Heater, Mother of Lance

Thank god my signature already resembles chicken scratch

A couple of weeks ago I headed back in to see my doctor about the injury to my thumb I suffered when wrestling a bear in my back yard. See? I’ve mastered it! That’s the explanation I give now when someone tries to shake my hand and I have to very kindly decline.

“I would love to shake your hand, but I almost ripped my thumb off last month when I tackled a bear and stopped him from breaking into my house. No worries, he’s in stable condition and will eventually be let back into the wild.”

My doctor wanted to see if his course of treatment was making things better, especially given that he had taken me off prednisone and put me on another anti-inflammatory called meloxicam. I don’t think the new medication made any difference whatsoever, but at least it didn’t make me want to break plastic knives in half over my thigh while growling and plotting the destruction of at least ten different countries.


Sadly, my thumb felt worse due in no small part to the aching caused by the brace I was wearing to immobilize it. This is one of those instances where you have to hope that the benefits of the treatment far outweigh its side effects, and the potential gravity of these instances was driven home when I walked over to radiology to have a few X-rays taken of my thumb. The care and concern the radiologist took to cover my body with a lead apron to protect it from potential errant rays made this giant lightbulb go off in my head.

“The radiation used in these X-rays…” I began to ask the technician. “It’s the same radiation used to treat cancer patients, right?”

I think she thought that I thought I was in danger. “It is, but I can assure you that your hand is only getting a fraction of a second of exposure. And the exposure is very focused.” She was, in fact, turning that lightbulb on so brightly that it started to blind me.

“So if someone is undergoing radiation for cancer they are getting this same radiation in much larger doses?” I pressed.

“They are,” she answered. “Those treatments are focused as well, but yes. It’s one of those things where you hope you’re getting more of the good than the bad. You just have to hope.”

I think I intellectually understood what my mother is undergoing when she drives every single weekday up to the hospital: radiation. She’s being treated for cancer. This is the most effective approach. But I had not stepped out of that strict and sterile idea of it. I had not pulled myself out of the problem-solving part of my brain when it came to the actual procedure itself. My mother is being exposed in three to four different places on her chest to rays of radiation that can last up to 14 seconds. Every single day. Giant red burns span out across her body in sensitive, thickening scars.

We have to hope.

My X-rays didn’t show any broken bones or potential spurs, so he laid out three possible options about how to go forward. Two of them involved a shot of cortisone, and the other one involved another brace and more waiting. I chose option two immediately, apparently a little too immediately because he pushed his glasses very purposefully to the top of his nose.

“You do realize that it will hurt,” he said.

I looked around the room to see if he was talking to me.

“Of course it will hurt. It’s a shot. Shots normally hurt,” I responded.

“This is a little different—“

“I’m not afraid of a shot,” I assured him, and as he went to retrieve the supplies I broke out my phone and scrolled through Instagram with my left hand. What? If I get an Instagram injury on my left hand I promise I will make up a better story.

When he returned he said that most people are too afraid and only agree to the shot as a last resort. I guess I’ve known that I’ve become fascinated by the human capacity to endure pain, but right then I was able to articulate it for the first time.

“I was on vacation for the first time in a long time last year,” I started to tell him as he prepared the giant needle. “I had a week with no access to the Internet, no phone. And I didn’t even realize that the books I’d taken with me to read were all about humans overcoming excruciating physical pain.”

“There is a name for that. It’s called sadism,” he joked.

“Very funny,” I said. “I’m more interested in what the brain does when confronted with a certain level of, well, torture. Like, when I had an unmedicated birth with my second child, my brain eventually took me… I don’t know… someplace else when the pain became unbearable. Maybe it’s some sort of unconscious, self-imposed hypnosis? The same thing happened when I ran a marathon. I could feel the pain, but I was looking at it from outside my body. And that was the only reason I was able to finish.”

(If you share this same fascination you will love Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption and Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster)

I was talking to avoid watching him stick the needle directly into the base of my thumb, and when he did I understood what he meant by “a little different.” Shooting flames of pain fanned out into every part of my hand, and then he had to wiggle and move the needle for several seconds. I’m sure I winced or maybe even groaned. It was extraordinarily uncomfortable, but then it was over.

“Put that one down in your pain journal,” he said as he stood up to throw away the materials.

And look! I have done exactly that! Here, let me be more formal about it:

“Cortisone shots hurt like a motherfucker, but I’m going to guess that coming close to freezing to death at the summit of Mt. Everest, or, say, radiation treatment for breast cancer? Those are a little more disagreeable.”


That was two weeks ago. My thumb isn’t any better. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that I cannot hold a pencil. I’m now exploring other doctors and options that were suggested to me when I first wrote about hospitalizing that bear.

  • dc

    2014/11/12 at 4:24 pm

    you’re a survivor. you’re really good at surviving no matter what is put in front of you. bears, marathons, childbirth, etc. i may be wrong but it sounds like you got it from your mother. here’s hoping your mother not only survives her cancer but thrives for many, many years.

  • Jess W

    2014/11/12 at 6:16 pm

    Acupuncture and the brace helped heal the “mother’s thumb” I developed after I had my son (also naturally). I think the acupuncture got my brain on board about healing that part of my body. I feel your pain and love your blog, best of luck!

  • cassie

    2014/11/12 at 6:22 pm

    Just throwing out ideas for you because I had a similar situation a few years ago. Use Bromelain as your anti-inflammatory, use ice/heat/ice/heat, it’s a repetitive injury that just takes A LONG TIME to heal. The brace doesn’t work….or the shots. Try acupuncture.

  • Andrée Jolicoeur

    2014/11/12 at 6:32 pm

    Lately, osteopathy seems to be fixing every long-term pain and injury I’ve ever suffered. Good luck!

  • Katybeth

    2014/11/12 at 7:10 pm

    Ouch!! I think you put your thumb on it…time to check in with a new doctor. :-D. Good Luck.

  • Heather T.

    2014/11/12 at 7:16 pm

    Narcissist. Drama queen. Your poor children.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/11/12 at 8:02 pm

    Please come rescue them! Hurry!

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/11/12 at 8:03 pm

    I keep hearing whispers and then stern admonitions of “acupuncture” and I am not opposed to it one bit. Looking into that as well.

  • Tammy

    2014/11/12 at 8:39 pm

    I had dequervin’s, which sounds like what you developed from battling the bear. Physio, including friction massage, rest, ice, ultrasound, brace, cortisone and TIME did the trick. Unless I do something stupid like try to carry a huge pack of paper between my thumb and forefinger (tonight’s idiocy) I rarely have pain. Good luck, I know it hurts.

  • Jamie

    2014/11/12 at 8:51 pm

    My son fought stage 4 neuroblastoma (cancer which develops in the nervous system) starting when he was 4 years old. He’s been going through treatment for over 2 years now and (knock on wood) is currently in remission. It truly amazes me the amount of fight in this kid even though he has endured so much at such a young age (including radiation). He is truly awe-inspiring. Looking at him today, you’d never guess he’s been through all that he has. Watching him go through that, I have found it very tough to complain about anything anymore. Radiation was definitely no fun and I truly wish your mom all of the best. It’s such a tough battle to go through. She is very lucky to have such a great support group. It is so very important to know that there are people right there and fighting with these warriors. I’ve been reading your blog for a long time, but it’s the first time I have commented. I have been thinking about your mom a lot since you posted about her current battle. I am glad she received that postcard and that she called when she did. It’s such a great reminder for all of us not to forget about our own checkups. I know for a fact, time makes all of the difference in the world when it comes to cancer. The earlier it’s caught, the easier it is to get rid of it.

    Also, I hope you are able to find a doctor who can figure out what is going on with your thumb.

  • Jennifer Campisano

    2014/11/12 at 9:37 pm

    Just wanted to pass along (for what it’s worth) that I just had another clean scan, marking one year with no evidence of cancer (after it was all over the place 3 years ago). Radiation was the worst part of treatment for me, but your mom will certainly make it through. Aloe four times a day and drink 3-4 liters of water/day. I don’t know what the solution is for your thumb, but radiation? That I can assist with.

