Walk a Mile in My Shoes

To me this is a no-brainer: when a person has a chronic medical condition that they manage every single day, it does NOT mean they are supposed to stay in bed for the rest of their lives. At the same time, it also doesn’t mean they should extend themselves to the point that they are just making their condition worse by pushing thru pain to be “tough” or “brave.”  Some conditions will get progressively worse if you don’t adjust your lifestyle and take preventative measures.

I speak from experience. I have lymphedema in both of my lower extremities. Most recently, I have been battling what we think is neuropathy. The latter is much more painful to me than the lymphedema, but I’m not even sure what is what when it comes to the pain. All I know is that it hurts terribly.

I enjoy walking. That is one of my favorite stress relievers and a way that I stay physically fit. Gaining weight is very bad for my lymphedema so I try to stay moving, even if they are short now because of pain. Still, I do many things to keep myself smiling and positive because if you don’t have your mental health at the end of the day, what do you have?

Anyone that battles lymphedema or neuropathy knows it is a constant balance between sitting and standing. When I’m having a “bad day” my medical paperwork says I’m supposed to only work for four hours a day, three days a week. If I’m having a “really bad flare up,” I am supposed to keep my legs elevated all day. We all know that’s not feasible when you are trying to work every day and show up for your employer. It’s very stressful constantly trying to play catch-up and run out the door for another doctor’s appointment.

Someone made a comment to me the other day that really hurt my feelings (I cried). In short, they questioned how I could be out and about and yet still be so “sick.”  I have since processed it, and I realize that anyone that questions my pause from teaching does not know my struggles or my story. They do not know medically what is going on with me. For them to assume that I am “supposed to” stay in bed and not go on a walk or do anything fun, well that would also be detrimental to my mental health.

They are not in my shoes. They probably couldn’t even find my shoes on the shelf. If they could, they would know this:

I am constantly worried that I might have an accident because that’s what now happens sometimes because of the radiation to my bowels. It is very common among women like me who have withstood grueling treatments for cervical cancer. It’s a nasty side effect. God Bless Imodium!  Fellow Cervivors and I jokingly say that we need our own diaper bags. We can laugh about things such as bodily functions, but it doesn’t mean it’s fun or funny. It never goes away. We are just lucky to have a sense of humor about it because at the end of the day, what else can we do?

When you ask me to go boating or out to dinner, I worry that I will ruin the fun because my feet/legs will hurt and I won’t be able to even focus on the conversations around me. The pain can make me nauseous and I feel like I want to throw up. Sometimes my eyes will randomly tear up just because I’m so tired of the gig. But the gig is my life so I can’t take a vacation from myself.

When I’m trying to get to work on time, I may seem frazzled when I arrive, It’s not because I’m not trying my best. Some mornings the thought of standing hurts before I even get out of bed because I know what it’s going to feel like when I do. Sometimes I’m changing my clothes at the last minute because I had an accident as I was walking out the door. Such fun! At any random time that you are with me, I’m probably fantasizing about taking a hot bath. There’s something about chronic pain, stress, and physical exhaustion. Bad recipe.

Before you judge me (or anyone!) and try to critique me based on your idea of what a “sick person” does with their lives, try to put yourself in my shoes. You truly don’t know, unless you have lived it. Take a walk with me and let’s see what happens!  Remember, you don’t know my reality until you have actually walked a mile or two with me or next to me. This post isn’t just for my own situation, but it’s for all of us cervical cancer survivors and those with chronic pain or chronic illness who have dealt with the judgement of others.

I’m posting about this, because I’m trying to create awareness and empathy. People are beating cancer much more than they did decades ago. Yet with surviving comes long-term side effects that sometimes become progressively worse with time. Our bodies know the score. When discussing taking a break from work, a coworker said to me, “your body already made the decision for you.” She’s right. It did. And I had to take something off my plate so I could feel better physically/emotionally. I’m taking a knee right now for myself. And no, I will not be staying home in bed in a dark hole every moment of my life. I will keep on living and enjoying this life that I have fought so hard to enjoy. I am a real person and this is my life. Thank you if you are someone that understands. I love you. If you are part of my amazing tribe and you don’t feel you understand, please just ask in a supportive and loving way.

Shawna Christy, 46, was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2005. Treatment included removal of her cervix, uterus, 1/3 of her vagina and more. Though surgery and radiation helped her beat cancer, “the hard parts came later” – like chronic pain together with PTSD and the emotional, hormonal and spiritual challenges of being a cancer survivor. Shawna plugged into Cervivor for community and support. In 2016 she attended Cervivor School and became a Cervivor Ambassador who uses her voice and her experiences to open conversations and “change the narrative.” She lives in Ottumwa, is a proud mother of daughter (Korynn, 18) and son (Kyler, 16). She is grateful for time with her besties and husband, Allen. This year she is taking time off from teaching first grade to focus on her health to better manage her pain.

