Moving Beyond Fear After Battling Cancer

by Melissa Fuoss
VILevi / iStock

It always starts like this: the stick of a needle, the smell of latex gloves, the sticky red blood that drains from my arm into the plastic tubes. They will send it off and analyze it, and my results will be uploaded and stored in my file. And then my oncologist will read the report and determine whether or not cancer has crept back in.

Every six months this happens. Each time I feel like a sailboat without wind. I’m in the ocean, waves in my face, no sight of land.

It is a little embarrassing to admit how hard these checkups are for me. In some ways I feel like I have come so far these past two years since diagnosis. I feel stronger, braver, more connected to the present, and my hair is growing back (I even used a hair dryer the other day). But in other ways I feel more fragile then ever: more aware of how we are all just hanging on by a thread, just one phone call away from our world turning upside down.

In the weeks leading up to my appointments, all my positive thoughts and energy somehow take a backseat to fear. I try to wrestle it, but the what-ifs still feel all to real. And now I know what it feels like to have cancer. I know the true torture of having chemo in my veins. I can still feel the tears on my face, as I hear my kids asking, “Why can’t Mommy come too?”

It wasn’t that long ago.

And it flashes back in my mind like this. Like an instant replay of all that can go wrong. And sometimes I can’t even breath. What if my cancer is back? What if my cancer is back? What if my cancer is back? An impossible endless refrain that steals my sparkle.

Anxiety is the worst.

Fear is the worst.

What a crazy waste of time — worrying about something that may never happen. I know it. It makes perfect sense. Worrying is foolish. It only robs us of the present joy that is ours for the taking. I know it. I understand it. I say it often to others.

But as I sit in the waiting room with my husband holding my hand and I see all the suffering that is so neatly arranged in rows, I can’t help but worry. My knee starts to bounce, and I wonder why the doctor is taking so long to see me. Are they reviewing my results? Is it so bad that they have to collect themselves before calling me in?

It sounds crazy. I don’t even like typing it. But it’s true. And it is real.

Let me clarify that it is not all of the time. I am 90% free of these kind of stifling thoughts. But when this anxiety strikes, I feel small.

My oncologist and the nurse practitioner think it could be a bit of PTSD. They recommended I see a counselor to give me strategies for dealing with the stress that comes with my six-month cancer checkups. And I plan to call to make an appointment. The kicker is I have to go back there for the help. To the place whose smell literally turns my stomach.

“Your blood work is perfect. You can breathe,” the nurse practitioner says as she holds my hand, as she gives me the counselor’s flyer.

I breathe. I let it settle into my bones. I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay. And I squeeze my eyes shut and say a silent prayer for the women in the next room, or down the hall, or sitting two hospitals away — the woman who is getting the news we all dread: “It looks like your cancer is back.” I say a prayer for her, and for all of the women, men, and children who are waiting, or wilting, or worrying because of cancer.

But for now, I’m okay. And I’m happy.

And I know it is a complete stretch, but I just can’t help but make a comparison between cancer and our kitchen remodel. Sometimes you start out like this:

Melissa Wood

And life throws some crazy shit your way. And then you feel like this:

Melissa Wood

But because you were willing to to be knocked all the way down (like all the way down to the studs), you end up feeling like this:

Melissa Wood

And you realize that even when things are completely dismantled (and you are forced to eat cereal out of paper bowls for weeks on end and drink coffee from dirty/dusty mugs, and have your refrigerator in your dining room for months), even when things seem like they will never be normal again, the sun comes up, winter fades to spring, and you find yourself staring at your husband preparing a turkey for Thanksgiving. And you feel so grateful. So blessed. So okay.