The Third Wheel

We didn’t invite it – it just showed up. It’s inserted itself into every aspect of our life. It’s dominating our thoughts, feelings, family life, hobbies, emotions, and beliefs. We really didn’t want it and now that it’s here, we want to get rid of it.


Jeff’s been having bone pain in his hip and back coupled with what we think may be nerve issues. It’s persisting to the point where he’s started using the crutches again. The sticks, while they offload some of the pain caused by weight, they don’t offer a sustainable form of relief. Physically, they have become the newest accessory in our family room and bedroom reminding us that something has changed. Psychologically, we look at the sticks and wonder – is this a sign that we’re one step closer to Jeff having permanent mobility issues?

I was researching how other cancer patients and their loved ones manage issues with pain. One husband was talking about his wife’s chronic pain and the impact it has on their relationship. He said:

Pain is a third person in our marriage.

Pain has been a part of our marriage for a while. With 100% certainty, I know Jeff’s ready for it to pack its bags and get the hell out of the house. I feel that way too. Yet, it’s still here. We talk in 1-10 pain scales, knowing that anything below a 6 is acceptable. We celebrate a ‘below 4’ day by getting out of the house together (he hasn’t had one of those in months). We measure how good a day is based on the number of pain pills he takes. We modify chairs, beds, and pillows to offload pain. We try Epsom salt baths, medical cannabis, massage and other alternative therapies.  All of this is in addition to the pain management strategy we’ve created with the oncologist. Thankfully, latest scans showed no new tumors so our hypothesis is that something else is going on.

Relief is the goal – relief from the physical pain and its psychological effects (sleeplessness, irritability and fatigue) – all of which impact daily living and the two of us connecting.

We’re trying to remain brave and look at this as another ‘blip’ in the road. Just another stopping point on our quest to improving his quality of life. But in truth, it’s hard to see him in a place where he’s fatigued, consumed by pain and taking action is a challenge.

For those of us who don’t experience chronic pain, the thought of not taking action to resolve may seem ridiculous. For those battling cancer, managing pain is important to control and get ahead of. It’s also one of many issues they endure daily. They may not be ready to jump in, yet.

There are times when a bit of ‘tough love’ sparks the fire (having a member of the medical team deliver tough love also works). They may want our help researching, setting up appointments, investigating and advocating. Other times, what our loved ones need most from us is compassion and understanding with no action. Repeat. No action – what?!

Ask any cancer caregiver – it’s not in our DNA to sit back and watch, yet that’s exactly what we may be asked to do. For me, that’s the hardest part. 

When we reach this place (and we reach this place frequently when new issues pop up), I’ve learned to pause…and ask questions to understand what’s important to him.

  • What does he really, really want? (not what he thinks I want or what he thinks he should do)
  • What does he want to do with this information? (the answer might be “nothing, yet”)
  • What is his mind & body telling him about what he needs?
  • What is he willing to commit to now?
  • How can I support him in a way that feels good?
  • What pace feels right for him, right now?

Sometimes our loved ones have the answers to these questions. Sometimes they need time to reflect. We sat on the bed together and this time, he asked for help setting up appointments.  He was ready to take action. And so, we spent the next 10-15 minutes making calls together. We have appointments set up with the pain center, pain clinic, physical therapist and chiropractor. And, we’re hopefully optimistic that the third wheel will be packing its bags soon.

How do you work together to manage chronic pain? 

Other Good Resources: