Part 2: Different Treatment Options and Hope For Chemo-Induced Peripheral Neuropathy

I have the chorus “I get knocked down, but I get up again! No one’s ever gonna keep me down!” by Chumbawamba playing on a loop in my head most days. I’ve referenced this song in previous posts because of the comfort it brings me. I seem to possess a natural resilience and consistently get back up and push forward when facing the never-ending challenges this world throws at me. I would be lying if I said it’s easy to keep kicking and feel hopeful.

I wasn’t sure if I would ever find new treatment options for my chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN). I had begun to not only lose hope but fear was doing its best to cripple me. As a chronically single woman, I’ve been fearful of more falls occurring when by myself as I get older. The only reason I can almost grin when thinking about the grade 3 sprain I suffered from in January is that it was the first time I’d fallen and wasn’t alone. I had been walking with my realtor looking at townhouses when I went down hard. That dreamed dissolved right then and there.

So, as the winds of resilience push me forward, again and again, I was determined to find a specialist who could help with my CIPN. Lo and behold, I found one who not only listens but thinks outside of the box because he fully understands how debilitating and painful CIPN can be for cancer patients.

Meet my chiropractor Dr. Dan Ruitenbeek in Marietta, GA. His training is in clinical neurology. He’s the first specialist who wasn’t trying to shove medications down my throat or make me feel those were the only options. What many cancer patients with CIPN don’t think about or maybe even know is the lack of blood flow and how that plays into how severe or not the symptoms can be.

First, we had a consultation and he did some tests to get a baseline of the nerve damage in my hands and feet. With every little test, including thermal imaging, I was floored but also overwhelmed with emotion by what I was NOT feeling. There’s quite a bit of math involved, too.

Second, Dr. Dan reviewed the results of my consultation and laid out his suggested treatment plans. I knew there was major nerve damage, but the numbers did shock me.

Severe sensory loss category:

  • Right foot – 62.9% loss
  • Left foot – 60.0% loss
  • Right hand and Left hand – 45.7% loss

My new treatment protocol is a combination of both in-office and at-home treatments. The first three months are like a bootcamp of sorts to see what stimulations I respond to, the levels, and any unforeseen reactions.

***Disclaimer: This is my specific treatment and not for everyone. Everything you see below is based on the severity of my CIPN and prescribed by my chiropractor.***

Anodyne Therapy – At-home treatments 2x per day

Rebuilder Tub with rubber pads and electrodes – At-home treatment 1x per day

Conductive Garment Gloves – At-home treatment to help with my hands for 30 minutes 2x per day

In-office treatments – I receive stimulation and get help with blood flow.

Light therapy (not pictured) – In-office treatment

My back, thighs, and feet are wrapped (kinda like a baked potato) and I feel this heat from the pads. I do this for 20 minutes. Though I can feel the heat in my back (helps with lumbar facet joint pain), I feel some heat on my thighs and a minuscule amount in my feet. The goal is to help with blood flow to help gain some feeling again. One day (fingers crossed) I hope to fully feel the heat.

I’m still in the first month of all these treatments. It definitely takes planning to do the at-home treatments and time to go to the in-office treatments. Still, I’m hopeful that I will begin to feel small to moderate difference after my first three months. My treatment plan is for a full 12-16 months, which also includes eating foods to help reduce inflammation and cutting out other foods. This is a slow but intentional process.

If you want to know more about my chiropractor, location, and other offices, here’s the information below. Tell him or his staff that Megs referred you. I don’t get anything monetary out of sharing all of this information about my holistic treatments. I just want to give others hope by knowing there are other potential treatments that might help deal with the falls, pain, and lack of blood flow caused by CIPN.

Until next time,

Warrior Megsie

Part I: Why Isn’t Chemo Induced Peripheral Neuropathy Taken More Seriously?

One of the scariest things about receiving chemo is not knowing how your body will react. I was hit by a motherload of side effects from 4 Adriamycin and 4 Cytoxan and felt like those would kill me. So, when it was time to begin 12 Taxol, my oncologist said the side effects would be a cakewalk compared to what I had just been through while on AC. I distinctly remember sighing with relief when she said it would be easier to tolerate.

My oncologist also said that chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN) might occur while on Taxol but not until around the 8th treatment or so. She said any CIPN would more than likely be mild and go away. I wish that had been the case. What happened next was something no one could predict or prepare for.

It was December 2015. I was beginning to feel drowsy from the Benadryl that was infused through my port before receiving the Taxol. My fabulous infusion nurse began to slowly infuse the first Taxol treatment. After about 15 minutes, something terrible happened. The best way to describe it was a strong current running through my entire body. I literally felt my nerves dying. I started freaking out and my infusion nurse called for my oncologist.

