Category Archives: medical anthropology

Well, THIS isn’t good.

Haven’t been posting much the last month, because my blood counts were in a slump and I didn’t want to worry relatives who might be reading this. But now that horse is out of the barn door, since a bone marrow biopsy this week showed that, five months or so after my transplant, my cancer has come back. I won’t know until Thursday what the docs at Johns Hopkins are recommending for me.

Obviously, this sucks. It is really not what I wanted, and I was just starting to think that this whole crazy transplant vs. cancer thing might really be working out in my case.

I feel a weird sense of clarity, kind of like what I felt when I got diagnosed with this cancer last year. Partly it’s that I clearly need to focus on short-term goals: eating (I lost a few pounds in the last month of suspense, and keeping my weight up is important), staying connected with people, and being careful to avoid germs, and any risk of hitting my head while my platelets are so low.

Partly, though, it’s because I woke up Friday morning with the following song lyric running through my head:

In the shadows, frightened, we deny you, hiding, locking all our doors
But when you find us, you remind us–
You say, “All I have is yours.”

It is a good song (“Won Our Hearts”), and people should check out the album, by Chris Hoke/Tierra Nueva, on iTunes. Sometimes the recording quality is a little homespun, but that is because Chris is busy working on life-changing Bible studies with imprisoned gang members.

To be honest, at this particular moment I’d rather have more of a Proverbs/Psalms kind of vibe, with God healing my body and giving me long life here on earth and (in my case, adopted) children. And that could still happen–possibly through medicine or, as always, if God wills it. I’m certainly not giving up on either. But this song is what I get right now, so I’m sticking to it.

Raspberries with melted fair-trade bittersweet chocolate on the side.

Raspberries with melted fair-trade bittersweet chocolate on the side.

I’m also taking this time to enjoy fresh raspberries (miraculously still available at the farmer’s market today though I didn’t get there till noon), not to mention showering without any tubes coming out of my body. Because everyone should enjoy those things.

 

All blog content copyright © 2013 E. Palmberg. Guaranteed 100% brave and freaking noble.

HECK yes, *you* need health insurance

Two weeks from today you can sign up to buy individual health insurance even if, like me, you’re a cancer survivor who would have had a zero chance of buying an individual policy under the current system.  I say: good, because you need health insurance. This. Means. You.

This isn't about your feelings on Obama--it's about your feelings on unforeseen medical emergencies.

This is about *unforeseen medical emergecies*, not Obama.

I think it’s a shame that health-care reform has been labeled Obamacare, because then people project their feelings about Obama onto it. (Personally, I support many of his policies, but I’m strongly opposed to the killer robots.) But I strongly support the U.S. federal mandate–and subsidy–for uninsured individuals to get health insurance, which kicks in January 1 of next year.

I say this because, back when I was 34, it would have seemed reasonable for me to not have health insurance: I have never smoked a cigarette or been overweight in my life, and I have long eaten a diet rich in fruits, veg, and whole grains. Then I got cancer. Twice. No clue how I’d have paid for the chemotherapy or bone marrow transplant if I had not, fortunately, had good insurance at my job. What’s more, it would probably have taken a lot longer for me to get diagnosed in the first place if I’d had to pay out of pocket for primary care, and thus been reluctant to go pay for a doctor visit just based on a slight persistent cough and general run-down feeling.

It’s also true, by the way, that insurance companies have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to try to avoid selling cancer survivors like me health coverage. Fortunately, I love my job and don’t particularly want to be self-employed, but if I wanted to start my own business before 2014 I’d be completely unable to because, as I mentioned already, I’m super aware of how people need health insurance.

I don’t blame health-insurance corporation officials for doing their jobs, but I am sure glad that, starting in 2014, the government is doing its job of requiring companies to sell insurance to people like me with pre-existing conditions. And that only works if everyone is required to have insurance, because that’s how insurance works. (Thanks to Obamacare, children with pre-existing conditions are already able to buy insurance.)

I’m pretty peeved that all of this has become a political football. Please read how health-care reform actually works, and if you don’t have insurance, sign up for it instead of taking some kind of principled stand for your right to freeload off the system if you ever get a serious illness.

All blog content copyright © 2013 E. Palmberg. Guaranteed 100% brave and freaking noble.

