I have found a way to deal with pain.
Here’s the situation:
Last Monday, I arrived by cab at the front doors of Shadyside Hospital in Pittsburgh while the morning was still dark. By cab, I arrived, because I would be getting an anesthetic during an operation, and wouldn’t be allowed to drive myself back home. (A friend would pick me up.)
A couple of hours later, I woke up in the recovery room. I could feel a pain in the upper chest on my left side–the classic site for a movie hero getting shot. It felt like a bullet wound! A port had been inserted just beneath the skin. The port is a catheter. The tube goes from the upper left of my chest into a large vein near my heart, so that the anti-cancer drugs can be mainlined into my blood stream.
That was Monday. Two days later, on another frigid morning, I drove myself to the clinic across the street from the hospital: the world-famous Hillman Cancer Center. Surgeons had already saved my life by removing a mass of cancer from my abdomen a year and a half previously. The cancer had returned as a single tumor eight months later. That tumor crumbled under radiation treatment in the summer, but a few months later a CAT-scan to check revealed four more sites where tumors had surfaced. Crap!
Radiation on any one particular site wouldn’t be sufficient. I would have to get a more systematic, full-body treatment: chemotherapy.
Thus, the port. Getting it put into my chest was the first step in chemotherapy. This would be my third time getting chemo in the past 7 years. I knew what to expect. I was eager to get on with the treatment, but still wasn’t looking forward to what it would mean.
Each person reacts unpredictably to the drugs. For some, the hair falls out. For others–like me–that doesn’t happen. It doesn’t NEED to! I’m balding already just by the natural process of aging. I turn 61 in April.
Getting chemo means three steps.
First, you are taken to a cubicle. A smiling, cheery nurse takes a one-inch long needle. The needle is attached to an intra-venous tube, through which the drugs will drip. The nurse says, “Take a breath.” And then, “On three: one–two–THREE,” and she stabs you with the needle right into the port entrance that is protruding just beneath the skin of your chest.
I have had this done so many times–and KNOW every single time, it still hurts like crazy.
The nurse walks you down the hallway to a room. A large recliner awaits. You get settled o the cushioned recliner, thank the nurse–and wait for another nurse. Moments later, like clockwork, she arrives. She is carrying bags of IV fluid. These are the drugs that will drip into the IV tube for the next few hours. A total of four bags of fluid will be hanged up on the “coat rack” looming over you, emptying drop by drop into the IV tube. The whole process takes about five hours.
I spend the time reading, napping, getting up to go to the bathroom. (You have to unplug the IV rack, and walk it with short, careful steps like escorting an infirm companion into the bathroom.)
When those five hours are finished, the nurse shows up again–with the “take-home.” This is a tiny computer that looks like a fanny pack. You wear it just like a fanny pack, with a belt securing it around your waist. A tube extending from the little package is plugged into your port, and–now you can go home. The drugs from this fanny pack will pump into you for 48 hours, so that you can go home rather than the entire chemo treatment needing to be an in-hospital stay of three days.
THEN begin the after-effects.
Each person’s reactions are unpredictable. But I KNEW what mine would be. I’ve been through the treatment previously. The chemo doesn’t make me nauseous, UNLESS I eat or drink anything COLD. Anything COLD that touches my throat causes an instant gagging that results in vomiting.
So I live on canned soups and hot tea. It’s the only way to get liquids without drinking water.
Why can’t I just down a glass of water? The chemo causes a reaction. Swallowing water even at room temperature makes me gag. In addition, there is also an AWFUL metallic taste, the result of one of the particularly potent drugs. Which means I not only can’t drink water–I can’t eat fresh fruit (it’s too “cold”), can’t eat anything that comes out of a refrigerator. Canned soups and hot tea. That’s pretty much it. But what I miss most is–just plain water.
For some people, not being able to drink water is no problem. They rarely drink water, anyway. Tea, coffee, soft drinks, beer–people seem determined NOT to drink water at meals. I’ve lived in Germany. It’s impossible to get just plain water at a restaurant or at a store. Everything is fizzed with CO2. That doesn’t do it for me. I’m still thirsty.
Indeed, that IS the worst part of chemo–for me at least. I can’t drink! I’m thirsty all the time.
For many people, not drinking water isn’t a problem. They don’t drink it, anyway. But I do. In fact, it’s the ONLY thing I drink (spring water, specifically).
But I still have to get liquids inside of me–lest I get dehydrated. So–canned soups. And cups of tea.
But nothing does it for me. I’m thirsty all the time.
This USED to be more of a problem for me in previous treatments than it is now. Because I have discovered something about contending with pain and discomfort.
Here’s what I have discovered:
When there’s pain and discomfort, the very first thought a person normally has is: I want it to be OVER with! I want this pain to be OVER with!!!!
Thirst is an especially torturous discomfort. It can be ended in a mere moment. But it can’t! Because I can’t drink! Just room-temperature water touching the back of my throat will send me doubled over, gagging and vomiting.
