The Many Faces of Cancer Pain

During all of my surgeries, I have been asked to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10. I’ve never gone beyond 8 on that scale because I really have no comprehension of what it should feel like.

Pain is a subjective phenomenon. We all feel it at times, with varying degrees of severity and duration, but it has the power to turn an ordinary day into a seemingly endless and torturous experience.

Being a cancer survivor has certainly taught me a lot about pain management. As I write this, I am on day 12 of a full knee replacement surgery, and frustrated at both the extent and intensity of the discomfort I feel. While my own breast cancer has been a fairly straightforward event with a diagnosis of stage 1, grade 3, I’ve been personally involved with many other cancer survivors over the years who have become like family to me. Knowing so many who have battled our disease, I have only to remember the chemotherapies and countless other medical procedures that my fellow cancer survivors have endured to put my own pain in perspective. I don’t believe I’ve ever felt the level of pain that others have described to me from their experiences.

My pain has ranged from “unbearable” to “troubling,” but my threshold for discomfort is based on my personal scale. While simple bloodwork may cause one person distress and anxiety, another will barely notice the procedure. And that’s what makes identifying pain so difficult. During all of my surgeries, I have been asked to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10. I’ve never gone beyond 8 on that scale because I really have no comprehension of what it should feel like.

In other words, I can only compare my numbers with my own experience and through my own reference points.

As I look back at my mastectomy surgery over three years ago, I feel as though my psychological pain of dealing with the diagnosis of male breast cancer was far more challenging than the pain of the operation itself.

According to many studies, how we deal with pain is proportional to how we deal with life.

It seems that there are two approaches that humans have for managing discomfort. We can run from it, medicate it and attempt to ignore it or we can meet pain head-on, immersing ourselves in its grasp and taking the punishment moment by moment instead of jumping into the future or into the past.

I admit that I do what I can to avoid pain. But the result can be frustrating, since we seem to exert little control over how and when our pain will begin or end. Unfortunately, alleviating pain isn't always straightforward. People often think of pain as a purely physical sensation. However, pain has biological, psychological and emotional factors. Furthermore, chronic pain can cause feelings such as anger, hopelessness, sadness and anxiety.

Millions of Americans suffer from some form of chronic pain, which is influenced by many factors, including one's emotions and memory.

Professionals who deal with pain management have some suggestions for lessening pain:

1. Learn deep breathing or meditation to help you relax.

2. Reduce stress in your life.

3. Boost chronic pain relief with the natural endorphins from exercise or laughter.

4. Cut back on alcohol, which can worsen sleep problems.

5. Join a support group.

6. Don't smoke.

7. Track your pain level and activities every day.

Of course, none of these techniques will make living with pain a piece of cake, but they might make our distress a little more bearable. As a longtime certified Laughter Yoga Teacher, I have seen firsthand how laughter and its ability to inspire deep breathing can be highly beneficial. There are many Laughter Yoga clubs meeting in cities across the U.S. and also available on the Internet or on the phone.

By educating ourselves and talking with healthcare professionals, we can find inspiration and tools to help in reducing cancer pain. Above all, we can stay hopeful and never forget that it is possible for our bodies to heal with time.

Pain, it seems, is a direct message that our bodies are sending to our brains. Healing the body can take some time and effort. Healing our thoughts on the other hand, can begin right now.