A woman distracts herself from bolts of pain with a video game

Cancer, Pain, And Distracting Yourself

Last updated: August 2021

Pain. The “P” word. It goes hand in hand with cancer, and yet so little is done about it until it’s an issue. So today I think we will talk about pain, how it affects you when you have cancer, and at least one way I’ve found to help mitigate it.

As many of you know, cancer wasn’t my first foray into serious disease - I’m a veteran of chronic illness. I have had rheumatoid arthritis for over thirty years along with heart attacks, joint replacements, deformities, dental issues galore – basically everything but the kitchen sink. Along with the years of RA and joint damage comes chronic pain, and that’s a unique pleasure to deal with I can tell you that but when they told me I had cancer, I thought all the years of dealing with RA and its comorbidities had prepared me for the pain. Well, it seems the gods of chronic illness heard me and started cracking up so violently that they choked on their ambrosia.

The pain of cancer was nothing like the pain of RA

The pain of cancer was nothing at all like the pain of RA that I’d felt for years – it was singularly excruciating. So much so that I remember saying to myself (and anyone else who was in earshot), “Why didn’t anyone tell me that cancer hurt so much!?” The lymphoma I was eventually diagnosed with had caused an 8cmX5cm tumor to grow inside my abdomen, which apparently has a lot of “unused space.” I know that because I asked the doctor how the Hell a huge tumor grew in my abdomen and didn’t screw anything else up.

Anyway, I’m getting off track – it was extremely painful, and I was caught off guard. Not only did I think I’d be ready, mentally, but due to years of pain meds from my RA, I had built up a tolerance to opioids. Do you know what it’s like trying to fight with a resident a third of your age (I legit think she was 12), telling them that the spit of morphine they were giving you might as well be a drop of water because I use three times as much before she even checks on her Pokemon in the morning? Sufficed to say it’s exactly as bad as you think it is.

Because of this, I had three full days to experience, and I mean sauteed-for-hours-in-agony, slow-pain-cooker-on-low, BBQ-smoker-roasting-my-ribs-from-the-inside, full-frontal savoring of the exquisite vintage of pain that comes only with a cancerous tumor.

Finding relief

After three days, we had just about enough of that and all I know is that my mom left the hospital room and within an hour of her returning, the head of pain management was there with a personal pain device (PCA). Of course, they ended up taking it away a few days later because of a shortage of “liquid morphine,” but that’s another story for another blog. I was finally getting relief from the pain of lymphoma, and it was welcome.

As I said though, it’s a pain that was different from anything else I’d felt before, and, as stupid as it sounds, I was caught unawares by how horrible it was. I’m telling you all this so that you can vet my bonafides when it comes to pain before we move on and I think we proved my discomfort CV is robust enough for you to trust my judgment about the pain of lymphoma.

Dealing with the pain

Now that you know I felt the real pain of cancer, I can share with you my best method for dealing with it. The system I used for those three days as I was thrown to the proverbial wolves of pain and given the equivalent of Tylenol for a 40cm2 tumor. At first, I tried massaging the area, and it did… nothing. Then I tried heat, which made it worse. I then asked for an ice pack, which helped a little bit, but I think that was more from the cold than actual pain relief. I even tried sneaking in some of my pain meds from home, and those at least allowed me to get some sleep. It wasn’t until the second day of agony when I was ready to try anything that I said, “I have to take my mind off this pain.” I think I had a Nintendo Switch with me which had just come out, so I popped in some game or other and began to play.

At first, the pain was enough to keep me from getting into the game, but eventually, I was able to focus on whatever monster I was fighting. Gradually, I focused more and more on the game and not the pain, and by the time I was done I suddenly realized a few hours had passed without me thinking about the pain. Now I said, “thinking about,” because that’s what happened – the pain was still there, I had just distracted my brain and let it “ignore” the signals coming from the nerves in that area and that gave me relief. So now you know my little secret to fighting pain when nothing else is working – distraction.

It only works when you aren't thinking about it

It’s ironic because distraction only works when you aren’t thinking about it. In other words, the minute you start thinking, “Oh, I haven’t really thought about my pain in a while...” BAM! It comes back because you thought about it. You see how that works? It’s one of those fabled catch-22 situations that everyone always talks about. If you are going to distract yourself, just make sure you are fully engrossed.

The pain of cancer, it’s no slouch – and I’m a pain connoisseur. I’d rate it right up there with “heart attack” and “ankle replacement,” and learning to distract yourself will go a long way to fighting it. Talk soon.

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