Checkups and results are like cracking open the hidden messages of our cancer.
It's an experience that many of us have had. You're at your favorite Chinese restaurant. The room is bathed in sensuous smells of pungent spice and savory sauces. Your server approaches the table with your bill and your obligatory fortune cookies. You hope for a positive pronouncement as you read the news of your future.
Modify that story to insert your oncologist for your food server; change those sensuous smells to rubbing alcohol, and this may remind you of a recent checkup in your quest to survive cancer.
Those of us with cancer in our lives know all too well that the suspense that follows us with our disease is often surprising, sometimes life changing and always unknown, until that final moment when our "fortunes" are revealed.
My first experience with wondering and waiting began with my original breast cancer diagnosis. I knew that breast cancer existed in men (only because my family doctor had pointed it out) but I also knew that the odds of having it were extremely slim: 1,000 to 1 to be precise. So, my initial apprehension was minimal, given the rarity of the disease. Once I got that memorable phone call with the news that I did, indeed, have male breast cancer, the next step in wondering and waiting was to get the verdict on the grade and degree of my cancer.
Had I chosen chemotherapy, I would have been waiting on results on the effectiveness of my procedure. And that's when the real fortune telling begins because we can easily spend the rest of our lives in suspense, keeping tabs on our health and staying alert for any unexpected changes in our bodies.
Now that I am four years into my cancer expedition with no recurrence, you might think that the concern and instability that has become part of my life would ease up a bit. And the truth is, it has to some extent. I still have the anxiety of my annual mammograms, ultrasounds and MRIs to deal with, but the "in-between time" has softened significantly. Will I always have this "fortune-cookie phobia" to deal with, I wonder?
A study that took place in 2013 found that within two years of being diagnosed, depression in patients and their loved ones tends to decrease back to levels of the general population. However, the depression turns into anxiety, which can actually get worse as time goes on.
Those results were based on analyzing 42 studies involving more than 50,000 cancer patients with a variety of cancers. It was found that 18 percent of patients experienced serious anxiety two to 10 years after their diagnosis, compared to about 14 percent of the general population.
It may seem, at first glance, that this is a rather insignificant number, but given the fact millions of people are diagnosed with cancer in the world every year, those numbers take on a new meaning.
The bottom line is, I don't actually believe any of the fortunes that I receive in those crispy cookies, just as I don't believe that I will die as a result of my breast cancer any time soon. And what we believe with regard to our health and healing is important. But in the meantime, we must continue to receive the news of our condition based on good science and medicine to back it up. But it never hurts to add another cookie to our collection.
In fact, I still have the printed fortune from my last outing to a Chinese restaurant in the top drawer of my office desk. And that's the very thing that inspired this story.
It reads: “You have rice in your teeth.”
Sometimes the clarity of the moment, with a little good humor thrown in, is much more valuable than the murkiness of the future.