I drew these pictures for Kevin and my ongoing endeavor, a children’s book, titled “Jalapena”. If the name sounds familiar, that’s good, because my last post was over eight months ago. If not, well, it’s a story about a young troll, Jalapena, and her human friend, Raven, as they journey to save their world by means of saving a unicorn. Kevin based it upon stories he told his daughter when she was younger.
As per my last post I’ve been putting a lot more effort into drawing “au natural”, with pencils, pens, and paper. The first two drawings were done entirely on my Surface Pro using Clip Studio and Gimp. The later three were done using a blue pencil, an HB pencil, Micron Pens, and a sheet of printer paper. It takes a little more work, but is a lot more rewarding for me. At some point, if there’s enough interest, I’ll do a quick post on my process.
An unintended but unavoidable result of our trip to Vegas a few months ago was our new pet, Mochi, the Axolotl. Axolotl’s are almost extinct in the wild and illegal to own and sell in California, but quite plentiful in the city known for loose slots, loose women, and ( as we found out ) loose pet restrictions. After experiencing Mochi firsthand, I’m honestly surprised that Axolotls still exist in the wild at all. They’re clumsy for starters. Mochi, of course, is also bright shade of pink, a color that does everything but scream “here I am, come eat me” to any predator with more than an ounce of intelligence.
Although Mochi is my oldest daughter, Ashley’s, pet, my wife, Jodie, is her primary caretaker. Honestly, I am more than a little jealous of the amount of attention she gets, too. Every morning Jodie and her sister Jayme, who adopted an Axolotl of her own while in Vegas with us, compare detailed notes of water conditions, bowel movements, and the number of worms their respective legged-fish ate the day prior. The nitrates, nitrites, and ammonia levels all have to be just right as well as the water temperature. Since we got Mochi Amazon has chartered entire truckloads worth of fans, filtration devices, sand, rocks, blood worms, and nightcrawlers, water testing kits, etc… to our house – oh, and Jayme’s, too, of course. Mochi only cost about thirty dollars, but we’ve easily spent ten times that keeping her alive.
I’ve often caught Jodie staring into Mochi’s aquarium, wondering, I assume, if the clumsy, pink, legged fish staring back through the glass has developed any sort of affection for her. I can only guess…..
On a side note, you might have noticed that my artwork has changed. Up until a month or so ago I drew the majority of my comics and illustrations digitally on my Microsoft Surface Pro 7 using Clip Studio Paint and Gimp. I’ve since gone back to basics and started using pencils, inks, and paper. My reasons are threefold. First, after spending an entire day at work in front of a computer screen, it was getting more and more difficult to motivate myself to spend even more time in front of the same screen to do my art. Second, although drawing digitally allowed me to make corrections easier, I found myself taking it to extremes. I found myself obsessing over every detail and, in the long run, I felt my artwork was loosing some spontaneity. Third, I found myself not improving as much as I would of liked. Drawing digitally was making me sloppy. Paper can only be erased so many times before you wear a hole through it. Computer pixels aren’t so limited. While using pencil and ink I find myself carefully planning each stroke.
Admittedly, I’m still working out the details. My lines aren’t as crisp, my colors are streaky, and the scanner I’ve been using somehow manages to wash everything out, but I’m enjoying the whole process a lot more. I haven’t completely ruled out digital arts, either. I just needed a little change.
Two years ago today I had my prostate removed as a result of being diagnosed with prostate cancer a few months prior. Surgery or no it was one of the crazier days of my life. The “novel” coronavirus had just made headways into the United States and hospitals were beginning to enforce visitation limits. Jodie wasn’t allowed to stay for my surgery, or even visit when I woke up. It was probably a good thing because my daughter, Kaylee, broke her arm while I was being rolled into the operating room. In some twist of irony Kaylee and I both had operations on the same day, and likely the same time. Jodie and Kaylee were so worried about upsetting me that neither wanted to tell me what had happened, although I eventually found out. It’s incredibly hard to hide a bright pink cast, after all.
We recovered together. We had lots of time to recover, too. What eventually became known as COVID took a lot away, but it also gave Kaylee and I a lot of time to do nothing. And nothing is exactly what it takes to recover from surgery – I mean surgeries, plural.
I’d like to say that was the end of my cancer story, but it wasn’t. Less than six months later I started radiation treatment. This was in addition to two years of testosterone-eliminating hormone therapy, too.
Fast forward two years to today. Today marks three months since stopping all treatments. I had my quarterly blood work done today and it indicated that my cancer is still undetectable. Better yet, my testosterone has returned to normal levels as well. This is all good news.
I’m still not in the clear, and honestly I may never be, but every good test results inches me closer to – what? A cure? No, not cure. My doctor has made it clear that “cure” is not in the vernacular for people in my situation. At best people like me get to stay in remission. Long, happy, grateful, normal, live-life-to the-fullest remission.
“There’s a very high probability that your cancer will return.”
