Does Cancer Hurt?

Listen to the commentary

MP3 Download

The following essay is from the NPR My Cancer weekly podcast:

I've never felt my cancer. I know it's there — the doctors have told me so and I've seen the pictures. Bright white spots on the otherwise grey and black scans. But that's really the only way I know I have it. I've never had symptoms from the cancer itself.

Recently, one of my colleagues asked a very basic question, one I'm surprised hadn't occurred to me before.

"Does cancer hurt?" A simple question, but not a simple answer.

Five years ago, my cancer was detected by a routine colonoscopy. It was a total surprise. I didn't have any symptoms back then either. The operation to remove it certainly hurt, or at least the recovery did. I had a line of staples down my stomach a foot long. I remember the nurse saying that removing them wouldn't hurt a bit. Well it did hurt. I mean, c'mon, they're pulling staples out of your stomach with a staple remover that's only slightly fancier than what you'd buy at the store. And the recovery was painful too. But the cancer? Never felt it.

Didn't feel it this time either. A brain tumor and tumors in my lungs. Brain surgery was painless, too. Turns out, your brain doesn't have pain sensors. Of course, I had another line of staples, just shorter than the first one, down the side of my head. And yes, those hurt a little, too, when they were pulled out.

The chemo has made me sick, but again, no pain. I know that's not the case for everyone. Many cancers cause incredible pain, but not mine. I have a very high tolerance for physical pain anyway. Over the course of my life, I've been beaten bloody with clubs (by the Chilean army, if you're curious), been tear-gassed and hit with water cannons. I've been shot at, shelled... even had people throw dynamite at me.

Now some of those things hurt — a lot. But does cancer hurt? You bet. It hurts in ways that transcend physical pain.

That first diagnosis is like a knife into your heart. That first bleak prognosis? That's a punch to your stomach. Waiting for the results of a scan? Water torture — slow, agonizing, excruciating.

It hurts in the dark hours of the night, when you're alone with your thoughts, and you have to confront the idea of your own death. It hurts when something simple reminds you that you may not be around in six months, a year, whatever. It hurts when you think about the things you're going to miss.

But that's not the worst of it. Cancer spreads the pain around. You see it in the tears of a friend when you tell them. You see it in the eyes of your doctor who knows that in a few seconds, he has to give you bad news. You see it in the eyes of your loved ones, friends and family, who want so much to help, but can't, and who are so scared for you and scared of the loss that your death will bring.

So to answer the question, "does cancer hurt?" I haven't felt a thing — except for when it hurts so badly you can barely stand it.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

I read your stuff. Good stuff. I also have cancer. Hang in there. The grand inquisitor could take lessons from some of the Docs. That is just the way it goes.

Sent by Alec Lambie | 12:29 PM | 9-18-2006

I am an anesthesiologist in my residency training, and while I don't have cancer and have been relatively healthy all of my life, I see the pain of the disease every day. I hold the hands of patients facing surgeries... sometimes sharing what may be their last moments of life. Mr. Sievers' comments regarding his cancer have made me even more sensitive to these folks as they face their disease. I don't hesitate to pause and hold their hands, voice reassurance, and allow family members time for one last hug before making our way to the operating room... it might be the last moments with their loved ones... the "on time OR start, and the hurry of medical efficiency and economics" can wait. It can wait because we all must face our own destiny and someday it may be me on the gurney or a member of my family being wheeled off to the operating room. Those last moments are precious. Cheers to Leroy Sievers and his candid representation of what this experience has been to him. He has affected change in my life and by doing so affected change in those I encounter as a medical provider, most definitely in a positive manner.

Sent by Trisha J. Mitchell | 12:32 PM | 9-18-2006

Leaving us with the message that "it hurts" just fuels the fear that people have. Why not offer as well stories about people regaining health, using a diagnosis as message to change their lives and take care of their health?

