I had my six-month follow up visit with my radiation oncologist last week. Its hard to believe that it has been six months since my last radiation treatment, which means it has been ten months since my last chemotherapy treatment. I got the “all clear” yesterday, but it felt hollow. The follow up for double mastectomy patients seems too simplistic, too fraught with the potential for error. Really, all he did was ask me how I felt and then palpate (fancy word for knead and poke) at my chest and underarm, looking for irregularities, sore spots, anything that could mean something nefarious. It’s hard to tell, at least for me, although he seemed very sure, that its all clear.
My left underarm is a mass of dense scar tissue, which at any given moment is in various stages of being sore (due to my vigorous stretching) and being lumpy (due to it trying to bind up again). I do my own self-check every couple of weeks, but all I feel is dense, lumpy tissue. My oncologist, Dr. Rostorfer, gave me a tutorial on what scar tissue feels like the last time I saw him. I would point out what I thought felt like possible lumps in the dense tissue and he would shoot it down, telling me its just scarring, that it felt perfectly normal. Not ideal by any means, but it helped. Now I no longer get a clenching in my stomach when I knead at my scarring. The truth is, it all feels the same, like a shifting, fibrous area of healing-tearing-then-healing scar tissue. Perfectly normal, and so, all clear.
The most frightening part of a breast cancer diagnosis, and I suspect any cancer diagnosis, is the unknown. You spend months (at least I did) getting tested to narrow down the scope of the cancer, all with no definitive answers. Then you spend months in treatment (chemotherapy in my case) hoping the cancer will respond, with no definitive answers. Then you have surgery, where you get some answers, but as it was in my case, the caveat of door number three, behind which there are more questions than answers. Then more treatment (radiation), after which you are put on a wait-check-and-see protocol to make sure nothing appears again. So now, after the frightening part of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment has subsided and is a thing of the past and the happy-go-lucky giddiness of treatment-free days is waving it’s hand frantically in the air for a turn, the new frightening thing about breast cancer is waiting to see if it comes back.
To me, fear is like playing a rigged game of Jumanji. No matter what you do, your situation is destined to keep getting worse. I say, let it go. Fear can be paralytic, stymieing your every move until your world gets smaller and smaller and all the pleasure is sucked out of life. Yes, sometimes bad things happen, but a lot more often they don’t. For every horrible end result I can think of (and trust me, I can think of A LOT), there are exponentially more good outcomes to the same scenario. In the end, you just have to trust that it is not your time yet; you just have to let it all go.
And so it is with breast cancer follow up. For someone who has lived her life being afraid of everything and trying to mitigate and control the outcome of every scenario (its safer that way), that was one tough lesson. I spent the first 55 years of my life being afraid of what horrible thing could befall me in the course of everyday activities, and yet here I sit, staring in the lion’s mouth, day-in-and-day out, and I’m not afraid at all. When I look back at the lifetime I spent not doing things because of the specter of fear that hovered over me, tapping me on the shoulder to point out all the darkest possibilities of life that could befall me, I shake my head at the pointlessness of it all.
Yes, that’s right, the pointlessness of it. Whenever we act out of fear, the outcome is pointless. There was a time when fear served its purpose, when it kept us from becoming dinner for something higher on the food chain, but no more. Now, with nothing better to do with our fear response, we make stuff up to give it something to do, escalating every day innocuous events into live or die situations. In the end, anything and everything could potentially cause your untimely demise, but most likely won’t. It’s just the way it goes. But, I guarantee you that if you spend all your time not doing things because they might kill you, then eventually something else will. Personally, from where I currently sit, a long life spent denying myself is a far worse fate than a potentially shorter one spent with a wicked grin on my face and satisfaction in my soul.
Before you queue up for bungee jumping or spelunking, not every soul is satisfied by the same adventures. Adventures don’t have to be physically dangerous in nature. Emotionally risks can be equally as terrifying. Whatever it is you have always wanted to do and followed up the thought with “I can’t,” that’s your ticket to paradise. In the end, you may not even enjoy it, but the point is you tried, and that, my friends, is where the freedom, and the fun, is.