Brenda Denzler is a writer and editor living in North Carolina. She received her doctorate from Duke University and worked as an editor at UNC-Chapel Hill before she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in 2009. Since then, she has devoted a great deal of her time and energy to understanding and writing about cancer, cancer treatment and the impact of pre-existing PTSD on the ability of doctors to give and patients to receive medical treatment.
How do you cope with the fear of recurrence?
Learning to live with a cancer diagnosis is kind of like learning to drive a car. At first, you are hyper-aware of every little thing and maybe scared, because driving is actually a pretty risky thing to do. Not only do you have to be very careful not to make any mistakes, yourself, but you also have to be very careful about all those other yahoos out there on the road! But you buckle up, start the engine, and slooooowwwwwllly back out of the driveway and onto the road. And every driving rule and skill you've ever learned is looping through your brain.
Flash forward a bit — say, two years. You run out the front door, jump behind the wheel, start the car, buckle up and zoom down the driveway and onto the road, where you head willy-nilly for wherever. It's not that driving a car has gotten any LESS dangerous in those two years, it's just that you've become accustomed to dealing with the risk you assume every time you get into a car. You take a few precautions. You buckle up, still. However, most of the road rules and skills you need are now automatic for you, and you hardly bother to stop and think about them.
But just let some unexpected hazard come up, whether due to your foolish inattention or something else happening in the road ahead of you. Suddenly, the rules of driving become front and center in your awareness, as well as the extreme risk that you are facing. In the blink of an eye, you do what has to be done to save yourself...and that expensive car!
Having had a cancer diagnosis is like that. At first, you are hyper-aware of the risk, the danger and are hyper-cautious about facing those dangers out "on the road" of life. As time goes by, you remain very aware of those dangers and the risk you face, but it becomes a less "in-your-face" kind of awareness. You just travel the road of life like every other yokel out there.
Unless or until some unexpected something pops up that forces you to face the ever-lurking danger head-on again — say a funny lump, or pain in a bone or unexplained shortness of breath. Then you take whatever actions you have to take to save yourself.
The fear really does suck. The not knowing. Will the cancer come back? Will I be alright? No one knows for sure. But every time you get into your car, you don't know for sure that you're going to make it home again without incident. You've just gotten used to the not-knowing. You take the necessary risk of getting into your car and going somewhere, and you don't focus on the risks hanging over you as you're driving down the road, trying to get there.
It will be the same with your diagnosis. The day will come when you accept that if you're going to move on down the road of life, you have a set of risks you have to face. They are different for you than before, nowadays, and different for you than for lots of other people in your life. But you won't think about them constantly. You just buckle up, and you get on out there.