When the fear of cancer recurrence becomes detrimental to health

 

For the past nine years, I’ve struggled with waves of overwhelming fear of cancer recurrence. I knew I had an issue, but until recently, wasn’t aware of how much fear was affecting my life.

cartoon drawing of blogger and breast cancer survivor, Bonnie Annis

The fear began to manifest in physical problems. First, I noticed my heart would race even though I wasn’t exerting myself, so I started seeing a cardiologist. I’d had problems with hypertension in the past, but this was something new. After running a slew of tests, the doctor assured me I was OK and the three medications I was already taking were doing a good job. He told me not to worry, so I tried my best to heed his advice.

Next, I began having trouble sleeping. I’d done a lot of reading about aging and sleep problems, so I wasn’t too concerned, but when I started waking up exhausted. I knew something wasn’t right. The cardiologist suggested we do a sleep study, so I agreed to it. The test revealed I had sleep apnea, so I found a pulmonologist to address that.

I started having stomach issues and wasn’t able to digest my food well, so my primary doctor referred me to a gastroenterologist. After several tests, it was determined I had legitimate concerns. I was afraid I had esophageal cancer — the cancer that took my brother’s life — but the doctor assured me he’d do more testing. I endured two endoscopies and a colonoscopy, and even had my esophagus stretched. While I awaited the results from those tests, my fear grew.

An enlarged lymph node on the side of my neck freaked me out. Immediately, I called the oncologist and set up an appointment. She ordered an ultrasound. When the test was inconclusive, I panicked. I wasn’t ready to face cancer again. The doctor ordered a CT scan of my neck and one of my abdomen just to be sure there was no cancer there. I was thankful she was proactive.

When I received an email alert through the patient portal of my cancer treatment center, I just about lost it. Why was the oncologist calling me in to see her? If it was good news, wouldn’t she have called and told me? The fear inside reached epic proportions.

I called my husband at work and asked if he could take a vacation day to accompany me to the appointment. I didn’t want to face bad news alone. Immediately, he went to his boss and made the request. I felt a little more at ease knowing he’d be with me.

The night before the appointment, I didn’t sleep a wink, even with my CPAP machine. My thoughts were all over the place. What would I do if I had to face cancer again? I didn’t think I could do it.

In the morning, as we drove to the cancer treatment center, my husband held my hand. He talked softly to me and assured me that whatever the news, he’d be right with me.

After waiting in the lobby for about thirty minutes, my name was called. Grasping my husband’s hand, I tugged on it hard as I stood up to follow the nurse. Together, we walked into the exam room and waited for the doctor.

I did my best to control my breathing as the nurse took my vital signs. The nurse asked if my blood pressure was normally high. I replied, “No.” She turned the screen to reveal my systolic pressure was 157. I told her I guessed I was nervous.

The doctor came in with a scribe and her medical assistant. She barely greeted us before sitting down and opening her laptop. I tried to read her body language but couldn’t. She seemed to be all business.

As she pulled up the report for the CT scans, she said, “There’s no cancer on your scans, so you have nothing to worry about. And I see here that that you’re coming up on nine years being cancer free, so I don’t need to see you but once a year now, unless you have something that pops up in between time.” She stood and folded her laptop, then headed toward the door.

“But wait!” I said anxiously, “Are you sure? This wasn’t what I was expecting.” She nodded her head and put her hand on the doorknob. As she turned it, I felt a rush of cool air brush my face.

When she’d exited the room, I turned to my husband, tears in my eyes, and exhaled. We were both in shock. Neither of us expected to hear good news delivered in such a cavalier fashion. Sure, the appointment was probably the last of the day for the doctor, but gee, didn’t I deserve a high five or something?

As we left the cancer treatment center, I suddenly realized I wouldn’t be coming again for an entire year. I had mixed emotions. On one hand, I was happy to be walking out with good news, on the other, I wondered how I’d let fear overpower me so easily.

When I got home, I went into the bathroom and cried. The tears were a much-needed emotional release. Until that point, I hadn’t realized that every time I’d felt any kind of physical malady I’d subconsciously defaulted to “it’s cancer.”

I’m a pretty grounded person, but that afternoon, I realized I had some unresolved post-traumatic stress to deal with. I’d thought that I’d done most of that healing work over the past nine years, but I guess a barb of fear had lodged itself deep in my spirit.

Fear is a powerful weapon the enemy uses against us. The important thing is to learn to recognize it and disarm it.

If there was one piece of advice I’d like to give others facing the overwhelming fear of recurrence, it’s to give yourself grace. We’re only human. It’s normal to dread a recurrence of cancer, especially when it's come into your life and done a number on your mental and physical well-being. Sometimes, it’s necessary to get professional help to conquer it and there’s no shame in that. But please, don’t let it control your life like I did.

I once read a powerful quotation by Emily Freeman I’d like to share with you, “Worry is a thief, fear is a liar, and anxiety is their trembling, furrow-browed baby.” That sums it up perfectly. No one deserves to live under that kind of stress.

Nine years is a long time to deal with the powerful side effect of fear that cancer brought into my life. So today, I choose to release myself from it. And if it ever tries to rear its ugly head again, I’m going to lop it off and scream, “NOT TODAY! I am alive and doing well.” That, my friends, is my new mantra. I’ve fought too hard to let down my guard ever again. I am blessed and I’m going to start living like it.

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