My 3-month checkup with my oncologist, Dr. Stewart had just ended. Jodie and I were waiting for what hopefully would be my last shot of Lupron before going on a hormone therapy “vacation” and I couldn’t get Dr. Stewart’s voice out of my head.
“What are the odds of …(pause)… you know what? Never mind. I don’t think I want to know.”, I responded.
And I really don’t. If someone told you that it would be nearly impossible to succeed at something, how hard would you try? I need hope and it’s friend, optimism on my side – even if it’s unfounded in reality.
To quote Jim Carrey’s character, Lloyd, in the movie, Dumb and Dumber: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”
But Dr. Stewart is right. Statistics don’t lie. So, for the rest of the appointment I refocused on what treatments I could expect if I were to relapse after being taken off of hormone therapy. Unsurprisingly, I would be put back on hormone therapy immediately. If my PSA level, a blood marker used to detect prostate cancer, were to exceed .5 ng/mL, a PSMA Scan would be performed on me. If the acronym PSMA sounds familiar it’s because Dr. Stewart wanted me to undergo one two years ago at UCLA when I was newly diagnosed. At the time the scan was going through FDA approval. Recently approved, UCSD had one installed just days before my appointment. The upsides of FDA approval are that insurance would probably cover it ( it was $3000 out-of-pocket two years ago ). The downsides are that I might not want to see what the scan has to show me. It’s incredibly precise and has the potential to pick up metastasis missed in my prior CT and MRI scans. Ignorance is bliss, right?
“And if my PSA were to rise and the PSMA scan were to pick up something? Then what?”, I asked Dr. Stewart.
“If there’s not too many spots we’d radiate them.”
“…and if it’s in a place that has already been radiated?”, I pushed.
“Then we’d have a longer conversation with your radiation oncologist. Dr. Rose.”, he replied.
“It’s like ‘whack-a-mole’.”, he continued, using an analogy.
“And we’d just keep hitting the new spots over and over?”, I asked.
“Yes, as long as the cancer responds.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“Then we look at other therapies.”, he replied.
Dr. Stewart also told me that I had the option of staying on hormone therapy. I quickly dismissed the idea.
First off, my body needs a break. In my last post I wrote about how hormone therapy can cause bone loss. Well it can also cause muscle loss, fatigue, and liver problems. In addition to 3-month Lupron shots I’m also on Zytiga, another pill-based form of hormone therapy used for advanced prostate cancer, and a steroid, Prednisone – both of which require monthly blood panels. A month hasn’t gone by where I haven’t seen an abnormal reading.
Second, by staying on hormone therapy I’d never know if I was really in remission, or if the hormone therapy was just suppressing the cancer. No, it was time to pull the blocks and take the prostatectomy-ied, radiated, and “hormone-therapy-ed” “car” out for a drive and see what happens.
Third, hormone therapy becomes less effective over time. Hormone therapy works by stopping your body from producing testosterone. Initially, prostate cancer requires testosterone to thrive, but eventually the cancer adapts and starts producing it on its own. The clinical term for this is “Castrate Resistant Prostate Cancer”, or CRPCa. CRPCa is much more difficult to treat and the longer I’m on hormone therapy, the greater the chance my cancer will become resistant to hormone therapy.
( Knock! Knock! )
“Ready for your shot?”, my nurse asked from behind the exam room door.
“Yup! Come’on in!”, I replied, grimacing.
While my nurse donned her protective gear and prepared the shot I fumbled with the exam table’s foot pedal to raise it up to white-knuckled-grabbing-position.
“This is my last shot!”, I said, and then stumbled a little, “…. hopefully…”
“I hope so, too.”, she replied, smiling.
It was my seventh time getting stabbed in the ass with a horse needle full of Lupron. My first injection, a different but similar medication called Degarelix, was administered to both sides of my belly almost two years ago. This time I barely felt it at all.
The Lupron will remain in my system for three months. In December, for the first time in two years, I won’t receive a follow-up shot. I will stop taking Zytiga, too. A week or two later I will go off of the steroid, Prednisone, and then my hormone therapy “vacation” will begin. I am looking forward to the vacation, but I’m more than a little scared. too. Currently my PSA is .01 ng/mL, or undetectable. If my PSA were to increase it would indicate a recurrence; that somewhere inside of me the cancer is still alive and growing. It would also imply that, until there’s a cure, I’ll likely be fighting it for the rest of my life.
In the past I’ve referred to the whole cancer journey as a trip down a dark tunnel. It’s scary. It’s dark. And it seems to go on forever. As with any tunnel there is light at the end. Those are your family, your friends, and your supporters waving flashlights and urging you forward. The thing is there’s light in the tunnel, too. You just need to look harder for it. This light is from cancer survivors who continue to fight. Although they haven’t made it out yet themselves, they, too, urge you forward. They’ve been down the same path. The path forward is possible. It’s been done. You just need to follow the light to find your way.
