Karen Safranek didn't take a worry-free step for 10 years. Severe peripheral neuropathy — a side effect of breast cancer treatment she received in 2002 — left her with constant burning, tingling, numbness and pain in both her feet.
Over time, Karen tried dozens of treatments to rid herself of the discomfort. Nothing worked. So in 2012 when she found out about a clinical research trial available at Mayo Clinic for people who had peripheral neuropathy after chemotherapy, she was interested, but not optimistic.
"I tried so many things. Anything a doctor recommended or heard about, or anything I heard about, I'd give it a try if I could," Karen says. "But years past, and the pain didn't get any better. By 2011, life was not good. I was analyzing my house to figure out where we could put a wheelchair ramp. At that time, I thought it wouldn't be much longer before I couldn't walk anymore."
This new treatment was different. With MC-5A Calmare Therapy, often called "the scrambler" for short, Karen noticed improvement following the first session. After completing a series of treatments, she was pain-free for the first time in more than a decade. Through her participation in the clinical trial and occasional follow-up treatments at Mayo Clinic, Karen has been able to leave peripheral neuropathy behind and reclaim her life.
Battling pervasive pain
Karen began to notice symptoms of peripheral neuropathy shortly after she started receiving chemotherapy. By the end of her treatments, her breast cancer was gone, but she had constant shooting pain and numbness in her feet and legs that left her weak and unable to maintain her balance.
Peripheral neuropathy is a common side effect of some chemotherapy drugs. For many people, the condition fades away after treatment is over. But for some, like Karen, it can last long after other chemo side effects are gone and can have a significant impact on day-to-day life. The effect on Karen's life was overwhelming.
"It hurt if I was sitting, walking or standing," she says. "Blankets hurt my legs. I wasn't getting a good night's sleep. Going back to work wasn't an option. In time, it got so bad that whenever I went somewhere, I would analyze where I had to park my car and how far it was to get to the building. If there wasn't a spot close enough for me to walk the distance to and from my car, I would just go home."
Retraining the brain
Traditionally, chronic peripheral neuropathy has been challenging to successfully treat. Like many others who have this debilitating disorder, Karen tried everything she and her doctors could think of to relieve her pain. But still she suffered. Then in December 2013, Karen learned of the clinical trial at Mayo Clinic that would change everything for her.
Peripheral neuropathy happens as a result of nerve damage. The damaged nerves send aberrant signals to the brain, causing pain and the other symptoms of peripheral neuropathy. During her treatment sessions as a participant in the research study, the damaged nerves in Karen's feet were connected by electrodes to the scrambler. The device sent painless electrical signals to the damaged nerves, and the nerves relayed those signals to the brain. The new signals broke the pain cycle by retraining Karen's brain to understand that it was not really experiencing pain.
Reclaiming her life
Although the scrambler does not ease symptoms of peripheral neuropathy in all cases, Karen's response was dramatic.
"I was tremendously better after just one treatment," she says. "My feet and legs felt light and pain-free. Previously, I had felt as though they were very heavy to lift and walking was comparable to wearing cement shoes. After the treatment, I could walk really fast. I could take the stairs. I could even run."
After a total of 10 treatment sessions in January 2013, Karen no longer had any symptoms. The effects of the treatment were not permanent, however. She returned to Mayo Clinic for additional scrambler treatment nine months after her first sessions and again eight months after that.
Even though she knows she'll likely need follow-up care over the long-term to keep peripheral neuropathy at bay, Karen is enthusiastic about the difference the treatment has made for her.
"Before this, I wasn't able to do some of the smallest things. I couldn't go grocery shopping alone. If I reached up to take an item off the shelf, I'd lose my balance and tip over. I couldn't walk on uneven ground because I couldn't feel my feet. I'd just fall down," she says. "Being able to participate in this clinical trial at Mayo Clinic with the scrambler, it brought my life back to me. It's a miracle. It really is."
In the video below, Karen and her doctor, Charles Loprinzi, M.D., describe her experience in a Reuters news story.