Reimagining Pain by Katharine Jones

Overexpressed is honored to welcome guest blogger Katharine Jones. In this piece, she explores how the process of visualization helped her to deal with pain due to MBC.

Katharine Jones spent her childhood in Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. She works in Philadelphia as a Professor and writes about mindfulness and the challenges posed by cancer to her own identity. She lost her husband, Steven, to cancer in 2009, and her own diagnoses came in 2014 and in 2021. When she is not reading and writing, she loves to hike, plant flowers in her yard, or watch soccer.

My sister was here, visiting from Australia; as I live by myself, I had a primary witness to my experience of intense cancer pain in my bones.

She and I remember me moaning every few minutes as the way I was sitting or lying became unbearable and I had to move; shifting myself to a new position, only to find that even worse; crying after an hour’s car journey when sitting in the passenger seat had become intolerable; waking up every few hours in the night needing more pain killers; begging my sister that it was time for more pills, even though it wasn’t yet….

Towards the end of this period, I elected to have radiation on a lump that had started growing outward on my sternum. So I had to be still for what felt like long periods with my arms above my head, clutching metal poles to keep my chest in place. 

A few sessions into the radiation, I remembered something from my mindfulness and qi gong training, that had eluded me until that point: Find a part of your body that doesn’t hurt and focus on that. Just see how that feels. 

I realized that my toes didn’t hurt. 

“Hello, toes!” I thought. “How are you? Thanks for not being in pain. What do you feel like? I know I can’t wiggle you because I need to be still, but it’s nice to see and feel you. Thanks for your presence. I know you do a lot for me. I really appreciate that you’re not hurting. Wait, are my feet not hurting either? I’ve got a lot to be grateful for if my toes and feet aren’t hurting. I can create a bubble of a no-pain area. This feels good. I have parts of my body where there is no pain….”

Oh, the relief! To think about something other than the pain, even if only for a few seconds, helps to reduce suffering. And I don’t mean to imply that people in pain should suck it up and think about something else—that is usually impossible. But the kindness and compassion I showered on my toes and feet reminded me that I needed to find kindness and compassion for the rest of my body, not to clench it too hard, and to look for the positives among the considerable negatives.

On the last day of radiation, when the bone pain was actually beginning to subside, I remembered another visualization that my therapist and I had developed. It’s so hard to remember these in the moment, but it came to me, thank goodness, as I lay there. 

My therapist had asked me to think about a time when I feel most relaxed.

I love to lie in a pool or a very calm sea looking at the sky and just feel my body supported by the turquoise water. So I visualized that experience. I imagined myself bobbing away on the surface of the water, surrounded by the color turquoise, my little tendrils of hair behind me, unafraid, happy, calm, serene, and even a little sleepy. 

The experience of radiation, which is lonely and uncomfortable at the best of times, became so much easier to bear through this visualization.

I’ve since started a new treatment that has eased the pain considerably. I’m taking fewer painkillers and can see a future. When you’re in pain it’s hard to visualize a time when you won’t be in pain, especially if you know your disease is incurable. This latest treatment feels like magic. Long may this feeling last!

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