Describing Pain can be a Pain.

But first, how about a very short video of Princess drinking from the ‘fountain’ next to the deck? And how about following that with a picture of our new puppy? She comes home Saturday. Coming soonish, a second video about gardening and plant sales. Stay tuned.

Princess and the Fountain.
Puppy. No name yet.

So, I’ve written about this before, but it’s such an important part of my life right now that I can’t let it go. I, more than most people, understand that social convention governs a great deal of our behaviour. The study of social convention is on the curriculum of most introductory Sociology courses, so my familiarity with it goes a long way back. Convention and habit colour if not drive a lot of human interaction and that is true of our conversations as well as many other types of behaviour. We’ve come up with a number of conventions that, in my mind, work fine, but only if we don’t question them. For instance, asking “How are you?” is not really a query into the state of my health even though it does literally inquire about my wellbeing, doesn’t it? Needless to say, “How you doin’?” is a conventional and very common greeting. It’s not a question inquiring about pain now is it? The conventional answer to this greeting/question is “Fine.” “Hi, how are ya?” seems like the asker is interested in an answer, but mostly, that’s not the case. We’re supposed to say “Fine.” That’s it.

I don’t ask people how they are doing anymore. I mostly just say “Hello,” and get on with a conversation. For a while there, I would answer the question as though it were a real question. “How are you?” “Well, today, not so good,” I’d say. Or I’d say, “It depends.” That is not a satisfactory answer. I can tell that from the look on the asker’s face when I dare utter such an unconventional and unexpected riposte. Sometimes I would carry on with an extended answer, but I knew from the glaze over the asker’s eyes that that wasn’t a satisfying answer. Eventually I would say, “It’s okay, I’m fine.” After that we could all get on with our ‘normal’ lives. The thing is, I deal on a weekly basis with medical personnel of all kinds. Of course, they are as gripped by social convention as the rest of us, but it still throws me off with an oncologist asks me: “How are you, today?”

Just like everyone else, they seem to expect “Fine” as the appropriate answer. Of course, if I were fine, what the hell would I be doing talking to an oncologist about my chemo treatments? Obviously, “fine” is not appropriate as a response under the circumstances, but nor is asking “How are you?”

One time, a few months ago, I had a Zoom type meeting with an oncologist and he asked me “And what can I do for you today?” Well, that question kind of left me speechless, something that is quite an accomplishment if you know me. Of course, it’s a completely appropriate question if I’m in a retail store, walking up to a counter and a clerk asks me “And what can I do for you today?” or “What can I get for you today?” Yes, in that circumstance, this convention works for me, but when an oncologist asks me that question, I get flummoxed. In my usual smart ass way I get tempted to blurt out: “Well, you can tell me I’m cancer-free. How about that doc?” But then, things get awkward and embarrassment takes centre stage and nothing good comes of it.

So, being a sensitive kind of guy and always interested in having conversations go smoothly, my response to the oncologist that day was quite measured. He wasn’t prepared for the appointment, so all he did for the five minutes of the conversation was look at his computer screen, just glancing up every few seconds the camera in an uncomfortable way. He was probably having a bad day. In his line of business, bad days probably happen often, so I don’t take these things personally. In any case, I steered the conversation to my lab results, prognostications about future treatments, and about pain and exhaustion. As an aside, my experience so far is that oncologists don’t like to talk about pain. It seems to make them uncomfortable and fidgety. Tellingly, they leave pain management to GPs.

Well, to finally get to the topic of this post, I can understand their reluctance to talk about pain. It’s a ridiculous thing to talk about. It’s invisible, subjective, and it’s measurement borders on the hilarious. “So, Mr. Albert, on a scale of 1 to 101, how bad is your pain right now? Well, shit. Where do I go from here? Do I just tell them what they want to hear: “Oh, it’s about a 5.” “Okay, thank you, Mr. Albert. So the pain isn’t too bad right now then.” Note that last comment is made as a statement, not as a question. Asked as a question, I could answer something that is more akin to the truth than the bullshit conventional responses we are expected to give at these times. So I could say something like this, bear with me:

Well, at the site of my nephrectomy, the pain varies from 3 to 8 and in duration depending on my activity at the time. It can spike to 9 at times, just not right at this moment. My lower back is fine as long as I don’t move too quickly but that’s because of arthritis and disk degeneration. As you know, my Bortezomib induced peripheral neuropathy (BIPN) is neuralgic pain that is untouched by pain meds designed to deal with muscle or joint aches and pains. Right now, it’s at about a 7. My back starting just below my arms, and my legs down to my knees are burning. My left thigh is painful to the touch. I don’t know how to measure that. It’s a new thing for me. It seems that my BIPN somewhat attenuates during the day and I may actually be able to go to bed with it not bothering me much. At other times it’s excruciating and ridiculous. The pain at my right kidney is nasty at the moment, spiking up to a 7 at times. Lab tests tell us my kidney is fine so it’s the Bortezomib that’s the culprit, it seems.

Anyway, you get the picture. Describing pain simply and easily is impossible for someone with chronic and/or chemo-induced pain. No one can possibly understand how much pain I’m in or how much pain people with inflammatory illnesses and many other conditions suffer. It’s impossible for me to describe the various levels and types of pain I experience daily unless you’ve experienced it yourself in the same contexts that I have. Now, my GP takes my word for it. What else can he do?


1The 1 to 10 pain scale: I thought I understood it somewhat until I had a talk with a palliative care physician who told me that a 10 is pass out time. I have never passed out from pain as far as I can remember although I may have passed out from deliberately taking a pass out dose of meds on occasion, the only strategy. There were times when I assumed that a 10 was severe pain, but not pass out quality. So, if I said I was at an 8 or 9, that meant that I was sorely distressed by it, but I was tolerating it. A 5 meant that the pain was bad, but not completely distracting. A 4 or below meant I was in some pain, but not too nasty, maybe a nagging, throbbing, but fairly mild headache. After talking to the palliative care doc, I had to revise my scale. Now a 5 is “I’m in pain and it’s no fun. Do something about it!” A 4 is “It still hurts pretty bad!” A 2 might be: “Okay, I can deal with this, but it’s still bugging me.” I haven’t seen a 0 very often, but it does happen periodically for a short time when I’m lying down and not moving at all.

2 thoughts on “Describing Pain can be a Pain.

  1. To hell with convention! When someone says to me, “How are you?”, I tell them. Short, sweet, to the point. Something like, “I slept badly and feel like shit warmed over.” Or “Much better thanks!” I never say (except to strangers) “Fine”. If I’m feeling good I’ll say and if Im feeling badly I’ll say. But you’re right people really dont want to know, it is simply a greeting. I prefer, “Good morning (afternoon, evening).” If I ask how you are its because I want to know. But then I always was a bit weird…

    On Thu., Jun. 18, 2020, 6:24 p.m. Roger Albert – Always a Sociologist: Now Living With Myeloma, wrote:

    > Roger JG Albert posted: ” But first, how about a very short video of > Princess drinking from the ‘fountain’ next to the deck? And how about > following that with a picture of our new puppy? She comes home Saturday. > Coming soonish, a second video about gardening and plant sales. Sta” >


    1. That’s why I love ya, Jack!
      Were you able to open the video about Princess? Some people who get my posts via email seem to be having problems doing that. They just have to click on the title of the blog post and it comes up, but some people don’t do that. I think that some people are getting the video by just reading my post in their email. I wish it would work the same for everyone all the time.


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