Despite my fear of one day hearing “You’ve got cancer,” I never truly believed that I would be diagnosed with the dreaded disease. I was too young, physically fit and health-conscious. I didn’t indulge in junk food, didn’t smoke or drink and was born to a family with bad cardiac DNA rather than wayward cancer cells.
Deluded about not being “the cancer type,” I experienced a rude awakening in December 2005 when a routine mammogram revealed that I had ductal carcinoma in situ, a non-invasive breast cancer. More consumed with self-blame for not preventing the “Big C” than with fear of its lethal possibilities, I believed that I had caused my cells to mutate by overreacting to stress, exposing myself to environmental carcinogens and eating too many over-baked slices of pizza.
I now know, through encounters with survivors and medical professionals and from my own reading, that cancer can happen to anyone and there is no wonder pill or magic potion to ward it off with absolute certainty. Nor is there any assurance for cancer-free survivors of a cancer-free future.
Given that reality of uncertainty, I find that my fear of the “Big C” has morphed into fear of the “Big R”–Recurrence–whether it is a new cancer or a metastasis from the original breast malignancy. An earache…cancer of the inner ear? Inflammation of my sciatic nerve…Stage IV bone cancer? Discomfort in the lumpectomy area…is it back? My thoughts and emotions inevitably race to Recurrence.
Even the encouraging findings that cancer is less likely to recur if one has lived cancer- free 5-10 years after a first diagnosis, and that the five-year survival rate is almost 90%, do little to alleviate my recurrence anxiety. Percentages cannot predict the identities of those whose cancer will recur, making any breast cancer survivor fair game. Remembering the shocking effect of my first bout with the “Big C,” I cannot blithely believe that I am not “the recurrence type.”
If I cannot control the “Big R,” how can I at least prevent my fear of it from interfering with my life? First off, rather than deny, I acknowledge the anxieties and worries that lurk in my psyche; I often chuckle at my uncanny ability to conjure up a recurrence out of every fleeting ache or pain. Cancer of the inner ear…paleeeze!
To possibly lower my risk of recurrence, I do what I can within my control. I exercise, eat organic, eliminate sugar, take Vitamin D. I never skip mammograms, MRIs, gynecologist and oncologist appointments.
I stay employed, ensuring that my medical insurance does not lapse and I have the financial resources to treat a recurrence.
Most of all, I remind myself that breast cancer is not the “death sentence” I once believed it to be. Because of clinical advances and treatment options, women are surviving even multiple recurrences and living longer, healthier lives.
And who knows, maybe medical research will soon find a cure for breast cancer, eradicating all my fears.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.