Learning How to Handle a Cancer Scare
Last week I had a scare. Specifically, a cancer scare. It was the most substantial scare I've had in a while and really threw me for a psychological loop. I started noticing my right armpit hurt - a consistent ache that worsened after taking a deep breath. It wasn’t debilitating nor did it result in me limiting the use of my arm, but I had never felt it before.
For about three weeks I just thought it was an annoyance and would subconsciously rub my armpit and pec muscle to try to find the spot it could be coming from. I started comparing my right upper side body to my left and thinking my ribs actually protrude more on the right.
I then noticed a dark spot of dry skin on the top of my right foot - it was itchy at times and never fully went away. When I was diagnosed with my lymphoma at 19, I had a spot of dry skin on my shin that would continuously itch, no matter what I did. I think I could have scratched all the way through to the bone without reprieve.
Sitting at my desk in the middle of the week, I suddenly felt overwhelmingly exhausted. My body hurt and it felt like even typing was grueling. Just like the dry skin, I started analyzing. Am I coming down with something? Am I not sleeping enough? Did I accidentally grab decaf coffee this morning? A disastrous scenario was starting to build up and felt more and more like reality. Slowly, and without much effort, my mind automatically went to the worst place - my lymphoma was back.
I picked up the phone and immediately set up an appointment with my primary care provider. I wanted labs and a scan. Truthfully, I wanted to be seen by my oncologist, but I knew that wouldn’t be as quick of a turnaround with an appointment. It was Friday at 3 pm and I was able to get an appointment for Monday after work. I just had to keep myself busy all weekend and hope time passed quickly.
At that point, I hadn’t even told my husband or anyone about what I was feeling physically or mentally. During chemo treatment, it felt at times like I was my own (painfully boring) zoo exhibit. Someone was always keeping an eye on me - did she eat? How much did she drink today? Did she make it up the 3 flights of stairs to her college dorm with her duffle bag? - Can you blame me for not wanting to sound the alarm too quickly to my loved ones this time?
Their concerns were valid, I do have to agree. Being a mother now myself has truly given me a different perspective as to what my own parents must have been feeling and thinking during this time. When my son is hit with a stomach bug or a cold I suspend all of my normal daily activities and reallocate my mental capacity strictly to help him feel better. It is hard to utter the words or to wrap my mind around what I would do if I were in their shoes. All the more reason to not make them worry prematurely.
The burden a caregiver feels while taking care of a loved one in my opinion in some ways can actually feel worse than being the patient. All they can do is try and help in any way possible, worry, and hope for the best. I know as the receiver of their care and from what I hear from other survivors, I always wanted to try and minimize their anxiety. It is almost as if they stayed calm, I was able to be more mentally present with myself since I wasn’t worried about managing their emotions too.
At almost 9 years out of my lymphoma days, I feel as though I have reached my quota for the amount I should worry my parents and husband - I am obligated to contain that within myself now. I am a parent as well and I cannot imagine the ways my fragile health could rock our two-year-old’s world. The potential impact an illness could have at this point in my life is for once, something I cannot put words to.
I reached a breaking point after being quite the brat to my husband as a result of my anxiety and finally sat down to explain my current symptoms to him. His immediate response was, “why didn’t you say anything earlier?” mixed with a look of concern and trying to figure out the next steps to take. I reassured him I already had an appointment and that I was sure it was “nothing” and that I was being “overdramatic.” But I knew my choice to contain my concerns clearly had caused hurt downstream and I felt the internal need to manage his emotions kick in.
After a physical exam and final ultrasound results, I am happy to say it was “just” a scare. There are no abnormalities to be found. The lymph nodes in my armpit are all of the normal size. I probably pulled something lugging our 30 lb toddler around much to his despair. The dry patch of skin is probably from the incessant rub of my socks as I run daily in the same pair of sneakers I have trained in for way past 300 miles. I am tired because I have a toddler who likes to regularly tell me stories about his day at 2 am. I am okay.
This was not only a good test of my physical health in making sure everything was “checked out” but also a good reminder of my support system and how much they go through too as caregivers. I will do better and leverage my loved ones and friends next time. I will try and let them sort out their worries themselves instead of carrying that burden as well. I will hug my son a little tighter knowing he will always have a mom willing to fight to be around to help him learn and grow (although honestly, I think he has that all figured out himself already) and I will try and remember that while these scares will most likely come up from time to time throughout the rest of my life, there is a life worth living outside of the fear and worry.
Photo courtesy of author.