Once betrayed by our bodies like many of us feel after being diagnosed with cancer, every new ache can bring with it a level of fear. Some of us are better at dealing with that fear than others. I'm not in the better category.
Last April, I moved into my new home, my ocean oasis. That was the fourth move I'd made in 16 months. I guess I never learned those lessons about using one's legs to lift heavy things. Coupled with the fact that I'm on the petite side, measuring in at a mere 5 feet 2 inches, I really have no business doing heavy-lifting. Or dragging. Or pulling, pushing, shoving, forcing or whatever else constitutes physical heavy-lifting. Maybe I thought, because I am pretty decent at that emotional heavy-lifting, it somehow translated to the physical stuff, too.
Dumb move. Rookie mistake. Should have known better.
By early May, I was in serious pain. I couldn't pinpoint the pain. It was my clavicle, my back, my upper arm and it radiated right through my fingertips. It was severe. Like daggers shooting down my arm, I was convinced the breast cancer had taken up residence in my bone(s).
Turning like the pro that I am to every internet avenue, I began researching the possibility that lobular breast cancer might like spreading to the upper arm. None of this thinking was logical on any level, but it's what happens. It's what I do. Sadly, I think it's what many of us do.
The pain woke me at night. And if the pain didn't wake me, the moans would wake me instead. Sometimes, middle of the night moans and groans can be fun to wake to. A wild and vivid dream that I might try to coax into reality -- those are fun. What I was experiencing? Not one time was there a fabulous dream involved in any of this. It was just pain. And fear. Or more accurately, it was sheer, horrifying terror. Followed always by sleepless hours as my mind went down that path, you know, the it's back path, while my body was writhing in pain.
Only a handful of people knew what was going on and only one knew that the pain was excruciating. The suggestion that I must have this checked was met with two-word responses. "No way," "Not happening," or on those days when the pain got the best of me, it was a quick and loud, "Fuck That." I rationalized it. "Early detection of metastatic breast cancer has not been shown to change overall survival," I would proclaim, not even certain if this is still a clinically accurate statement. When I shared that thought with my one person, elaborating further that I'd prefer to have a bit more time of blissful ignorance rather than cross the line into metastatic disease, her two-word response was a surprise. "Fair enough."
I lived with the pain. I wasted my two emergency Percocet one night when the pain was unbearable. I finally convinced myself the heavy arm and what appeared to be a swollen right hand was lymphedema. I thought about calling the oncologist, but realized it was late on a Friday in advance of Memorial Day weekend. Instead, I called my mom who happened to have a monthly appointment with our oncologist. I let her hijack her own appointment on my behalf and within an hour, I was at in the office being evaluated. "Not lymphedema, not cording, probably a pinched nerve, here's the doctor you should see."
Once convinced it was not cancer that had spread to my bones, I made the appointment to see an orthopedic specialist. He had x-rays done while I was there, prescribed a medication that didn't work at all, and gave me the name of a physician in the office with whom I should follow up for pain management. Weeks later, awash in the calmness that my problem was not a cancerous spread, I was with the pain doctor. He manipulated my neck in every direction, prescribed a different medication, and discussed the need for an MRI.
And there it was. His voice began to sound like we were underwater. He was explaining that he doesn't give MRI results over the phone and absent a phone call, I should make no presumptions about the results of the MRI. I heard the word cancer and those dreaded words, "with your history..." and my brain was off to the races. I like this guy lots and in fairness, I'm sure he said he didn't think it was cancer but just hearing the word, for me, is like putting a war veteran back on a battlefield with the sound of explosives all around. I thanked him for letting me know he wouldn't be calling with results, recounting the number of people I've spoken with over the years who learned they had cancer via a phone call, including some who were behind the wheel of a car lucky they didn't cause a cataclysmic accident.
Already having stepped into the maze, I had to see this testing through. The insurance company approved the MRI immediately and I scheduled it, immediately. I needed answers and I needed them quickly. I had upped the ante by convincing myself it was "just lymphedema" as if that would be a walk in the park which, for the record, it isn't. Lymphedema can be, and often is quite debilitating.
