This is the third installment in our Fear of Recurrence series:
I am a breast cancer survivor. Seven years out. And I am afraid. Really afraid that my breast cancer will return. My body still has the battle scars of the cancer that ravaged me for one full year. Worse though are the tears in my heart from dealing with the cancer. Sometimes they take hold of me so tightly that I can hardly breathe. I am afraid to tell my story because I do not want to think about it or feel it again. Maybe though, in some small way, if I tell my story, the cancer will loose some of its grip on me.
The date was October 17, 2003. Friday. All day Jack and I sit by the phone waiting for it to ring to find out if the cancer tests were “positive.” I could not imagine how I got to this point. I was happy for the first time in my life. I worked out 5 or 6 days a week, and felt (and looked!) great. I was really into nutrition, mediation and everything healthy. I liked my job. I loved getting up every day to see what life offered.
The doctors had promised to call me back before the weekend, but no one ever did. So Jack urged me to call the on-staff radiologist, who pulled my scans and told me that they were “positive.” At first I think that positive is a good thing because isn’t that the meaning of positive? I could not get my arms around the fact that I was positive for breast cancer. I still can’t…
The cancer drama unfolded around me, but I felt that I was on the outside. I was watching those around me as they cried and told me how sorry they were. How could they possibly understand that my whole world had just collapsed? I had no idea of who to call or how to save my life.
We were supposed to be in a wedding on October 31. My nephew got married and it was supposed to be the happiest moment in their lives. At the wedding, all I could think about was whether or not the cancer would kill me before I was ready. That is when the fear first emerged. That cancer could kill me. For the first time in my life I realized that I was not in control.
The following week Jack told me that I needed to tell my family. When he called my younger sister, Nancy, her husband told us she was in a hospice. She was dying from breast cancer… I could not understand that. Why hadn’t she told me?
On November 5, we drove 300 miles to see my sister Nancy. How do I tell her I have Stage 4 breast cancer and I too could be dying? When I walked into Nancy’s hospice room, I did not recognize her. I still have tears as I think about my beautiful sister who always had long pretty black hair and a wonderful smile. Now she is ravaged by the cancer and all I can think about is how soon I may look like that too. Nancy was always a fighter. How come she couldn’t beat cancer?
Friday, November 7, 2003. I am in a hospital room getting ready for a mastectomy, soon to be followed by chemotherapy and radiation. It is 9:29 a.m. As I tell the doctors about my sister, anesthesia starts to take hold, and I no longer care about the cancer. Later, I learn that Nancy passed away as I went through my surgery. I knew in my heart that she was there guiding the doctors. She was always good about giving advice!
During the following months, I see other women facing breast cancer. I know who they are. They wear wigs, or are bald. They look pale and tired. Soon my hair falls out from chemotherapy, and I cry. My skin turns yellow and my fear is realized: I look like “the cancer women.” I am one of them. I am afraid.
The time goes slowly. I run from treatment to treatment. One appointment to another. I am so tired and in so much pain, I can’t think. What if all this ends in death? What if the cancer returns and I have to go through this again? Will they hire me back at my job? What do I tell my co-workers to make them understand that I can’t do my job like before (I have chemo brain so badly that I can’t even balance my checkbook)? How do I handle the stares and empty words? I am afraid.
Now, it is seven years later. I have gotten through much of the cancer nightmare, but I still suffer from anger and pain. I have lymphedema and wear a sleeve. The arthritis in my hands and feet has gotten worse from the anti-cancer drugs and I wear splints. I try to exercise but it stirs up the lymphedema so I work with doctors to see if we can find a solution. I finally gave up my dream to return to who I was. I prayed, meditated, walked and did whatever else I could think of. I wanted to be who I was before. I am afraid. I am afraid that I will loose more ground – more will be taken away from me. So, maybe the cancer doesn’t return, but the treatment left side effects so severe, that they are slowly taking over my body: the lymphedema, the arthritis, remnants of chemo brain, the toxins stored in my fat cells that I can’t seem to get rid of and more.
I am afraid of my anger.
I am afraid of the cancer.
I am afraid of cancer’s side effects.
I am afraid of dying from breast cancer like my sister Nancy.
I am afraid to live because cancer may catch me off guard like it did before….
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