It’s another hot August morning in Austin. I’m waking up, sitting in my favorite chair with my dog, sipping my coffee with my feet up. And my feet hurt. Six years after chemo, I still have some pain in the balls of my feet and toes, and today’s pain is more intense.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m absolutely joyous to be alive! Neuropathy is just one of those nagging, ongoing side effects that you get used to.
What is neuropathy? And why does chemo trigger it?
Certain types of chemo, like ones that include platinum-based drugs and others, tend to damage the nerve endings in the extremities, mainly hands and feet, resulting in peripheral neuropathy.
Like many other cancer survivors, I experienced intense pain in my hands and feet while undergoing my FOLFOX chemo treatments. The platinum-based Oxaliplatin drug in my chemo cocktail really did a number on the nerves in the ends of my fingers and the balls and toes of my feet. Walking and touching things with my fingers was extremely painful during treatment since the nerves were sending mixed-up burning/tingling/extreme cold/sharp pain signals to my brain all at the same time. Even though my nerves have regenerated to some extent since chemo, I still have some pain, tingling and numbness in the balls of my feet and toes, and numbness in my fingertips.
Most days now, my pain is subdued. But walking often creates more friction on the balls of my feet and revs up the pain. Sometimes, my feet just hurt from the minute I wake up. Like today.
Talking to your doctor about cancer-related pain
While “suffering through the pain” is one strategy for cancer survivors, there are likely ways to alleviate or reduce the pain. Ask your doctor about how to handle the pain to see if there is any way to get relief.
With peripheral neuropathy, some drugs (like my anti-seizure drugs) may have the effect of reducing neuropathy pain. But when I asked my doctors about this strategy, we concluded that, since I was already on some of these drugs for another reason, adding more of these type of drugs to the mix would not reduce my pain significantly.
The American Cancer Society lists both drug and non-drug alternate interventions to help relieve neuropathy pain.
- Steroids for a short time until a long-term treatment plan is in place
- Patches or creams of numbing medicine that can be put right on the painful area (for example, lidocaine patches or capsaicin cream)
- Antidepressant medicines, often in smaller doses than are used to treat depression
- Anti-seizure medicines, which are used to help many types of nerve pain
- Opioids or narcotics, for when pain is severe
Non-drug, alternate interventions:
- Electrical nerve stimulation
- Occupational therapy
- Physical therapy
- Relaxation therapy
- Guided imagery
Communicating with your doctor is key to getting help from neuropathy pain in order to explore some of these treatments.
Check-out MD Anderson’s Cancerwise blog for a great article on communicating with your doctor about cancer-related pain. As an MDA patient, I’ve found Cancerwise to be a wonderful resource for personal stories of hope from patients. You can look up various cancer topics like treatment, survivorship, side-effects and the latest cancer research or search the blog by disease-type.
“There are many ways to address the various types of cancer pain, and not every approach uses medication.” – Discussing your cancer pain and finding relief, MD Anderson Cancerwise Blog
Relieving neuropathy pain? The “Scrambler Therapy”
The other day, a friend at MD Anderson mentioned a promising neuropathy treatment.
The Scrambler Therapy tries to “trick” the brain by placing electrodes around the areas of numbness and pain, scrambles the crazy signals and allows only normal signals to the brain from the affected area so the brain perceives them as normal sensations instead of pain. Patients participate in 45 minute sessions for five to 10 days. This pilot program is run by Salahadin Abdi, M.D., Ph.D, at MD Anderson Cancer Center. I’m eager to try this out.
“Our neuropathy patients’ preliminary experiences have been promising. Not only did they report less pain, they also regained sensation. And most importantly, their quality of life improved.” – Salahadin Abdi, M.D., Ph.D
Listen to Dr. Abdi explain the promising treatment on the MD Anderson Cancer Newsline podcast.
I called MD Anderson to set-up an evaluation to see if I’m a good candidate for the Scrambler Therapy. Stay tuned!