Reducing side-effects


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I found myself thinking about pain yesterday. Not the mental and emotional pain that comes with our journey, but the physical stuff. The pressure of tumours on areas they shouldn’t be, the pain of recovery after surgery, the pain that can sometimes be ongoing. I remember once imploring my tumour to stop hurting so that I could get some sleep. It use to burn and throb in my breast. And to my surprise it did just that. It’s an incredible thing how much control we actually have over the way experience our pain, isn’t it.

In hospital recently, the morning nurse greeted me with ‘oh you’re the one who doesn’t take anything’. Well, not quite true. A bit of mild paracetamol works wonders in taking the edge off. But if I can, I’d rather find another way than the codeine that binds you up making life a little unpleasant, let alone the harder morphine derivatives. And so I get through most of what I need to get through using everything I know about managing pain in other ways. Having a great doctor certainly helps reduce the need for pain relief. And sometimes the deeper breathing helps. Because it’s hard to feel pain when you’re relaxed, isn’t it. Sometimes it’s in distracting myself with things that make me feel good. A hobby, a funny movie, a relaxation CD, anything really. I’ve read that Norman Cousins found that just ten minutes of laughter gave him two hours of pain-free sleep. Again, it’s about the choices we make isn’t it. Do we want to watch a funny movie that will help our healing, or do we want to watch the latest NCIS with it’s gruesome storyline? I deliberately chose to watch ‘Are You Being Served’ a few hours post surgery, and I’m sure this helped reduce my pain. I was too busy laughing to notice.

Sometimes it can just be in the reframing of the pain that I find it easier to manage. If I resist it, I just seem to tense up and it gets worse, but if I step back and observe it, notice it, where it is in my body, how it feels, what it looks like, what colour it is, it somehow seems to diffuse it. I remember hearing someone say that at least if they are in pain they know they’re alive. And I guess I’ve learnt to look at the positives of post surgery discomfort – at least I’ve still got some sensation in the areas I want to be sensitive!

But of course there are days I can’t do it all myself and I am happy to have a little bit of help. A good massage last week, took the burning out of the muscles of my shoulder that are learning to work differently. It’s also brilliant for breaking up adhesions. Physio exercises when I am disciplined to do them also help to rehabilitate. And I remember once, a few years ago, my body just couldn’t take the stress anymore. I bent over and locked up and the pain just kept ramping up until I was vomiting. I’ve never experienced anything like it. And this is when I am most grateful for my husband’s knowledge and training. After watching me for 20 minutes or so, he simply gave me just one adjustment and the whole thing shut down. I went straight to sleep and when I woke up, the pain was gone. I’ve never experienced anything so powerful. An open mind opens up a whole world of options, doesn’t it.

And probably for me the most healing has been the healing of painful emotions which has brought me such physical relief. In healing my feelings, I am no longer pouring these inflammatory chemicals through my system, minute to minute, day to day. And so my body copes with things so much better. Because, what I’ve learnt most about the management of pain, is that if I can take the physical, mental and emotional stress out of my body, no matter which path I take to do this, everything just relaxes and the pain just seems to melt away…

I am so deliciously peaceful. A few hours past surgery and I feel good. And excited. My breathing is deep and restful and my hands are warm. And I am basking in this moment. I now officially have two bumps. And though new and raw, I treasure them. Dr David managed to do my expansion while I was under. I was never huge. There is a quietness in how blessed I feel. And the special people around me. The love of family and friends and people I’ve only just met flowing to me and through me. My body is responding beautifully. Just a mild pressure, nothing more. I woke as I asked myself to do so. Comfortable and peaceful. I am so in awe of how special we are.  The special abilities we all have inside. How that deeper part of us responds to our gentle directions when we allow it to do so.

Miracles. Yes. They are possible. And they often come in the most beautiful and unexpected ways…

I was lucky enough to spend the day with my friend Peter yesterday. And I was privileged to watch the magic unfold in his calmbirth® class as he helps pregnant couples to let go of their fear and anxiety around birth. It’s simply breathtaking. To birth without fear, and in complete confidence that our bodies know what to do. Working with our inner wisdom, not against it. And the hospitals have noticed what a difference it makes. So much so, that across the country they are now asking Peter to run their birth classes.  And I am so inspired by Peter’s work. Because the gift of entering the world in calmness and love is beyond measure, even when medical intervention is required.

