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Managing Pain Managing Pain
BY DONNA SCHAPER

From Holy Vulnerability: A Spiritual Path for Those with Cancer

Although the pain of cancer has a purpose, don’t let anyone tell you that pain is not pain. Those of us with cancer need to use distractions, will power and painkillers, because there is nothing noble about suffering in and of itself. Suffering ennobles us by the way we manage it, not by the way we tolerate it.

Cancer has a unique way of hurting. Chemotherapy brings a kind of fatigue and sickness to the body that makes even moving about difficult. It brings a lethargy that can poison the spirit. Surgery hurts more acutely. Even “cleaning the drains” after surgery can hurt in a way that people rarely mention. For people who have had radiation go badly, the pain and burns remain for a long, long time. Even when radiation goes right, it is not comfortable.

Pain management is not just a spiritual matter. We need to learn our meds and learn our bodies and learn what works for us and what doesn’t. We need to rehearse our program over and over and change it over and over – and not let others tell us how to do that. These self-medications and evaluations are very much our responsibility.

Nobody else knows how much chemo we can take in a day or week or month; we do. We know our breaking point. We don’t need doctors to decide the correct dosage for us as much as we need to give ourselves permission to say “ouch” and “enough.”

In his essay “Heavenly Bodies,” Wendell Berry says, “Everything bad was laid on the body, and everything good was credited to the soul. It scared me a little when I realized that I saw it the other way around exactly.” When our body hurts, it is very hard for our soul to feel good.

Many things – not just medication – can manage pain. For example, learning how to breathe has helped more than one woman get through the pain of childbirth. When I was in my worst cancer pain, I used sunshine. I split up my days into parts and got as much sunshine onto the wound in my chest as possible. The good feeling of the sunshine took away some of the bad pain of the wound. My way may or may not work for you; the point is to custom design a pain-management program that is specific to your pain threshold and the stage of your disease. But be sure to tell others what your program is, because that is the only way they can help you.

My pain-management techniques involved tolerating the pain for four hours at a time. I would look forward to 10 a.m., which is when the sun would come onto my patio. It would leave around 2 in the afternoon, and I would leave then also. Those four hours were actually pleasant. I kept the painkillers off duty for this period of time.

I have known others who have used massage to great effect. I had a massage given to me the hour before my surgery. It left a body memory of great peace in me as I managed the first twenty-four hours after the operation.

Still others use diet in a way that helps them. Medications can foul up our whole system – and we don’t need “simple” problems, such as constipation or diarrhea, to interfere with serious problems, such as runaway white corpuscles. Other techniques include deep breathing and counting, memorizing and reciting psalms or other poems or simply grasping the hand of a loved one to get you through the hardest times.


Donna Schaper is senior pastor of Judson Memorial Church in New York City. She has written over 20 books including Spiritual Resources for People With Cancer and When A Parent Dies.

Copyright © 2005 Donna Schaper. Holy Vulnerability: A Spiritual Path for Those with Cancer. Used by Permission.



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