Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

For me, actually getting to 2010 is an accomplishment. As I think about this last year, I don't have any particularly philosophical or witty insights to share. It was a good year which has given me all kinds of wonderful memories, and that's enough.

No resolutions for 2010, either, except that Psalm 118:24 has been running through my head a lot. (Ha! Some of you thought that I wasn't religious enough to know a Psalm, and others aren't religious either and don't know just what verse I was thinking of. Well, do what I did -- google it.) As far as I'm concerned, most of the rest of the psalm is testosterone-filled Me 'n' the Lord beat up on all my enemies (verse 12, for example), and then there is the wonderful verse 24, which makes for as good a resolution for the new year as I could ask for.

Okay, it's "This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Just after I wrote the last blog, the dryness and heat of the corner of the living room hit our Christmas tree, and leaves and oranges started cascading onto the table. As I took down the ornaments, more fell until the tree was almost bare. We watered it well and took it out into the sunspace, hopefully to recover.

I thought of writing something about this all being the snarky response of the universe to my sentimental post, but Jerry put it much better. "Just tell them," he said, "that yesterday we had a great harvest of oranges from the tree in our living room."

I think I'll make marmalade.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The changing face of Christmas

First of all, it was a wonderful Christmas, including all of the warmth, joy and love I could ask for. (The food was a lot better than last year's hospital meal, too.)

It's interesting, though, how traditions have changed over the years, and our "Christmas tree" symbolizes some of the changes. We didn't want a full-sized tree and don't like fake ones, so we did what worked for us. More and more what works is becoming something less than the traditional while trying to reflect the traditional, and not just for Jerry and me.

For one thing, I don't think I know anyone whose family all got together at the same time in the same place on Christmas Eve or Christmas day (I can't speak for Hanukkah, though I'd think that seven days would give more leeway). What do you do if you have at least three sets of grandparents and a couple of ex spouses or partners, some of whom don't get along with each other, to see on The Day? You need a spreadsheet to figure out the logistics. Usually what happens is that The Day stretches out to two or three, or maybe a full week that crashes into the New Year's Eve celebrations. By the time everyone has celebrated with, eaten with and given gifts to everyone else, they are all exhausted, cranky and ready to avoid the whole family for at least six months.

What's the solution? I have friends who have made themselves miserable this season because "it isn't like it used to be." I wonder if it ever was, but I'm no expert. When I was growing up in Catholic and Muslim countries, my family's Christmas was never what the magazines and movies showed, so I never expected it to be or assumed that back in the States whole intact families were all going to the midnight services and then drinking eggnog together. Maybe they did -- but does that mean they always have to?

An orange tree makes a great Christmas tree. Celebrating with family on a day that doesn't happen to be December 25th is wonderful. Getting rid of stressful traditions and building new ones keeps the holiday meaningful.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Music hath charms

The trombone section at our last concert (we do clean up nice, don't we?)

Music therapy has been shown to help cancer patients, though music therapists always issue two warnings -- first, that music doesn't take the place of traditional therapies, and second, that it should be carried out under the care of a qualified professional. I think they're saying "Don't try this at home." They don't say anything about school gyms, churches, community centers, or any of the other places we've played during our Christmas season.

And it's been wonderful.

Therapeutic, too. Who could ask for anything healthier than to make joyful noises with a bunch of people who don't wince when I accidentally miss an accidental, who make jokes at the right (and sometimes the wrong) moments, and who seem to be having as much fun as I am? Trombonists, or at least the ones I know, don't suffer from the competitiveness of trumpet players, the ego of flutists, or the nerves of double reed players.

Not all music-making is therapeutic, though. A Romanian high school student of mine once warned me that it is a well-known fact, in Romania at least, that all bassoon players eventually go mad. It's something about the way the vibrations hit the nerves in the chest. He told me that trombone players don't have to worry about going mad, because you have to be crazy to take up the trombone in the first place. Nice to have one less thing to worry about.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Us and God's Little Creatures

The picture is actually from last spring -- these are the wild turkeys who live in the neighborhood and love the dropped apples from our tree. I saw them the other day, first time this fall, and the flock is even bigger than it was last spring. I counted thirty, all gathered around the crab apple tree, one so excited that he managed to fly to the top of the tree (a whole six feet), land on a branch, and chomp away at the crab apples above his clan's heads. It's always fun to watch the wild turkeys.

On the other hand, there's our skunk. No picture, because last week when I saw him sniffing around our garage door I quietly and slo-o-owly went in the front door. Our next-door neighbor told us proudly that he always puts out food for the skunk, which explains the glossy coat, weight, and general air of satisfaction. Jerry and I don't share the satisfaction. We just wish the skunk would live over at the neighbor's house instead of under our barn.

And then there are the squirrels. When the weather got bad last week several of them decided to move indoors for the winter. They chewed a hole in the grill over the gable, got into the attic, and ran races with each other every morning just before we were ready to wake up. Something had to be done. Jerry covered the wood grill with mesh. They got in through the edge. He nailed it down harder. They went through the other grill, higher up. He put one ladder up to the roof and nailed another to the roof, and balanced a Hav-a-heart trap baited with crackers and peanut butter on the roof ridge. He nailed the trap in place. That night the wind blew the ladder down and the bait out of the trap, though thanks to his workmanship the trap didn't come down. The squirrels retreated into the attic, where it's nice and cozy and there's plenty of room for their races. Jerry got some heavier mesh and rigged it up around a large funnel so that, theoretically, the squirrels could get out but not back in. The squirrels spent the next day chewing the plastic funnel and enlarging the hole. Jerry, now seeing this as a personal challenge (man against nature) went out and got a metal funnel, which he modified so that sharp edges would discourage the squirrels from even trying to get into the attic but would still allow them to get out. (Man:0 Nature: 3)

I think the latest may have worked, but last night Jerry kept waking me up by saying at intervals, "Did you hear that? Are they back in? Next time I try a shotgun."