The CIPN happened so suddenly and so severely that there was no way to stop it or slow down the reaction. That moment changed my life and not for the better. The CIPN damage has been so bad, especially in my feet, that I’ve experienced the following:

  • Severe numbness in my feet to where I have no feeling from the ball of my feet to my toes
  • Sharp and stabbing pain in my hands
  • Permanent handicap sign
  • Multiple falls
  • Sometimes walking with a cane
  • Difficulty buttoning clothes
  • Difficulty putting on earrings, bracelets, and necklaces
  • Constantly dropping everything from dishes to medicine bottles
  • Grade 3 sprain in right ankle in January 2021

My experience with CIPN isn’t unique. It appears that many oncologists aren’t seeing it as a priority to address since their main focus is to keep us alive. Many don’t seem to worry about the painful damage and severe side effects of chemo. I was never referred to a specialist once I had reached the survivorship stage. Instead, gabapentin was thrown my way. I was told to take L-glutamine and B12. I was given topical ointments. None of those worked. I only received PT after the grade 3 sprain I had in January of this year which did help a little with my gait. Not one specialist ever took my CIPN seriously. They never even did any testing to determine how severe my nerve damage was and just kept throwing medicine at me or dismissing me outright.

The downstream consequences of chemo need to be talked about more. Just because cancer and chemo treatments didn’t kill me doesn’t mean I should continue suffering from the side effects. There are no robust programs in cancer centers for neuropathy, at least not in Atlanta, GA. My oncologist and the rest of my medical team have failed me. How?

  • Failed me by not sending me any referrals
  • Failed me by not addressing the actual nerve damage and lack of blood flow
  • Failed me by thinking the CIPN would go away on its own

I had given up hope for a long time until last month. What has changed? I made the decision that I needed to find a holistic way to help deal with not only the pain of CIPN, but ways to manage my fibromyalgia, and pain from my left lumbar facet joint.

I found a chiropractor whose specialty is chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy, not just diabetic neuropathy, and other traditional treatments. I went for a consultation and my mind was blown. Why?

He actually believed me.

He was concerned for me.

He treated me with utter respect.

Here’s another hint of another one of my multiple treatments with the disclaimer these may not be for everyone with CIPN.

Pic on the left is from today and pic on the right is with Dr. R from last week!

Who is this amazing chiropractor? I’ll reveal that information along with my consultation results and new treatment protocol tomorrow!

Until next time,

Warrior Megsie

Toughest Role Starring ME

My 4-year chemoversary was on February 26th. I confess I had many mixed emotions and flashbacks on that day. Anyone who has been reading my blog for some time and/or follows me on social media has seen numerous posts about the chemo curls and how I’ve hated them from day one. Looking in the mirror every single day and not recognizing myself has caused major trauma to my psyche.

Last year was the first year I was able to wear my hair straight without looking like a mushroom head. I was so excited to post the first pictures of my hair blown straight because I recognized my reflection for a brief moment. Though I know none of the comments were meant to be malicious, I confess I was deeply hurt when soooo many commented the straight hair was nice, but I looked cuter with the chemo curls. If I’m being honest, it felt like a slap in the face. Couldn’t they see these curls are a constant reminder of the most painful and horrific time of my life?

I had wanted and needed so desperately to connect with some part of me again. My hair has always been important to me. I come from a long line of women on my mother’s side with glorious hair inherited from my great-great-grandmother Ella. She was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. Anyone who knows me from when I was little saw how long my mother’s hair used to be. My hair had grown to my shoulder blades and super thick by the time I was 9 years old, but I cut it when I was 10 after seeing Anne of Green Gables. It was the scene when she had to cut her hair into a bob because she wanted to dye her red hair black like Diana Barry, but it turned green. I always had at least a chin length bob or longer.

No one has seen the tears when I realized my hair when worn straight isn’t thick like it used to be. The right side isn’t growing fast at all and looks odd. That’s why I started wearing it curly again. I’m waiting for that right side to catch up.

Here I am 4 years later, and the curls seem to be permanent. The only reason I can handle them at this moment is because I do have the option to blow it straight even with the wonky right side. I didn’t realize how much I needed to know I had options again.

Those 16 rounds of chemo I had to receive were the hardest and scariest 5 months of my entire life. I didn’t know I could feel such pain in my body. I had the motherload of side effects, aside from the hair loss trauma. I went back to my journal during that time and compiled a list of ALL side effects I experienced while on Adriamycin, Cytoxan and Taxol.

Dizziness.

Nosebleeds.

Chemo brain.

Severe anemia.

Rapid heartbeat.

Godawful nausea.

Loss of appetite.

Tongue would swell.

Bottom teeth ached.

Toenails turned black.

Loss of taste and smell.

My tongue turned black.

Terrible and painful constipation.

Bone pain from the neulasta shots.

Loss of control of bowel movements.

The palms of my hands and feet looked burned.

Hair growing back completely different and curly.

Fingernail beds lifted and ultimately fell off and so painful.

Weight gain from all the steroids infused before each chemo.

