Here I am again, popping in sporadically as life marches on. I think about cancer pretty much every day, but usually fleetingly, and almost never with fear. More and more often I’ll remember some part of my treatment and have the strange sense that all of that happened to someone else, or that I dreamt it.
Occasionally, though, I’ll get a little reminder that it was all too real when I have a few days of pain. Usually, what that means is just that my bottom is sore, and most often the discomfort is easily managed. Every now and then, though, the pain flares up and it gets pretty serious, and that’s when I wax philosophical about it.
Let me say two things up front: a) I’m just fine today, lest anyone be worried and b) I fully understand that whatever I’m experiencing bears very little resemblance in severity or frequency to the chronic, significant pain that end stage cancer patients face. But it does give me some insight about what it means to live with pain, and, I hope, some sympathy for people who suffer it.
It’s fascinating to me that physical pain can have such a profound psychological effect. When it’s bad enough, pain shuts down the brain, making it seem impossible to function in anything but the most minimal way. It becomes difficult to think past the sensation, difficult to focus on anything other than finding some sort of relief. I’ve had moments when I can feel myself trying to hold as still as possible, as if that paralysis will stop the pain in its tracks. I close my eyes, trying to shut it out, but this is akin to what young children do when they cover their faces to “hide,” figuring that if they can’t see you, you can’t see them. Nice try, but no.
While I feel OK now, last night was one of those cover-your-eyes-and-hope times. While I neither have nor want a large supply of prescription pain meds, I can see how easily people become addicted to them. In moments of acute pain it seems that nothing else matters, that you’d sell your soul to the devil for just a bit of respite. I can talk myself through that when I know that I need simply breathe through a moment of pain, or when my rational mind is still intact enough to remind me that I’ll be fine in the morning. I don’t know how I’d do it if I were facing the prospect of hours or days of unrelenting pain. I’ve had only two experiences that truly brought me to what I imagine that point is like: the spinal headache I faced after my surgery, and the night I had what was most likely a blockage caused by post-surgical adhesions. Those experiences were exhausting, not just because of the physical stress, but because the feelings of desperation and loss of control left me so overwhelmed that I couldn’t imagine doing or thinking about anything else.
I find it frightening to have these glimpses into the way that pain can utterly take over the body and mind, can steal hope and rationality, can make everything seem impossible. I understand why some tribal cultures conduct rites of passage involving significant pain. The overwhelming sensation that pushes aside all other thought and feeling offers a kind of cleansing, a temporary eradication of self. In the right context, tolerating extreme pain might ultimately feel like an achievement.
I don’t often talk about pain when I’m experiencing it, because it feels like I need to direct every spare ounce of energy towards breathing through it and doing the bare minimum I need to function. And once it has passed, I’m always amazed by the way the human brain can’t truly remember pain. I know that it happened, and I know its emotional impact, but there’s no way to recall the physical sensation. Which is a good thing.
Lest you think I’ve wandered too far with this contemplation, I’ll leave you with a smile from the inimitable Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half. She re-imagines hospital “rate your pain” charts in this very funny piece (warning – contains a tiny bit of profanity). I think she got it just right.