Chemo-Related Hearing Loss: A Pressing Issue in a Social World
Jane Biehl, Ph.D.
A hearing loss diagnosis is difficult for any patient. However, it seems to pale in contrast to being diagnosed with a potentially deadly cancer. After all, a hearing loss is a nuisance, but will not kill you. Cancer is much more serious. This is an attitude many professionals, including doctors, seem to believe. Of course, of the two, cancer is worse. However, I fear that we sometimes diminish the devastating results of losing our hearing.
Please stop for a minute and think of an instance when you do not use hearing. Hearing is communication. We use it in almost every task we do, from talking, to listening to the radio and television. It is our hearing that alerts us to sirens, someone approaching us and other dangers. Imagine a day without being able to use this important sense and you get an idea of how important hearing really is.
One of my favorite articles, although an older one, is by McCay Vernon who wrote an article called, “Psychological Stress and Hearing Loss,” published in “Self Help for the Hard of Hearing” magazine in July/August 1984. He relates a research study by a man who wanted to evaluate stress for people who had been Air Force flyers during the war. Today, there is all kind of research protocol preventing researchers from doing this type of experiment, but this was many years ago. He describes setting up his human subjects with wires to measure physiological stress indicators, including pulse rate, blood pressure, perspiration and heart beats.
He conducted three independent experiments. The first was for the doctor (a psychiatrist) to talk to the subject, and then pull out a gun threatening to shoot them. That action distressed most of them, but not all. The second experiment was brutal, making the subjects lay on a table naked, with electrodes fastened all over the body. The people were told not to move because electrical currents 100 times stronger than those used in electric chairs would be set off. The doctor then left the room and smoke began to fill the room with a siren sounding in the distance. This stressed almost all the subjects.
The third experiment seemed innocuous after the first two. This skilled psychotherapist would invite the subjects into the room and encourage them to bare their souls on what was bothering them. Perhaps there was an addict in the family, or a failed marriage or a career not going well. Just when the subject would confess what bothered them the most, he would deliberately cause a breakdown in communication. He would change the topic and say something inane like, “Did you see my new golf clubs in the waiting room?’ Believe it or not, this universally stressed every single subject. We tend to underestimate what social creatures we really are. And the presence of sound in our life is an integral part of it.
Many forms of chemo cause hearing loss and more are constantly being added to the list. The drugs are now named “ototoxic drugs” meaning poisonous to the ear. The best known one is Cisplatin, which most medical professionals are aware of. Hearing loss is often listed under the side effects. However, there are many other drugs that are not listed.
Cancer is potentially lethal, and hearing loss is not. However, we need to look at the quality of life of patients being treated. If the cancer survivor is unable to communicate with family and friends, go out and socialize, hear the television and use the telephone, think about the impact on their life. We can’t casually dismiss this side effect.
Hearing loss can also cause embarrassment. I often answer questions wrong, have been yelled at by TSA handlers at the airport and had people think I was ignoring them because I did not hear them.
What can the cancer survivor do? Do your research and make sure that you read all the side effects of any new chemo. If it is ototoxic, talk to the oncologist and see if another drug can be used. If not and hearing loss is a risk, connect with a good audiologist. They can run audiograms and test your hearing periodically. The loss of high-pitched sounds occurs first. It is wonderful if your oncologist and audiologist work together
Also, the audiologist may have other items to help you. There are captioned telephones, assistive devices to hook up to your television, blue tooth devices for your cell phone and on and on. Just because you lost some of your hearing from chemo, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy life. You can stay alive and still utilize the part of your hearing that is left! Be informed and communicate with the people who can help you. Quality of life is important to all of us!