What are you afraid of?
When you were little, it was the dark. A bit older, monsters under the bed. As you grew into adolescence, you were probably most afraid of getting caught: smoking, skipping school, lying to your parents about where you’d been-take your pick.
But now that you’re a grownup what are you afraid of?
Downsizing at work? Losing your home? Both valid fears, the way the economy is bucking and plunging these days. Do you fear the loss of a close relationship a spouse wandering or getting older, a child leaving home, a parent dying? Or maybe your fears are deeper-seated, more rooted in the part of you that forever remains a child: you’re afraid of spiders, or heights, or getting lost.
If you’re a breast cancer survivor, you’re probably afraid of a recurrence. "I wonder if it’s coming back?" you think, every time you have a headache, a sore knee, pain in your ribs. "I’m three years out; I hope I make it to my five-year anniversary so I can stop worrying.“ But then your five-year anniversary comes, and you take another look at the stats, and realize you’re still on the hook, probably for another 15 years or so” And you start to think, "Am I doing everything I can to keep cancer away?"
Some of us are scared of everything. Radon in the cellar, pesticides on the strawberries, chemicals in the underarm deodorant, you name it, we’re convinced it’s going to crack the door open just enough for cancer to slip back in. We devour every article in the media whose lead sentence includes the words "[fill in the blank] may be tied to breast cancer." We mentally wring our hands, and worry that something we ate or breathed or played with 40 years ago may come back not only to haunt us, but to kill us.
Then there are those of us survivors who worry about nothing; well, not cancer, at least. We take a fatalistic approach: "Well, something’s going to kill me, it might as well be cancer." Or we make a joke out of our survivorship: "Hey, now that I have cancer, I don’t have to worry about getting cancer" Maybe we trust in God. Or science and medicine. But for whatever reason, recurrence isn’t something we think about much. And when we do, it’s not with gut-wrenching terror, but with a cool, calculating eye: keeping life insurance policies up to date, thinking twice about applying for a new job because it might mean a change in health insurance.
Are the worriers taking a brave approach, realistically looking their possible fate in the eye and trying to ensure they beat the odds? Do they believe they’re taking their health seriously, while others of their sisters are Pollyannas, blithely ignoring steps they could take to lower their risk of recurrence?
Or are the non-worriers on the right track? They look at their recurrence risk of 1% or 10% or 20% and say, "If that was my chance of winning the lottery, I sure wouldn’t quit my day job. I’m simply not going to waste my time stressing about the small chance that I might get cancer again."
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? The answer is: no one" and everyone. However you feel about cancer coming back is nobody’s business but your own. There’s no "right" or "wrong" when it comes to fear, especially the fear of death, our ultimate monster under the bed.
If you’re a worrier, you’ve probably worked out how best to incorporate stress into your life so that you can keep functioning. If you’re a Pollyanna, you’ve no doubt learned how to tune out friends who caution you against eating grapefruit, or using nail polish remover. Just like everything else concerning breast cancer, this is YOUR experience, no one else’s.
Me, I’m a non-worrier. I exercise, but I still eat char-broiled hamburgers. I’m pretty aware of my remaining breast’s topography, but I don’t check for changes regularly. I know my odds (16%) and they don’t scare me. I’m comfortable in my skin, stretched and scarred though it is. I’m six years past diagnosis, and I figure another 14 will pretty much put me out of reach of a recurrence. Cancer? Don’t think so. Been there, done that. No worries. Just call me Pollyanna.
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.