest cell.”

Hence, my reluctance to begin a regimen of chemo; I wonder if doing so when my quality of life is high not only eliminates an option but also makes the cancer smarter. Like Curly, I do not want to enter a building from which I cannot escape.

I am a pragmatic optimist. I respect the ingenuity of life in all its forms, be it a life threatening cancer or a cleverly resourceful cat. I also admire the persistence of science. Right now, I’d say the brilliance of researchers is gaining on the lethality of MM. One of these days, perhaps in my lifetime, the cat, or rather, the cancer, will not come back.

Trees

Trees

“Keep a green tree in your heart and a singing bird will come.”

Chinese Proverb

Raked leaves from a sugar maple

In November, the deciduous trees on our property cover the lawn with a radiant multi-colored blanket of leaves. Each fall, I spend several hours raking them into piles. Then, I haul them to my flowerbeds where they act as nutritional mulch.

Our property was once a strawberry farm and before that, part of a forest. We purchased the land with a small house over thirty years ago but never worked it. Instead, we raised two boys who enjoyed a playground of 4+ acres.

One of our sons was born in what is currently the den, the other nearly so, though complications at the last moment precipitated a rush to the hospital. We commemorated the first-born’s birth by planting a Sugar maple tree. Two years later, our second son’s arrival was marked with a Quaking aspen. Though we stopped at two children, the tree planting was only beginning.

As our sons grew, it became a ritual for the three of us boys to plant a new tree each Mother’s Day. The value of our gift lay in the legacy tribute of a tree’s life. Furthermore, it came wrapped within the comedy of our antics. On one occasion, the boys and I broke a water pipe while planting a Japanese maple. That day may have been my sons’ first lesson in how to swear. Now, years later, it endures as a humorous anecdote in our family history. I like to imagine that tree’s delicate beauty stems from the bile spilt at its christening.

L-R, Maple, Walnut, Aspen

The first tree dedicated to my wife was a white birch. Its multiple trunks and drooping branches now reach 30 feet into the air. Many more followed one at a time, along with random plantings of bunches of Douglas fir, poplars, and Norway maples. Despite the dozens of additions, room exists for many more.

To plant a tree affirms life beyond the boundaries of our short stint on earth. While my cancer causes me to sometimes brood about mortality, the trees I’ve sown connect me to the imperishable wonder of creation. The routine chore of gathering leaves to share with my garden folds me into the mystery of how life everlasting encompasses us all.

Against that backdrop, I attempt to put my disease in perspective. Lately, it stutter-steps: one moment advancing, the next retreating. The cancer, multiple myeloma, seems reluctant. On consecutive visits, my blood labs crept upwards in a telling category. Then, at my most recent appointment, the movement stalled.

Maples in full color

Further proof of the lazy nature of my disease came from a series of X-rays on my pelvis and legs. Pain in my thigh and hip made me wary of advancing cancer. One of the sneaky ways this disease harms the patient is by causing lesions in the bones. Often, someone with myeloma does not know the extent of the damage until a bone spontaneously fractures. This development is not bone cancer, per se; rather, it is a result of the blood cancer interfering with the normal process of bone loss and replacement. Fortunately, nothing was found on the radiological exam but my renewed peace of mind.

Overall, my condition gives me reason to rejoice. I survived the first onslaught of multiple myeloma, much as an old tree endures a lightning strike. Remember, in 2007, the prognosis was five years. Given the status of my disease, its ambivalent nature and my constitution’s ability to respond to treatment, I consider that a poor estimate. No one can say how many years lie ahead. Nonetheless, I think there will be plenty of time to plant more trees.

Truth?

When a pharmaceutical company tells you they “aspire to cure cancer”, do you really believe them? Color me a cynic, but wouldn’t that be the worst business model ever? You’ll have to forgive my attitude. I feel like I’m bipolar today, going from disappointed and letdown to inspired and motivated to frustrated and scared, and then back again. I just learned that my mom may need to go through another transplant, and before Christmas too. This has NOT made me a happy camper. And while I realize that this is the case for many others, that doesn’t change the fact that it completely fucking blows. To go through that procedure AGAIN!? How did this day go from hoping everything we’ve done would be enough to wash, rinse, **REPEAT**?! And to clarify on my previous post, I knew something was off with my mom’s biopsy numbers… And now I know why. Her most recent biopsy before the last showed 16% and from that time to transplant, it went UP almost 10%! TEN!!!! I knew we should have tried more chemo before collection, but our doctors insisted that that wouldve damaged the stem cells. And I’m sure they were probably right, but I feel like something else could have been done… So now, our predicament now is whether or not to go with a transplant (time is of the essence) or continue with treatment. With Thalidomides new availability in Canada, I want to say treatment. But would that be best? Lost and Confused…
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Cheers

After a week of painstaking agony and stress, the results of the biopsy have finally come back. The percentage of myeloma cells now present in Mama Bear are about 12%. Definitely not what we were hoping for. I think I can speak on behalf of everyone when I say we were disappointed. After SUCH a huge procedure, our hopes were that it would be down to zero. So, that was definitely a letdown. I guess you could say we were hoping to get more bang for our buck. Apparently, however, my mom went into the transplant with about 24%. So, it was reduced by about half, which is great. But from my understanding, I thought doctors normally wouldn’t proceed with a transplant unless you were 20% or below? Which leaves me a bit confused, as our information seems to be a bit contradictory… It’s not that i’m not grateful or anything, because 50% is huge. But I was really really hoping that the transplant would have been the end of it. Seriously, I have never prayed so hard for anything in my life. To exert so much hope and trust into something, and then to have results come back with… not the best results, it puts you into a bit of a slump. Sometimes, on this journey, you grow weary of constantly trying to be grateful. Sometimes, you just want a damn break. Sometimes, you just want to have a bad day. Today would probably be one of those days… But i’m **trying** to look at the bright side, because 50% IS a lot. I’m trying to keep myself busy with school and everything, because I really don’t have the time or energy to mope. So.. CHEERS to a significant reduction! Because the important thing is that the myeloma cells went down. That’s all that matters. One woman we know, her biopsy showed only a 1% decrease post-transplant, which i’m sure, must have been devastating. But after a few additional rounds of treatment, she was able to get to a place where her myeloma was untraceable. I realize that getting down to 0% after a transplant, depending on where you start, is not that common (which actually makes me question the validity of this procedure…). And truthfully, at the back of my head, I had a feeling that we wouldn’t get down to zero, just because of how high we started off at. Granted, the path of those impacted by cancer are filled with many highs and lows. And so far, our highs have outnumbered the lows. We have a lot to be thankful for, compared to many others. SO. We’ll roll with the punches just continue to chip away, like we’ve been doing since January, until we get to where we need to be. If we can get through what we’ve gone through, then there’s nothing that can bring us down.