"Will I die?" That's the first question that occurs to most people when they find out they have breast cancer. The answer is, "Of course you will die, but probably not for a long time." There is an excellent survival rate for breast cancer these days. Most women live to be old ladies.
"Will it hurt?" That's the second question. The answer this time is "yes."
Pain is a part of medical treatment. Depending on the type of treatments you have, the pain may be range from uncomfortable to severe, but many strategies can minimize it.
Pain is a very subjective experience. Each person experiences it her own way. My own measuring stick for pain is how it compares to my hysterectomy. Nothing in breast cancer treatment has been nearly so bad. But I'm sure some of you will tell me about how your hysterectomy was easy compared to a recent procedure you had for breast cancer.
Women who have given birth or had previous surgeries have developed skills for coping with pain. People who live every day with a chronic disease like diabetes are not going to feel overwhelmed by the thought of more needle sticks and regular tests. But for a young woman whose experience with doctors and pain has been an occasional vaccination, the prospect of pain may be terrifying.
The kind of pain you might have falls into three categories: fleeting, short-term, and chronic. Managing each requires a different strategy.
Fleeting pain is what you experience for just a few moments for the IV insertion or pressure when the doctor pokes and prods. Knowing what to expect can help you cope with this. Most doctors or techs will explain ahead of time: "You'll feel a burning sensation for a few seconds as the dye goes in." If no one explains what is about to happen, you are not a baby to ask, "Will this hurt?"
Using relaxation techniques and imagery will help you with this type of pain. I still use the breathing techniques I learned in Lamaze to help me relax for painful procedures. Breathe in, two, three, four. Breathe out, two, three four. Focusing on my breathing and counting keeps my mind off the pain.
I also use imagery like picturing myself on a beach or by a mountain brook. Prayer or religious imagery helps many people. Imagining Jesus putting his healing hand on me calms me when I start getting anxious about a procedure. Another strategy is to focus on how this procedure is going to help you get well. Seeing the treatment as a means to a new healthy you can put it in perspective.
Short-term pain may not seem so short-term at the time, but pain from chemo, surgery, or radiation usually lasts just a few days or weeks. Imagery and relaxation will help, but in most cases they will not be enough.
Communication with your doctor is critical here. Nurses are trained to ask you about your pain level. Be truthful with them. This is not the time to try to be brave and stoic. You will be able to heal better if your pain is controlled. It's OK if the pain medication makes you sleepy. You probably need some extra sleep right now anyway. If one pain medication does not work, let the doctor know. Another will do the trick.