Lack of sleep from all the steroids infused before each chemo.

Dark circles under my eyes – still have them but not as panda like.

Physical weakness to the point I had to use a cane and could no longer drive.

Hair fell out everywhere – head, eyebrows, nose hair, lashes, legs, underarms and lady parts.

Mouth sores (those in chemo now, ask about Gel Clair and use it with the magic mouthwash).

Neuropathy in hands and feet – permanent nerve damage to my feet. Zero feeling from upper balls of my feet through my toes within the first 15 minutes of that very first Taxol chemo.

Ultimately chemo induced fibromyalgia that appeared a year after finishing treatment but not properly diagnosed until two years later.

So, when others think I should just move on or not focus on the negative, what they don’t comprehend is I have permanent damage ALL stemming from the chemo. As a former dancer and musical theatre actress in my younger days, to not feel my feet every single day is traumatic. The days of ballet, musical theatre, swing, salsa and tap days are over. I used to walk so gracefully. Now I have a hard time walking across a parking lot because the numbness can also move up my legs and I’ll fall over. That’s why I have a permanent handicap sign for my car. I feel like I’m 543 instead of 43 now.

No amount of gabapentin, acupuncture and any other “magical” treatment will work because my case is severe and permanent in my feet. The nerves are dead.

The nerves in my hands are still regenerating because they often sting and feel like tiny knives stabbing me. Even as I type this piece my left fingers are rather stabby and hurting. I had to learn how to button clothes and put on earrings, bracelets and necklaces again. I have multiple burns on my left arm from when I’ve lost all feeling in my right hand and dropped the iron. I have a new burn on the left side of my neck from losing feeling in my right hand when using the curling iron a few weeks ago.

My body is permanently changed from the chemo, from head to toe. This is one costume I’ve never desired to wear. From chronic pain to neuropathy to thin and wonky hair to burns, I continue to feel like an actress playing the greatest role of my life – ME.

Until next time,

Warrior Megsie

Burned Aging

I remember wanting to look older when I was in college. I used to volunteer as a reading tutor at a public elementary school my senior year. One time when I was at the school, a teacher told me to get to class. She saw me as 6th grader and not a 21-year-old senior in college. The fact I had my hair in pigtails probably didn’t help. I just recall being so upset that I was mistaken for someone so young. Now, I would give anything for that to happen again.

How come no one tells us how drastically cancer ages the body externally? Many of us internally feel older due to permanent side effects and other illnesses that were triggered by our cancer treatments and surgeries. I honestly never thought once about how much my face and neck would age.

Yes, I have always been on the vain side. Growing up in community theatre and ballet meant always looking in the mirror and looking the part. I always used to look years younger than my actual age, even in my early 30’s. This rapid aging is tough to accept because no amount of creams or concealer can fully cover it up.

I first noticed the aging of my neck. It used to be so smooth. Now it looks like lines of multilayered necklaces going down it. Quite shocking to see in the mirror. Why did I age in that area?

I honestly believe it has something to do with the radiation burns that went up the left side of my neck. I could see the beginning of lines then. I’ll never understand why I burned so terribly in so many areas (neck, back, under arm) aside from my left breast. Radiation was just as painful and horrific as chemo. This picture below still makes me cringe. By the end of my 33 treatments, the layered lines had formed completely across and down my neck. Instantly looking 20 years older in that area.

It has taken a full three years for the dark panda circles under my eyes to fade enough to where I no longer need to wear a pound of concealer to attempt covering them up. As you can see below in the pictures from three years ago, nothing could fully cover them up back then. Aside from looking fatigued, I looked…haunted.

It’s only recently that I no longer need a pound of makeup to cover the visibly aging skin. I just need half a pound instead! Seriously though, I continue to struggle with externally looking so different and just so much older. Then add medically induced menopause to the mix, and all hell has broken loose.

I don’t know my skin post-cancer. It’s dry and scaly in some areas now. The skin underneath my eyes has taken the biggest beating due to constant rubbing, new allergies to certain dye and contact dermatitis. I’m constantly trying different creams trying to find the right one to truly hydrate my skin.

Don’t even get me started on my lips! They used to be smooth too. Ever since the chemo days, I continually struggle with peeling and cracked skin on each corner of my mouth. Fortunately, my dermatologist gave me some cream that I use on my lips and under my eyes to help with the dryness. I never know what will cause another skin flareup.

It just boggles my mind that all this aging happened without zero warning. The physical changes are just so jarring. To everyone else, I look super healthy. I treat my face like a canvas. It is amazing what makeup and good lighting can do. I miss my thick eyebrows. It’s still strange to fill them in with a brow pencil. Now I’m a master at it.

Once the makeup comes off, I look a little gray, burned and forever fatigued. My face and neck are constant reminders of the trauma which is why I can’t ever NOT think about my cancer experience. It stares me in the face and plagues me daily.