Sent by Phyllils Aiyana Stern | 12:37 PM | 9-18-2006

My Cancer hurt. I had bone cancer in my left arm. It started out as a mild tingling I would get in my arm when I was sleeping and gradually went to very sensitive to the touch then to an aching pain.

Sent by Jesse | 12:49 PM | 9-18-2006

A beautiful piece of writing Leroy — spot on. Does it hurt — yes! Especially, when I think about leaving my wife and two young children — that hurts a hell of a lot. Physical pain I can endure — but the pain of leaving — that's tough.

Sent by Julian | 12:51 PM | 9-18-2006

Like you, my cancer was a very big surprise — a surprise that has continued to give in the years since the announcement and divided my life into before and after cancer diagnosis. Post diagnosis, first decision was whether to participate in any treatment and secondly, to decide what and where which became 28 radiation treatments and a three-day internal radiation treatment in a hospital all supervised by an unsympathetic and at times unpleasant head of local treatment center. My normal treating physician and an oncologist who both are wonderful were pushed aside by the cancer treatment. Then there were the disappearance of the pathology report from the hospital records likely due to the wrong cancers having been diagnosed, too many CT scans to count, colonoscopies, other incredibly embarrassing and sometimes painful invasive tests, almost emergency removal of tumor on eyelid which was not cancerous but was preceded by VERY uncomfortable CT scan of my head and the statement by the above cancer treatment physician that the cancer had returned only three months after treatment ended. My life became a seemingly endless round of worry about the test, the test, and the waiting for the test results. What happened to laughing with friends, reading, gardening, yard work, swimming, and fishing? Dinner out? All consumed by the cancer for the first years after the diagnosis.

Then there was the effort on my part to make others feel better and not worry about me at a time when I truly needed to have others "worry" about me. I didn't have time to grieve for my own permanent losses such as the life-long sense of being an attractive woman and enjoying intimacy — again, consumed by cancer. The new problems re digestive and elimination systems took the place of relaxing and having a good time doing anything I pleased. In the place of just being somewhere — anywhere — was the fear of embarrassing me.

Cancer totally consumed my life for at least the first five years in spite of my outward appearance of being normal. Normal became an impossible and, at times dangerous, relationship I stayed in due to fear of there never being another. Fear replaced confidence in many areas but had to continue working to support myself and lost a very good job in part due to my having had cancer. I became uninsurable as well. The physical changes caused me to withdraw from even the possibility of an intimate relationship.

Does cancer hurt? You bet it does. Mine didn't kill me but it killed large parts of who I was in those pre-cancer years.

Sent by Pat Goodwin | 12:58 PM | 9-18-2006

Small irony, that: when I have cancer, I feel fine. When I'm undergoing treatment to kill off the cancer, I feel like hell. And I hurt... from surgery, from radiation, all over from chemo, but mostly in my soul. If exhaustion and grief count as pain, then I have been in pain for over four years. But I try to remind myself: so long as I can feel something, I am alive.

So are you, Leroy, and that makes me feel better. Thanks for today.

Sent by Joan Jones | 1:03 PM | 9-18-2006

I can barely type the words I want to say cuz this entry, new to me, touched me to my very core. I am 27-year-old male, it's almost 6:30 in Cali time. I should be asleep for hours now. I can't sleep because in about seven hours I'll be in the doc's office for the first time since my surgery on Tuesday to remove a problem lymph node. I may find out today that I had to only endure that and the infection is gone. Today would be a good day indeed and worth not sleeping to greet the morning. However, the doc could very well say I have a cancer. (If only the keystrokes were recorded to see my hesitation after the word have.) For me, as a young person who had to buy health insurance directly (because this country doesn't have a system to help poor people like me), today, might just be one I will never forget.

