When I was six years old, there was a period of several months when I was terrified of my bedroom closet. The minute the lights went out at bedtime, I was certain that something was rustling in there, waiting to jump out and get me. I huddled under the covers, holding as still as possible, hoping that whatever awful monster was lurking in that closet might not realize that I was in the room. As many things do when you are a kid, this phase soon passed and the fear subsided. But I can still remember the heavy ball of fear in my stomach, the nervous energy that I tried so hard to still, and the hamster-wheel of awful thoughts that ran through my head as I awaited the doom that was most certainly coming my way. And at 32 years old, I felt that same ball of fear in the pit of my stomach again as I looked into my radiologist’s eyes after a breast biopsy, and she said, “We strongly suspect that this lump is cancer.”
Fear. We all deal with it at some point in our lives, but never had it been such an all-consuming part of my life until my cancer diagnosis. Initially, the fear revolved around whether the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, which couldn’t be determined until my surgery. I still remember waking up in the recovery room after my bilateral mastectomy, looking up at my plastic surgeon, and feeling the tightening in my stomach as I asked her in my drugged-up, raspy voice, “Is it in the nodes?” Thankfully, the cancer had not spread to my lymph nodes, so the ball of fear loosened just a little at that moment.
Then came the chemotherapy treatments. This time it was fear of the unknown. How would my body react to the chemicals that would infiltrate my system? Would I feel sick? Would I feel tired? Would I lose my hair quickly? Would I still have energy to take care of my girls? Would my bald head scare them? And perhaps the most pressing question, and the question that really cannot be answered: Would the chemo help prevent the cancer from coming back? The million-dollar question. The question I would give anything to have an answer to.
As the months have passed since my treatments and surgeries, I have a new chest, a new head of hair and have moved on to “the new normal.” What does this idea of the new normal mean? I think it’s different for every person with cancer. For me, it is learning to live with the fear of recurrence without allowing the fear to consume me. It’s remaining calm when I wake up with an odd pain in my neck, not immediately assuming that innocuous aches and pains are somehow signs that the cancer has returned. It’s reducing my risk by adjusting my lifestyle without sacrificing the small pleasures in life (a glass of wine, for instance). It’s managing the anxiety I feel every time I go in to see my oncologist, hoping that this won’t be the visit that pulls the rug out from under me again. That gets a little easier to do as each day passes. But regardless of the joy that I experience as I watch my daughters grow up, or the wonderful times I am able to share with my friends and family, the fear is always there. It’s not the heavy ball that it once was, but it is still there.
And I’m most angry about the fear that I now have for my daughters. What does my diagnosis mean to those two little girls? Will they have to face this same path? How can I make things better for them? Those questions are always on my mind and have fueled my passion to fund medical research. It is one thing to fear the monster in the closet for myself, but now that monster is messing with my kids. And my friends’ kids. And moms and dads and sisters and brothers and uncles and best friends. Each story I hear becomes part of my story, fueling the passion to make things better. I will not let that monster Cancer and its best friend Fear stop me.