So wave those flashlights, people – and tell you what, I’ll wave mine, too.
A few months ago my oncologist, Dr. Stewart, scheduled me for a bone density scan to check me for osteoporosis, a potential side effect of hormone therapy. The procedure was non-invasive, painless, and produced so little radiation that the technicians administering the scan were able to sit in the same room with me. It was a novelty for me given the precautions taken for CT and MRI scans and radiation therapy. It took about ten minutes to scan my hips, upper legs, and lower back…
“Can I talk?”, I asked the technician seated across from me.
“Sure, just don’t move too much.”, the technician replied.
“Hey … so you’re not just scanning my butt to fax to your co-workers, are you?…”
“…because this thing you have me laying on really doesn’t look much different than a larger version of the copy machine at my office.”, I joked.
“No ( laugh ), of course not!”, the tech replied.
“I’m not sure I believe you…..”, I laughed, trying not to move.
A few days later I got the initial report : I had mild osteoporosis. The results warranted a visit with Dr. Hofflich, an orthopedic doctor, to go over the results in more detail and discuss potential treatments. It was a very educational meeting.
Hormone therapy weakens bones
Leuprolide ( or, “Lupron” ) and other types of hormone therapy can weaken bones over time. In addition some steroids can also weaken bones, particularly Prednisone, a steroid which is prescribed along with Abiraterone Acetate ( also known by the brand name “Zytiga” ). Dr. Hofflich told me that given my test results she would have, in retrospect, started me on a medication to strengthen my bones at the outset of my hormone therapy. However, as my therapy would be paused ( hopefully indefinitely) towards the end of the year, it wouldn’t make sense to do so so late in the game. I got the impression that, for older patients, a preliminary bone density scan would have been standard procedure prior to starting treatment for cancer. However, for a 43 year old in otherwise good shape I don’t think it ever crossed anyone’s minds – including mine.
The good news is that bones can recover
It’s a slow process that can take years, but bones can recover on their own. Dr. Hofflich emphasized doing “impact” exercises. These are exercises that stress the bones and force them to become tougher and stronger. Running, jogging, hiking … even walking helps. Weight training, too. In general alI exercise is good, however I was a little surprised to hear that Dr. Hofflich wasn’t a big fan of bicycling or swimming…
“Swimming and bicycling are great for building muscle and losing weight, but not so much for building bone.”, she told me. “These exercises don’t stress the bones enough.”
I mentioned to her that I was on a Whole Food Plant Based (WFPB) Diet and she wasn’t perturbed. She told me that as long as I take calcium and magnesium supplements along with my normal diet, I would be getting more than enough calcium. She did, however, emphasize that I shouldn’t take all of the supplements at the same time and that, instead, I should stagger the dosage throughout the day to improve absorption.
As part of my monthly blood panel, Dr. Hofflich ran some additional tests to see if there are any other explanations for my osteoporosis. The tests all came back negative. In a year she plans on running another bone density scan to reevaluate my bone density. In the meantime it’s more walking, more impact, and … bubble wrap.
Here are some character sketches for the book that my friend, Kevin, and I have been working on. Some characters turned out to be very different than Kevin had initially written in his earlier drafts. Tholoman, for example, was supposed to be a grizzled old human male. Now he’s a “young” elf. We thought by making him younger we could have fun with the chemistry between him and the young girl protagonists.
We’ve also been involving our daughters’, too. Kevin runs all his revisions by his daughter, Clara. As for me, when I was sketching the Bokziks, a group of sometimes-half-animal antagonists, I didn’t realize my oldest daughter, Ashley, was peering over my shoulder.
“Dad, you should make her a half-squirrel.”, she said matter-of-factly. “It’d be cool.”
“Yeah?”, I looked up, startled.
So, I erased the crude “were-dog” that I had been working on and in its its place quickly scribbled out a bushy tail, squat hips, and tiny legs and feet.
“Like that?”, I asked, unsure.
“Yeah!”, she smiled back.
So, yeah, collaboration is fun. Sometimes it might even take you somewhere you never expected to be.
My father-in-law, Bert, passed away last month. When my wife, Jodie, posted a eulogy on Facebook she referred to her dad as “a character”. Her assessment of him was quickly confirmed in a flurry of responses, thumbs up, and heart emojis, making it, in the day and age of social media, absolutely correct. Bert was a character and the truth is, as much of a pain-in-the-ass he was, I miss him. He drove me nuts but made me smile, too.
Being such a character I always felt Bert was ripe for inclusion in one of my comic strips, however I was always hesitant to draw him ( strip him? ) lest I offend him. When I did, I was always very careful and made sure my drawings pass the appropriate “censors”, mainly my wife and sister-in-law, Jayme.
I’d like to dedicate this series of strips to my father-in-law, Bert. They take place a long time ago in a memory not so far from my heart – about a month after I met a beautiful young college student named Jodie Fagan.