  • krispylizard

    2014/11/12 at 9:57 pm

    I also highly recommend an osteopath! I have a chronic ankle injury and 3 sessions with her and it’s at least 75% better which is a big step! Good luck!

  • Michael Mathews

    2014/11/12 at 10:30 pm

    I had three cortisone shots for plantar fasciitis after trying a bunch of other things for several months, and I finally got rid of it after about a year. Oh year, they hurt like a MF. I still have to stretch my calves regularly and do a few other things to keep it from recurring, but I’ve walked a lot of miles since the pain subsided.

    I’ve actually found minimalist shoes to work better than typical US athletic shoes with very raised heels, which is the opposite of what a lot of the common wisdom says.

  • Beth Rich

    2014/11/13 at 5:16 am

    Bursitis in my shoulder. About to move to shot. Normally meloxicam helps – quit helping. Prednisone also makes me tired from squashing my violent impulses. All this to say I feel your pain, sister.

  • Beth Rich

    2014/11/13 at 5:17 am

    I have heard from six friends in the last week who have had significant relief with acupuncture. I too am going there before surgery for sure.

  • undisclosed location

    2014/11/13 at 7:55 am

    The good news is you can survive this. It won’t be easy, it won’t be fun but you can survive this.
    The bad news is, there’s a significant chance it’s permanent and you live with this pain for the rest of your life. I know some people get better but, quite frankly the odds are not in your favor.

    I’ve had disabling pain and loss of functionality in my hands since the early 90s because of typing. I’ve lost kidney function because of taking too much Advil/ibuprofen to try and bring down the pain. I pissed away tens of thousands of dollars trying traditional and alternative medicines, none of which worked. Chiropractic, acupuncture, nutritional supplements were probably the worst offenders for taking my money and giving me nothing for it. As a side note, one of the traps of alternative healing is that if the treatment fails, is always some reason or explanation of how you didn’t see the right practitioner, you didn’t do it right, there’s a new modality, or something to evade the the fact that the treatment doesn’t work.

    I survived and have come to do more than survive by choosing my battles. I believe you, like I, will find speech recognition to become a valuable part of recovery. It will let you write, with greater freedom than you do today and take a load off your hands but it also requires greater editing skills as speech recognition still makes hard to see mistakes. It will also mean you need to take better care of the fragile instrument known as your voice because you don’t want to mess that up.

    Where I choose to fight is in the area of accessibility because today’s programs seem to be written with a big middle finger to the disabled. Today’s software developers are effectively telling 30 to 40 million Americans that they don’t matter enough to have access to online services or applications, it doesn’t matter that they are kept from working or forced into lower paying jobs just because their hands or eyes don’t work right, and it doesn’t matter that they have to pay the crippled tax of buying human labor to replace whatever functionality their disability has cost them.

    Maybe this is a new cause for you to advocate for just as you have for other causes in the past. I wish you luck. Becoming disabled is not an easy thing no matter how mild it is.

  • PolicyChick

    2014/11/13 at 8:41 am

    There was a point in my life I was so stressed (from work mainly) my neck got stiff, and stiffer…until I was practically paralyzed – my neck and down the right side of my back. Tried everything, no progress, until I went to a chiropractor. Two sessions, and it was gone. All of the pain and stiffness and soreness. I KNOW I didn’t believe it either. My two cents.

  • Heather H.

    2014/11/13 at 8:48 am

    Have you looked into Dr. Karen Heiden in Park City? She was really helpful for me when I broke my hand in a ski accident.

  • Charlene

    2014/11/13 at 9:03 am

    De Quervain Tenosynovitis. I can tell you that is what it is.
    I have the problem on the opposite side of the hand. Think pinky down. when it 1st flared I could not turn without serious moaning and dropping the f bomb. finally got it calmed down but never went away. two cortisone shots and chaser of ice cream after doing that bitch. We agreed I need surgery. Simple he goes in cuts the tunnel the tendon resides in and it relieve the pressure to the tendon. if there is a tear he will trim it up. everything should be back to normal in 4 months. by the time this is done it will be a year of pain and the occasional word fucker thrown in when I do something it does not agree with. good luck

  • Shelby

    2014/11/13 at 10:15 am

    I do not know if this will apply to your injury, but just to let you know that I had cortisone shots on both knees, six weeks apart for the first time ever. I thought the shots did absolutely nothing and was very, very discouraged. When the three week post shot time passed for each knee, all the sudden I had a lot of relief. Hopefully this will be the case for you.

  • IsidoS

    2014/11/13 at 10:19 am

    I have had tenosynovitis in my left thumb twice in two years. It sucks royally. I did the cortisone shots. The best thing about that was the numbing agent they used…no pain until that wore off a few hours later. Honestly, and I’m sure you don’t want to hear it, but the best thing they did for me was to put it in a cast for 3-4 weeks. Apparently, according to my doc, your thumb is so strong that a cast is the only way to truly immobilize it. Then I had a brace after that just to remind myself not to use it. I did the PT for it (I didn’t think it helped) and refused the surgery after two docs told me it was only a 40% chance of it working. After asking what would happen if the surgery failed and being told that it would be the whole process from step one again, I just didn’t want to go through being put under the knife without better odds. After several months of being careful and slowly building the strength back up, the daily pain went away and now it hurts occasionally, but I can manage the pain with motrin. Good luck with finding a good solution for you. And tell Coco to keep the bear away next time 🙂

  • Jan

    2014/11/13 at 10:44 am

    I am a big proponent of acupuncture having had great success. When you are checking on acupuncture, suggest you also ask about relief for side effects of cancer treatments for your mother; from nausea to calming body from trauma of treatments. Love to grandmommy, you and family.

  • Marie McDowell

    2014/11/13 at 11:33 am

    Congratulations on your clean scan! May you continue to have many more of those!

  • Cynthia Jennings

    2014/11/13 at 12:44 pm

    I was reluctant to try acupuncture, but it has worked twice for me when I was having issues with achilles tendonitis and issues with my shoulder. It’s worth a try.

  • Heidi Corcoran

    2014/11/13 at 1:07 pm

    Yikes. When I had my cortisone shot they numbed my thumb first!

  • Fredda

    2014/11/13 at 2:19 pm

    Acupuncture can be very effective with acute problems like yours! Your health insurance may even pay for it.

  • KristenfromMA

    2014/11/13 at 2:53 pm


  • jaquesk

    2014/11/13 at 3:43 pm

    Another reason to try acupuncture – no side effects

  • Cathy

    2014/11/13 at 4:10 pm

    Sounds like DeQuervains. The shots didn’t work for me. The surgery was a piece of cake. It’s a quick procedure, you wear a cast for a week and shortly thereafter it’s good as new.

  • kara_v

    2014/11/13 at 6:57 pm

    Why? Why? Haven’t you ever seen Bambi? If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

  • Jo

    2014/11/13 at 7:55 pm

    Try turmeric capsules.

  • Jennifer Campisano

    2014/11/13 at 9:42 pm

    Thanks — will do! 🙂

  • Davida Brown

    2014/11/14 at 12:05 pm

    Right? She has a blog about her life and then has the audacity to write about her life! Crazy!

  • owensmama

    2014/11/14 at 2:51 pm

    I know it’s just a picture, and not a literal list of your daily doses, but wanted to point out that Meloxicam and Ibuprofen are in the same family of drugs, so you shouldn’t be taking them at the same time. You CAN however mix Meloxicam and any Tylenol-like products that you like. I am on daily Meloxicam for inflammatory arthritis and I take Tylenol for break-through pain. The Meloxicam also takes 2-3 weeks of daily use to kick in as an anti-inflammatory, even though it kicks in almost immediately as a pain reliever.

  • Melissa

    2014/11/15 at 8:10 am

    This is mother’s thumb? Oh, dear lord, my prayers are with everyone in your life who has to listen to you.

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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