Residual fear after a cancer diagnosis

I went to see my oncologist for my six-month checkup yesterday. All was routine, other than my blood pressure being 131 over something when it’s usually in the 115 range, even when I see my family doctor. No anxiety there.

When he asked what had changed in the last six months, I told him about the endoscopy I had in December, which turned out to be normal. But what prompted it is something anyone who’s had cancer faces whether you want to admit it or not (and I usually don’t) — fear. I was having stomach discomfort that went beyond what over-the-counter drugs could handle. I finally got worried enough to get in touch with my family doctor. Her practice has a secure portal, so I was able to email her and spew out all my fears.

Ten years ago I wouldn’t have shared my fears at all, so that’s a kind of progress. But ten years ago I didn’t appreciate how your body can turn on you. Thanks to early-stage breast cancer I do, and it’s hard for my mind not to immediately go to the worst-case scenario. I shared every cancer scenario that kept me awake at 2am and scheduled an appointment.

When I came in for the appointment, she was wonderful. I did a brief recap of why I was there. She listened, then said, “Let’s put all that stuff you’re worried about over here,” waving her hand, “and focus on the symptoms.”

Based on my situation and history she prescribed a stomach acid drug and endoscopy. I want to stress that she didn’t order the test because I was scared, and I wouldn’t want her to. She ordered it because it was medically indicated. I’m not a big hugger but I asked for a hug after that because her rational but respectful approach was just what I needed. I feel blessed to have her as my doctor.

I feel blessed to have my oncologist too. When I told him about sharing a wheelbarrow full of fears with my family doctor, he nodded and said, “That’s what happens when you have cancer.”

Then he paused and smiled and said, “It doesn’t help to be a cancer doctor either.” I said no kidding.

It reminded me of the “No Fear” brand of clothing that came into vogue because of motocross. A few years back I spotted a young guy wearing a shirt that said, “Some Fear.” I laughed then, but it’s even funnier now.

The #BCSM (breast cancer social media) community has discussed this residual fear on their great Monday night Twitter chat. If you feel like you could use (or lend) some support and you’re comfortable with Twitter, it’s a great chat. You can also visit their website. And they’re not snobs; some things, like fear, are universal, and people with other kinds of cancer have been made welcome there.

Jackie Fox is the author of From Zero to Mastectomy: What I Learned And You Need to Know About Stage 0 Breast Cancer, and blogs at Dispatch From Second Base.

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  • Lisa

    Yep, I understand. I think everyone who has had a cancer diagnosis worries about a recurrence to some degree or another. And it doesn’t help when you hear the words ‘with your history’ in connection with a needed test. Before my first hip replacement I had an MRI. Before my second hip replacement, I had an MRI with contrast. The difference was my cancer diagnosis.

    Since I’ve been diagnosed with cancer, I want to know what is causing a persistent symptom, even if the most likely explanation is benign. And until I have an explanation, I’ll worry.

  • Patient Kit

    I totally understand the fear too. I’m about at my one-year anniversary since being diagnosed with early stage ovarian cancer. I know I’m very blessed that it was found early but, hey, I can’t help thinking that it means something that my GYN oncologist is monitoring me for recurrence every 3 months for 2 years, then every 6 months for 3 years, then annually if I get to 5 years uneventfully. Plus my mind wanders to crazy questions like “If I’m in the lucky 10% of women whose OC was found in stage 1 and have a 90% chance of surviving 5 years, what are the odds that I might fall into that unlucky 10% who doesn’t survive 5 years?” ;-) I try not to let the residual fear paralyze me but I don’t deny the fear either. I’m just learning to live with it and play through it. But mostly, just like right after 9/11 (I live in NYC), my cancer has made me really really appreciate my life. No matter what hard stuff is going on, I try to spend time every day being with peeps I love and doing things I enjoy. Congratulations on your 6-mo anniversary! I celebrate every one of them.