One of the most common side effects of receiving chemo is neuropathy, or peripheral neuropathy. As careful as the doctors are about preventing long-term effects, some cancer patients end up with this condition that affects them long beyond when treatment has ended. The symptoms can be debilitating, and I’ll share with you what has worked for me to manage the condition.
So what exactly is peripheral neuropathy? While some people know neuropathy as a condition associated with diabetes, it can actually be caused by various diseases, infections and toxins. It is essentially nerve damage, often in hands and/or feet. It can cause numbness, tingling and pain. The degree to which a person is affected depends upon the amount of damage to the nerves. This means two people can experience symptoms of neuropathy and be affected differently and to different degrees. For example, some may feel numbness in their toes only, while other experience severe pain. A person can also experience sensitivity to touch, sensitivity to cold, and lack of coordination or falling.
When I was nearing the end of my five months of chemo my doctor and nurse practitioner closely monitored my symptoms of neuropathy, which had been increasing over time. I recall them saying they had to weigh the benefits of chemo with the long-term affects of the neuropathy. In fact there was a discussion about whether I would receive that last treatment at all. Several months after my active treatment ended, the numbness I was feeling in my toes began to improve. However, a few months later I was put on a combination of medications that are my long-term treatment, and as a result I experience neuropathy symptoms on a daily basis. (Despite the fact that neuropathy is not a documented side effect of these medications.) The way in which my neuropathy effects me now is many of the classic symptoms. I have mild numbness in my toes, pain on the bottoms of my feet, sensitivity to touch, and sensitivity to cold. I don’t feel that the amount of numbness I have causes me lack of coordination, though some would say I’m naturally ungraceful! The amount of pain I experience varies from just a tight feeling first thing in the morning to stabbing pain waking me at night. The pain is worse after extended periods on my feet, or after wearing the wrong (aka cute) shoes. If someone touches my feet, it is the kind of sudden pain that makes me want to pull away, so pedicures are not my thing. If my feet become cold for an extended period, the result is tight, stabbing pain.
There are medications, of course, that a doctor may offer to patients, but my preference would be to use medication as a last resort.
So how do I manage long days on my feet? I have found a combination of alternative therapies and lifestyle practices to be the answer. I do all I can to keep my feet warm, I wear quality shoes the majority of the time, I try to pace myself with my activity level, and I have found acupuncture to be an essential part of my life. My chiropractor inserts needles directly into my feet, and I’m not going to lie, it doesn’t feel good. Remember, it hurts just to touch them, but when you stick a needle into a damaged nerve..well, it can really hurt. But, long-term it does help me. I find that if I get acupuncture every 3-4 weeks, I have consistently less pain and the acupuncture itself hurts less when I keep up with my appointments. Recently I have also been experimenting with essential oils, and have found it to be a helpful strategy to incorporate as well.
I am managing my pain one step at a time, and striving for less pain with each step!