So, to get to the story. About two years ago, I was hiking with some family in the snow and slipped and fell on some ice (classic clumsy me). I bruised my right hip but felt fine otherwise. That being said, about a month or two after that fall, I started having lower back pain that grew into nerve pain that shot down the back side of my right leg. After going to my primary care doctor, I was prescribed some steroids for anti-inflammatory purposes and referred to physical therapy. After a few weeks of physical therapy, my therapist told me I should get involved in yoga to work to strengthen my lower back muscles. Following her instructions, I started going to yoga class at least once a week. Miraculously, my back pain, and the nerve pain that extended down my legs, stopped completely. I continued to do yoga regularly for about a year. Last winter, the nerve pain came back briefly, but I again worked on exercising and stretching, and it went away. Then, about 3 weeks ago, I was babysitting and sitting on the floor with the toddler I care for. As I turned to reach something behind me, something happened and I suddenly felt pain return to my back and cause stiffness and nerve pain down my lower extremities. I got up and fortunately was soon done babysitting. As I went back to school, I could barely walk and knew something was really wrong. I took lots of advil and did lots of stretching exercises for the next week and a half. Nothing helped and I found myself waking up at night from the pain and continuing to have a lot of trouble walking.
Then, I went on Thanksgiving break. I had my annual physical the second day of break, so I told my doctor about my problem. He again put me on steroids for 6 days, which did help temporarily with the pain. He also referred me for an MRI of my back to try and find out what may be causing my pain. About 3 days ago the results of that MRI came back. It turns out I have a slightly herniated disc and a bone spur in my lower back, both of which are pressing on a nerve. I was told I should go have a consultation with a spinal surgeon. I proceeded to google what “herniated disc” and “lumbar bone spur” meant and what typically led to these problems.
It was quite shocking to find out both herniated discs and lumbar bone spurs are typically found in people over 50 who have osteoarthritis. That basically means my lower back is about 29 years or more older than the rest of me. This is particularly evident in the presence of the bone spur, which is a bony growth on my spine. According to spine-health.com, “osteophytes are a radiographic marker of spinal degeneration (aging), which means that they show up on X-rays or MRI scans and are by and large a normal finding as we age.” So, my spine is apparently degenerating but I’m only 21… So, that brings me back to how this relates to survivorship.
As I’ve mentioned before, leukemia treatment involves spinal taps in which they inject intrathecal chemotherapy. In my treatment as a toddler, I had about 19 spinal taps. In my treatment as a teenager, I had about the same number. That means there has been a lot of chemotherapy going into my spine – and from my 28 day spinal headache during my relapse treatment, it is likely some of that chemotherapy leaked out into the bones/tissues of my lower back. While I make the disclaimer that I have no idea if this is actually a possible cause, I believe it is related at least in some way. The MRI report from last week showed significant degradation of the health of the two discs in between the bottom few vertebrae of my back. So, something definitely happened there.
I thought I had encountered enough with the cognitive challenges I confronted at the beginning of my college experience, and I definitely was not expecting physical complications more than 6 years after my treatment ended. I thought by this point if I didn’t have any problems I would be ok. Clearly that is not the case and I don’t think I realized that my treatments may have impacted the internal structures of my body in a way that I can’t see and that might manifest in various new problems, like this spine problem, as I get older.
Therefore, I wanted to write a PSA to survivors to remind you to get regular physical exams through a primary care provider, have an annual visit with a long-term survivorship specialist, and most importantly, to listen to your body. I could have attributed my pain to a pulled muscle or something and chosen not to do anything about it. However, I went to my physical appointment and requested my doctor refer me for an MRI (he was only going to give me the steroids but I knew I needed to find out what was really going on and the MRI was the way to accomplish that). And that brings me to my final point – just as you should during your treatment, remain informed and active in your care as a survivor. By doing all these things, you can be more proactive in ensuring your long-term wellbeing.