An Unwelcome Surprise: Patients Share Their Stories
Patient Perspective For many, chicken pox is an illness that comes and goes with childhood, but for a growing number of Canadians, like Sue Rosenthal, this disease can resurface without warning as a painful rash called shingles.
Rosenthal was playing the French horn in a community concert when she first felt symptoms.
“Because of the pain in my shoulder, the entire concert was excruciating and I could barely concentrate on the music,” she recalls. Even carrying her gear from the car to the venue had caused incredible discomfort.
The next morning, the pain was unbearable so 48-year-old Rosenthal went to a walk-in clinic. The doctor listened to her story, examined the small rash on the left side of her neck — which she had previously thought to be a couple of mosquito bites — and diagnosed her right away. Rosenthal had shingles.
She experienced chicken pox as a child and now, 43 years later, the varicella virus had reactivated along a nerve on her left side. Her case was relatively mild, but Rosenthal still required painkillers to manage her condition.
“I generally don’t like to take anything if I can help it, but nerve pain is unlike any other and I couldn’t cope without medication,” she says.
There is no way to predict if or when shingles, or herpes zoster, will flare up but researchers have noticed that patients tend to be 50 or older or have a weakened immune system, such as with cancer patients, and it can be triggered by stress, injury, or certain medications. It was this potent combination that caused my mother, Veena Nath, to get shingles after her last round of chemotherapy.
“It started with pain in my lower back and right thigh but I just figured it was from my chemo,” she recalls. Soon after, she noticed spots on her thigh and hip. They could be bug bites, she thought, or possibly an allergic reaction, but something didn’t feel right. A visit to her doctor confirmed that the spreading rash was, in fact, shingles.
“I didn’t know anything about shingles, didn’t know what they looked like and never ever thought that I would get shingles,” she says. But being 55 with a weakened immune system from chemotherapy and a sizeable amount of stress from her battle with cancer, she met the criteria.
She was prescribed antiviral medication to battle the infection and painkillers to manage the “burning, shooting type of pain” that she was experiencing on her right side.
After a few weeks, the blisters faded to red patches, but to my mother’s surprise, the pain remained. Her doctor advised that it would likely take between five to six weeks for the neuropathic pain to subside.
As my mother continues to heal, her advice to others is to be vigilant when it comes to shingles.
“I never would have thought to even ask about it,” she says, “but I think it’s worth having the conversation with your physician and finding out about your risk factors and your eligibility for the vaccine so hopefully you can avoid shingles, or at least the severe pain that it can cause.”