I’m a breast cancer survivor. Have been for quite some time now. I walked out of the hospital 15 years ago, after my final radiation treatment, and my cancer hasn’t reappeared. No telling if it will; in general terms, a woman with my diagnosis isn’t considered “cured” till she’s been cancer-free for 20 years. But if cancer is in me, it’s hiding, or sleeping, or simply waiting.
And you know what? The chance of cancer coming back doesn’t bother me. I’ve long since made my peace with this disease. I took drugs for almost 10 years to hold it at bay; but in the end, it’s a coin flip. Just like getting cancer in the first place was a simple matter of drawing the short straw, statistically speaking.
As an expert patient on this site, I’ve read a lot of your stories. And the underlying feeling so many of you have is this: “I’m scared.” Afraid of this lump in my breast. Frightened of chemo. Terrified cancer will come back.
Fear is eviscerating. It eats away at you, casting its aching pall over everything you do. But it’s also unnecessary, a total opt-out. And that’s something cancer taught me.
I first felt cancer-fear waiting to hear my biopsy results, during a long spring weekend at a niece’s First Communion. The setting was May-perfect: a soft, warm breeze, the earth splashed with primary colors: blue sky, green grass, yellow tulips. Fresh-faced 7-year-olds in white dresses, in jackets and ties, waited on the lawn for the service to begin. There’s nothing like the innocence of a bunch of 7-year-olds on their best behavior to inspire perfect joy.
But I couldn’t feel that joy; fear kept up a steady, solemn drumbeat in my heart the entire weekend. Looking back, I see the white dresses, the red carnations on the altar, through a gray fog of fear.
I felt fear again when I began chemo, later that summer. I was ready with hats, scarves, and the resolve to be brave when my hair fell out. But I couldn’t shake the fear of being bald. What would I look like? What would my friends think? Would strangers stare? Being bald was a big black abyss, and I couldn’t make myself face it.
That September was one of the most beautiful on record. Perfect Indian-summer days, the leaves just starting to turn. The smell of wild grapes in the air. Golden sunlight slanting across green fields as I drove home from work. And all I could think about was my hair; all I could feel, fear.
In retrospect, the fear I felt around cancer, and the fear you may feel, is simply fear of the unknown: the unexplained pain, the blackout of surgery, that biopsy result. And, unlike the fear that makes you jump out of the way of a speeding car, fear of the unknown is totally useless. It doesn’t change a single thing, other than your ability to enjoy life to the fullest.
So next time you’re confronted with a cancer-connected fear — a breast lump, a pain, the overwhelming terror of a recurrence — remember this: fear confronted is fear defused.
Take action: Don’t torture yourself with an array of “what ifs…” Call the doctor about that lump.
Try to be sensible: Being frightened won’t prevent a recurrence; losing your hair isn’t something you can control. Fear changes nothing; it simply makes you feel bad. So don’t go there.
Finally, move on. Put one foot in front of the other literally. Take a walk. Call a friend. Connect with other survivors — in person or online.
Fear can control you… or you can control fear. The choice is yours.
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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.