Sunday, September 27, 2009

The science of parrots

Sometimes one idea leads to a different idea, one thought to another. The mind wanders.

One of my recent thought trains started with Wilson, a parakeet. One of my partner's coworkers found him at their wild bird feeder. The coworker managed to catch him (the bird let him get within towel-throwing range), and after contacting the local Parrot Society and avian vet (no lost parakeets reported) Wilson now lives with us.

We have two other small parrots, neither of which has ever expressed interest in the noises of radio or television. Wilson, on the other hand, not only gets makes noise in response to the radio, he actually seems to respond to the songs: he gets louder and softer with the music, and often will squawk preferentially on the beats.

The ability to recognize musical beats and perform an action in time with them (such as a squawk or a head bob) is known as entrainment. It used to be believed that only humans had this ability; in April of this year, evidence was published that this is a trait humans share with parrots.

Which in itself is kindof neat. Even more interestingly, the evidence was parrots entraining to the music preferred by their human owners. Other animals can be influenced by musical sounds; a recent study found that the moods of tamarins, a kind of monkey, was affected by music. But not by human music: only by music specially composed to resemble tamarin calls.

It is surprising that parrots, that are such distant relatives (they're not even mammals!), can relate to human music, while much more similar animals (monkeys) cannot. Perhaps the ability to enjoy music of a different species is tied to the ability to make a wide variety of vocalizations. To my knowledge, certain families of birds (parrots and corvids) are the only animals able to imitate human speech.

The ability to make a variety of complex vocalization may correlate to other traits. It was recently suggested that, for evolutionary reasons, complex and varied songs are strongly associated with avian intelligence.

And so it goes, me listening to Wilson cheep while wondering about what evolutionary pressures were shared between his ancestors and mine. I have a wandering mind.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Red bowl, yellow bowl

Some of our food bowls are red, and some are yellow. When we originally bought the dishes six years ago, it was half and half. When putting away clean dishes, I liked to stack them in alternating piles: red bowl, yellow bowl, red bowl, yellow bowl.

As time has gone one, some bowls have broken. And some get recruited for long-term use (more than a single meal): storing leftovers in the fridge or holding snack foods. I didn't always have an even number of different colored bowls.

The inconsistent color pattern sometimes really bothered me. I have several times rearranged the piles–putting a different color on the bottom–to make the alternating pattern come out. Last week, in exasperation, I changed to single-color stacks. One stack is only red bowls, one stack is only yellow bowls.

I feel good knowing there is now more order in my house.

Radiation summary

For lymphomas, two radiation schedules are common. One is 180 centiGray per day to a total dose of 32 Gray. The other is 150 cGy per day to a total dose of 36 Gy. My radiation oncologist chose to give me the 150/day treatment. He believes the lower daily dose has a lower risk of long-term side effects, even though it requires a higher total dose to be effective. There's not enough good data to make a definitive statement on the issue, but his position sounds reasonable.

My area hospital has a proton radiation machine, so that was what I got. It delivered one dose to my front and one to my back to a about 3.5"-wide strip that started just above my collarbone and extended down my chest about 6". Ideally, they would have treated the entire original area of my bulky tumor. However, the radiation oncologist explained that because radiation to large areas of the lungs is a bad idea, they restricted the width to the mediastinum.

They radiation oncologist and his staff explained to me the most common side effects of radiation to this area: painful swallowing (the esophagus is in the radiation field), coughing (some lung is in the field), and skin damage. I think three different people went over each of these side effects. They gave me a prescription for RadiaGel and told me to apply it three times a day, and to let them know right away if it became painful to swallow because they have drugs that can make that less bad. I think someone might have mentioned being tired was also a possible side effect.

I was more mentally prepared for the physical side effects, I think. They never came: applying the gel twice a day kept my skin from doing anything worse than turning very slightly pink; my esophagus sometimes felt warm and sometimes I felt like it was a very good idea to chew thoroughly before swallowing, but I never had any pain; and I never developed a cough. Two to three weeks into my five-week treatment, however, the fatigue came on.

In part, this was feeling tired and completely unmotivated to do anything productive. I also had to cut back the intensity of my exercise videos: aerobic workouts I had done without trouble two weeks before left me panting with a sky-high heartrate. In addition, I developed an aversion to doing anything that required thinking hard: playing piano, knitting, writing... I had been so happy to enjoy these again after chemotherapy, and they were gone once more.

I'm lucky to have not have any major physical symptoms from the radiation. The surprise of acquiring such intense fatigue made it difficult to appreciate at the time, though. It's easier now (a week and a half out of radiation): I'm not feeling completely normal, but I'm very close. Moving in the right direction.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I ate oatmeal today

Some people say to not eat your favorite foods during chemotherapy: it can cause food aversions. Overall, I was lucky to avoid this side effect... except for one food. Since college, oatmeal has been a breakfast staple for me. But somewhere around chemotherapy number seven or eight, I could no longer even bring myself to touch the stuff.

Today, I ate oatmeal. And it was good. It felt like a victory.

Other marks that chemotherapy made are healing: my hair is 1/2" long; what were bright white lines on all eight fingernails are now indistinct lines on just two nails; the frequent pain in my right shoulder has faded to mild discomfort when laying on that side.

Radiation has taken its toll, too. I'm sleeping more than normal and feel tired all day long; even simple tasks like going to the grocery store seem daunting. My exercise tapes have become difficult like they were during chemotherapy. For a while, it also gave me brain fog (difficulty concentrating, "chemo brain").

Even though I'm still receiving radiation (tomorrow is the last of my five weeks of treatments), my brain seems to have recovered some function: over the weekend I tripled the size of the Wikipedia article on hormonal contraceptives. I didn't really believe the radiation oncologist when he said some side effects go away even while one is still receiving radiation; but apparently he was right. While I've been fortunate to avoid physical side effects (such as painful swallowing), some on the lymphoma boards report that those, too, can go away even during treatment.

Next week is exciting for me for two reasons. It will be my first week free of radiation therapy; I'll be completely finished with cancer treatment. And, I'll be restarting work! After two months on layoff, my boss called and said they're ready for me to come back.

The future is looking bright.