The severed nerve

P6150076.JPGWhen I was going through cancer treatment, I followed a few blogs of other cancer patients. When the blog ended abruptly, I feared the worst. In some cases, I was right, but in at least one case, the person was fine but had just stopped posting. So, in case anyone undergoing cancer treatment follows my blog, I want to encourage them by posting at least a few times each year, so they know all is well still.

While at my one-year check up this past February at MD Anderson in Houston, my doctor asked me if I had any unusual symptoms to report. I mentioned that I huffed and puffed a lot, and that it had started almost exactly one year earlier. I had mentioned it to several other doctors during the year, but no one had been able to detect a cause.

One doctor had sent me to a cardiologist to see if it was due to congestive heart failure, but it wasn’t that.

The inability to breathe was especially concerning to me because vigorous exercise can help ward off cancer recurrence. I could only use my elliptical machine for about 3 minutes before I doubled over in pain and couldn’t breathe. I tired easily from simple tasks and needed naps. I couldn’t climb stairs or walk far, and I certainly couldn’t jog. Even tying my shoes made me breathless. It wasn’t like that before. I knew that radiation gave people long-term fatigue, but fatigue and breathlessness are not the same thing.

My doctor ordered a chest x-ray.

The radiologists discovered that my right phrenic nerve had been severed, and it almost surely happened during neck surgery the previous year. A severed right phrenic nerve paralyzes your right diaphragm. Instead of laying flat, the paralyzed diaphragm juts up into your lung in the shape of an upside U, and keeps your lung from filling up with air.

It is medically irreversible. They can do surgery to pull the diaphragm out of the lung, but it isn’t able to repair the diaphragm itself. Plus, it is risky surgery and no one seems to think I should do that.

My newly-enlisted pulmonologist at MD Anderson suggested I try to live with it, and stick to light housework and office work. I can’t run, but he hopes I can build my strength by walking. He said I can’t lift weights because of the nerve damage to my right shoulder and the tightened muscles/tendons in my right neck. (The whole upper right side of my body is abnormal and gives me pain.)

I huff and puff tying my shoes because when I bend at the waist, I am cutting off what little air supply my right lung has. Certain sitting and lying positions work better for me than others.

I’d lived overseas with it for a full year before it was diagnosed. Knowing what the cause is sure makes life easier though. I know how to work around it better. For example, I know not to go jogging. Seriously. I cannot.

Overall, I have some challenges, but it is, as always, good to be alive! I am amazed and grateful that God spared my life.

For your name’s sake, Lord, preserve my life;
    in your righteousness, bring me out of trouble.

— Psalm 143:11 (NIV)


6 thoughts on “The severed nerve

  1. Fran says:

    We continue to remember that situation daily and still believe in miracles! Certainly glad you are still at work and adapting the best you can.


  2. says:

    Hey Elisabeth,

    Thanks for sharing these updates and trials you are experiencing. Praying for you to recover your stamina and gain greater breathing capacity in spite of the severed phrenic nerve. It is amazing you went a year without finding out the cause – you are strong. May His grace and strength and stamina keep you leaning on Him daily.

    Blessings, Victor


    • Nice to hear from you Victor! I appreciate your encouraging words and prayers. You’re so right, leaning on the Lord daily is my source of strength. My best wishes to you and your family. I hope our paths cross again soon.


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