March 31st, 2020
| Survivor: Breast Cancer
Recurrence of cancer can be hard to predict and difficult to detect. Some doctors do follow-up tests and scans after cancer treatment to look for new, spreading, or recurring cancers. Mine do not. Since my first breast cancer treatments three years ago, they send me on my way with a quick check-up every six months and a mammogram of my remaining breast once a year.
But then I was diagnosed with a regional recurrence of cancer a year ago, requiring radiation treatments. Now my oncology team wants me to have a CT scan of my chest. Specifically, they want to look at some nodules in my lung that showed up on my last scan about a year ago. If the nodules grew, that's a bad sign. The scan is also a chance to look around my entire chest and see if there's any sign of cancer in there. I'm grateful to have this CT scan as a follow-up to my latest cancer scare.
As I wait my turn in a little room at the medical center, I look out the open door at a life-size Elvis in the hallway. The cardboard cut-out wears hospital scrubs that inexplicably have HANGRY written all over them. Is the King hungry and angry? I try to think of one of his song lyrics that would make this relevant and can only think of hound dogs and blue suede shoes. Elvis is also sporting green beads and a fuzzy, red Santa hat, which are at least somewhat seasonal. I appreciate a little hospital humor to ease the tension.
Once you've had cancer, any scan can be a cause for anxiety, or "scanxiety," as it is sometimes called. How do I handle my fear during this cancer journey? Strangely, it's not the tumors I dread most, it's the treatments and their damages and side effects. I've never felt even a twinge from the cancer itself, not at this stage, though there is always the knowledge that it can kill me at some point.
I remember a horse in Tucson, Arizona named Checar. He was a little wild and could probably kill me in certain circumstances, but I was not afraid of him. Part Palomino and part quarter horse, he took my breath away when I saw him in the stables at a resort. I signed up for a trail ride in hopes I could get to know him or at least stroke his long, white mane. Before heading into the sagebrush and saguaro, we gathered in the barn for instruction. The trail guide, Nina, asked, "On a scale of one to ten, how scared are you of horses?"
"Eleven," proclaimed a young man. I was surprised that he would rate his fear that high. With nervous laughter, all the other riders said high numbers as well.
When it came to me, I wanted to say zero. I've been around horses off and on all my life and I knew you had to be careful not to get kicked or thrown. In fact, our daughter Emily had recently had an accident when she and her horse went over a jump. They both fell. Emily broke her arm, requiring surgery and a metal plate. That was scary. But am I afraid of horses? No, I have a healthy respect for them. That's different.
I said, "One."
Maybe Nina assigned horses based on those numbers. For whatever reason, she gave me my favorite, Checar. I settled into the saddle in a dream-like state and savored that ride into the desert. Allowing a little distance between me and the other riders, I crooned songs of awe and gratitude to my horse. Patting his warm, strong neck, the color of butterscotch, and running my fingers through his frothy mane, I was enchanted and content. The cacti along the sandy trail saluted as we walked by and the sky went on forever above us. At the end, I dismounted and Nina took the reins to lead the horse back to his stall. He lingered by my side and resisted her pull. She harrumphed that he'd never done that before.
"It's because I sang to him," I said.
What is my cancer song? I do not love this sneaky disease. But I don't have to let it overtake my life with anxiety. Cancer has its power and I have mine. I have a friend, an extraordinary man in our community, who found ways to communicate with his brain tumor with peace in his heart. Perhaps my song, in honor of Checar, can be about the power of life, love, and courage rather than death, defeat, and despair.
The scan I had almost a year ago showed a "metastatic enlarged lymph node" under my right arm. That was alarming! But this scan doesn't have to be. I try to keep my nerves in check and focus on my breathing until I am called into the imaging room. I lie on my back and let the machine slide me through the donut hole of the scanner.
I was told the results would show up as a message from my doctor in a week. They came in that very day when we got home. The nodules hadn't grown and there were no signs of cancer or other concerns. I'm all clear at the end of the year. The work to stay clear lies ahead.
Photo courtesy of author.
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