I truly hoped I would graduate from regular oncology check-ups when I moved to Texas. Gratefully, I’d passed the ten-year mark since completing my breast cancer treatment, and I believed I was finally beyond the time frame within which I was most at risk for a recurrence. I knew I wouldn’t be in the five-year class, since I’d had two kinds of cancer that had spread to the lymph nodes where it was also invasive. But ten years? I thought I was done!
But that’s not what my oncologist in St. Louis said. Instead, I learned about some new risks I had not quite heard before (maybe denial protects us from hearing more than we can handle all at once). Now I know that one reason for me to continue with regular oncology check-ups is that there have been recurrences beyond ten years with my kind of cancer. In addition, one of the chemo drugs I took can cause cardiomyopathy, and as an oncologist, she listened to my heart and other symptoms differently from a regular internist.
This sent me into a bit of a tailspin. I thought I had already dealt with my fear of death, the uncertainty of cancer returning, the dread of treatment, the waiting after tests, and pondering the unknown; instead, I discovered that such fears can resurface even after ten years. As I went through a whole new battery of tests (a full blood panel, an echo-cardiogram, and a PET scan) with my new oncologist in Frisco, I started obsessing about toxic ingredients in personal care and make-up products, constantly trying new ones that were organic and free of anything not approved by the Environmental Working Group. I splurged on a 10-stage water filter when Dan was out of town. I couldn’t control whether I got cancer again, but I could control my environment and what products I used as much as possible.
The fear driving my new obsessions was hard to explain, to name, and to face, partly because they were unexpected after ten years. Dan was mad at me for spending money unnecessarily and I was mad at him for not trying to understand how terrified and alone I felt. But we got there. It took some painful conversation, but I was finally honest about what was churning inside, and he was able to embrace me in it. I have stopped making irrational purchases while burying my feelings; he fills the water filter at night so we have filtered water ready for coffee in the morning.
I went to my new oncologist to get the results of this whole battery of tests, providing my new baseline for health. He is a soft-spoken, balding man with a gentle spirit and a slight Spanish accent who looked at me with a sweet smile and said, “thank you for your good behavior.” All my tests were negative and all my numbers from my white blood cell count to my cholesterol looked great. Such relief!
But the whole experience reminded me not to be lulled into a false sense of control. I am so glad that regular exercise and a careful diet show up in my test results; however, this experience taught me once again that I need to let go of the illusion of control over cancer or anything else that might happen. I can do what is mine to do regarding reasonable and responsible self-care and let go of the future and the “what-ifs,” giving them back to God. In every arena of life, this is the challenge of living a daily life of faith: doing what’s mine and letting go of what isn’t.
PS Please do your monthly self-exams and know your body! I was saved by self-exam because my tumor was in the 10% that did not show up on a mammogram. Remember that men can get breast cancer as well!