I tried taking the gabapentin prescribed by the pain doctor but it was making me too groggy. I took precisely two pills. One in the afternoon, one in the evening and when I woke the following morning requiring four hours to get going, I tossed the bottle into a cabinet. The MRI was awful and it had nothing to do with being confined inside that tube. I kept my eyes closed despite my temptation to open them just once. Just once is all it takes for the claustrophobia to set in, but on this day, it was the pain. Lying still, flat on my back without any support for my neck caused the pain to be as severe as I'd ever experienced.
I dutifully returned for my follow-up. Little did the doctor know his plan of not giving results over the phone would be undermined by a patient portal. Score one for electronic medical records and automated processes. I saw the results days before my appointment. No Cancer! Armed with a report filled with all sorts of unfamiliar terminology, I was once again, trolling the internet for information, googling every word in the report. When I met with the doctor, his words were calming but he explained, quite emphatically, "Doing nothing isn't an option." He then asked about the gabapentin and I somewhat colorfully explained that I can't walk around like I'm stupid. He advised me to build up slowly with the pills and suggested a nerve block injection would be the best course of action. When he told me he did these injections without a sedative, I knew it was time to find a new doctor.
I began taking the gabapentin and gradually built up to 5-6 capsules daily. Simultaneously, I began searching for a doctor who would just knock me out for this nerve block. The thought of someone sticking a needle in my neck? Not in a million years. For two months, I've been taking the gabapentin and today, I want to kick myself for letting this go on.
Last week, I went back to my guy. He did the nerve block. I was wide awake. I felt nothing. When I learned that I have to take every precaution to carefully and slowly taper off the gabapentin, I felt a whole lot. Aside from never, when did I blindly take any medication without doing my homework about possible side effects and the like? I've been off all prescribed medication for more than 8 months except for vitamin supplements and an anti-anxiety medication that I sometimes use if I have trouble sleeping. For ten years, I lived with a pill case. Cutting that cord was a cancer rite of passage.
And here I am, again. The weaning process, despite being on the medication for two short months, is going to be quite meticulous and quite lengthy. Tethered again to a pill bottle over my fear of an injection I didn't even feel?
Lesson learned. What lesson that was, I'm not really sure.
Must I learn to face fear squarely in the face? And if so, which fear - a cancer recurrence that pushed me to let this linger so long, or the terror of having a needle in my neck?
Or, reading before starting any new medication because some things are too dangerous to just stop taking?
Or, maybe it's acceptance that I'm not as young as my mind keeps telling me and its ok to ask for help rather than pretending “I got this,” in every single aspect of my life?
In the near term, the certain lesson is this process is going to be slow and steady. While slow and steady may win the race in fables and fairy tales, it's not really my style. For sure, the lesson upon which I would wager a substantial sum of money? Those aforementioned anti-anxiety meds? Until this chapter is wrapped up, they're not just for sleep disturbances anymore!
Note: I wrote this two months ago. I'm now fully weaned off the gabapentin and it knocked me on my ass for 48 hours each and every time I dropped one pill from my daily dose. I just had my follow up with the pain management doctor. I told him I still experience occasional numbness or tingling in the fingertips on my right hand. He told me I should be taking a low dose of gabapentin which was met with an icy stare and a quick, flip response, "Not happening, those pills are a bitch to stop." He told me he knew that which may have triggered another even icier glare in his direction followed by my question about other options. Apparently, we may be able to try another nerve block if the pain begins traveling down my shoulders, up my fingers and meeting somewhere around my elbow. However, it seems the optimal approach is the nerve block in conjunction with the gabapentin. Since that's not an option in my play book, it appears if this flares up again, I'm left with two lousy choices. Live with the pain or there will be yet another surgery in my future. As I can still feel that pain in my memory, I hope this remains in check or I'll be gowned up yet again, this time, having some form of surgery to figure out how to fix the three discs in my neck ... And so it goes ...
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