Coping With Cancer Pain


Explaining our cancer to the rest of the world.

"I'm fine."

Perhaps for as long as there has been suffering in the world, this seemingly innocuous phrase has been the watered down standard for vagueness. These words have a way of quickly and efficiently dismissing pain.

The truth is, I’m sometimes awakened at night with a tightness that stretches across my left shoulder from the breast bone, past my chest to the midway point under my armpit. Where it ends, there is a pool of numbness — a dead area in which the nerves which were severed during my mastectomy have no link to follow and no place to arrive with the messages they once carried. Sometimes the constriction from my scar feels like an enormous steel trap snapped down; the silvery teeth crimped sharply across my upper body.

But not always. In fact, most of the time, "I'm fine."

I’m asked with some regularity how I’m feeling with my cancer. The question is usually softened a bit with a hopeful smile from those doing the asking, and I appreciate that — mostly because it would be tiresome for both of us if I jumped into the dialogue with "I'm fine."

It’s easier to say, "I’m doing well. I’m hopeful and positive about the future. I’m fine."

And that really is the truth. Those of us surviving cancer have stories and moments that folks in the "ordinary" world would find hard to relate to. It’s a life whose roadmap has become faded and unreadable, and we are forever struggling to find our way home in zero-visibility weather, always in search of a pathway by which to be healed.I spent a year in a Zen Buddhist temple studying meditation. We learned the importance of living in the "here and now," and right this minute. It sounds easy, but this can take a lifetime of practice to absorb. The reasoning behind it — besides distinct purpose of being difficult — is also profound. I deal with pain of one sort or another every day. The pain of life is very different from the pain of disease and the rift between the two is sometimes lost in the distraction of simply surviving.

There is a place in our lives — a central space — where people with cancer find a sort of equilibrium and balance. It’s a safe haven that settles in where fear and uncertainty once lived; it’s a shelter between forthrightness and uptightness; and it is there that we recognize those endless, unknowable moments in our lives.

Most importantly, it’s in this very place where we become "fine."

I’ve always disliked the "fine" phrase because of its vague and indirect attitude. The truth is that when we live with cancer, we have good and bad days and we have lots of days where the cancer scale swings back to the turbulent-free center we long for. Once again, we find ourselves in the middle of a long and peaceful road where being "fine" is no longer a state of mind, but a state of being.

Then — and perhaps for the very first time — feeling fine is infinitely better than feeling nothing at all.

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