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Lung Cancer's Painful Quadratic Equation

Early on, we learn Algebraic equations with only one solution. Then we encounter equations with two solutions -- Quadratic Equations. Consider: x2 + 3x – 4 = 0. This has two solutions:  x = -4 or x = 1. Both are correct; one is negative and one is positive. Algebra students get very comfortable with solutions having a positive and negative outcome -- lung cancer survivors are less comfortable!

The positive outcome for lung cancer is extended life. But like quadratic equations, there can be negative outcomes that are less desirable.  Mine is chronic pain.  So to the question, how does one fit a negative outcome into the positive?  No, Algebra does not help.  But, for those in treatment or surviving after treatment, preparing for life with negative outcomes is helpful.

My chronic pain has two primary and many secondary causes.  I have peripheral neuropathy -- numbness in fingers and toes including a burning sensation in toes and pain in the foot joints.  It is a common Taxol side effect, and we informally call it “taxol toes.”  Also, I have nerve damage caused by quite a few surgeries to my right chest that is chronically painful. How do I fit these negative outcomes into life?

My strategy is to tolerate chronic pain until bedtime.  Then something must be done or I won’t sleep.  I’ve cycled through over-the-counter, then prescribed sleep medications.  Both worked for a while.  Doc found a study suggesting a therapeutic effect for Xanax on chronic pain.  He prescribed a 0.5mg dose at bedtime, allowing an increase to a total of 1.5mg.  This relaxes me and makes me drowsy.  It works about 6-in-10 nights. 

A secondary cause sometimes drives pain above chronic levels. These are: chemotherapy induced joint pain; muscle cramps; stress, anger and excitement; sneezing and coughing; and flying on aircraft.  The joint pain, an in-treatment side effect, required narcotic medication in every case to relieve.  Reliance on narcotics has two downsides: an inability to think and function normally the next day and constipation. However, other secondary causes occasionally require narcotic medication to achieve relief.  Because of the downside to narcotics, we’ve developed a couple of unique pain abatement procedures that may be of interest.

Our first strategy is to apply prescribed lidocaine transdermal patches to incision scars and or feet in combination with Xanax.  Since lidocaine dosage is limited to 2 patches, my wife cuts them into strips and fits them along my incision scars, and applies them to my feet.  A pair of tight fitting socks are stretched over my feet to keep them in place. When the offending pain spike is either in my chest or feet, a full 2-patch application is used.  The patches are applied in time to allow the Xanax to work and I sleep, hopefully.

The next works only for feet and is a back-up strategy if lidocaine fails.  My wife uses an ace bandage to wrap reusable frozen Blue Ice packs to the bottom of each foot.  The cold is very uncomfortable for a couple of minutes, but in a short time my feet are numb and if I’m lucky, I sleep.

Muscle cramping is a long term side effect from chemotherapy. It stems from low Magnesium blood levels.  I take at least 500 mg of Magnesium supplement per day.  My oncologist would rather I take 1000 mg, but I suffer digestive system revolt. I learned that almonds provide 75 mg of Magnesium per ounce so I snack in lieu of a second pill.  Regardless, I still experience one to two cramping events per day.  When they occur anywhere near my feet or chest, chronic pain soars.   There is however, no remedy for cramps.  The worst occur in the middle of the night and wake me up.

Archimedes, the ancient Greek hydrologist, provided an explanation for why immersing up to my neck in a swimming pool eases incision pain.  The upward buoyant force of the water offsets the gravitational pull on chest incisions thus minimizing pain.  Almost every day our community pool is open, I spend hours in the water.  This does not eliminate pain but reduces it noticeably. On leaving the pool, the normal level returns but it is very therapeutic.  Lying in a bathroom tub, unfortunately, does not work because there is not enough water for complete submersion.  A hot tub works fine, but there is no difference in pain relief from water temperature. 

Flying in a commercial airliner also spurs chronic incision pain.  Most airlines pressurize their cabin between 6,000 and 8,000 feet pressure altitude.  This lower-than-sea-level pressure expands my chest cavity increasing incision pain.  All commercial flights hurt but long flights are very painful often requiring a dose of narcotic medication in flight.  Not flying is the only remedy.  Those having thoracic surgery have long complained of incision pain after commercial air flights and cabin pressure is the cause.

Another secondary cause is extensive coughing and sneezing.  Sneezing is particularly bad when it is a “surprise sneeze”.  During the worst pollen events, I stay indoors and I try and avoid school age children to keep the chest colds in check, especially when school is in session.  The last secondary cause I have the most control over: stress, anger and excitement.  Admittedly, excitement is the easiest to control except when the Dallas Cowboys are playing my beloved Philadelphia Eagles.  These two games a year are indeed stressful and since I live among cowboys, someone is going to be angry over the outcome.

My wife reminds me when I complain too much that I am lucky to be alive.  What’s a little pain given the alternative.  She’s right.  Doc reminds me to avoid scheduling things in the morning so I can sleep-in late if pain interferes.  He’s right.  Football season is right around the corner and it is a good thing games are scheduled in the afternoon and evening.  

Now if the Eagles start winning, everything will be fine!

Stay the course.

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As usual, your post is enlightening for me.  I'm flying next month for the first time since my lobectomy and wondered about cabin pressure.  I usually drive to this particular destination but due to lingering fatigue (lovingly referred to as my chemo hangover), my docs thought it best that I not make the long drive.  That said, I'll be prepared for the flight after reading your post.  Three of my physicians have said that it can take a full year to recover from a lobectomy, but I'll take that discomfort over the alternative every day.  Thank you, Tom, for being a light in this otherwise dark tunnel.  

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Very helpful —- still trying to figure out the new normal..if there’s such a thing ..thanks for this 

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Hey! Oh by the way, The Philadelphia Eagles WON SUPER BOWL FIFTY TWO!  Might a cancer cure be in the offing?  There are these ground-shaking situational events that precede dramatic course changes in history.  An Eagles WIN that nudges a CANCER CURE might be the next bid swing.  It is the Eagles FIRST SUPER BOWL; cancer cure is by comparison a piece of cake.  My hope is always eternal! Always!

Go big-midnight-green-football-machine!  E...A...G...L...E...S!

I'm staying the course for Super Bowl 53!  Two in-a-row has to yield the miracle cure!

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