Leaving Behind the Fear of Breast Cancer

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • When I was first diagnosed with cancer, my mind felt like a glass of clear water into which someone had dropped an eyedropper of black ink: the idea of cancer enveloped me in darkness, a darkness that reached every corner.


    Cancer was the first thing I thought of every morning. I might be awake for a half-second before that familiar dread reappeared, settling heavily in my stomach and chest like a bag of rocks.


    Cancer lurked at the edges of my consciousness all day long, through work, making dinner, helping with homework, and into those few moments before sleep, a time which formerly had been marked by a peaceful reflection on the day’s events.

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    Cancer even invaded my dreams, turning them sorrowful and scary. I couldn’t get away from it; it lived inside me, in more ways than one.


    As I went through treatment, a routine was established. First there was surgery and recovery; then chemo, with its three-week cycle of needles, sickness, and fatigue, followed by a few days of not-much-discomfort before the next injection. Side effects appeared, worsened, then gave way to new afflictions as the doctors treated first one, then the next. Radiation was a lockstep process: 8 a.m. every day, weekends off, six weeks.


    And then, suddenly, on a cold and sunny February Wednesday, treatment was over. I was done. My next appointment wasn’t for 3 months. And the loud drumbeat of cancer, which had shaped my daily schedule for months and months, began to fade.

    I rediscovered what it was like to see time not as the number of days between chemo injections, but as weekdays (work) vs. weekends (relaxation). My car no longer automatically turned left out of the driveway, towards the hospital. I didn’t have to think about what time of day my appointment was, and whether the main parking lot would be full, forcing me into one of those long-walk satellite lots.


    No, I was thinking about a friend’s birthday, and what kind of cake to bake. About February school vacation, and whether we could swing a 3-day trip to the in-laws’. And about when my daffodils might poke their first tentative green shoots into the wintry air: crazily hoping for an early spring, they sometimes appear along the south foundation as early as January.


    What was most significant, though, was what I WASN’T thinking about: cancer.

    Certainly, the dread that had invaded me, the sinking stomach that awakened me every morning all those long weeks, didn’t disappear suddenly. Scared today, healed tomorrow. No, it was more like sunrise. At first the sky is black; then a general grayness appears on the horizon, followed by a clear blue band along the treeline, with fingers of red and orange heralding the new day. When at last the sun appears, suffusing the landscape with light, it’s hard to remember that only minutes before the world was black.


    Getting past cancer was like that: a gradual forgetting, as good health replaced the dark days of treatment. When I woke up in the morning, I didn’t immediately think of cancer; I thought of which route to take on my daily walk, or what to make for breakfast. I was past it. And day by day, cancer receded behind me.

  • I haven’t forgotten about cancer entirely; no one forgets their run-in with a killer. But my mind has diffused (and defused) that blackness that colored every waking moment in those first scary days. I’ve come out of the darkness, back into the light.

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    And cancer has become just another challenge from my past, fading like an old photograph left out in the sun. I’m still scared: of not being able to pay the tuition bills, of getting lost on the tangle of highways around Boston.


    But cancer? No more. Been there, done that, still alive.

Published On: September 26, 2006