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Cancer and Peripheral Neuropathy
January 26, 2019 – Jane Biehl, Ph.D.
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Cancer and Peripheral Neuropathy

I keep fumbling and dropping lids to water bottles and other items. When I climb the stairs to my apartment, I often feel like I am going to fall backwards and grab the rail. If I go out in the cold air, my fingers tingle for hours afterwards. What in the world is wrong with me?
PUBLISHED January 26, 2019
Jane has earned three advanced degrees and had several fulfilling careers as a librarian, rehabilitation counselor and college teacher. Presently she does freelance writing. Her articles include the subjects of hearing loss and deafness, service dogs and struggling with cancer. She has been a cancer survivor since 2010.

She has myelodysplastic syndrome, which is rare, and would love to communicate with others who have MDS.
I keep fumbling and dropping lids to water bottles and other items. When I climb the stairs to my apartment, I often feel like I am going to fall backwards and grab the rail. If I go out in the cold air, my fingers tingle for hours afterwards. What in the world is wrong with me?

According to the American Cancer Society, the definition of peripheral neuropathy is, “a set of symptoms caused by damage to the nerves that are away from the brain and spinal cord called peripheral nerves.” If you have this condition you may experience tingling, numbness, weakness, less ability to feel hot and cold and other symptoms. The cause is often chemotherapy and called chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN).

This condition can also cause dizziness and constipation if it affects any internal organs. Additionally, muscle weakness, cramping and spasms can occur if the muscles become involved.

According to the National Cancer Institute, there are three different kinds of neuropathy. The first involves damage to sensory nerves, which help you to feel pain. The second is the motor nerves, which help your muscles to move. The third is autonomic nerves, which control blood pressure, digestion, heart rate and other functions of the body we do not think about but that work automatically.

Neuropathy can be caused by tumors, cancer treatments or other health conditions. Just like any disease, other medical conditions such as diabetes, immune systems or thyroid problems exacerbate symptoms for cancer survivors.

The more research I did, the more things fell into place for me personally. I do have trouble swallowing sometimes. I have an immune system problem and hyperthyroidism. I was on Thalomid (thalidomide) for many years. I am a walking example of a patient with neuropathy – and no one ever told me!

It’s important to discuss any neuropathy symptoms with your health care team. There are some things that can help alleviate, but not necessarily eliminate the problems. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) explains that certain antidepressants can help by decreasing the chemicals in the brain that transmit pain signals, along with muscle relaxers and anticonvulsants. Only your doctor can assist you with these prescriptions. There are some dietary supplements such as folic acid and magnesium that may assist, but you need to ask your health care provider before using any of these. Just because these are available over the counter does not mean they may not be dangerous when interacting with other drugs! The University of Iowa also stated that massage can be helpful with some patients by increasing circulation and providing relaxation, but for others, massage could be harmful. You know what I am going to say – check with your doctor!

Sometimes, if the pain from neuropathy is very serious, the doctors can prescribe pain relievers, but remember these can cause other problems. There are also topical anesthetics, and the one my doctor prescribed is wonderful! Occupational or physical therapy may be another consideration for you and your doctor to consider.

According to, problems can start after treatment begins and can worsen. They warn if it is not treated it can become a long-term problem.

Finally, USE COMMON SENSE! All of the above articles mentioned taking a hard look around your home. Throw rugs need to be thrown out – they are a true hazard! Keep hallways uncluttered and have night lights everywhere. Grab the rails when you go up and down steps and do not try to carry everything at once. Yes, I used to do that! Use skid-free showers and mats. Liquid soap is better than slippery bar soaps. And no more flip flops – sturdy shoes need to be worn outside always to prevent falls. I need to be careful not to be tripped by my dog and cat and try to have a surface to grab at all times.

Like every other cancer condition, each one of us is an individual. For example, I have hypothyroidism, fibromyalgia and an immune disorder and have been on Revlimid (lenalidomide) for a long time. The oncologist and family doctor need to cooperate for the best care, and I am so fortunate because mine do. They work together on the thyroid medication and other problems, because I consult with both of them. I am unique with my medical problems and so are you. You need to let your doctors know what is happening before they can help you!

Like so many other conditions and side effects from cancer, the neuropathy often cannot be cured – but can be helped. Be careful and informed. And again look around your home for all hazards – it may just save your life!

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