Sunday, July 6, 2008

Time for Spine Surgery

Just 2 months ago at the beginning of May, I made a radical decision. I decided I needed back surgery to help stabilize my spine -- an outpatient procedure called kyphoplasty. I had shrunk 3" in the lumbar and thoracic spine region over the last year, bringing my lowest rib on the left side to be in contact with my pelvis. Not only was it uncomfortable (I could feel the pressure on my ribs themselves and also in the middle of my back), but it seemed to me to be an unhealthy condition since the pelvis was not meant to support the rib cage.

I contacted my oncologist, who set up a consult with an orthopedic surgeon, but the consult was 1 month away, and then there would be tests, and then another appointment, and then scheduling the procedure, and to me it looked like the end of the summer before I would get help. I needed the surgery in May, not in August.

Kyphoplasty is a procedure that is usually used on older people with osteoporosis to help with the pain of spinal compression fractures. The surgeon inserts a needle into a collapsed vertebra, blows up a balloon to help the vertebra regain it's original shape, removes the balloon, and then fills the space with cement. With this procedure, the pain of a fractured vertebra is relieved, and when the vertebrae have regained their original shape, the spine regains it's more natural shape. Untreated compression fractures make the spine curve forward, because the fractures are often on the front side of the vertebrae. I had so many compression fractures that I had completely lost the lumbar curve in my spine.

At first I was hesitant to contemplate the surgery, but after talking to people who were helped instantly, I realized it would probably help me. However, I wanted the surgery in May, not in August. So I made another radical decision. I would go to the Myeloma Institute in Little Rock, Arkansas to become a patient. This is one of the best places in the world to be treated for multiple myeloma -- that is all they do at the Institute. And the Institute is associated with the University of Arkansas Medical Center, so there is ready access to a highly experienced surgeon who has performed over 1,000 kyphoplasty procedures. I knew from the Myeloma Institute web site that they would be able to have me visit with 2-4 weeks, and during that time I would have 5 days of testing. I also knew, from speaking to a friend who was treated there, that during my week-long visit I would be able to have kyphoplasty on my collapsed vertebrae.

So I called the Institute and made the week-long appointment for my visit to Little Rock, Arkansas at the end of May. This would be my first plane flight in 18 months, and I knew it would be a challenge. I am used to lying down several times each day, and I also recline from sitting vertically by afternoon. To fly would mean no lying down until night when we arrived in Little Rock, and only minimal reclining. So the way I managed was to take the maximum amount of pain medication that my prescription allowed, bring my lumbar pillow, and to move slowly and carefully. I brought a cane to help if walking became difficult, and I was able to get on the airplanes early since it took me a long time to get arranged and comfortable.

My mother an my partner came with me to Arkansas. It was a grueling time -- a trip of 12 days, with 2 days of traveling, 2 days off over Memorial Day weekend, and medical appointments and procedures during 8 days. In retrospect, it was interesting to be totally steeped in the Western medical establishment, as was the case during my entire time at the Myeloma Institute. I believe so strongly in the combination of Western medicine and complimentary therapies (like homeopathy, meditation, and acupuncture) that something big was missing for me in their approach to healing cancer in Arkansas. At least here at home, I engage in a wide range of therapies to increase my health.

In Little Rock, spending time in the Medical Center each day was totally draining -- it felt like the life was being sucked out of us. I meditated during the 2 hour MRI and PET scans, and that was wonderful, had full body X-rays and a bone marrow biopsy, and I now have the most photographed body in Western Massachusetts, on the inside, anyway. More blood (25 tubes the first day) was taken than I have ever experienced, and during the medical tests I was poked with more needles than I care to remember. The bone marrow biopsy left me feeling for weeks like someone kicked me hard in the right hip.

The good news -- I did have back surgery, on the last 2 days I was there. The surgeon could only treat 4 vertebrae per day, so I was scheduled for 2 days of surgery to have kyphoplasty on my lowest 8 vertebrae -- lumbar L1-5, and thoracic T10-12. The MRI showed 15 compression fractures in my spine, and the surgeon told me he could help me and even restore some of my lost height (although that hasn't happened yet). So I willingly consented.

The surgery is outpatient, so after 2 hours of surgery and 2 hours of recovery I was sent home each day (and slept). In total, with 8 vertebrae treated, I came back to Amherst with 8 band aids on my back. My back was sore afterwards, but I have noticed that my spine has regained the lumbar curve and I have less pain in my back. I have also noticed that my muscles inside are quite tight in response to the expanded vertebrae (the muscles have had 10 months to shorten). I am not yet much taller, but I am on a course of regular acupuncture and Feldenkrais body work, which may help my muscles lengthen as much as an inch. Then I'll be 4'11"...

The miracle for me now is that I am quite healthy looking and feeling. When I stay present to each moment, I feel strong and clear -- I am grateful to be alive, love being in my gardens, and have a deep yearning to create and give my gifts to the world. This trip to Arkansas taught me that I can travel by plane, and that I can sleep in a regular bed. So I have now given up sleeping in the lift chair after 10 months of sleeping away from my honey. Yeah!!!! This may be one of the best things to have come from the trip!

The journey just keeps going on and on ... and life is definitely rich.


RunninL8 said...

Congrats on your successes! I agree with your stance medicine. I became a massage therapist with the hopes of encouraging a marriage between western and eastern medicine in our society. Glad you are also seeking alternative TX. If I was near I would gift you some massage as well for those scrunched up muscles!
Take care!

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