28 June 2011

Fear, Living with Uncertainty, and Cancer Recurrence

When you first get diagnosed with cancer, your world stops.  My first thinking, eighteen years ago, was "What will happen to my children if I die?"  I think that's the first question for parents, right?  You have no clue what you're in for.  You're at the mercy of your doctors and health care providers as far as your physical health is concerned...and if you're a believer, you're at God's mercy for the rest.

Somehow, you manage to make it to all your appointments, your surgery, through your recovery, and your treatment.  And then it's over.  It's like you're "sprung" from the prison of your disease.  Sure, you have to go to your follow up appointments with your surgeon, your oncologist, in my case, my plastic surgeon.  But the intense focus and attention that you and everyone else around you has put on your cancer for the past couple months eases up.  And then you're faced with  --- I know I was -- FEAR.   The fear is of recurrence.  Uncertainty. Did they get it all?  Is it really out of my body?  What if they didn't?  What if I have to go through it again?  I remember it being terrifying during my recovery from Round One all those years ago.  A lumpectomy, lymph node dissection, and six weeks of daily radiation treatments left me little time or energy to think about anything else other than my family and surviving. 

I remember making a point to walk every day, eat right, check myself, reading up on all the latest news on breast cancer.  That's how I got started in doing the Avon Walk.  I celebrated my 5 year "cure" by walking 60 miles during the first 3-day they had...from Santa Barbara to Malibu.  My daughter was too young to join me at that time, so I did it on my own.  It was very cleansing for me walking all those miles...just thinking, praying, praising.  I had survived.  But I think that was the beginning of letting go for me.  They said if I could survive 5 years without recurrence, then I was "cured."  I remember walking those painful steps on the third day feeling "alive" albeit with blisters...it just reinforced the fact that I was there.  Crossing the finish line with my "sisters" in celebration.  Seeing the faces of my children at the end - then 6 and 12 - and thinking that I had completed the journey. If I could survive 5 years without recurrence, then I was "cured." That's what I was told.

But that's only cured of recurrence of the SAME cancer.  Not of other cancers.  I had 18 years of great mammograms after my cancer.  And then this year --- it's baaaaackk.  But really, IT was not back.  Because it wasn't  the same cancer.  It was a different cancer, but in the same breast.  And then earlier in the year, in February, I had colon cancer.  Totally unrelated to the breast cancer.

I guess what I'm saying here is this.  Life is uncertain.  And our health is uncertain too.  Yes, there is a chance of recurrence after cancer.  Doctors will talk in statistics.  "You have a 5% chance of recurrence".  "If you survive five years without recurrence, you can consider yourself cured."  We cancer survivors are in this limbo.  We don't really want to know if it's coming back.  What we want to know is that it's NOT coming back.  And no one can tell us that.  In the beginning you live day to day.  Then doctor's appointment to doctor's appointment.  Month to month.  And then you celebrate your wellness anniversaries.  The fear is always inside there.  It's that little apprehension when you're opening up your screening results.  But you can't let that take over.  Remember: I may have cancer; but cancer doesn't have me.

So what do we do then? You just put on your big girl panties and deal with it!  You can't just stop living your life because of the fear.  Life will go on.  So enjoy every single day.  Don't stress over the small stuff (because it's all small stuff).  When you're walking, look around you.  Find the bird's nests in the trees.  Look at the shapes and colors of God's creation, and breathe in the smell of the air.  Go ahead, pick a dandelion and blow!  Launch the seeds!  This is life.  It's happening right now.  Don't miss it because of fear or worry, because honestly, you're missing RIGHT NOW by worrying about the future.  Relax.  Let go of the cancer.  Think good thoughts.  Surround yourself with beauty: nature, music, family, friends, love, laughter, a nice glass of wine, or a good cup of coffee.  Celebrate not just the milestones, but the day to day, ordinary of life.  Take good care of yourself.  Do your best.  Say your prayers.  And believe in your wellness!


Sonig said...

I may have cancer; but cancer doesn't have me. This is an encouraging and very powerful statement!

Suzie Shatarevyan said...

You're such a great motivational writer. It's total therapy as well :)

Fr. Vazken Movsesian said...

A great and inspirational piece. If nothing stays but the last paragraph, it's the message that we need.

Deeper - in your thoughts on recurrence, you hit on the notion same/different cancers. It made me think of our "openness" to cancer. We have no problem saying that we are open to love, or to healing. In fact, our openness to love is a precondition to living with the power of love and the complete path to healing. So then, does it follow that we are open (and therefore, can close ourselves) to cancer? We know stress and environmental conditions all contribute to the cancer's development from dormancy. So, if there are factors that heighten our susceptibility to occurrence/recurrence, can we isolate a state that makes us "open" to the possibility, thereby isolating the state that prohibits its growth?

You got me thinking... thanks.