Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
Winter can aggravate this chemotherapy side effect that causes hands and feet to feel numb, tingly and painful.
A few years ago, I lived with the hope that my chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN) would disappear over time. Since I'd had Taxol every week for six months, the CIPN side effect was not unexpected. The availability of cold socks/gloves/caps at that time was much less than it is now, and I only learned about those options after that treatment had ended. Still, those techniques are no guarantee CIPN won't set in and stick around.
Although I knew I was developing the condition and was careful to inform both my doctor and the nurses about how the tingling was developing, I am sure I downplayed the seriousness of the situation because the last thing I wanted was to end treatment before our previously agreed upon date.
So, now I live with CIPN and while I have had prescriptions for gabapentin issued, I have resisted this choice for personal reasons including the idea that it is more effective for painful neuropathy than the type I experience, which is numbness and tingling. It's hard living with CIPN that seems to be progressing overall, but that sometimes ebbs with factors I haven't been super successful at duplicating when I need them.
Cold weather, which can extend from November through March where I live, is especially brutal for those living with this side effect. Bottomline, commonsense steps can help maintain comfort during cold weather. I can't claim to have found the solution for CIPN for anyone else — or even myself – but I do know some good tips for cold-weather management:
Move. Although movement is not a cure for CIPN, it does help relieve stiff and numb hands and feet. I remember sitting in a cold truck with my brother-in-law, who had severe neuropathy, and watching him clench and unclench his hands. This movement can provide immediate help by warming hands (and toes, clench those as well) by getting circulation moving when it is not possible to take other steps. Full-body exercise also works to improve overall circulation, so include that as well if you are able.
Keep feet dry. One of the problems with CIPN is that it's hard to know what your fingers and feet are actually feeling. There have been times when I've kept on shoes after being outside only to find, after I finally notice that my feet are more uncomfortable than usual, that my socks are damp. I've learned to remove my shoes as soon as I come inside, even if my feet feel OK, and switch to a new pair of socks after checking to make sure my feet are not damp. It's a commonsense move that is easy to forget.
Gloves and socks. Even the warmest coverings aren't going to stop my CIPN from acting up in cold weather, but it is much worse if I decide to go without gloves, for instance, because that's what I could do before cancer. Just put on the warm gloves and socks (and keep them dry).
Wear a warm coat. If you have CIPN, you might have noticed that if you become cold by underdressing for the weather, the degree of pain or numbness in your peripheral areas becomes worse. That happens because circulation isn't being maintained and it can become more difficult to move your fingers (or toes). For CIPN in hands, it's particularly helpful to make sure even your forearms remain warm.
Walk safe. I've fallen enough times, both in cold weather and warm, to want to stay upright. Leave the heels or slippery flats at home or in your purse to switch into once inside. Instead, wear shoes or boots with traction that might help prevent you from sliding into a fall and keep hands out of pockets (wear gloves or mittens!), which not only gives you a chance to catch yourself if you start to fall, but can also help to prevent fingers from cramping or "freezing" into a bent position.
Use caution outdoors. While I used to love to sled for hours with my son, I know that cold can slow circulation to hands and feet, aggravate CIPN, and may cause additional nerve damage. I'm not going to give up the things that I enjoy, but I will do what I can to prevent further nerve damage. So, I try to keep an extra pair of socks and gloves with me when I go out to minimize the chance that I'll be in damp or cold clothing for too long and I take breaks indoors or in a warm car.
Pamper yourself. I've found that while it can sometimes hurt to have my feet touched, gently massaging lotion onto them (and my hands) does wonders. It increases circulation, gives me a chance to notice if I've hurt my feet anywhere, and also puts my hands to work. These moments of indulgence matter and are good for movement and warmth.