One really disturbing factor when I think about pain. Does it hurt? Physically for me, it hurt a lot. One side note is that my problems started in the throat. My grandma died of throat cancer when I was an early teen. I remember vividly the emotional pain she had to go through. Chemo, loss of speech, face swelling. Gosh she was beautiful but the way she died, as a kid growing up in the projects of New York City I remember her hiding her face in a scarf to go grocery shopping. I remember the names the kids would call her — "There goes the elephant lady" (Michael Jackson's Black or White video was popular then which featured him.) My mom and my gma were not really close, religion and child abuse got in the way of that. Sadly, for me, in some bizarre cosmic script I am prematurely playing every part in my grandma's ordeal — loss of speech, neck swelling, hiding my new scare after surgery, feeling insecure.

It feels like my neck is turning into stone before my eyes and I'm helpless. Yes, for me, the pain is there, I really hate the pain. Mentally, physically, financially, spiritually, every part of my being that exists will not be spared before this is over. But like all tragedies, it only will last a short while, even if it means my death. Death brings about peace in some ways. With myself and others around me. I don't fear death nor embrace it. But I feel my grandma is helping me be closer to my family through this. For various reasons I have a stubborn mom. How ironic I have to endure a rerun of this cancer in me for the spark of love to come through as a humbling force on both sides of the silence between my family and I. Everything happens for a reason I guess. I could go on, but I take great gratitude that I endure this pain because in the end, peace will come and love conquers over pain. I hold on to that thought when it hurts.

Sent by Ty Graham | 1:30 PM | 9-18-2006

As usual, Leroy, you hit the nail on the head. Like you, my breast cancer itself never hurt — mastectomy recovery hurt some, but not a lot (certainly not as much as childbirth!), chemo and radiation were uncomfortable, but not painful per se (though I know that's not the case for everyone).

If anything, the psychic pain of cancer has left me with the opposite of pain - numbness. In order to get on with my daily life — raising two teenagers, teaching piano, being a supportive spouse — I've found that I've had to put up some carefully constructed walls so that the emotional/mental pain of cancer doesn't take over. And that effort leaves me numb. It may not be the best way to deal with it all, but its what's working for me right now.

Sent by Gretchen Hoag | 1:32 PM | 9-18-2006

Dear Leroy,

Your last entry regarding pain made me cry. You put into words exactly how I've (and I'm sure many others) have felt. I think the reason people ask that question is that they want to know if maybe they have cancer and don't know it. I guess it's not very reassuring to them to know that most of us have no symptoms. I was sick the entire year prior to my diagnosis. Walking pneumonia, bouts of bronchitis, allergies I'd never had before. Basically my immune system was totally overwhelmed. In spite of all of the chemo, surgeries and radiation I've felt better than last year with the cancer gone or at least contained.

Sent by Patricia Buchanan | 2:04 PM | 9-18-2006

Amen. You speak the truth so beautifully and simply.

Sent by Doris | 2:22 PM | 9-18-2006

Your candor, your attitude and your spirit are amazing. What an extraordinary gift it is to share this experience with you.

Thank you for the privilege.

Sent by Susan Fleming | 2:25 PM | 9-18-2006

You have this exactly, perfectly, right.

Sent by David Larsen | 2:48 PM | 9-18-2006

Since I read your posts so often, I thought I should at least let you know that you touch people without cancer in their lives as well. My story, which to say the least — pales in comparison to yours and others, is I got Tinnitus on February 8th and I watched, felt, and cried as my life as I knew it, disappeared. It is such a minor thing as I said in comparison to you, but I relate to you and all with the common theme of your life coming to a screeching halt as you knew it the day before, and more importantly, it will never come back, it's not possible, because you have become a different person. As difficult as the challenge is, the gift is seeing yourself and the world in a completely different light. Unfortunately, for you, it may eventually shorten your life, and it is such a humanly painful process as well. I feel for you, and Im probably not making my point well, but what Im trying to say is... though mine is not life threatening, I have crossed over to the other side, the side of complete upheaval and challenge, and in a small way I can relate. I wish you good days, love, and most importantly, the wonderful days when you can almost see the beauty in seeing the world in a different light. My favorite quote is, "Miracles happen everyday, the sun rose in the East today." (Joan Baez)

You are in my thoughts and prayers, and please accept my apologies at my fumbling attempt to say thank you, and wish you peace in your heart.

