The Kitchen Workout and Peripheral Neuropathy

Taxol, the last chemotherapeutic drug I was taking, apart from doing its supposed job of preventing a return of cancer, can cause damage to healthy neurological cells by affecting the peripheral nervous system. It starts by causing a mild tingling in the fingertips and toes. As the weeks go by and more gets pumped in to your system, this tingling extends to the entire hand and foot, pains dart up and down the long bones of the arms and legs and the muscles there and around the neck and back really start to hurt.

By the end of the eight weeks, apart from having numb extremities, my hand, arm and leg muscles were so weakened that I could hardly get out of my bed for a whole week.

Then I began expecting an improvement. Ok, my mind would plan, tomorrow I’ll be stronger than today, so I’ll get up, do this and that, take a rest in the afternoon and I’ll be fine…I’ll be fine.

So, now I’m beginning to realise that my mind is not in charge here. Recovery from peripheral nerve damage is not an overnight process. It could take months and in some unfortunate cases, years. I can have a good moment and have a burst of energy but any rigorous activity will beckon a sofa, bench or bed to rest up the weary muscles.

I’ve never had to live measuring out my strength before and it’s a new reality for me. I find it quite challenging, exacerbated perhaps by not knowing when I’ll notice an improvement. This is a real test of patience and determination.

I say determination because I want to get better and feel normal energy levels again, to be able to practise sport to keep fit, to be active with my children and husband. My oncologist gave me no satisfactory guidelines as to what I can do to help myself in the recovery. Perhaps there really is nothing I can do but rest it out and wait. But the prospect of the next month or two or six of just resting up is not appealing to me. I’ve had my glut of internet and politics and virtual wars of love and hate. I’m willing to at least try and help the recovery process.

So once again I’ve taken to the internet, researching ways to live with and improve peripheral neuropathy. I have learned that many people with diabetes suffer from this condition, so they are another group I can empathize with on a physical level (as well as old, chronically ill and physically disabled people).

There are dietary supplements that are recommended but of course there has been no scientific study as to their efficacy, which is why, I assume, my oncologist can’t advocate them. But I know they won’t harm me so I’m taking a good vitamin B complex, known to be good at strengthening the nervous system, co-enzyme Q-10, which is good for joints and alpha lipoic acid.

Instead of showers, I have a daily bath, which really helps with easing muscle weariness. Every few days, I add 2 kilograms of organic sea salt or a cup and a half of Epsom salts to the bath water, which apparently helps with detoxification of the body. I always feel fantastically relaxed after the bath and I think it is a practice I’ll extend in to my healthy “normal” life well in to my future.

I was just skimming over an academic article last night about the actual biochemical process of chemotherapy-induced muscle damage. I didn’t have the patience to wade through the entire 75-page piece but I could glean from it, albeit in an indirect way, the importance of providing the body with lots of antioxidants. So, lots (and lots more from now on) of fresh fruit and vegetables for the next while.

My oncologist said I could maybe do some hand strengthening exercises, although she wasn’t convincing me as to their efficacy. After a full night’s sleep, my arms and legs literally feel like jelly. It takes all my will-power to get up out of the bed. But I have been reasoning that if I stay in bed, the jelly-like feeling will persist. Whereas if I get up, force my hands, legs and arms in to action, although they’ll tire, I can rest up afterwards.

So, the kitchen, of all places, has become a great work-out site, at least for my hands and arms. The usual tasks of chopping vegetables, washing dishes, hanging out clothes, typing and holding a pen and writing have become monumentous tasks of hard effort. And making scones! Let me tell you, between the crumbling and kneading, I never realized how good baking is as an upper arm exercise. For my legs, I get out and walk for now. Getting up and down steps is more challenging than normal so my stairwell is going to get a run up and down for the next while.

Finally at night, when my muscles are well and truly beat out and they actually hurt from exhaustion, I have discovered that deep, belly-lifting and chest-flattening respiration (Maria’s instruction) literally melts away the pain in less than a minute. Breathing is life-giving, restorative and relaxing. How simple can that be!

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