Runners facing their marathons distinctly know the worry of “phantom pains”. These are sudden, unexpected issues that develop within the two final tapering weeks leading to race day, ranging from a tender spot in the muscle, a weird pain in the foot, or any other little problem that has them doubting the sanctity of life itself, or at least their race day performance. There is reason for concern, of course, as the runner has put in months and months of training through all sorts of adversity, only to fear all the effort being for nothing when the unforeseen injury stops them from making it to the start line.
But they are called “phantom” pains for a reason. Because they tend to be illusory and never develop into anything once the gun goes off.
I experienced my own phantom pain before my first marathon, a pointed spot in my quad that had me worried I’d be limping just past half way. I stretched and massaged it as best I could, but went to sleep the night before trying to pretend it didn’t exist. Turns out, with all the crazy the next morning, I don’t even remember thinking about it leading to the start…and it never made itself known the entire race.
A phantom indeed.
Now, however, I have no race to run, but I am entering a physical trial no less. Surgery is just over 3 weeks away, and I’m experiencing my own phantom pains. At least, I hope they are.
For the past year and a half since my second surgery I’ve been on a relatively steady trajectory of strength and running fitness, entering back into competitive racing for a brief period and even completing a pacing marathon, with no real cause for concern, until now. Mind you, it’s nothing drastic, but I’ve noticed certain foods have become problematic when eaten, getting slowed or temporarily stuck in my digestive tract, causing extended discomfort. Laura can attest to the problem with my incessant whining and wincing when foods become problematic. That’s not even mentioning the deep sadness when I realize a trip to the Indian buffet will only warrant one plate of starchy, potatoey goodness before I have to call it quits. My concern with all this is that the cancer has grown and crowded the area around my digestive tract, forcing certain foods to become stuck and radiating weird pains through my body.
I don’t know, with cancer, no matter how resigned and comfortable you’ve gotten with the experience, every abnormality snaps you back into a state of heightened awareness that, yes, the body is revolting against itself.
These momentary blockages also had me aware of my hunger, or lack thereof. One of the most disappointing parts of my pre-diagnosis symptoms was the absent hunger, no matter how far and fast I had been running. Again, nothing is as drastic as it was the first time around, but I simply haven’t felt that gnawing, impossible hunger that used to mark my training days, and my oncologist often asks if my hunger has been satiated during visits. It’s always something to be aware of, and although I haven’t been knocking out 20 milers every weekend, I haven’t necessarily woken every morning with the primal craving to gorge either, so, I don’t know, I’m hoping these are phantom symptoms again.
Then there were those handful of days marked by chest pains. I didn’t experience these sensations the first time around, so I can’t relate them to my first symptoms, but they are concerning no less, because I’ve NEVER felt these. Admittedly, these came after a momentary increase of strength training, including the upper body, but these pains weren’t muscular. They were more internal and only arose after I ate. I couldn’t help but wonder if the cancer had spread, as incredibly rare as that is in my case.
My only solace in all these concerns was the scheduled MRI I just had performed with the surgery coming in a few weeks. I mean, despite the “stability” of my cancer these past three years, if it did happen to be growing and becoming symptomatic, the surgery has always been the stated cure to my disease. Whatever it was doing within me, it was at least going to be dealt with right away.
Part of me can’t help but imagine the cancer remaining dormant and being fully excised, if not once and for all, then at least for another 5 to 10 years, this surgery, but the grounded, experienced part of me knows to stay neutral. And the pessimistic part of me knows too many stories of cancer patients who experienced a resurgence, too many times fatal, without warning.
I want to believe I can plan my life out again. I want to believe I can train past a year and a half. I want to believe I can go back to expected employment and income. I want to believe I can forget about this whole thing a little more than I already manage to do. I want to believe these pains are as phantom as marathon runner pains.
Unfortunately, those pains just might be real and those desires the phantoms. I hope, of course, it’s the other way around.
Whatever the state of my body is, surgery is close again, so they’re going to be dealt with one way or another. I’m preparing for what is to come, both physically and psychologically, and after this round, I want to imagine the only phantom pains I’ll feel in the future are during taper weeks of a marathon.