Sent by Patrice Nissen | 2:51 PM | 9-18-2006

When my father was diagnosed with cancer it seemed that it did not hurt only when he coughed. His was diagnosed January 2005 with Stage 3b I think and he continued to work until November of 2005. He did chemo, radiation and Taceva (not sure if I am spelling it right). He had lung cancer and the treatment was working somewhat it stopped the spreading until November when the doctor told him its time for him to relax. From there on it went down hill and he never complained. He was more worried me doing well in college then his own health that is just the way he was. He did not want to be a bother but my family and I assured that taking care of him was our main priority; college is always going to be there. Our father passed away this past January, a day shy of his 60th birthday. Some of the best days where with him during those troubled time because it was my turn to take care of him. Isn't that how it's supposed to be. The parents take care of the kids when their young and then the kids take care of the parents when they get older. Family was everything with my Dad. Miss him much!

Sent by Karl Rumpf | 2:56 PM | 9-18-2006

Finally someone has articulated what I've been experiencing since my diagnosis with a brain tumor in May of 2002. People keep saying I'm an "inspiration" and yet I don't feel that way because I haven't had to suffer in any great way physically. I have to women friends who are battling breast cancer right now and they have truly been through the mill. I've had a painless biopsy (was in the hospital about 24 hours), radiation treatment and two surgeries (also relatively painless, unless you count the attempts to start intravenous lines and an intra-arterial line before surgery.

I'm not particularly brave, though. If I were to suddenly be told that my tumor had progressed to a deadly grade IV, I know I would fall to pieces.

Anyway, I want to thank you, Leroy, for articulating the kind of cold grey light of dawn thoughts that haunt me some days.

Sent by Kathleen Riehle | 3:01 PM | 9-18-2006

I guess I am different. My cancer hurts. It hurts in my chest and it hurts in the places where it metastasized into my bones. It was a nasty sharp pain in my chest that brought me to the emergency room. Some doctors say the pain was costil congritis, but I know it was the cancer. I had some sore muscles on the surface of my chest. My body, knowing something was wrong, I believe, sent out signals. The most vulnerable place for a pain reaction was the area of tender muscle pain, which went off like an alarm.

I thought it was my heart (due to an earlier electrocution), but the chest x-ray indicated a nodule and the CT scan confirmed. I was relatively asymptomatic. I felt a little annoyance in my back but I chalked it up to a bad sleep.

Two days after my chemo cycle ended, my back went from a "1" to a "9" on the pain scale. I couldn't turn my head. I was moaning and grunting. It was bad. Then it began to subside. About a week and a half later, my hip, the site of another bone mestasis, became unbearably painful and I had trouble walking. The opiate pain medication prescribed does little for bone pain. It flared and peaked and now it is practically and thankfully gone.

I like to think that those pains that came out of nowhere are nasty little cancer cells dying when they met the chemo. Cancer is an insidious little bug. I know it is not going to go quietly. It was living the good life before my treatment, now I just declared war.

Does cancer hurt? You bet.

I'm 27 and I've been diagnosed with lung cancer. Apparently, I am a rare case. I am trying to document my battle online as well.

Good luck Leroy.

Sent by Aaron Pollack | 3:08 PM | 9-18-2006

I think your comments are exactly right. The cancers of my friends affect my relationship with them. I don't know what to say if there is bad news. I want to say something encouraging but fear saying something ridiculous, so I end up saying nothing. And they probably feel hurt that I don't care more. It's always there. I know this must be painful for them, to have to endure my uncertainty.

Sent by Elsie | 12:29 PM | 9-19-2006

I appreciate your post today, as always. I too am fighting a cancer that has not caused me any physical pain. Only the side effects from treatment and surgery have caused me pain. My physicians and their staffs have minimized the pain and side effects while administering aggressive treatment. Kudos to them for their efforts, for I am continually impressed with their skill and intelligence.

