A Deer Tick On My Collarbone: An Unwelcome Reminder of Cancer-Worry Mode

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • I traveled to northern Vermont the other day for a business meeting, driving two hours through the hills, and then the Green Mountains, of this lovely state. If you’ve ever heard about the beauty of the fall foliage in New England, it’s true… and it's happening now. I feel sorry for the tourists who book their foliage tours and their hotel rooms for September, because all they’ll see is a lot of green. Even in early October, the colors are muted, a gray scrim thrown across what will soon be a canvas of blazing yellow, orange, and sugar-maple red. But now my drive through the mountains was remarkable both for the blazing colors, and the deep blue of the sky.

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    Vermont's hills light up in the fall...


    Prior to the meeting, I stayed overnight at a friend’s house in the country (which, in Vermont, is usually about five minutes from town). Early in the morning, before the sun rose, I took a walk through her garden. Now, this woman is a professional gardener, and her eye-high flowerbeds, beautifully tended herb garden, and tomato plants bent low with fruit attest to her skill. The pre-dawn air was October-cold, the dew icy on my bare feet. A cup of coffee as the sun rose was a welcome coda to a bracing stroll. As it turned out, though, that walk in the garden yielded more than I’d bargained for.

    Driving home from the meeting, I figured it would be a good idea to end my day with a short workout at the gym. I stepped out of the shower at 8 p.m., and toweling off noticed a piece of dark lint over my collarbone. Only it wouldn’t brush off. It was a deer tick. EWWWWWWW! What to do? I had vague memories of a burnt match, alcohol, petroleum jelly… and Lyme disease, common wherever there are deer, which there certainly are in northern Vermont. I started to worry.

    And with that random chain of events, I slipped back into cancer-worry mode. Prior to cancer, I would have thought, “Huh, Lyme disease; I suppose I should think about it. Bone up on the symptoms, just in case.” Then I probably would have forgotten all about it. But now, all the possibilities started to march through my head.


    “Since I had chemo, does that mean my immune system is still compromised? Am I more likely to get something from this tick bite? And how about the lymphedema–will this kick it up again?” I read up on Lyme disease online, and found out I should look out for aches in my joints.


    Oh, great; I have so many aches in my joints now from Arimidex, I’ll never be able to notice any new ones. I know, from friends who have it, that Lyme disease’s flu-like symptoms can come and go for years, and can morph into both arthritis and cognitive problems. Like, I need more of that layered on top of chemo brain? Oh, man…

    So I called a friend who knows about stuff like this, and she talked me through getting the tick off (scrape with a credit card to loosen its grip, then pull with a tweezers; who knew?). The tick’s gone, but now I’m standing at the crossroads we all know so well: how much do I need to worry about this? Pre-cancer–not much. Keep a casual eye on it, assume the best. Post-cancer? I’ve lost my blithe confidence in good health. I feel threatened by a paper cut on my lymphedema hand, by a sudden headache. By a tick bite. And I feel angry at cancer for putting me in this vulnerable position.

  • Which health worries are justified, and which are simple over-reactions? The problem is, when you’ve had cancer, the answer isn’t clear. And the consequences can be life or death.

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Published On: October 22, 2007