Woodpecker Wisdom Unfolds a Cancer Analogy

Illustration of a woman with blonde hair and rectangular glasses.

On my morning walk today, I encountered a pileated woodpecker religiously hammering its beak against a tree. As I observed this diligent bird, I thought about my emotional state a month ago and couldn't help but laugh. Its persistent pecking reminded me of the anxiety I felt a month ago before my Lynch syndrome cancer screenings.

Scanxiety often resembles the futile act of repeatedly striking one's head against a tree, sans the woodpecker's remarkable physical adaptations. The bird's hyoid bone, tightly enveloping its skull with each peck, serves as a protective shield, protecting its delicate brain from harm.

As I watched the woodpecker's relentless endeavor, an analogy unfolded. Every strike of its beak resonated with the familiar rhythm of scanxiety—a ruthless, unyielding beat. For me, anxiety transcends fleeting worry or momentary discomfort; it's an enduring force that can feel as fruitless as pounding one's head against a solid surface.The woodpecker's behavior reflected the familiar feeling of futility that often accompanies anxiety, where despite tireless efforts, the desired outcome seems just out of reach.

Still, amidst this shared struggle, solace emerged as I contemplated the woodpecker's remarkable adaptation: its hyoid bone. This seemingly simple anatomical feature assumed profound significance as I pondered its role as a protective barrier for the woodpecker's brain. The hyoid functions as a guardian with each peck, ensuring the bird's safety and wellbeing despite repeated head trauma.

Three weeks have elapsed since my return from Mayo. Since my last check-up a year ago, two benign polyps have surfaced—one in my stomach, the other in my duodenum. It is a firm reminder of the imperative and meticulous regular screenings — a necessary defense against Lynch syndrome's elusive nature.

To complicate matters, inflammation was discovered in my duodenum, and in turn, this has caused gastritis, potentially exacerbated by the daily aspirin intake aimed at preventing colorectal cancer. Navigating the management of one condition while inadvertently aggravating another one highlights the intricate balancing act inherent in life with Lynch syndrome— the juggling of priorities packed with potential consequences. I learned this lesson the hard way when I opted for the prophylactic removal of my ovaries to prevent ovarian cancer. Most medical decisions entail unsavory trade-offs.

Thinking of my family's medical history and the looming shadow of cancer, I'm reminded of the daunting prospect of facing similar health battles to my brothers. Preserving my physical integrity remains my priority, focusing on quality of life over mere longevity. The thought of undergoing treatments that might diminish my physical wellbeing is met with understandable hesitation.

I recounted the woodpecker encounter to my best friend this morning. She was well aware of my vulnerability and fragility before my scans, yet she laughed and remarked that I possess a spine of steel, unlike anyone else she knows. 

Following my morning stroll through the woods, I realized that akin to the woodpecker's protective adaptations and my moments of vulnerability, I possess an inner strength adept at confronting anxiety head-on. The woodpecker's presence evolved into a poignant symbol, serving as a reminder of resilience, fortitude amid vulnerability, and the importance of facing life's obstacles with determination and grace, even during the most challenging times.
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