I’ve been snippy lately, and it isn’t just because of the country’s political climate. For the past few months, the occasional discomfort, muscle twinges, and tingly jolts on and around my chest since my breast cancer journey began have crescendoed into constant pain. When I first get up in the morning, I feel normal. I awake without thinking about my implants and scars, and I stand in the shower reviewing my family’s schedule. As soon as I turn off the water and begin my daily routine, I’m uncomfortable. Within an hour or so I’m in pain, and that “to-do” list gets edited:
We can go another day without the laundry done.
I can hold off buying cat litter until next week. Maybe I’ll feel better by then and can lift it without help from a store clerk.
I have frozen vegetables to cook for dinner so I don’t need to chop the fresh ones
I can go to the gym and walk on the treadmill instead of taking a Zumba class…
Most days I can go a decent stretch with pushing the physical discomfort from the forefront of my mind and into a back recess somewhere near the things I can’t possibly forget but I try to ignore (like the time thought Baby #1 had a bruised belly button, but then realized that she was almost 6 months old and I had never cleaned it out. Or the time I was in high school and sang off-key and flat in front of the entire student body with just my guitar to hide behind. And then there were my attempts to curl my bangs while a young teenager…)
Those memories are available to be called upon and experienced in a moment’s notice, but they must be contained or they will overtake my attention. I tell myself I can push the pain there too. Mind over matter, and all of that. If I stop fixating on it, it won’t slow me down.
Deep breathing. Focus on the present. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, inhale….ouch! That hurts! Shallow breath! Shallow breath!
Unfortunately, now I find myself looking for ways out of activities and meetings because I’m worried I don’t have the stamina to pretend I feel fine. I’ve gone to the exercise classes I normally take and have been frustrated by having to modify my participation. I cannot take notes at community meetings like I did before because the next day the pain intensifies. I have little or no tolerance for any activity that lasts after 7:00 PM, and my color commentary as my patience wanes tends to get me into trouble.
And then I wonder, have I used up the store of sympathy most people have had for me by this point? If I haven’t, I can’t imagine that I’m far from exhausting it. I assume they are wondering when I will move on and “get over it,” “deal with it,” and show them the grace and dignity of a breast cancer “survivor.” However, I’m not feeling gracious and dignified at the moment. I feel like the bottom of an NFL pileup.
It is hard to think clearly when you are chronically uncomfortable. I try to divert my attention to other tasks or causes, but endurance runs short. It takes more control than I possess to focus energy on ignoring the pain. Over the counter medications dull it, but complete rest is the only thing that makes it bearable. I’m not playing with my kids as often as I did before. As important as consistent nutrition is to me, I’m coasting through mealtimes with the bare minimum of effort. I won’t divulge the current state of my home’s cleanliness. I don’t want to run errands because I know I’ll pay a physical toll for them later, and my fatigue at the end of the day feels as if it is approaching how I felt during chemotherapy and radiation.
Over the past eight weeks, I’ve discovered a few things about breast cancer, surgery, and chronic pain that I did not know before now:
- Women who have mastectomies can have nerve pain beginning immediately after surgery and/or months/years after it.
- There are a host of reported pain conditions that can occur in breast cancer patients.
- Alternative therapies like acupuncture, massage, Reiki, and yoga can save a woman’s sanity while she moves along her wellness journey.
- My feelings of shame and frustration at not feeling well are shared by other women on similar paths.
- The aches and pains post cancer can cause anxiety and depression.
I would like to know when this whole breast cancer mess is planning on wrapping up. I wonder about women whose cancer isn’t hereditary, who do not have that definitive cause in place. If I’m paranoid about these continuous stressors, what is life like for them? I feel lucky to know the root cause, even if it means higher risks of cancer in the future. I can’t believe I just said that: I feel lucky to know my own genetic code is primed to kill me.
Every ache and pain is a reminder of what was, what could have been, and what might still be. I am now working with a pain management specialist to see if prescribed medication can make a difference. A few weeks ago, I was leaning towards going flat and having the implants removed. My plastic surgeon suspects that the texture of the anatomic implants could be irritating the chest muscles that are holding them in place. The idea of replacing the implants with a different type is unappealing to me, since I am two years post-reconstruction and already annoyed at the upkeep. The pain management specialist thinks the pain is from nerve damage, caused by any one of the surgeries I have had the past few years. My opinion is that both of them are likely correct. The muscles have been doing crazy things under the weight of the implants, especially on the side of my chest that did not have cancer. They spontaneously contract like I’m Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime, dancing his pecs to “Dueling Banjos.”
When the pain specialist asked me “Does it hurt here?” as he poked my ribs I jumped up in my seat to avoid his touch. “Yes,” I told him, “and that’s one way to get me moving.”
The conclusion I am left to draw is that breast cancer has permanently screwed up my body. Maybe it’s time to give up the implants and go flat. Maybe a permanent nerve blocker implanted under my ribs will be enough to stop the constant pain. Maybe doing both will bring relief. Maybe no one can give me an assured answer about what to do, and I must accept that.
I’m tired, short-tempered, and run-down, but I’m not stopping. I may need to coast in neutral a little more these days, but I’m determined to pop back into drive and cruise along. I’m not the only one running around like an untrained loser on Ninja Warrior. This is life: it’s messy, disorganized, unpredictable, and challenging, but it is worth fighting for. I’ll take what I can get.