I’ll be a 26-year survivor of breast cancer next month and a 16-year survivor of kidney cancer.
And so I know a little something about fear; fear of cancer recurrence.
I’ve learned mostly to put that fear in the back of my head. It’s in a “box” I don’t open very often. But I know it’s there.
I felt it, like sympathy pain this week, when I spoke at Penn Medicine’s Life after Breast Cancer Conference. So many young or newly diagnosed survivors spoke with fear and anger I recognized. It hurt my heart.
I remember it so well; the rug pulled out from under you, your life, your family, your plans. You worry about paying bills, taking care of your children, insurance. It’s a nightmare.
The thing about cancer fear is that there is not much we can do with it.
Which is why I put it in the back of my head. It gets easier to keep it there as more time passes. It’s nearly impossible in the beginning of this journey. You don’t know why your body turned on you and so you aren’t sure it won’t turn on you again.
One fellow survivor told me an Abramson Cancer Center counselor described the fear like a full symphony playing every day in your head. Then eventually you only hear the winds section. Then one day you just hear the flute and then one day that note fades into the background. That’s a great description of what it’s like.
You don’t ever totally get rid of the fear, but I’ve learned to counter it by trying to take care of my body: sleep, eat decently, exercise daily. It makes me feel stronger mentally and physically.
I never miss a checkup. I’m religious about testing and seeing my oncologist.
I will say cancer made me more fearless at work, less fearful of being imperfect or making mistakes. I’ve spoken to others who found that same post-traumatic growth. The things you used to fear pale in comparison to cancer.
It puts everything in perspective.
What makes me less fearful too, are all the advances that have been made, the treatments that exist today, the research into immunotherapy. There’s an arsenal of new drugs that are saving lives that would have been lost in the past. Who knows. I might need one of them one day.
Meanwhile, I believe in daring myself as often as possible, to learn new things, to challenge fears I can do something about.
Whatever fear we face, the courage we gain, we get to transfer to other parts of our lives.
That’s what the researchers say. I believe them. I’ve found it to be true.
If you are a cancer survivor, you know how precious the day is. You create it. You can decide if you want to live with fear running your life or put it in a box.
Take it minute by minute if you have to. Get counseling. It helps.
And by all means, empower yourself with information.
That helps fight fear too.
We are not alone.
Especially when we are afraid.