Let’s Talk Sky-High Medical Costs (and one thing that doesn’t suck about the Cheesecake Factory)

medical costsThe New York Times recently had a great piece about how any given medical procedure in the U.S. almost always costs more–often many times more–than the same darn thing in other rich countries. This is probably the biggest reason why U.S. medical spending per person is maybe twice that of other rich countries, with worse health outcomes. I’ve been following this ever since I wrote an article about it, Sky High and Rising, for Sojourners magazine, where I work (normally, I mean–I’m out sick now).

The NYT article is great and you should read it right now (though Dean Baker points out, as he is wont to do, that it ignores the huge effects of medical patents). And I like that the article has space at the bottom for people to add their own responses to several related questions.

But I think most people were way, way off when they responded to the question of how it would affect them if doctors provided upfront price lists for procedures. I am all for transparency, but just having price information without other information could be worse than useless:

-For one thing, it could lead people to decide between doctors or between hospitals based on price without knowing how good the doctor is. You might either wind up choosing the cheapest, or using price as a proxy for quality and choosing a more expensive one, but you’re not making an informed choice.

-To get information about how good a doctor is, you can’t just go with patient satisfaction (which is based more on bedside manner) or even with how many patients get well–you’d have to factor in how sick that doctor’s patients were beforehand. (This is the kind of thing that the new Accountable Care Organizations, which pay for medical results rather than piled-on procedures, are taking a hard look at).

-On top of knowing how good various doctors were, you’d have to know how important a given procedure is, if you didn’t trust your doctor–presumably one goal of knowing the price is for you to decide whether the procedure is worth it for you at all.

-While it is a great idea for there to be some system-wide effort to see whether medical procedures are effective, it is a terrible idea for even well-informed consumers to take calculated risks. I’m a prime example. In 2005, I had a mild cough that wouldn’t go away, and I felt run down.  As a healthy, nonsmoking person in my mid-30s who exercised regularly–and who was living on a nonprofit salary–if I’d had no health insurance, I might have deferred going to the doctor much longer than I did. Indeed, it two two or three doctor visits before they took a chest x-ray and determined that I did not have the expected walking pneumonia, but rather an apple-sized tumor next to my lungs. If it had taken me longer to go to the doctor, who knows whether they’d have been able to cure me? Thank God I did have health insurance with a reasonable copay (thanks also to Sojourners and Kaiser Permanente).

-I can personally verify that, if you get a serious illness, you are going to get way more information than you can handle. I am a smart person. I have an Ivy League doctoral degree. But when I get told I have cancer, it’s really hard for me to take in all the information the doctor is telling me about it, even when the doctor is excellent at communicating (and when I haven’t just started to flat-out cry).

So what do I think we should do, if not give everyone way more information than they can handle and then let them suffer the results? I think that the medical system should do the hard work and build up the expertise to develop standards of care, and follow them. I was inspired by this article in The New Yorker about how medicine should have the level of quality control that characterizes the Cheesecake Factory. The comparison is pretty ironic, as the Cheesecake Factory’s stomach-turningly insane portion sizes (a single entree, without drink or dessert, can have more than your whole day’s worth of calories and five times your day’s recommended saturated fat) are just the sort of thing that fuels the U.S. obesity epidemic. But hey, irony is everywhere.

Copyright © 2013 E. Palmberg. All blog content guaranteed 100% brave and freaking noble.

Don’t Have Phil, Just Polly. And Faith.

Readers of this blog are aware of my on-again, off-again relationship with my neutrophils (first-line disease-fighting white blood cells), which I collectively call Phil. If the transplant works as expected, I’ll wind up with a bloodstream teeming with Phil II (cells made from my donor sister’s bone marrow, which will, Lord willing, gobble up the malignant cells in my own bone marrow).

When I finish tapering off the antinausea drug, I'll only be taking *15* medicines! Unless they start me on something else.

When I finish tapering off the antinausea drug, I’ll only be taking *15* medicines! Unless they start me on something else.

However, since the transplant process starts with serious suppression of my normal immune system, right now (at day 14 post-transplant) I’m in a period where neither Phil is anywhere to be seen–literally at undetectable levels, as the blood counts they do on me daily show. Hopefully, in a week or two my counts will start to come up, heralding  the arrival of Phil II and all his platelet and hemoglobin friends. Right now (and for the past week or so) I’ve been getting platelet transfusions, washing my hands a LOT, and meditating up close and personal on “the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things unseen.”

In the  absence of Phil, the good folks at Johns Hopkins are offering me Polly to keep me company–well, really Poly. Polypharmacy, that is: the practice of giving people a whole lot of different medications (antifungals, antibiotics, anti-rejection drugs) at one time. I think I’m on literally 16 different medicines right now. The pharmacy folks gave me a handy chart of when to take them, which my caretaker sister reorganized into an even better chart, and we got this giant seven-day four-compartment-a-day pill case to keep them corralled.