The point Id like to contribute today is this: As cancer survivors (patients if you prefer), we all must seek out and nurture any advantages that we have in our own personal battles with cancer. I have found that this technique helps me daily in my struggle.

For example, I was diagnosed at age 44 with advanced prostate cancer. Big disadvantage you say? I say not! Being young and strong is my biggest advantage in fighting cancer. I am willing to try to take all the chemo and radiation therapy that they throw at me. It is crucial that we beat the cancer back while Im strong and pain-free.

My wife and three kids are key in all of this. They're strong, resourceful, and compassionate. They pick me up in a big way when Im not feeling so great. I love them dearly, but try not to pity them too often because they are another one of my big advantages. Compassion is a much better option than pity.

The experts say my case places me way out on the tails of the normal statistical distribution for patients diagnosed with prostate cancer. So, you think Im a statistical anomaly? I sure am. And that is another one of my advantages. Because of this, my treatment strategy doesn't necessarily have to follow standard operating protocol. We can do treatments out of order. We can think about what makes sense, based just on the facts of my case, and proceed from there. I don’t feel that my prognosis can really be predicted. I like it that way.

I may sound overly optimistic, but there is just no useful purpose for being pessimistic about cancer. I know there are realities, but choose to focus primarily on the positives.

For those of you who are affected by cancer and think there is nothing advantageous about your case, I say you must think again. Find something that you can think of as an advantage. Turn your weaknesses into strengths if you can. Use any trick that even has a slight chance of working. You have to.

What are your advantages?

I wish you all the best!

Sent by Charlie Hernden | 12:31 PM | 9-19-2006

All of your columns are wonderful, but this was like someone reaching out to take my hand. I have stage IV lung cancer. My cancer is quiet now, but the future may be tough. And, I have never had any real pain with my cancer. But, I have been stressed lately because those close to me can't understand that I won't be around for ever. I wrote a few lines about it trying to get them to understand:

If you deny that I'll die before I'm old, you deny the person I am today; You deny my fight against my cancer, You can't share in the delight I take in small things, You cant share the joy I feel with a day well lived. If you deny that I may die before I'm old, you can't help me keep the fear at bay and you can't help me strike a light in the dark.

This quiet period also has its demons.

Sent by Paula Polk | 12:36 PM | 9-19-2006

Leroy,

Thank you for bringing up the real pain that is experienced by the entire circle of friends and family. After spending many months as a primary caregiver for my mother and then many more months as a patient, I see the entire system so focused on the patient while those around, especially the primary caregiver(s), are left to lurk in the shadows with little or no support. Yet, these all too important people are the true life-sustaining elements throughout treatment, recovery and often death. My 85 year-old (ex) mother-in-law took care of her husband through 3 agonizing years until he finally succumbed to a rare sarcoma that originated in his pectoral muscle. It burned her soul even and at the end this 90 (maybe) lb lady was so relieved because she thought it had totally destroyed her. Her strength was a total amazement to all. Through this all, little support was offered to her other than her two daughters that lived hundreds of miles away.

How can we let those around us suffer through this unattended? We need more emphasis on the circle since we already have fine-tuned the center.

Sent by Ed Brown | 3:34 PM | 9-19-2006

Cancer hurts on every level. I was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and lost my mother to gallbladder cancer two months prior. Finding myself on both sides of the fence — as grieving daughter and patient, I can only say that your writings are bang on. As a mother, wife, sister and daughter, I too see the fear in my loved ones eyes. I would give anything to be able to take that hurt away. I also realize that my mother saw the same when she looked into our eyes. It is okay to acknowledge this fear and to share the hurt. Pretending it doesn't exist fuels the pain that everyone is feeling. I wish you the all the best and look forward to reading your posts every day.

