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It is Not Always about the Cancer: A Mantra for Survivors

Surviving cancer is great, but it does come with a cost: worry. I remind myself often, dealing with an ordinary challenge, that it is not always about the cancer. How do you maintain a good perspective?
PUBLISHED May 16, 2017
Felicia Mitchell is a poet and writer who makes her home in southwestern Virginia, where she teaches at Emory & Henry College. She was diagnosed with Stage 2b HER2-positive breast cancer in 2010. Website:
It is not always about the cancer.

After a cancer diagnosis, even with no current evidence of disease, cancer colors everything. The lenses we look through, the opposite of rose-colored glasses, can fog with worry. Right now, for example, I am recovering from an injury. Before a visit to the doctor put my mind at ease, every self-diagnosis invoked cancer.  

Could it be a swollen lymph gland? (Does the foot have lymph glands?) Could there be metastases to the bone? (Even if chances of breast cancer metastasis starting in the foot are low, could I be exceptional?) Might it be a tumor? No, it is a simple bone bruise. I felt out of some clogs and twisted my foot.

It is not always about the cancer.

But why did I fall? Although I could fault a rock in my path, could neuropathy from chemotherapy instead of clumsiness be to blame? I have to remind myself that I fell out of clogs even before cancer changed everything. Maybe it is time to start wearing practical shoes to the grocery store.

It is not always about the cancer.

Then there was what turned out to be, of course, a kidney stone. The doctor, not knowing my history, remarked that blood in the urine could be related to a kidney stone or to cancer. I had arrived at urgent care too late on a Friday, however, for my insurance company to approve a CT scan. A CT scan on Monday would sort it out.

When I noted my history, the doctor assured me that breast cancer does not tend to spread to the kidneys. (There are always exceptions. And then there was my father, who did get bladder cancer. Could I?) I experienced a stressful weekend waiting for the CT scan.  Wondering if I had a kidney stone, or worse, hurt more than the kidney stone, which eventually passed.

It is not always about the cancer.

The further we get from an initial diagnosis of cancer, should we worry less or more? While I try not to be a hypochondriac, it takes effort. There is so much more to worry about these days, even as I try to avoid mistaking ordinary aches and pains for extraordinary aches and pains.

It is not always about the cancer.

The cancer survivor acknowledges that the body is mysterious. Knowing that this body can surprise us with a grave illness means that it can be difficult to take good health, or an ordinary malady, for granted. Routine medical crises are just more nerve-wracking when we are waiting and watching, in case cancer returns, and also living our lives.

Common sense can wipe the blur off post-cancer lenses fogged with worry. Finding out what is truly wrong is always helpful. If one day I am surprised again by cancer, I will try to be gracious. But in the meantime, I need to avoid fretting about every ailment that befalls me. (Stress is bad for survival, is it not?)
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