Stay tuned.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A year ago today

The ice storm froze roads, downed power lines, and brought our area to a standstill. Jerry and I didn't lose power, and didn't realize for three days that our next door neighbors were managing with wood stove, candles, and going out for meals and showers. The town set up a warming space in the community center, complete with power and wi-fi so that people could charge their phones and check their emails.

All of this was completely overshadowed for Jerry and me, because on the 15th I went into the hospital for emergency surgery on a perforated duodenal ulcer. I was in the hospital for ten days (getting sprung on the 25th was the best Christmas present of all), being cared for by nurses and staff, many of whom didn't get electricity back in their homes for several days, but who were all both professional and gentle. (We still wonder how Audrey's chickens are doing.)

Now, a year later, most of the uprooted trees and broken branches and debris have been cleared away. All of the emergency services have decided that they did a pretty good job last year but are now better prepared for any future disasters. And the stitching on my duodenum has held beautifully.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Physical effects of loneliness -- not me

In Cancer-Ridden Rats, Loneliness Can Kill
Included In: Psychology / Psychiatry; Preventive Medicine
Article Date: 08 Dec 2009 - 5:00 PST

Socially isolated female rats develop more tumors - and tumors of a more deadly type - than rats living in a social group, according to researchers at Yale University and the University of Chicago.

"There is a growing interest in relationships between the environment, emotion and disease. This study offers insight into how the social world gets under the skin," said Gretchen Hermes, first author of the paper and a resident in the Neurosciences Research Training Program in the Yale Department of Psychiatry.

The leading suspect seems to be stress, triggered by being separated from a group. Stress is linked to many negative health outcomes - including activation of cancer-promoting genes.

To test the hypothesis, researchers followed the development of spontaneously occurring mammary tumors in rats that lived in groups or in isolation. Although both the solitary and social animals developed tumors, the isolated rats developed 84 times the amount of tumors as those living in groups. Those tumors also proved to be more malignant than those found in rats living in groups.

The results show that health effects of isolation need to be studied more closely in a broad range of human disease, particularly psychiatric disorders, Hermes said.

...."The results of this study make a physiological link between loss of the social network and disease states, and may help explain the shortened life expectancy of individuals with mental illness."

Bill Hathaway
Yale University

So is this another example of mind-body connection? Or is it an example of mind-body-social group connection?
If social isolation is a risk factor for disease states, there is yet another risk factor(like obesity, smoking, and eating red meat) that doesn't explain my situation. (And I'm neither male nor African-American -- two other risk factors for pancreatic cancer.)
On the other hand, I'm sure that my healthy habits are part of what has kept me going so well, so far. And this study (even though I'm not a rat) suggests that, as Jerry and I have said all along, the love and support of family and friends is another big part of my continued good health.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Concert Season

The winter concert of the Keene State College orchestra was Wednesday. Here they are, setting up (the first bassoon is to the left of the harp). They did a wonderful concert, including The Egmont Overture, the Peer Gynt Suite, Night on Bald Mountain, and a suite from Carmen.
(No, they didn't play on a cruise ship. It's tilted because I just can't get horizons straight.)
They did all that work for just one concert, but oh, it was lovely.

And here is Westmoreland Town Band, setting up in the Troy Congregational Church for our second concert of the season. I think we have a classier venue, at least to look at. Of course, we're so spread out that we can't actually hear each other, but frankly that can be an advantage.

Our first concert, at the nursing home, was marked by a train wreck in The Canadian Brass Christmas Medley at the point where the first trumpet and the first trombone play a haunting duet. Unfortunately, the trumpet, whose meds definitely need adjusting, came in a measure after he was supposed to, and continued to trail through the entire section. The duet was more than haunting. It sounded quite modern: The Canadian Brass and Zombies. However, the audience, most of whom had never heard of The Huron Carol, didn't seem to mind. They sang along anyhow.

Last night we played at the church, and because everyone had to get there through the first snow storm of the season we had a small turnout. We attacked the Canadian Brass again, and this time the first trumpet didn't play the Huron Carol at all. Much as I love trombones, I have to admit that this doesn't quite work as a trombone solo.

We have another concert today. I can't wait.

Friday, December 4, 2009

CA19-9, CA 125, PSA, B2M and like that

I got the results of my latest CA19-9 on Wednesday. The good news is that it hasn't gone up much, but the bad news is that it has gone up (110 in October, 115 in November). This isn't a major jump, since the numbers can go up into the tens of thousands, so it has basically remained stable for the past three months.

I started wondering, though, about other tumor marker blood tests and discovered that there are a lot of them out there -- Wikipedia lists 24. They range from the most familiar, the PSA for prostate cancer, through CA125 (ovarian), CEA (colon and rectal), and B2M (multiple myeloma, CLL, lymphomas). All of these have been developed since 1965, when CEA became the first successful blood test for a common cancer.

So if we have all these great tests, how come people are still diagnosed too late?

There are problems with these tests:
* Most healthy people have at least some of all these markers in their blood, and so far it's impossible to tell which people are healthy and which have an early case of cancer.
* On the other hand, some people don't show the markers at all. About 5% of people with pancreatic cancer don't show a CA19-9. If you just went by the marker, they'd look healthy.
* Elevated markers don't always show cancer. An inflammation or other problem might temporarily raise the marker.
* The markers themselves vary from month to month in a kind of sine wave (I'm waiting for the downward swing of mine).

So why worry about the tumor marker levels at all? Basically, because except for CT and PET scans, the markers are, at least for some kinds of cancer, the best thing we have. And that, while it's better than nothing, is really frustrating.