Read Shawna’s Cervivor Story or her previous blog “Cerviving with Lymphedema

See other Cervivor blog posts about lymphedema: “My Under Armor: Do you know about lymphedema?” by Heather Banks

Cerviving with Lymphedema

Living life as a Cervivor involves tweaking one’s daily life to find a new normal that provides the best quality of life possible during and after treatment.  This involves researching options available for relief from side effects, advocating for the best medical care, networking with other Cervivors, and trying a variety of remedies to feel well. It can be exhausting physically, mentally, and financially. It does not end because many side effects are lifelong conditions such as Lymphedema.

Shawna with her compression hose, to control her lymphedema symptoms.

As an almost 13-year Cervivor of Adenocarcinoma 1B2, I have mastered the art of this “Cerviving” thing very well because I am used to it. It is just part of who I am. Every little ailment or pain does not typically trigger me or cause me to fear I am having a cancer recurrence. I know in some areas of my health I have some “special needs” and I embrace them. I always counted myself blessed to not have lymphedema. In 2005 I had 44 lymph nodes removed, a radical hysterectomy, and radiation. Recently, after a hospital stay for double kidney infection, I developed painful symptoms in my pelvis that were negatively affecting my daily life. Soon I would be making some serious lifelong changes to my daily life to manage the discomfort I was feeling. Cancer has created a voice in me that advocates for the care I deserve and researches the best options to treat my conditions. I was not finding relief after being discharged from the hospital with double kidney infection. While doctors were thinking my issues involved my immune system fighting off the kidney infection, my gut told me to push on to find a second opinion. A friend noted that my health was creating a sub-par quality of life for me daily and it was making me feel down.  I had to make many phone calls and eventually travel to a different hospital for an amazing team approach. After several specialists and tests, it was determined that this was a lymphocyst in my pelvis and that I did indeed have lymphedema. Crud! I was already managing every other side effect, and now this? Cancer is always the gift that keeps on giving.

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is the swelling in the arm or leg that occurs if the flow of tissue fluid (lymph) out of the extremity is restricted somehow. Our lymph system consists of a network of vessels, like blood vessels except these carry a clear fluid called lymph. In my case, the lymph was not properly percolating through small bean-sized lymph nodes that cluster in my pelvis area. And well, it hurts A LOT. I often describe how it feels, by comparing it to a balloon sitting on my lady parts and there is a definite area inside my thigh that hurts ALL THE TIME. When I walk I can feel the pressure and it makes me limp.  My leg feels heavy and numb for hours or days at a time as if it is asleep, but it won’t wake up. Half of my lower extremities feel more swollen than the other half. The pressure pushes on my sciatic nerve and it hurts to sit and sometimes it throbs when I am not even moving. When I am having pain, an hour standing feels like three hours. I just want to put my leg up and keep it straight because sitting or bending it really isn’t much fun. The pain just sits there inside my left pelvis area and it won’t go away. I sometimes want to cut my leg off or get a spinal block, so I can’t feel it anymore. My leg sometimes feels like it is not even part of my body.

$8k Flexitouch Machine I use daily for lymphatic massage.

Hooked up to the Flexitouch.

A plan had to be developed to help me manage the pain and daily living. This involves compression garments for my left leg, a special lymph node massage machine I use daily, manual lymph node massage throughout my day, special wraps I sleep in at night, dieting to put less pressure on my groin area, doing individualized daily exercises for pelvic pain, drinking plenty of water, and avoiding hot showers/baths or extreme cold. My least favorite part is putting on my compression stocking each day. Putting them on feels as difficult as childbirth some days, but they truly help. Just this week my physical therapist, Dr. Lili Wells started a special therapy called “introital stretching” because the tissue inside my vaginal area is as stiff as a board. This is supposed to really help reduce my pain in this area after as few as six sessions. I also had my medical provider help me acquire handicap parking until (or if) my symptoms improve. Some days are better than others, but I am not going to let it slow me down.

Adjusting to life in compression wear in the summer heat!

I have been very blessed to have great insurance to help offset the expenses of dealing with lymphedema.  I had several CT Scans, an MRI, a Lymposcintigraphy where they shot dye up my feet (so very painful), and they did try to aspirate the area with a guided CT. This did not seem to help for very long and it may be repeated in the future, but also cauterized next time. I will try anything to make the pain stop. There are cutting edge procedures in Lymphedema that I am looking into.  A very small number of U.S. institutions treat lymphedema with a comprehensive multidisciplinary lymphedema service. These places are trying to change the perception that it is an untreatable, lifelong condition. Dr. Wei Chen of the University of Iowa feels that medical professionals have an obligation to treat lymphedema because they are causing it due to surgery and radiation.  I do not know if I am a candidate to be treated at one of these institutions, but it is exciting to read about “Lymphies” finding more permanent relief with new procedures. I recently made an appointment to see if this could help me in the future.

Physical Therapy with Dr. Wells.

I have always tried to boldly “Walk in my Cervivorship” because to me that is the best way to overcome any adversity and advocate after my cancer experience. There is no forgetting that I had Cervical Cancer. Some days, managing all of this makes me cry because I remember what life was like before cancer and I feel it puts limitations on me that complicate my daily life. At times, I become distracted because all I am thinking about is what I need to do to get ahead of the pain or what is the next step in my daily regimen. But then the perseverance I have within my soul rises and grabs back my joy while I prance around in my rock star compression stockings ready to take on the world.

Read Shawna’s Cervivor story here.