Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Working to Stay Ahead of the Pain

I think I've mentioned in the past that I am a patient at my local hospital's Pain Clinic, here in Ottawa. Because my spine fractured in several places before I even got my breast cancer diagnosis, one of the first things my medical oncologist tackled was getting my pain under control. That's where the wonderful nurse Gini comes in.

Gini's focus is on the palliative side of cancer care, relieving the pain. She saw me before and after my pelvis broke and put me on the waiting list for the new Pain Clinic. Before long, my pain had receded to the point that I no longer needed the pain pump full of Dilaudid. In fact, it was putting me to sleep as I ate breakfast! She kept me at the clinic, although my pain was manageable. I think she had a feeling...

When I saw Gini at the clinic in early February, things were so stable we decided I didn't need to come back for three months. Unfortunately, I didn't realize the effect some treatment changes would have on my pain in the interim. In late January, after a short chemo break, I was switched to daily Tamoxifen pills. My late January CT scan found a tumour on my right femoral neck that put me at risk of fracture and was subsequently treated with radiation. In March, I started a double-blind clinical trial where I was either continuing my bone-building Pamidronate treatment (but every four weeks instead of three) or I was getting Zometa, a similar drug. Put them all together and my pain, or rather my pains, increased. I was taking long-acting hydromorphone contin (a narcotic), Lyrica (for nerve pain) and Naprosyn (an anti-inflammatory) as well as hydromorphone (AKA Dilaudid) for breakthrough pain. I was taking enough to address the bone and nerve pain caused by my tumours and fractures, as well as the pain of chronic problems I have with my jaw and wrists. However, by the time I returned to the Pain Clinic in early May, I was taking several doses of Dilaudid for breakthrough pain each day. I returned to wearing my bite guard at night, as well as my wrist braces. Something had to change.

The young doctor I saw took the time to fully understand my history and the pains I was now experiencing. She consulted a senior anaesthesiologist and returned with a proposal. First, we adjusted my medication, increasing the Lyrica dose and changing the hydromorphone contin from twice to three times a day. Second, she proposed that I return at the first available appointment (early June as it turns out) to have a caudal epidural.

With the aide of a skeleton, she and the senior anaesthesiologist explained that a needle would be inserted in my tailbone and a catheter would be fished up my spine to where my compression fractures occurred and the pain relieving steroid would be released there. The procedure is safer that a traditional epidural for labour. The tailbone injection site is farther from the spinal cord and therefore less likely to cause an injury. Also the placement of the catheter will be guided by X-ray. The relief from this type of nerve block can last as long as six months, generally less than that for cancer patients.

I learned about nerve block's from one of my favourite bloggers, Scorchy at The Sarcastic Boob.  Her recent posts, "Rear View Mirror" and "Paincation Redux" tell her tale of pain and relief and explain the nerve block she gets (it's a little different from the epidural). Thank you, Scorchy for introducing me to the nerve block! It meant that when I went to the Pain Clinic I knew there were options. I didn't have to live with pain. And living is what I'm trying to do.

Someone Took the Monster Out of the Cupboard

I have a monster in the cupboard. We don't need to look at him every day, so we keep him in the cupboard. My husband and I know he's there. We take him out from time to time, but not often; he's so scary. I thought my daughter knew he was there. She didn't. She didn't know we had a monster.

The monster is the fact that breast cancer kills.

My daughter, the Bean, was eight years old when I was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer. The day we got the biopsy results, we told her.  It was a "Hockey Fights Cancer" game night for our Ottawa Senators. We thought that might help. Before the game, she got into her jammies and she and I sat in the rocking chair, my Sweetie on the bed. After we told her, she started to cry. Why, we asked? She thought everyone with cancer dies. I told her that wasn't true. I told her that there was no cure for my cancer, but there is treatment. I told her that our beloved family doctor has not lost a single breast cancer patient. I told her the truth. But she didn't understand it all.

Last night at bedtime, as we chatted about otherwise happy things, she compared my sister-in-law's rare cancer to breast cancer and said something along the line that no one dies from breast cancer. I winced. Without a doubt, I will never win a poker game. My face shows too much. So, I winced and said that sometimes people die of breast cancer. I didn't elaborate. I just told her the truth.

To her credit, impressive for a ten year old with a history of anxiety problems, she said, "that's enough about that" and changed the subject. Still, the monster was out of the cupboard for a moment.

My Sweetie wasn't happy about this exchange. I want to preserve her childhood, her innocence, as much as he does. But in the moment she said what she did, I was afraid that some day, when I take a turn for the worse, she would feel like I had been lying to her about my ability to fight this disease. It is ugly, but it is the truth: breast cancer will kill me. I don't want her to confuse my attitude with invincibility.

I am quite happy to put the monster back in the cupboard and leave him there as long as possible. I don't like the monster. Not one bit. But she is my girl, and I had to tell her the truth.

Can I ask, moms with mets and tweens, how much do your children understand about Stage IV cancer. Do you keep your monster in the cupboard or on a shelf? How do you balance honesty and innocence?

The Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation runs the Maplesoft Centre here in town, not far from the hospital where I get my care. Maplesoft offers the Wonders and Worries series for children aged five to twelve to help them cope with a cancer diagnosis to their parent or grandparent. We've told the Bean about the program, but she says she isn't interested. If your child needs help, in the Ottawa area, please contact the Maplesoft Centre at 613.247.3527 or info@ottawacancer.ca.

You may also want to read the new book, "My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks" by father and daughter team Marc and Maya Silver. I was fortunate enough to win this book from Nancy Stordahl at Nancy's Point. The book offers a terrific compilation of practical advice, much of it from teens who have lived with their parent's cancer diagnosis or even death. The book is written for teens. The Bean isn't ready for it yet, in terms of maturity rather than reading ability. Nevertheless, the book has given me an idea or two to open up the conversation about cancer. After my diagnosis, she had so many questions for me about cancer and the treatment I was getting. She, like her parents, got the hang of it after about six months. Now she doesn't really want to talk about it. I don't know if that's good or bad. I certainly don't want to make her life "all cancer, all the time." But neither do I want her to live completely in denial. I'm a big fan of denial, don't get me wrong, but it's a matter of proportion. That's why the monster lives in the cupboard, but we don't pretend he's moved out.