Sent by Liane | 3:35 PM | 9-19-2006

Your on page with this Leroy, I had a conversation with this just the other day with a friend that was diagnosed with lung cancer last year and my diagnoses of breast cancer ten years ago and still dealing with it. But look where is god in all this? I can't afford to stay up at night wondering when will be my last meal or last look at the sunset. Yes fear is there. No one gets to choose how or when we go so I try to do the best i can. I live my life and help others the best I can. I try to come to an acceptance with it but I try to live my life the best I can.

Sent by Meredith | 3:39 PM | 9-19-2006

Thank you for using your gift of words to explain to the world what many of us feel but cannot express.

Sent by Elizabeth | 3:42 PM | 9-19-2006

Leroy I heard you on NPR and had to look up your site. I am so glad that you are speaking about cancer and writing about your experiences. I am just now trying to do the same and have started my own blog about my breast cancer experience. Wish I would have started this from day one.

Sent by Jill Midthun | 4:28 PM | 9-19-2006

I'm going to the store right now and buy a three-ring binder so that I can print, store and then read and re-read your blogs. This mirror on my life. Thank You!

Sent by Carol Dimling | 4:34 PM | 9-19-2006

Hello,

The Gerson Therapy should be of interest to you at this point in your life. Be brave!

Will

Sent by Will | 4:33 PM | 9-20-2006

Does cancer hurt? No. It plugs up my lungs so it's hard to breathe. It pushes on my spine so I can't bend down much, but cancer itself doesn't hurt. I can't point to a place where I have cancer and say, jeeez, does that hurt. But what it does to me physically, mentally, emotionally, and in every way I exist, deeply hurts. What it does to my family and friends is terribly painful too.

Treatment hurts. Radiation this time around is like carrying a millstone Im just tired, crazy tired. Chemo is like be very hung-over for months and someone offering you a shot of the nastiest rum five days a week.

Biology is against us, but please be positive if not for yourself at least for others who love you. Our legacy is the time we have left filled with love of ourselves and one another. Let that be our family's true inheritance not the pain.

Sent by John A. Goebel | 11:26 AM | 9-21-2006

Hi, I felt something to share which I saw at Discovery Channel about Cancer. The guy had a Cancer and he fought by making a round to the world. He ended at the Deep Rain Forest, lethargic and counting the days left in his Cancerous body. He lost consciousness. After some days he was woken up by jungle people which he came to know that they gave him food by chewing into their mouth (bacteria surrounds) gosh! He survived. So he went back home and manage to find out that bacteria kills bacteria. From that day he will keeps his food in the fridge for many months and eat the foods to kill the bacteria. He even invites his cancer friends for the lunch or dinner. That's great but the food is rotten. You need to survive!

Sent by Nishada | 11:40 AM | 9-21-2006

Good luck Leroy.

Sent by Janet | 12:39 PM | 9-25-2006

For the "dark hours of the night," may I suggest a lava lamp? Ok, it addresses none of the big problems and provides no major philosophical insights. But at 3:00 a.m. it can be a very comforting distraction, and sometimes that's what matters.

Sent by Lisa | 1:26 PM | 9-25-2006

Amazing article. Thank you for writing this. All the best on your road to recovery.

Sent by June | 9:33 PM | 5-29-2007

I'm so sad to report that Charlie Hernden who posted a reply on 09-19-2006 lost his fight w/ prostate cancer last night (June 25, 2007) about 10pm. He will be greatly missed not only by his wife and three children but his large family of nine brothers and sisters and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins. Charlie you will be missed but NOT forgotten. We love you!!

Sent by Barbara Hernden | 7:31 AM | 6-26-2007

I stumbled on here by accident or maybe not but all your stories are - i really don't have a word for it!

Sent by suzy | 12:49 AM | 11-5-2007

That was a great article. Well written and full of personal passion. God Bless You!

Sent by Lacy | 10:26 AM | 2-16-2008

wow! How touching and Heart Wrenching at the same time. I wish you all Peace and Love. Thank you for sharing all of your stories.

Sent by Misty Rainey | 3:44 AM | 4-18-2008

About

Support comes from: