Someone again recently asked me how it feels to have cancer. I offered my usual brief answer that it depends on where it is and a lot of other factors, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the question and the actual answer.
When I had my first round with breast cancer, where it started in my left breast, I had no sense of feeling of cancer being in my body. Most of the symptoms I experienced with breast cancer the first time around had to do with the treatment: the surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. The last results of the treatment were long-term fatigue and chemo brain that took forever to dissipate.
When metastasis occurred in the bone in my spine, pain was the first and overwhelming sign that something was going on. The pain was excruciating and debilitating. Until my diagnosis, agonizing pain was the only new sensation that I could identify. I don’t know that I could have even felt pain or anything else in any other part of my body because the pain was so intense. By the time of my diagnosis on January 28, 2009, and immediate admission to the hospital for surgery, I hardly realized that my toes were numb. The pain after surgery was like nothing compared to what I had been dealing with before the surgery. Then came the radiation to my back. They administered the beams from four positions that circled front to back in an effort to reduce the tumor further. I definitely felt the effects of the radiation as it went through my stomach; nausea started after about ten treatments. The skin on my back burned, of course, and this was complicated by the back brace I wore all the time. To help the skin heal, I had to lie down without the brace as much as possible. I was still working at that time, and it was a bit of a challenge trying to deal with all of it. I remember that even after the radiation treatments ended, the back burn continued to worsen for about a week before it started to heal.
Then came the chemo, and that lasted until early 2010. I suppose that with all that severe treatment, it was not really possible to feel the effects of the cancer so much as the treatment. The most constant reminder for a while was my stiff and inflexible back. The surgery not only removed tumor and repaired vertebrae damaged by the cancer’s osteolytic and osteoblastic lesions, it added about two feet of titanium bars to support the weakened vertebrae. Even after I stopped wearing the brace all the time, after over a year, I could feel that my back was different. It always feels strange and very stiff. Because of dancing for so long, especially modern and jazz, my back was very flexible. I could sit on the floor and lie flat over my extended legs or kneel and bend backwards till my upper back was on the floor. Neither position was difficult. Now, I am unable to bend in any direction. I don’t attempt to bend since my spine surgeon advised that a lot of movement in the spine could cause the metal pins to loosen, and that was something he advised against. By the same token I can feel the stiffness from the bars in my back so that I don’t think I could bend if I even wanted to try. That sensation is always with me, limiting my movement in a way that at times feels so constrained as to be exhausting. Walking comes with effort as it seems like the stiffness in my back somehow interferes with the fluidity of the pelvic movement during walking.
I would say the overwhelming sensation now is a constant fatigue. It never diminishes significantly. And, as of the last month or two I feel a constant strange sensation in my ribs that I can only describe as discomfort. I get muscle spasms in the ribs that sometimes take my breath away; it feels like those times I pulled a muscle in the intercostal muscles and it hurt to breathe. I don’t always have nausea or diarrhea from my treatments, but I often wake up with a mild case for no apparent reason. I have random pain. I have neuropathy in my toes and fingers. Often I feel just not right. It’s like I can feel something is at odds in my body though it’s a feeling that is not concentrated anywhere in particular. It’s like I can feel my body is under attack; it’s the only way I can describe it. I know that I never wake up without some kind of symptom or sensation that reminds me something is awry in my body. I miss waking up with the feeling that I can conquer the world.
Most important, I avoid thinking about this alien inside me trying to overcome my body’s best defenses. Doing what I love and staying busy, no matter what kind of energy I have at that moment, is the best remedy for distracting me. Despite the pain or discomfort, I always have something to keep me occupied. That is a blessing.
I suppose this would rather exhaustively answer the question, what does it feel like to have cancer.
5 6 7 8
© 2004–2012 Donna Peach. All rights reserved.