And birth can be many things, can’t it. Peter talks about The Law of Possibilities. Because we all know birth can be excruciatingly painful. But I wonder how many people realise that for some women it can be orgasmic? And of course, it can be everything in between. And it’s the same with cancer, isn’t it. For some people the diagnosis of cancer is their worst nightmare, while for others it presents an opportunity. A life changing experience that opens new doors, new possibilities, and the potential for a completely new start in life. And the chemo itself? I know of people who have been violently ill, encouraged by their families to feel as sick as possible because this is what they believed was needed to ensure the chemo was working. While others have described having chemo as feeling just a bit like having a mild hangover or even being ‘pleasantly surprised’. Mindset plays such a huge role, doesn’t it. As I began to understand how my own mindset, my subconscious fears, beliefs and expectations, affected my experience, each cycle of chemo became a bit of an adventure. What would I create for myself this time? I found it just got better and better.

Yesterday when I got home, I was thrilled to see an email from J—. I hadn’t heard from her in some months . And I always wonder how people are getting on. Diagnosed young as I was, a double mastectomy, chemo and all the rest with two small children in tow. The last time we spoke she was just preparing for it all. And we talked about the things she could do to help herself. To build her buffer. And here today, she is in a different space now. It’s all done and I feel her joy. Because J— discovered there are many things she could do to help herself. And that within her she had the strength to get through. And it makes me smile to think of her strength and zest for life – she tells me she was riding her bike just 5 days after her last cycle of chemo, thinking of me in the snow as I was just one week after mine. 

The Law of Possibilities. Without fear and with an open mind the possibilities are endless, aren’t they…

Don’t you love it when the penny drops? When something finally clicks into place like a missing piece of the puzzle. Well, I had another one of those moments recently. Without me really noticing, something had obviously been ticking away quietly inside my brain and then at that precise moment, it clicked into place and became a conscious thought – one of life’s wonderful ‘aha’ moments. And finally I understood at a deeper level the many reasons why slowing down your metabolism can make chemo easier.

It all has to do with understanding how we heal. Understanding the importance of slowing down, breathing deeply and practising what Dr Herbert Benson calls the relaxation response. Our bodies have two modes if you like – one is fast – this is the stress mode and it helps to get us out of danger – and one is slower – this is the rest and digest mode where we do our healing. But in this day and age with all the time demands, and our fears and worries, it can be difficult to slow down, can’t it. Our bodies and minds are running continuously full steam ahead.

And it makes sense, doesn’t it. If we do our chemo while our bodies are running full pelt, the normal healthy cells are working much harder and faster and take up more of the chemo. But if we can slow things down as the research shows, our healthy cells will simply not absorb the same quantity of chemo. And to my way of thinking surely this would leave more chemo for the cancer cells to suck up. Seems like a good idea, doesn’t it. And there was something else I realised in that moment… that when our bodies are in rest and digest, our organs are working beautifully and it is these very organs we rely on to process the chemo toxins out of our body. Because, when we’re stressed many of our organs shut down. Not something we really want to happen when we’re relying on them to detoxify our bodies, is it? So by taking a leaf out of the tortoise’s book, it seems we could possibly get a bigger hit in exactly the right spot, and then get the chemo out quicker. I’d love to see some research done on this.

And there’s quite a few ways to slow things down, aren’t there. I’ve found research to show fasting before chemo brings your metabolism down which reduces side-effects. I checked this out when I was having chemo and my beautiful oncologist again was so supportive. Or having chemo when your body is at rest in line with your circadian rhythms has been successful too. Practising relaxation, and diaphragmatic breathing does wonders to retrain the way our bodies are working. And laughing, that full on belly laughing until your sides ache laugher, is pure magic in helping us switch over into healing mode.

I wonder, have you ever considered what the fear of chemo does to your metabolism? Your heart races, your palms sweat, your breathing becomes shallow. Because fear increases our metabolism, doesn’t it. And it’s not something we need more of. Many people don’t realise that the fear of chemo can actually exacerbate the very side-effects we seek so desperately to avoid…

The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself
– Franklin D Roosevelt