Still and all, I’d rather have Phil. I hope and trust that those marrow cells are working away setting up housekeeping hidden within my bones, but seeing the numbers come up (and having an immune system) will be good.

Copyright © 2013 E. Palmberg. All blog content guaranteed 100% brave and freaking noble.

There Will be Beeping. Oh Brother, Will There be Beeping.

The orientation nurse assured me and my caregiver sister that most everyone gets at least one fever during the you-got-no-immune-system part of the transplant process. My sister and I immediately developed a plan to, if I got no fevers, be smug.

So I felt some chagrin when on *Day Zero*, right smack out of the gate, the very evening of the day I got transfused with the donor cells, I got a fever.

Into the hospital I went, which meant that I was surrounded by caring and skilled medical professionals offering me lifesaving treatment and round-the-clock monitoring; that I had the ability to phone up and order surprisingly decent food delivered from the hospital kitchen to my room; and that I was chained by thin plastic tubes to an IV machine that WOULD NOT STOP BEEPING.

More precisely, it would go along for some time merely making whiffling noises as it metered out my saline solution or medicine, and then it would inevitably break into a beep loud enough to wake the dead, or at least the hospitalized. There were several annoying characteristics of this:
a) It was the same beep regardless of what was wrong–possible obstruction in my line, maybe getting to the end of my bag of chemotherapy, or whatever else the machine had a problem with.
b) It was clear that the loudness of the beep was not in proportion to the urgency of the problem, as it never summoned nurses to run in with a look of concern. Instead, it would just beep away as I found my nurse call button and pressed it so that the main nurse desk could hear my beeping, and at some point a nurse would walk in and press some buttons to make the beeping stop. To be fair, this meant the machine was already doing a great job of keeping air out of my line, so kudos to the machine makers there.
c) Every time I needed to go to the bathroom–and, as my time in the hospital included Days 3 and 4, when you get serious chemotherapy, I needed to go a lot–I had to not only tie on my shoes (my self-imposed strategy for not tripping and falling on my head), but also unplug the IV machine and chivvy it along with me, making sure not to stretch the IV cord that connected it to the catheter in my chest. It was not a fun contest to see if I could make it through all these steps in time. They literally never detach you from the IV machine while you are inpatient.

Long about Wednesday my fever broke and they released me back into the little apartment my sister and I are staying in next to the hospital, so I’m only attached to a machine for a few hours a day in the outpatient unit, when I’m actually receiving medicine. This provides me with a better vantage point from which to contemplate the amazing medical care I am getting.

Thanks, caring and skilled medical professionals!

Copyright © 2013 E. Palmberg. All blog content guaranteed 100% brave and freaking noble.

The Fire This Time

Image under Creative Commons license, Some rights reserved by Crazy Uncle Joe-MoPho

Image under Creative Commons license, Some rights reserved by Crazy Uncle Joe-MoPho

One way it’s no fun at all to be interesting is medically interesting. In getting set up for my bone marrow transplant I found out that the fact that I have a bit of radiation damage to my spinal cord,  after the 40 gray of radiation treatment that helped cure my Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2006, is just downright weird. Fortunately, it’s not a huge deal–my left foot is clumsy and I walk my mile a day with a cane to prevent myself from tripping periodically. Forty gray (yes, the standard unit of radiation makes me think of those big-eyed aliens from the X Files) normally doesn’t do that. Ergo, apparently, my personal system is weird and unusually susceptible to radiation, perhaps in some way linked to my family history of autoimmune disorders.

After a bunch of high-level consultations, Dr. Concerned and the other folks at Hopkins decided to leave the radiation (and the chemo agent Fludarabine, which can have neurotoxicity in rare cases) in my treatment plan. I was kind of relieved to hear this, since a pristine nervous system wouldn’t do me a heck of a lot of good if I died of leukemia.

Today I got the standard radiation–a lousy 2 gray, which is probably pretty unlikely to make my spinal cord worse. (Although they can’t tell me how unlikely, because I’m *interesting*!)

