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Cancer Changed My Relationship With Pain: ‘Being a Trooper’ Is Not Always a Good Thing


After seeing my brother go through extraordinary pain because of lymphoma and then surviving breast cancer myself, I always pushed through the pain — even when I shouldn’t have.

“Don’t do what I did,” I wrote on Facebook the other day.

I shared the story of how I spent a year waiting for pain and lack of mobility to abate in my left arm. After booking an appointment with an orthopedic clinic, I learned the cause, which initiated a series of physical therapy appointments. While I was happy that I would be on the road to working through my challenge which will continue as another new normal in my life, I also felt stupid for ignoring the pain.

I blame cancer for my lapse. Cancer has made my relationship with pain complicated. It all started when my older brother had a virulent lymphoma, which entailed unfathomable pain for which there was never resolution until the very end, when he received morphine. In the weeks leading up to his death, with death always the prognosis, he joked that his doctors were worried he would get hooked on pain meds. He fantasized of a time medical marijuana would be available for cancer patients. To supplement his quota of pain meds, he drank gin and listened to loud music.

During the time my brother was sick, I experienced the pain of a ganglion cyst, which I could not own up to or lament. How could I comment on something so insignificant, I wondered, when he asked about it? Menstrual cramps that reduced me to tears? Forget that. I would take aspirin and drink a soda and tell myself that it all could be worse. I had no right to complain. For decades after my brother’s illness, I always told myself any pain could be worse.

I also think I have a high threshold for pain. That does not mean that I enjoy it, it means that I am a bit like my brother, who never complained about his pain, a pain I hope never to fathom. Commenting on lack of pain control was not, in his case, a complaint about the pain, more a commentary on his pain management system. He withstood a lot. I have withstood a little.

Even so, notes surgeons left in my charts after my own breast cancer surgery and a complicated broken wrist offer clues. Doctors tend to comment on my resiliency, an ability to handle physical pain, which pleases the over-achiever in me.

In fact, when dealing with a pneumothorax (when air escapes the lungs) early in cancer treatment, an unexpected side effect of a simple procedure, I kept going to work in pain and breathless. I whispered lectures on tiptoe so students could hear in the back. When the cancer center discovered the issue during a scan, I was sent directly from chemo to the emergency room, where I sobbed.

“I feel so stupid,” I told the ER doctor. “You’re not stupid,” she replied. “You’re a trooper.”

Being a trooper is not always a good thing. Waiting a whole year was not an intelligent choice, despite plenty of excuses. With COVID-19 rampant in my community, I was fearful to tend to something I assumed would pass. Positive thinking and stretches I learned to do during treatment for lymphedema and a (relatively) painful shoulder impingement in my right arm after the mastectomy made me feel empowered. I was also emotionally frightened. I did not want to think that “my good arm” was worse off than “my bad arm.” It was. It is.

I have thought a lot about my brother this week as I have assessed my relationship with pain and how it affected me over the past year, leading to the blues. I have also thought about a side effect of my own cancer treatment, treatment fatigue. I spent so long doing everything that I was told to do that now I just want to be one healthy person who no longer needs medical intervention for anything, an attitude I need to work on as I try to age gracefully.

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