There are over 10 million cancer survivors in this country. Ten million of us who go about our lives with a shadow in our souls. For some of us, it’s the merest wisp of silver, a hint of mist on a cool, early spring morning. For others, the shadow is darker than the darkest night, more threatening than a bank of black thunderheads rolling across the August sky. Where’s the cancer? Is it gone? Is it hiding? And, sometimes… is it back?
Day after day, I live comfortably with the fact that I have breast cancer. It’s invasive. It escaped from my breast into a lymph node, and it may have gone farther. I had surgeries, I did chemo, I did radiation. I take drugs. I had every treatment the doctors advised to lower the risk of recurrence those precious extra few percentage points. I’m fine now. The cancer’s gone… or it’s not. No one knows for sure. And that little edge of uncertainty is what keeps the door open for cancer’s return. It’s what makes me wonder, every now and then–is it back?
You’ve been there, right? Your first year or so out of treatment, every headache is brain cancer; a lingering cough means cancer has spread to your lungs, and a sore knee is probably bone cancer. Maybe you give in to your anxiety and go to the doctor; maybe you tell yourself you’re over-reacting, that fear is shouting louder than reason. Wait it out, you tell yourself. See if the pain lasts. Usually it doesn’t; the headache is gone overnight, the cough gradually abates. You push back at fear, and bury it once again.
But sometimes, all your pushing can’t bury fear. It keeps floating to the surface; it stays right in your face. And that’s where I am right now. Why do I feel lousy? Oh, it’s nothing specific… a few headaches, when I’m someone who never has headaches. Sore ribs. A permanent radiation cough that’s become more persistent. The feeling of an uncomfortable lump in my throat when I eat. A whole lot of negligible issues, things that a person without cancer would shrug off as irritants, nothing more. But for those of us with cancer, these mundane discomforts have behind them the weight of too much knowledge, too much experience with minor symptoms that spiraled out of control till they threatened your very life.
When you have a heart attack, you survive it, or you don’t; the outcome is quickly known. But cancer’s not a sudden attack; it’s more like the slow creep of a flooding river, rising inch by inch until it suddenly spills over its banks, spreading devastation across the land. The thing with most recurring breast cancer is, you feel pretty good, right up to the point where it’s gotten a solid foothold somewhere–your bones, your liver, your brain–and threatens your life.
Is that river rising within me again?
Is it back?
For more on recurrence: