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When Boring is Excellent: The Ups and Downs of Cancer Follow-Up Appointments

Waiting to hear if one’s blood is showing any signs of the monster’s return has never been easy.
PUBLISHED August 28, 2018
Mike Verano is a licensed professional counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist and thymic cancer survivor with over 30 years experience in the mental health field. Mike has had articles published in national and international magazines and is the author of The Zen of Cancer: A Mindful Journey From Illness to Wellness. In addition, he maintains the blog, Confessions of a Pacifist in the War on Cancer. He and his wife, Kathy, live in Lanexa, Virginia.
“Your blood work looks boring.” Many people would be stunned to hear this report from their doctor. For a cancer survivor of eight years and a frequent flyer in the oncology office, it was a welcome relief.

Waiting to hear if one’s blood is showing any signs of the monster’s return has never been easy. The relief that came from hearing that, in the oncology world, “boring” means “excellent,” was, however, short lived as I left the appointment with yet another follow-up appointment and another PET scan on the books.

Early in recovery, the appointments for blood work and scans seemed to make perfect sense. However, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t hoping to hear at the end of every follow-up visit, “No need to come back, our work here is done.”

I’m told that the reason for these continued checks for cancer’s return is due to my young age, despite the fact 58 no longer feels young, and of course the all-important, “If we catch it early we have a better chance of treatment.” Still, I can’t help but wonder if there is ever a right time to withdraw oneself from the not-so-merry-go-round of tests, waiting, results, tests and waiting.

I think it’s fair to ask when we cancer survivors can finally move on to the other joys of aging like arthritic joints, gastrointestinal issues and memory loss without having to wonder is these are symptoms of a cancerous tumor growing in the shadows. Is it fool-hearty or heart-strong to finally put oncology behind and live with the inevitable aches and pains of life and trust that years of a cancer-free thumbs up is permission to move on?

I tell myself that the reason for not wanting any more PET scans is not my anxiety that it will reveal cancer’s return, but that I hate the taste of the barium swallow—my request for Pina Colada flavor is always met with apologies for only having mixed berry—and the idea of having tracer radiation injected into my body. The fact is that I’ve had this same inner dialogue after every appointment since hitting what I once thought was the finish line of the five-year mark. I’ve realized that telling myself that I can choose whenever I want to stop the follow-up visits has more to do with calming down my anxious mind than a practical decision about what is best for my health.

Despite my recent decision to give thumbs down to any more oncology visits, I’m certain that sometime within the next two months I will be asking for Pina Colada flavored barium, waiting while my body is filled with radioactive sugar and once again telling myself that this is the last PET scan I will endure. This is my cancer ritual and it has a strange purpose in my strange life—a life I continue to enjoy as a result of having caught my cancer early enough.

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