Chemotherapy – it’s such an assault not just on a cancer but on the whole rest of the body.
My mother has survived her cancer but been left with compelling peripheral neuropathy, and her feet are like constantly bickering children, tingling day and night, hypersensitive and relentlessly attention seeking. Over the past couple of years, instead of getting better they seem to have worsened. Mum has been unable to stand with bare feet on an uncarpeted floor for a while, and has avoided having her feet outside shoes for a long time now.
Goodness knows she has tried hard to do everything she could. She works out at the gym almost every day to stimulate as much circulation as she can, and to regain strength and endurance. It hurts, but she sets goals and keeps progressing. She has had some measure of relief from magnesium salt soaks, and has tried massage as well, but although her general physical condition has improved, the feet seem to just get worse. Her walking has been becoming slower and costing greater effort, and her posture has been changing as well, despite her efforts.
There is a time and a place for hearing new information. I had talked to her a long time ago about needing to stand on different textures and expose her feet to different experiences, but the time was clearly not right. After the shock of cancer comes the shock that things are not as they were, and it is easy to become focused on monitoring an area daily to see if it is better or worse.
This time on my recent trip home, there was an opening of opportunity. We had a week at the beach at the Gold Coast, and I invited Mum to come for a morning walk and swim. I only get back home once a year, and Mum will always want to make the most of it, so we had motivation on our side.
It was a beautiful morning in a gorgeous place, but almost immediately, Mum went into what has become her theme song – my feet, my ankles, they feel tight, they hurt, etc etc. Hmm.
This time, as we stood in ankle deep water with the waves rippling about us, I decided to dive into a little brain science. We have learned so much about the plasticity of our brains over the past few years, so it was time to give Mum a bit of an update.
We talked about the awesome power and responsibility we have in shaping our brains, and how quickly a brain will make changes within itself depending upon how we choose to use it. We talked about how constantly focusing only on the unpleasant sensations is like opening a bigger and wider door to an increasingly expanding room in the brain for the exclusive use of an unwanted house guest (the kind that leaves their smelly socks on the floor and plays loud music at night), and is that what we want to do with such valuable real estate? Do we want to make our brain better and stronger at creating this experience?
What about all the other sensations that are available? The pleasant ones? We were standing on soft sand, with warm water washing around and over our feet. There were mild ridges to feel underfoot, and the occasional shell. So much to feel, but none of it registering.
We talked about how everyone focuses on the feet as the problem, but that it is actually the brain that calls the shots. We talked about how areas in the brain can expand or diminish according to demand, and that gets us to a very important decision. How do you want your brain to be? Do you want large areas of it to be dedicated to feelings that you don’t want? Or can we think about renovating it, like you would a house? Can we move a few walls, change the size of some of the rooms, and even paint them a different colour? Maybe even lots of colours? If we made the choice, how would we do that?
We walked back along the beach, practising feeling different textures and objects in the sand. We practised not judging the sensations, but letting them come, experiencing them as neither good nor bad, but simply interesting. In doing this, Mum was doing something very special. Her automatic negative emotional reaction to the sensation was being interrupted. Up until this point, feeling something under the feet triggered a lightning fast loop in the brain that linked sensation, attention and emotion in very unhelpful way. It’s a little like a mini computer programme that runs when a certain button is pushed. By exploring the sensory possibilities, becoming curious about them, and expanding her awareness, she was creating interference to this loop. Without realising, Mum was starting to change her brain.
Over the week, Mum continued to walk on the beach, and started to challenge herself to walk over surfaces that she would have avoided. Towards the end of the week, she had news. She could tolerate standing on the tiled kitchen floor without shoes. She was surprised! This was a most unexpected positive change.
She became more determined, and on returning back to Melbourne, the stakes were raised – we walked on the very granular, coarse sand of her local beach. As we stepped onto the sand, experiencing the contrast between sun warmed and water cooled areas, Mum said something completely out of the box. She said “Doesn’t that feel good?. I nearly fell over.
She then went on to say: “I am going to go back and have a strong talk to my neurologist. I know that I am lucky, in that although I have unpleasant sensations, at least I have sensation to work with. Some people can feel nothing, and that is a different thing. I can see now what happens – everyone just tries to coddle the feet, wrap them up more, put more softness around them, make you feel like you have to protect them. If you can’t feel anything, I can see that they need to be protected. But for people in my situation, it just gets worse! I can see it in my friends, who have had the same experience. They can barely walk. And I know that I need my feet to work for my hips to work properly, and I need those to have a good back, so this is so important! I need to tell people!”
We have made a plan for winter, when it will be too cold for bare feet outside. The rough and spiky back door mat will come inside for sensory training. She will also practice being barefoot more often, and work on softening her feet into the floor, sensing it instead of recoiling from it. Resisting sensation has made her tense and tight in the ankles and stiff in the feet, but she can turn that around by practicing melting the tension, and working towards a sense of soft, springy pliability in her feet and legs.
Mum made the choice to change her brain, but to do that, she first had to open her mind. She had to come face to face with what was unpleasant, and redirect her thoughts and responses towards shaping and lighting up the brain that she wants. Seeing someone engage with the challenge, and take positive control of her situation is inspiring, and I am so proud of her.
These are Mum’s feet as she walks through the water…