In the 34 years my wife and I have lived in the Hood River Valley, each winter has been unique with the various permutations of ice, snow, wind, and rain. If there is a common theme, it is the blanket of cloud that settles between the foothills of Mt. Hood. From the high meadows all the way to the Columbia River, a colorless pall often presses upon us: the purgatory of seasonal overcast.
Retirement relieves some of my dread of winter. I seldom have to be anywhere though, occasionally, town does beckon. There are errands to run, appointments to keep. The season’s dull light can disguise the time of day; it may be morning but a dusky sky glowers overhead as the road to Hood River tunnels under the inversion layer.
This December marked a five year milestone for me. Just prior to Christmas in 2007, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer of plasma cells in my bone marrow. At that time, when I inquired about the prognosis, the doctor said, “Five years.” I immediately began treatment in preparation for a stem cell transplant, which occurred in August of 2008. I responded well to those treatments and lived drug free until January of 2011. Then, I began a maintenance dose of an oral chemo, to which we added steroids in the fall of that same year.
These drugs require monthly labs because they can lower blood counts. The numbers, however, reveal an admirable stability. The cancer markers, as well, though they fluctuate, portend good health. I have outlived the original prognosis. My new goal is another five years with a similar quality of life.
I don’t fault the original oncologist’s prediction. Statistically speaking, his information was correct. In 2007, three to five years was a reasonable prognosis for myeloma patients. Of course, all that has changed due to research and FDA approval of what are known as “novel agents.”
I am a well-informed patient. I know what I am up against and where I fit in with respect to this unique cancer. There are no guarantees. It remains incurable but even that prospect has detractors who see it evolving into a disease that may be managed for a long, long time.
Furthermore, I stay in touch with the best resource available: other patients. I attend a formal MM support group at a hospital in Portland, OR. I belong to an online community of MM patients and follow the blogs of several other long-term survivors. And, in addition to this, I meet locally, on an ad hoc basis, with cancer patients in my hometown.
Our group is small and tight, the core being three. We have been breakfasting together for two years. We encourage others to join us but usually it is just J, and S, and I. Our cancers are different, lymphoma, glioblastoma, and myeloma. We are authorities on our treatments but equally uncertain about what lies ahead.
Each of us has a unique take on survivorship. J’s doctors tell her the lymphoma retreated with surgery, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. However, persistent stomach pain leaves her uncomfortable, troubled with doubt. Oregon’s penchant for inversion layers does not help her mood.
S’s brain cancer came with a grim prognosis. The ice he skates on is thinner than that of J’s or mine. Yet, like me, he outlived the original forecast. His quality of life, bolstered by an exceptional attitude, is high. Whatever his method, it seems to work.
We joke that our breakfast club meetings are what keep us alive against the odds. There is some truth in that fiction. We find protection from the threatening pall of our illnesses under the shelter of a shared optimism. For regardless of what time holds in store for us, we know that above the overcast of winter and cancer, the sun is shining.