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Chronic pain - by Katie Estridge

Frozen lake

Chronic pain persists.

Jim survived sarcoma. He went through multiple surgeries, radiation, and chemotherapy to cure his cancer. He is left with hardware in his arm and pain that just won’t go away, despite there being no evidence of cancer remaining in his body. Mary survived breast cancer. After multiple surgeries and chemotherapy, she is left with chronic pain and tightness in her chest. Her doctors cannot figure out why she continues to experience pain. Doug survived lung cancer against all odds. He has a new set of lungs and no sign of cancer but he continues to have chest pain. 

Why does this happen?

Why do Jim, Mary, and Doug have pain? Sometimes even after the tissues heal and the cancer is removed, our pain persists. Sometimes pain becomes a learned response in the brain and the brain has a hard time letting go. Their pain is 100% real and the brain is perpetuating it. 

How does this happen?

Negative experiences are like velcro to the brain… we hold onto it. Positive experiences are like Teflon… they just bounce off. Imagine you had a conversation with your partner in the morning and it went well. You may think a couple of times throughout the day “Gee, I just love them and I’m lucky to have them.” Now imagine you had a controversial conversation that morning. How many times would your brain come back to that difficult conversation throughout the day? Many! Our brains tend to hold onto the negative and that is how chronic pain sets up and lodges itself in our brains.

Does this mean I have to hurt forever?

No! Just because this pain has become a learned response, doesn’t mean you have to hurt forever. The brain is neuroplastic, meaning it can change, and that the neural circuits can be rewired. A healthcare professional who is trained in neuroplasticity can teach you to change your brain and unlearn your pain. 

Is there any easy way to get started?

Right now, notice your pain. Just observe what’s going on. Maybe it feels tight, sore, or burning. Just notice any sensations. Now say to yourself, “Ok it’s just a little tightness/soreness/burning. It’s not dangerous.” See if you can take a deep breath, breathe into it, and soften the pain even just a little bit. If you notice even a little lessening, we know these techniques would work for you. It takes repetition to rewire the brain and unlearn your pain. 

I am so scared of this pain. How do I handle that?

cancer pain and fear

Cancer is scary. It’s ok to be fearful of pain, especially if the pain was the first symptom of your cancer. Unfortunately, that fear causes the pain to grow and increase in your brain. The pain/fear spiral is real and can make things spiral out of control sometimes. The fear feeds the pain and the pain feeds the fear. See if you can let a little bit of fear go. Remind yourself that you are safe. Pain makes our sympathetic nervous systems feel unsafe. Keep going to your checkups regularly to set your mind at ease. If you feel something is not right, get it checked out. If you have done that and are still experiencing pain, it’s okay. 

It’s not your fault.  

Your pain is real and you didn’t do anything to deserve it. There is help out there. Reach out to a specialist on The After Cancer. We are here to help you. 


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