The process itself was pretty anticlimactic. First they dosed me up with Zofran (anti-nausea) and Ativan (anti-nausea and anti-anxiety), then they had me lie on my side on a gurney while they prodded me to exactly the right location. I would have thought it’d be easier to get someone arranged if they were lying on their back (as I was in 2006) vs. lying on one side with one arm under one’s head, knees bent, and the other arm straight out over one’s hips, but what do I know? Also, the arranging has to be done in near-darkness for some reason, like the start of Easter Vigil or a scene change during a play. I think they were lining me up with red laser beam markers. Eventually they covered me with a couple warm blankets, put a piece of tape from the wall to my shoulder to remind me to stay still, taped a radiation measuring gizmo to my back, and turned up the lights while a loud, protracted buzzing noise heralded the radiation. Eventually it gave way to a softer background noise halfway between a waterfall and someone fruitlessly trying to play a tune, wine-glass style, on shot glasses.

Then the arranging folk came in, wheeled the gurney around 180 degrees, had a bit of lights out prodding again, moved the radiation metering thing and put what may have been a protective thing on my neck, and wheeled what looked like a blackboard made out of plexiglass between me and the big radiation machine, which I could now see. It looks like the receiver of an old telephone, if the receiver were at least 15 feet long, and if half of it were melting into a modernist sectional sofa. I gather the radiation came out of the intact receiver end, which didn’t have a bunch of holes, but rather one big hole over which a couple black squares were affixed for reasons I never grokked. After it buzzed at me for another 20 minutes they came in to disentangle me and lower the gurney to the floor and tell me I was free to go.

I waited, however, until one of the techs came back so I could confirm with him that when, at the end, he’d said “oh no,” that was not something that had to do with my treatment, but rather with him pushing an unrelated button afterwards (I theorize he prematurely turned off the waterfall of shot glasses). Medical professionals, please use caution in saying “oh no” in front of people in treatment!

So now we’ll see what kind of aftereffects show up. I think nausea is expected, and fatigue. And being ready to receive a bone marrow transplant.

Copyright © 2013 E. Palmberg. All blog content guaranteed 100% brave and freaking noble.

Transplant, probably. Sushi, probably not.

photo under Creative Commons license from Lotusutol: www.flickr.com/photos/lotusutol/13075942/

photo under Creative Commons license from Lotusutol: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lotusutol/13075942/

Well, yesterday I talked to an MDS specialist at Hopkins (whom I do not have the energy to give a snarky nickname), and got moderately encouraging news. Let me, right up front here, say that, as is the case with all my major oncological appointments, I did feel as if my brain was working about as fast as I could run through hip-deep molasses. Although Dr. No-Snarky-Nickname is an excellent communicator, I probably got some things wrong as the mistaken preconceptions in my head collide with the words that were actually being spoken aloud.

On the plus side, it sounds as if we are likely to move ahead with the transplant, probably in April, although everything depends on a battery of tests in March. It appears that this transplant will be way less likely than my original autologous transplant to lead to secondary cancer in the future (or more precisely, as this is treatment for a secondary cancer, a tertiary one). So, yay for that!

On the downside, though my platelets were up some more, my white counts were down and (before he even saw them), Dr. NSN didn’t offer the effusive, definitive statement I wanted that my MDS can be classified as “responsive” to the Vidaza, which is a glorified status that lets you get your name in the paper, win concert tickets and other valuable prizes, and breeze past airport security without even taking off your shoes. Seriously, though, it is even better than those things because, apparently, MDS that responds to Vidaza also tends to respond better to other treatments (although this is all possibilities, and My Mileage Will Vary). Dr. NSN allowed as how If I had blood counts that were normal, at least for part of the month, would count as a sign of responsiveness, but the real gold standard is the bone marrow biopsy, which I’ll get in late March.

Dandy blood counts before that might be unlikely; my white count was down to a pitiful .7 yesterday (and again today at Dr. Virginia’s when I went for Vidaza). This strongly suggests that the big spike I had in early January (to levels I hadn’t seen since 2011) was only made possible by a confluence of two–count ’em, two–factors working together: 1) Vidaza’s primary effect of making my MDS less, and 2) the extra week I got between Vidaza cycles at Christmas, which gave me a break from Vidaza’s side effect of lowering white counts.

Disappointing white counts, but platelets keep going up.

Disappointing white counts, but platelets keep going up.

Since Dr. Virginia says he wants to continue with the Vidaza full steam ahead–stomping on the malignant cells in my bone marrow is the most important thing–I fear I might not get up into the normal range again this month. There go my visions of going out for sushi, eating freely of salad, and attending crowded parties a bunch for the next couple months.

Copyright © 2013 E. Palmberg. All blog content guaranteed 100% brave and freaking noble.