When I battled for my life against ovarian cancer, I discovered there are different types of pain. There is the sharp, can’t-breathe pain after surgery. There is the deep, in-your-bones achy pain from chemo drugs. There is the bruised, overly sensitive neuropathy pain in feet. Then there’s the itchy pain from nerve growth after treatment ends. Not to mention the horrendous sinus pain from sobbing for 3 weeks after my diagnosis. I’m certain there were others, all of them working to steal what little energy I had left.
Mind Over Neurons
I learned something very important about pain early on. It was 2 weeks after my remove-all-my-internal-girly-parts surgery, and I started bleeding like I was having a period. Not good since I no longer had a uterus.
An hour after a call to my GYN surgeon, I was on an exam table in her treatment room. My heart was racing as I laid on the crinkly paper. “Some of your sutures have opened back up where I removed your cervix,” the doctor said. “I have to cauterize the tissue to stop the bleeding.”
Cauterize! Inside me. With burning chemicals. And no anesthesia.
“Don’t move,” the doc said over and over through the in-office procedure. “Don’t move.” It became a mantra swimming through my head. Don’t move. Because if I did, I’m sure the pain would be even worse. And I have a very low pain tolerance. So what did I do?
Pain is a signal to the brain that something is happening to your body that might be harmful. It’s a warning alarm so you can do something to save yourself. Suffering, on the other hand, is the emotion behind the pain. Where pain is the biological signal along a neuron, suffering stems from panic, a loss of control, and concern over the unknown. How long will the pain last? What if it never stops? Is something worse going to happen? Am I going to die? All these questions that might accompany pain is “suffering,” and it makes pain a whole lot worse than a warning signal to the brain.
So lying there on the cold doctor’s table with “Don’t move” being repeated by the nurse and doctor, I separated pain from suffering. Yeah, I don’t know how I really did that, but I was desperate. I knew I had to do something to stop from kicking the doctor and accidentally cauterizing my vagina shut (not sure if that could happen, but I didn’t want to find out).
I thought, Pain is just a signal, and I imagined it on the right. Suffering is all the emotion. And I imagined that on the left. Then I purposely looked toward the right corner in the room and repeated to myself, Just a signal. And I didn’t move.
I’m not saying that would work all the time, but it seemed to help me in the moment when I needed it most. But the bottom line is: Pain is just a warning signal. When pain comes on -- whether it’s aching or sharp, chronic or short lived -- finding out the cause and separating it from the emotion can help. I remind myself that it’s just my body trying to warn me and not an attack. Try it. It might help you, too.
Other Tricks I Used to Battle Pain
- Wear shoes in the house that are a size larger than usual so they don’t squeeze your feet. They protect you from stepping on anything that could hurt. A Lego took me down for an hour once.
- Rub Vaseline or coconut oil on cracked skin to keep it moist so it stings less. The corners of my mouth stung and cracked a lot.
- Slow, gentle stretching can relieve some muscle aches and help food move through the intestines.
- Wear a soft, fun fur hat at night to cushion inflamed hair follicles if you get folliculitis and it hurts to touch your head on the pillow.
- Utilize pillows all around you to prop or hold you in bed. I used seven pillows for months after my surgery.
- Warm a blanket in the dryer for 5 minutes and pull it out to wrap up in it. I still do this when having a bad day.
- Get gentle hugs or ask someone to hold you (preferably someone you know – LOL!).
- Did you smile? Smiling and watching happy/funny shows helps reduce pain.
- Swish with warm salt water or a prescribed mouthwash to help sores in the mouth.
- Wear tall socks over itchy legs if they itch nonstop at night. It also prevents you from scratching the skin open while you’re asleep. This plagued me while my nerves were growing back.
- Apply coconut oil just inside the nose with a cotton swab to soothe the dry tissue there.
- Take a warm shower if the water doesn’t hurt. I took several warm showers a day to give me a break from the pain, but for some people, the water hitting the skin can hurt.
- Don’t do activities where you must remain still for long periods of time. My body was constantly moving slightly, trying to find a comfortable position, which did not exist at the time.
- Talk to your doctor about pain-management medications or steroids for inflammation. Be aware that pain meds are addictive, so create a plan with your doctor for taking them and stopping them safely.
Pain is a consequence of cancer, whether it’s from the disease or the treatment. The body is telling you that something is wrong. It can pester and poke at you constantly, like a toddler wanting a cookie, until you’re exhausted, snappy, shouting, or in tears. Feeling pain is no fun. Feeling pain and being afraid about what it means is even worse. That is suffering.
If you’re experiencing pain, let your doctor or nurse know. Try some of the things that worked for me. And if you find yourself where you must endure without moving, try to look to the right and remind yourself that pain is just a signal, not an attack. Yes, it’s a mind game, but if the game works, I’m playing it.
Photo Credit: Portrait Images / Stone via Getty Images
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