I’m thirsty all the time. But here is what I have learned. If I just keep saying, “I want this discomfort to be OVER with!!!”–it doesn’t end. The torment continues.
But if I say, “Okay–it’s thirst. I’m thirsty”–I find myself reacting differently. That is, if I NAME the pain–“it’s thirst”–I find that I can deal with it!
I’ve thought deeply about why this happens. And I think I’ve got it figured out.
For one thing, it’s the nature of pain. The psychologist (and concentration-camp survivor) Victor Frankl wrote, Pain occupies your entire person, like gas filling a bottle.
That IS the initial experience of pain. It’s all we think about. It occupies our entire self. And we just want the pain to end.
But if I NAME THE PAIN–if I say, “It’s thirst”–then it occurs to me: I am NOT totally absorbed by this pain. I can think outside of it–I can have the vantage point of naming it–then the pain occupies a smaller portion of my life, rather than taking over my whole life. It IS part of my being. It IS discomfort. But it is not ALL of my being. I can in a way “stand back” from it–because I can pause and think and NAME it.
Then, the pain assumes its existence as a fraction of my life, but not the totality of my life.
I find–I can deal with it. Okay, it’s discomfort–it’s annoying. But it isn’t my whole life. I’m able to function sufficiently. I am able to get necessary liquids through soup and tea. I have even been able to referee soccer matches and umpire baseball during times of chemotherapy. Sometimes I come right from the clinic–with the fanny pack attached to my waist–and go right to a game. (One time, when I was getting the treatment a couple of years ago, I was umpiring behind the plate, when a foul ball hit me right on the needle in my chest!)
Here’s a second thing I have discovered about dealing with pain. We can endure more than we ever thought.
I enjoy reading survival stories–true ones.
*Eddie Rickenbacker and seven others stranded on rafts in the South Pacific after their plane ran out of fuel and had to make a splashdown. Surrounded by an entire ocean, they nearly died of thirst. Rickenbacker had warned the younger men, “Don’t drink the water–no matter how thirsty you get!” It was salt water. It wouldn’t slake their thirst–indeed, it would only cause the men to hallucinate. It took 24 days before they were rescued.
*A teenager who was travelling with her parents (scientists in the Amazon) when their air liner crashed into the jungle, and she was the lone survivor. “If you are ever lost,” her parents had always taught her, “find a creek or a river. It will lead you to a settlement.” In the teeming jungle, she not only had to contend with pumas and crocodile-like reptiles; Insects were using her as a place to lay eggs in her bare arms and legs. She eventually followed a stream to a native settlement.
*And just the week that I began getting chemo, I saw a heart-breaking movie on TV called “The Way Back.” It’s based on a true story about six men and a teenage girl who escape from Soviet prison camps in Siberia. They could only help themselves–they could find nobody in a village who would help them. The danger of helping escaped prisoners was too great in that dictatorship. So the party of seven WALKED–through snow storms, all the way out of Siberia–made it to Manchuria–walked all the way across the burning Gobi Desert to Tibet…Four of the seven died along the way. But the others made it, and one went all the way to India.
Whenever I read or watch one of these survival stories, I can’t help but wonder how I myself would hold up under such circumstances.
One time, I was crowded into an Air France flight, heading to Europe. I wanted to visit the D-Day beaches. Any time I have a journey, I read about people going through difficulty. In this case, it was all the more fitting that I was reading a book about men who fought on D-Day. I was reading Band of Brothers by Steven Ambrose. The early part of the book details the brutal boot-camp that these elite paratroopers had to go through. The captain training them was merciless. In particular, there was a mile-long road up a mountain that he made the men run daily. One day, he seemed to be giving them a break. He brought the men into the cafeteria and surprised them with a spaghetti dinner. While they were gorging themselves, suddenly the captain blew a whistle.
NOW they were going to run the mountain! The men were vomiting all the way up and down.
This is the book I was reading on the flight over to France. Whether it was the person next to me that I shook hands with or the cheese-based supper they gave us during the flight, I woke up after nodding off briefly and found myself sweating heavily and my heart racing. I barely made it back to the restroom in time! I would throw up two more times in the next few minutes. Three times total.
There I was drenched, exhausted, sick–and NOW I arrived in Paris.
But I said to myself, I can deal with it–THEY did. Reading what others go through, we learn what we ourselves can endure.
Last week as I was dealing with thirst all day long, at night I saw the movie “The Way Back.” The scene of the party of seven going through the Gobi Desert–it was inevitable that I wondered, “What if that were me? Could I myself deal with the thirst?”
Then it occurred to me: “I AM! I AM dealing with thirst! I’m not in a desert. But I AM dealing with thirst–every day–all day!”
What’s possible is more than we know. What’s possible is what we learn of others going through. And it’s not just about others. Because if we think about it, there are ways in which we are going through the same thing.