September 30th, 2019
| Fighter: Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
I have often said that I do not think cancer is a good fit for me. I have been a chronic worrier – a Nervous Nellie, if you will – for as long as I can remember. And when one is as skilled a worrier as I, that person needs no extra causes for concern. In fact, typically, I find myself quite busy with borderline irrational things to fret over. So as one quite proficient in anxiety, having a disease as terrifying, mystifying and generally poorly understood as cancer was just adding insult to injury.
Because I was already an expert in needlessly obsessing over my issues (real and not-so-real), I fortunately was already under the watchful eye of a mental health professional, which is a euphemism for “I have a therapist.” (As an aside, I believe that everyone would benefit from seeing a therapist – we all have issues with which we can be helped by a trained, objective professional. Just a suggestion.) In this regard I was actually fortunate as I had, long prior to cancer, formed an enduring bond with my therapist. Thus, when cancer came unexpectedly knocking at my door, I already had someone in whom I placed a great deal of trust as an invaluable resource to aid me in what was certainly the most trying and emotional experience of my life. For the following five years of "watching and waiting", , my therapist assisted me immeasurably in the constant cycles of anxiety and fear over upcoming lab tests, oncology visits, strange manifestations of the cancer and, of course, concerns over my ultimate fate.
After this five-year stretch, my oncologists finally told me it was time to begin chemotherapy. Interestingly, and rather surprisingly, during my course of chemo I was actually less anxious than normal. I believe this was due to two rather simple realities. The first is that undergoing chemo largely took most of my mental (and other) energy. Stated a bit differently, I just did not have the capacity to worry about much of anything other than the immediate situation – how I felt, would I be sick that day and, if I am going to be sick, how can I successfully navigate this blue-slinky-in-lieu-of-a-bed-pan with a dangerously narrow diameter I have been given for a potential cookie-tossing “episode”? I was just too preoccupied with existing to engage in my regularly scheduled worrying.
The second reason that I was less in need of therapy during this period was that, for the first time since initially diagnosed with cancer, I was actually doing something to combat it. Make no mistake about it – I was hoping against hope to never need treatment. And there is definitely nothing to look forward to about chemo. (Even the alleged “body sculpting” resulting from chemo did not pan out – I actually gained twenty pounds thanks to the cancer-killing process.) Yet the years of “watching and waiting” had unquestionably taken a severe toll on me. Despite all of the assistance afforded to me by my therapist – and the occasional prescribed assistance acquired at my local CVS – I felt mostly powerless. Furthermore, as I had no real indication of how the cancer was progressing (or not), each visit to see my oncologist was full of even more anxiety due to the complete lack of ability to know what was going on in the depths of my bone marrow. In a very real sense, it felt as though the suspense was (slowly) killing me.
Once the chemo was thankfully in the rearview mirror, I thought that I would be in a much better place – not only as measured by the number of white cells floating around my body but also mentally. Unfortunately, I could not be more wrong. As I learned shortly after the conclusion of the chemo, which was successful in terms of putting me into remission (although there is no cure for my cancer), I would be forced to endure another two years of watching and waiting to see how successful the chemo would ultimately prove to be. Or not be. Thus, I was destined to return to my pre-chemo routine of ever-building anxiety as my oncology appointments grew nearer and nearer. My lymphocyte number might have changed, but my mental environment had sadly not.
Fortunately, my trusty therapist has been there to help me negotiate these turbulent times. In fact, her workload has vastly increased because, while it might seem counterintuitive to those fortunate enough to not have traveled this most undesirable path, the anxiety and concern that are part and parcel with a cancer diagnosis do not evaporate just because one can say she or he is in remission. In fact, in significant ways, the anxiety is worse post-treatment than before. Why this is I do not completely know. Some say it is a form of survivor’s guilt, although I do not feel guilty about not having died. Others say it is a type of PTSD. That seems to ring a bit more true for me, as undergoing something as dramatic as chemotherapy is truly a life-altering experience in one of the worst of ways.
So I press on, guided weekly (or sometimes a bit more) by my therapist and with the occasional Klonopin on a particularly unpleasant day – e.g., any Monday. The progress is frustratingly slow, but cancer is not, of course, something one really ever gets past. But there is progress. I am able to carry on with the tasks at hand with no outward manifestations of the frequent turmoil inside. I know it is largely a self-generated turmoil, and as long as I can maintain some element of perspective on it, the strain is manageable. Now, if I could only get some of my loved ones to similarly start seeing a therapist – if not for their own mental well-being than mine amidst their attempts to “help” me, I might really start making some headway.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.
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Jeff worked as a lawyer before cancer came along, and once it did, it gave him the incentive to turn to writing. His asset is his humor - the ability to appreciate it and to wield it, sometimes for good, sometimes just to antagonize his mother-in-law. All humor aside, cancerous and otherwise, the most important thing to Jeff is his family.