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.