Saturday, July 28, 2012

32. Blargh

Yeah. Like that.
So I write this at the end of the first week of chemo/radiation. I was really nervous about radiation, they'd scared me effectively by telling me it'd be like having a sunburn, that my skin might get irritated, that the let's call them "bathroom problems" might get worse... but none of that has happened.

In fact, at first I was pretty happy. I didn't feel the radiation at all, it was simple, all I had to do was lay still for about twenty minutes. And that's been my experience all week. I don't feel the radiation, getting the treatment is the easiest part of the whole thing.

It turns out that the chemo pills aren't covered by our insurance. So I could choose to pay close to $400 a week (if we qualified for financial assistance... if we didn't, it was $1800) for pills or nothing for a pump. So despite hating being hooked up to the pump, I went that way. So I've got four and a half weeks coming of wearing a pump five days a week.

Here are the problems with the pump: It's clunky and makes it hard to sleep, and it makes it really hard to shower, because you've got to cover the port with plastic wrap, then hang the actual pump outside on a hanger, then take a quick shower where you try to avoid getting the port area too wet. It turns one of my most enjoyable things, a hot shower, into an ordeal for most of the week.

However, even that was a minor inconvenience, relatively speaking. I mean, from what I hear, the pills are giant, you take them twice a day, they can have worse side effects, I might have chosen the pump eventually anyway. Would have been nice if it had been a choice, but that's not the healthcare system we have.

But no, the problem is the side effects. Which are immense, immense drowsiness. Not just of the "must go sleepytime now" variety that I had with chemo, but just a general weariness. And a little nausea, which the pills have taken care of, but which is still a touch annoying. And a general "bleh" feeling that I can't pin down. Sometimes, even when I'm not in pain (due to a lucky hour or two or to the relatively effective pain medicine I'm getting), not having to run to the bathroom constantly and not nauseous, I still just... don't feel good.

The worst part is, I never know when these feelings are going to hit. I'll have hours where I'm fine, but I don't know when those are going to be, which makes it really hard to schedule work and social stuff around it. So my life for the next month and a half is go to radiation/chemo, do work when I can, come home and sleep. I'm going to be a bit more of a hermit than I like to be. And poor Suzanne is really having to do all the work with the kids. Most of the time when it's bedtime, I can't read because I'm crashed out on the couch in my office.

That said, there is good news. The doctor explained that radiation always shrinks, and in 10-15% of the cases, it shrinks the tumor entirely. After our experience with chemo, I'm not even allowing myself to dream of that outcome, but I am hopeful that all this annoyance and suffering will be worth it. And the side effects I'd been expecting haven't surfaced yet, so really it's just feeling useless (and being useless) more than actually being in more pain, which is good.

Anyway, that's the latest cancer update. Believe me, I wish it was happier as much as you do.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

31. Marathon (a.k.a. The Latest Cancer Update)

Marathon, a cool graphic novel with amazing artwork
So the chemo portion has ended, and this week I took a trip down to Houston to go to MD Anderson, undergo a CT Scan and visit with the surgeon and see what the chemo results were.

The results were... disappointing. They could have been worse, although honestly not a lot worse. The good news is that the cancer hasn't spread, and some of the lymph nodes appear to have shrunk somewhat. The bad news is the blood marker (CEA) is elevated, not reduced, and the tumor is still very big, and very much encroaching on things I'd like to use, like my "seminal vesicals" (I think that's the term) and my prostate. So if radiation doesn't shrink the damn thing, or even if it does, the surgery is going to be invasive and probably cause some long-term issues.

Specifically, the surgeon talked about bringing in a urologist and a plastic surgeon, because there could be problems related to having to cut in and around what's in that area. I'll leave it up to the imagination what that means, but suffice to say, my quality of life could be significantly changed after the surgery, beyond just the colostomy that I've come to accept as a fait accompli. This is not the news I was hoping for. I was hoping for a Breaking Bad-style miracle 80% tumor shrinkage.

It was a little discouraging, and it wasn't the only part of the trip that was. I accidentally refilled the wrong painkiller meds, so I wound up on lesser painkillers right about the time we were taking a long car trip, and when you're having pain in your butt, the last thing you want is to sit in a car for three hours. So the trip down was fairly unpleasant.

The CT scan took place at the ungodly hour of 6:30 in the morning. Actually, that's when we got there for blood draw, and prep, the actual scan didn't take place until I'd been sitting around (see pain in butt and sitting around, above) until 10 AM. And it involved drinking a *lot* of banana-flavored barium (nasty), an IV (ouch) and rectal barium (ouch again, and gross). End result? Lot of pain, lot of unpleasantness, and having to clear the barium and such out of my system made for a fairly unpleasant rest of Monday.

On Tuesday, we went in to see the surgeon. Originally a sigmoidoscopy (flexible camera tube shoved somewhere uncomfortable) had been scheduled, but it wasn't on the schedule anymore, so I didn't prep for it by avoiding breakfast or doing an enema or anything like that. Come to find out, that was a computer glitch, and so I did have to get it done. More ouch. Although honestly, Dr. Chang is pretty good, and it didn't hurt as much as when my previous surgeon Dr. Jahadi did it. For those counting, I've now had this flexible camera tube thing done three times.

Then we had to stick around for Wednesday, when we saw their oncologist, Dr. Kee. Unfortunately, we didn't really need to, we only saw him for about five minutes, and the plan was already in place to do radiation in Austin, so that whole day felt like a bit of a waste, especially since we had to pay for another night at the hotel in Houston, and we really would have liked to have come back to Austin on Tuesday night, since we were done at MD Anderson by early afternoon.

So all in all, a disappointing, frustrating and uncomfortable visit to Houston. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Suites, which was actually much nicer than our previous hotel, and we ate at a variety of different restaurants, got some good Thai, some good pie (from House of Pies) and spent way too much money on hotel and food.

That's all bad news and grumbling. Here's the good news. We're still on track for the cancer-fighting plan. Starting next Wednesday, I'll be going in for radiation with chemo pills to enhance the radiation. I have no idea what to expect, although I'm expecting it to be harder than the chemo. It's five days a week for 28 days, so it'll probably run until the end of August. In the first week of September, right after the kids start school, there will be another trip down to Houston for an MRI (and knowing my luck, another sigmoidoscopy) to assess and prep for the surgery. The surgery will take place 6-8 weeks after that to give me time to recover from the radiation, so ballpark, probably in mid-October. I'm expecting recovery from the surgery to take a while and be kind of painful and long. I believe the plan is 6-8 weeks of recovery, than 8 cycles of chemo to make sure we get any cancer that's left. So figure that'll start in December and run through March or maybe April. Best case scenario, cancer free by my birthday next year.

Of course, our deductible resets in January, so our medical expenses are going to pile up in the early months of 2013, but we should be able to handle it with help from our families, who have already offered. Honestly, the money is less what I'm worried about right now than what I'm going to look and feel like after the surgery.

But the next part of this marathon is the radiation/chemo. I have no idea what to expect, and while I'm nervous, part of me is ready to at least know what to expect in terms of pain/fatigue and other side effects so I can get used to the new routine. 5 days a week is gonna be harrowing and is really gonna mess with an already messed-up work schedule, but I'm doing what has to be done, and I'm really blessed to have two great managers in Dave Farabee and Nick Budd and two great employees in Roxy and Teala to keep the store running while I feel like mostly a ghost there.

That's the other upside, and there are plenty of them. I've got amazing support from a huge network of friends and family, and they keep my spirits up when I'm tempted to despair a little. My wife has been amazing through all of this, dealing not only with the bills but driving me around, doing a lot more of the work with the kids and letting me nap and lay around when I feel like I should be helping out. And because I've been forcibly removed from working 40 hours, I've had more time to watch TV, read books and comics and do other leisure type activities that I haven't had as much time for in recent years. It's a forced vacation, and one that's actually more expensive than just taking the whole family to Europe or Disney World or whatever, but there are some vacation-like benefits to it on occasion.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

30. Marvel Timeline

You know how animated series get to pick and choose and create these "perfect" versions of their respective universes using ideas from decades worth of stories? I had a notion to do something similar with the Marvel Universe, taking the idea of heroes aging in real-time and applying the idea of how different eras affected the writing of different characters, and creating a Marvel "timeline" that starts in the 1940s and extends into 2010. It's a skeleton at best, but I kind of like the idea, maybe as a backdrop for a Marvel RPG or something. So here it is:

The heroic age begins in the late 1930s as heroes emerge to face the growing Nazi war machine. Namor the Sub-Mariner reveals the existence of Atlantis, and joins the American super-soldier Captain America and the American super-android Human Torch, alongside the British Union Jack and Spitfire, as the Invaders. The Germans, desperate for weapons of their own, summon the Norse god Thor, who quickly realizes he's on the wrong side and joins the Invaders. However, the use of Nazi sorcery results in a bit of a stalemate with Allied super-powers, and the end result is that the war is still won by human soldiers and bravery, and the development of the atomic bomb is still necessary to end the war. Captain America is lost, frozen in ice, and Thor returns to Asgard.

The bridge between the Golden Age and the Atomic Age of heroes. A group of government-affiliated heroes known as the Agents of Atlas are the primary American heroes, although there are "greaser" heroes operating on the streets as well, the precursors to urban vigilantes like Spider-Man, Punisher and Moon Knight. In addition, war hero Sergeant Nick Fury becomes a Colonel and heads up the newly-created SHIELD (Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law Enforcement Division). They begin keeping tabs on superheroes and supervillains alike.

The Atomic Age truly begins when the Fantastic Four steal a rocket in an attempt to beat the Russians to the moon and are bombarded with cosmic rays, returning as the first American heroes with public identities. Shortly thereafter, atomic accidents create two new heroes who are often mistaken for villains in Spider-Man and the Hulk. And background radiation from nuclear testing has resulted in the birth of mutants, including the original X-Men and the original Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, who begin a very public war over the future of mutant-kind and how it will interact with humankind. In the late '60s, a trip to Vietnam results in Tony Stark creating his Iron Man armor, and he returns home to help found the Avengers, alongside a returned Captain America and Thor and new science heroes Ant-Man and the Wasp. The Hulk is an early ally, but proves unstable and leaves the team before the '60s are over to roam the country.

The Revolutionary Age, when many social conventions were being shaken and tested. On the streets of New York, increases in street crime, organized by the Maggia and the Kingpin, are met with resistance from urban vigilantes like Daredevil, Punisher and Power Man & Iron Fist. Meanwhile, an Eastern influence begins with the birth of Doctor Strange and the war between Shang-Chi and his father Fu Manchu. There's also a general increase in "weirdness" and counter-culture, as evidenced by the rise of superteams like The Defenders and the All-New, All-Different X-Men, who represent a more international than American team. The Avengers and Fantastic Four continue their adventures, although they are increasingly out in space, dealing with cosmic problems like the Kree-Skrull War or Adam Warlock and Captain Marvel battling Thanos and the Magus. Meanwhile, a new wave of feminist heroes emerges with Jewel (Jessica Jones), Spider-Woman, Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk. The Avengers roster expands to include Wonder Man, Vision & Scarlet Witch and the Falcon.

The Legacy Age begins, as heroes from the Atomic and Revolutionary age begin to age and retire or die. Captain Marvel is the first notable hero, dying very publicly of cancer. Phoenix dies soon after, sacrificing herself to save the universe. Captain America, having now reached his 50s, begins training Jim Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon, to take over as the new Captain America, and recruits many new Avengers, including the new Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau), Black Knight (Dane Whitman), Hercules and Tigra. Tony Stark passes on the Iron Man identity to the son of his pilot and best friend, Jim "Rhodey" Rhodes Jr., who joins the new team as well. On the streets of New York, Moon Knight joins Daredevil and the Punisher in their fight against the Kingpin and his ilk, while a sonic-powered mutant named Dazzler makes big headlines as the first mutant with a public identity (and multi-million dollar recording career). The X-Men recruit a new class of students, the New Mutants, to their academy, as several of their number retire to teaching careers at the school. During the mid-'80s, the Secret Wars take place, and many older heroes are killed in battle against their long-time foes, resulting in the new "legacy" heroes having to face of against the resurgent Thanos and his Infinity Gauntlet.

The Dark Age begins with the death of Spider-Man. With so many of the established heroes gone or retired, a vacuum forms for newer, darker heroes with darker codes of justice. The New Warriors step up as a young hero team to replace what they see as the "establishment" Avengers and are embraced by a youth culture influenced by grunge rock and nihilism. New strange heroes like Darkhawk and Sleepwalker emerge. The X-Men and New Mutants find themselves divided between Xavier's dream and Magneto's, and a new militant leader named Cable turns much of the New Mutants into X-Force, battling more dangerous foes like the deadly mercenary Deadpool, the deadly Apocalypse and the resurrected Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, now headed by the psychotic son of Charles Xavier, Legion. Legion's time manipulations result in the creation of the alternate universe Age of Apocalypse, which results in the death of several mutants, including founding X-Men Angel, transformed into Apocalypse's Archangel of Death. Meanwhile, the Avengers are disbanded, scattering to different parts of the country to fight crime in their own ways. Stark Technologies begins a focus on improving techology for everyone, which includes a major Iron Man upgrade. Captain America begins a network dedicated to creating a sort of national Peace Corps.

The New Age begins, as new incarnations of familiar teams are formed. The New X-Men are centered around the X-Corporation, an international mutant advocacy group for the growing population of mutants. It's membership includes former X-Force, X-Men and New Mutants members, as well as numerous new mutants, and it's board includes the surviving original X-Men: Cyclops, Iceman and Beast. They also maintain the Xavier Academy in Westchester and open the Grey-Worthington School in San Francisco as havens for mutants. After disbanding in the late '90s, the Avengers are reformed when a massive multi-super-prison break calls for their return. The team is organized by the son of Nick Fury and headed up by Power Man (the son of Luke Cage and '70s heroine Jewel), and includes a new Spider-Man (Miles Morales), a new Iron Man (Tony Stark's grandson), Wolverine (in a show of mutant solidarity with these new heroes), a new Captain America (the daughter of Winter Soldier & Black Widow) and Thor, newly returned from Asgard. They also create the Avengers Academy, a school on the west coast designed to bring new heroes into the Avengers fold in the future. In the shadows of Los Angeles, a new group of teen heroes, The Runaways, are formed when they discover that their parents are super-villains, and in deep space, Thanos rises again to find himself confronted by the Guardians of the Galaxy.

And for further spiff-balling, here are the potential titles that would be published during these years. There would probably be more:

Marvel  Age:

(*) indicates a book that continues from the previous decade

The Invaders (1939)

Agents of Atlas (1950)
Greaser Hero (1952)
Nick Fury and the Agents of SHIELD (1953)

Amazing Spider-Man (1961)
Incredible Hulk (1962)
Fantastic Four (1963)
The X-Men (1964)
Iron Man (1965)
The Avengers (1966)

The Mean Streets (Daredevil, Punisher, Power Man & Iron Fist) (1970)
The Defenders (1971)
The Uncanny X-Men (1972)
Doctor Strange (1973)
Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu (1974)
*Fantastic Four
*Amazing Spider-Man
*Incredible Hulk (Ends 1978)
*Iron Man
*The Avengers

The Death of Captain Marvel (GN) (1980)
The Death of Phoenix (GN) (1982)
Captain America (1981)
Dazzler (1983)
New Mutants (1984)
Power Man & Iron Fist (1985)
Secret Wars (LS) (1986)
Infinity Gauntlet (LS) (1989)
*The Mean Steets (Punisher, Moon Knight, Daredevil)
*Doctor Strange
*The Uncanny X-Men
*Fantastic Four
*Amazing Spider-Man
*Iron Man
*The Avengers

The Death of Spider-Man (GN) (1991)
New Warriors (1992-1999)
X-Factor (1993-1999)
X-Force (1993-1999)
X-Men (1993-1999)
Age of Apocalypse (LS) (1994)
Avengers Disassembled (LS) (1995)
Captain America Corps (1996-1999)
*The Mean Streets (Punisher, Moon Knight, Daredevil, Darkhawk) (Ends 1999)
*Doctor Strange & Sleepwalker (Ends 1999)
*The Uncanny X-Men (Ends 1999)
*Fantastic Four (Ends 1999)
*Iron Man (Ends 1999)

New X-Men (2000)
Mutant Academy (2000)
New Avengers (2000)
Avengers Academy (2000)
The Future Foundation (2000)
Stark Technologies (2000)
The Runaways (2001)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2002)