Diana M. Martin has been an adjunct professor in The Writing and Reading Center at Montgomery College in Rockville, MD, for over 15 years. She has a MFA in Creative Nonfiction and has published articles in the areas of parenting, health and cultural arts. When her husband lost his battle with cancer of unknown primary, later identified as bile duct cancer, she became the sole caregiver for their adult son, Alex, who is autistic.
Coping with emotional and physical pain years after a spouse's death from cancer leads to more questions about his treatment.
During my husband's treatment for bile duct cancer from 2013 to 2015, we didn't pay much attention to integrative medicine. One year into his diagnosis, the oncology practice he was with opened up an integrative medicine office. Because I couldn't stand to see him suffer from neuropathy in his legs and feet, sleep disorders, poor appetite and fatigue, I asked his oncologist if it was worth a visit to see what other treatment might be beneficial to eradicate or at least reduce the side effects of FOLFOX, radioembolization and a variety of other chemicals which were infused into his weakening body every other week. By now, Dan's immune system had been so compromised that he needed blood transfusions to continue. At one point, he was on 21 different medications at various times during the day to help with pain, dry mouth, skin rashes, muscle spasms, anxiety, memory loss, sleep walking, and that is only what I can remember.
Even though I still have many of his medical files, I am afraid to peruse them for fear that I might reactivate painful memories. But that is the problem with taking care of someone you love with cancer. You can't not remember — especially when it comes to medication. The endless trips to the pharmacy with new and old prescriptions to be filled, waiting on line, insurance, counting out pills and bartering with the one you love to take them even if they have to be blended into food or Ensure. I'm convinced that pain killers like oxycodone are called “controlled substances,” not because of their danger of addiction, but because their side effects literally control your life – and everyone else's.
Dan had to have his pain medication, even if he threw it up or if it constipated him. When he didn't want it or because he slept through the dosage time and I didn't have the heart to wake him, the pain would eventually find us. First him, then me.
During a visit to the "integrative" doctor, she reviewed the foods he was eating and suggested some drinks or protein bars that might be more palatable. He was given supplements for anxiety; I remember one in particular had the name “CALM.” Ironically, we were anything but. Melatonin was suggested for sleep. There were already nutrition, meditation and support group classes being offered by the practice. Even though this seemed like a final course of action, we were grateful for anything. What we really needed was a supplement named HOPE, but there was none with that name being offered to us.
The years of taking care of Dan had compromised my immune system. I suffered from very painful osteoarthritis in both knees and my left shoulder. Fatigue made it difficult for me to work over 10 hours a week. After other medications and procedures had failed, my pain doctor prescribed the one drug that I hated most: oxycodone. Not only did it dull knee pain, it blurred every bad memory, so I wouldn't have to come to terms with who I was before, during and after Dan's cancer. Within a year, my doctor had raised the dosage twice. If it had not been such a toxic reminder of Dan's battle with cancer, I'm sure I would have become addicted.
After I stopped taking oxycodone, I was desperate for pain relief. At the urging of a friend whose husband has melanoma, I went to a meditation retreat organized by the Mindfulness Center, a non-profit organization located in Bethesda, Maryland. Deborah Norris, Ph.D., founder of the Mindfulness Center and Director of the American University Psychobiology of Healing Program, said, "The medical standard of care for treatment of chronic pain now involves the use of meditation, not medication, as the first step in treatment, according to the NIH, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, and other major hospital systems..."
At the retreat, I learned that some studies show that meditation reduces inflammation. A randomized, waitlist-controlled clinical trial done by the American Psychosomatic Society showed that "mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction programs had a profound and positive effect on mood and symptoms of stress in cancer patients." What was once anecdotal is now entering the realm of clinical.
During the retreat, I had my first encounter with Reiki, and my knee pain subsided. I realized that oxycodone not only symbolized all that I hated about cancer, but it also postponed my healing.
After the retreat, I attended another seminar which The Mindfulness Center offered free to cancer patients and their caregivers called, "Mind Body for Cancer." It made me ask questions like: Will diet, yoga, meditation, Reiki and acupuncture be the standard of care in the future for cancer patients?
I am just beginning to have an open mind about our ability to heal ourselves. Could Dan have experienced a better quality of life if his treatment had been more integrated? Since I have received healing both physically and emotionally from the same practices I saw as a last resort, my skepticism has softened.
I hope I never have to encounter those white tablets again, or hear the hum of the morphine machine when the pump is pushed. It’s not the memory of cancer, but that of pain that keeps me up at night. Whatever my lot in life, I meditate to please let it be well with my soul.