Coping With Cancer: Sweet Sleep

By Margaret Nyman

October 30, 2009

Today in our little cottage we had a wild ride. Nate’s pain has been escalating steadily over the last 10 days, frequently requiring the breakthrough pain medication to override it. So the head nurse spent an hour sorting through his current meds, rearranging doses, subtracting some items and adding others. After she’d gone, Nate’s pain gradually rose to new heights as his body began the adjustment away from the pills he can no longer swallow easily and toward two pain patches.

He stuck close to me all day and wanted, at one point, to nap on a double bed on the other side of the living room from his hospital bed. It was a tender time to whisper things to each other, but suddenly he said, “Don’t lean on me. Don’t press on me. Don’t cover me. It hurts too much.”

These words were whispered in high, raspy tones, the only voice he’s got left, and I had to ask for three repetitions of some of the words to understand. Assuring him I wouldn’t touch anyplace he was hurting, I asked him to tell me where it hurt the worst. He palmed back and forth on his abdomen, the first time he hadn’t answered that question by reaching around to touch his back.

When the nurse visited before, she’d measured his mid-section, just like a pregnant woman’s belly is measured for baby growth. When I’d asked what she was doing, she said, “His abdomen is beginning to fill with fluid now, as the organs fail to function right, because of the cancer.” All I could think of was the pain that would most likely accompany the pressure of that extra fluid.

“How do we solve that problem?” I’d asked. She said the team would be sure he didn’t have to suffer but that draining the fluid, a surgical procedure, was hurtful, invasive, and something to be avoided if possible.

Today, as his body continues to shrink with his bones becoming more and more visible, his belly has grown to resemble a woman seven or eight months pregnant. It is hard to the touch, with bulges that must be tumors. As I lay next to him on the bed holding his hand but not touching anything else, he whispered, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid.”

“Of dying?” I asked.

“No. Of the pain. Afraid of the pain,” he said. “I feel trapped, and I’m so sick of all this.”

I felt the same way. Nate has been hurting badly since January, without respite. That’s when his life began to be dominated by chronic pain from stenosis of the spine and related back problems. I can’t imagine how wearisome such long-term pain must be. Today I was determined to find some relief for this new, increased pain and phoned the nurse. Two phone calls later, we’d settled on morphine drops under the tongue and a sedative/anti-anxiety pill.

Within 45 minutes Nate had drifted into a restful sleep after being agitated and awake most of the last 24 hours. I’d always insisted to every medical person along our journey that we wanted to keep him alert and communicating with the minimum of medicine. Today, with his overpowering pain and the fear that came with it, I pulled away from that thinking. As a matter of fact, it sounded selfish.

Watching him breathe deeply and sleep soundly was nourishment for my heart and I’m sure also for his. He may be sleepy from here on out. If that’s what it takes to curb the agony he felt this afternoon, then that’s what it will be.

A quote from one of the Psalms comforted me. “It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors, for He gives to His beloved, even in his sleep.”

Guest contributor Margaret Nyman chronicles the 42 days after her husband Nate, a patient at Rush University Medical Center, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Read more posts by visiting the Coping With Cancer section or subscribing to the RSS feed. Her personal blog is at

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