A new book, titled A Nation in Pain, by Judy Foreman deals with the enormity of pain in our country, the genetics of pain, the mind-body in pain and just about everything else.
One chapter in the book, titled Exercise The Real Magic Bullet discusses the importance exercise can have in dealing with pain. The following is an abbreviated story about pain patient Susan Helmrich as told by Foreman. It makes a convincing case that exercise can make a difference….
I met Susan Helmrich, 55 a swimmer, PhD epidemiologist, wife and mother, licensed wellness coach, and three-time cancer survivor in April 2011 in Mesa, Arizona.
Susan was just 20 months out of the hospital following one of modern medicine’s most gruesome operations – a Whipple procedure, which is basically a partial evisceration in which surgeons removed the head of her pancreas, a portion of the bile duct, the gallbladder, and the duodenum. The goal of that operation was to get rid of the neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer with which Susan had been diagnosed. She had already lost the superior lobe of her right lung to cancer and, 34 years earlier, as a newly minted college grad, she had lost her vagina and her entire reproductive system to a rare cancer caused by diethylstilbestrol (DES), the treacherous drug many women, including Susan’s mother, were given to prevent miscarriage.
But it wasn’t even Susan’s battles with cancer that impressed me most during our days in Arizona. It was that Susan was swimming her heart out despite severe, chronic pain from sciatica – pain in the lower back and leg caused by compression of or damage to spinal nerves.
“Swimming is the only thing that makes me feel better,” she told me. “It’s the only time I’m not in pain. It’s being horizontal and being weightless. There’s no pressure on my nerve. I really think exercise has saved my life three times.”
The first time was during her first surgery for vaginal cancer. Swimming probably saved her life again after the surgery at age 42, for her lung cancer. Knowing that she lived for swimming and needed all the lung power she could get, surgeons initially removed just the tumor. But they didn’t get clean margins, so she had to go back and have the whole superior left lobe removed. Once again, she bounced back fast, getting back in the pool as soon as possible. “No one can believe it,” she grinned as she told me, “but I can do laps without a breath.” (I can’t, and I have two lungs.)
Today, 34 years after her first cancer, without a lung, without all the innards that most people have, she swims. And swims and swims – almost three miles almost every day. No longer a full-time epidemiologist, she passes on her expertise about living with pain and illness as a wellness coach. Her message is simple: “I would be dead without exercise.” A Nation in Pain Judy Foreman Oxford University Press 2014