Like hypochondriacs, cancerchondriacs imagine every cough, twinge, bump or rash as a malignancy stealthily creeping back. Since cancer can recur with or without producing obvious symptoms, we may fritter away a remission of months in obsessive brooding. The dread of relapse hisses, snorts, whimpers, roars, drowning out all else. Checking our bodies for indications of disease, searching the internet for the causes of possible warning signs, we lay waste our powers. Healthy people can also suffer from cancerchondria, sometimes because a specific type of the disease is said to “run” in their family. During my week of waiting, I had no choice but to cultivate a skill that seasoned cancer patients practice assiduously: The fine art of trying not to fret or fuss. Here are the techniques I used, though I am always on the lookout for more.
It helps to fixate on urgent problems about which something should and can be done. In a lucky break, a book manuscript of mine had just been copy-edited. There were zillions of nitpicky queries about style and grammar that had to be answered immediately. Work of any kind inevitably offers exasperating diversions.
Despite the self-absorption that unfortunately accompanies cancer scares, most older patients realize that there are others worse off than we are. While worrying about my own health, I saw a video about a mother grieving over a little boy dying of cancer. It reminded me that I had been given the gift of three-score-and-ten and should be relieved that my daughters were not facing my situation. Assisting someone worse off even more effectively derails compulsive introspection. Perusing the daily news can jolt us into an appreciation of the ghastly vulnerability of defenseless people and maybe motivate us to do something for those in our midst.
The second season of “The Crown” appeared so I could engage in binge watching. When I’m anxious, the focus needed for my favorite pastime, reading, eludes me, but more physical enterprises like cleaning a closet or a car sometimes work. A friend embarks on what she calls retail therapy.
Walking, woodworking, weeding, video games, sporting events or playing an instrument succeed for some. What helped me was yoga and writing in my diary, where I could concentrate on crafting the best sentences to convey my emotions rather than the emotions themselves.
Some people want to vent about their qualms, but others need to button up. For the most part, I’m mum.
If administered responsibly, martinis, beer, wine, tranquilizers or a few CBD-infused gumdrops can provide succor, as can a soothing bath, a massage, a quiet session of meditation or prayer.
The day before the scan, not thinking about it became impossible. I did not want my aging husband schlepping from our home in Bloomington, Ind., to the Indianapolis hospital to which we would have to traipse if I needed surgery. I didn’t want to be lopsided or to wear what a friend calls a “foob” (a fake boob). But could my weakened body withstand a double mastectomy? By the time I arrived at the imaging center, I was a wreck.
Last December, the mammogram technician informed me that there would also be a sonogram, after which a doctor would explain the results. It took about two hours, at the end of which the radiologist cut to the chase: “You’re fine,” he said. “Just scar tissue.” I broke into tears as I thanked him for a gift at the start of Hanukkah. I was about to rush out into the waiting room to tell my husband the good news, when the technician gently guided me to the locker where I had left my clothing.
One and a half days between the scheduling and the scan had been wasted, but not all seven: a mini-miracle! And then there was the high that, alas, only some cancer patients experience: the reprieve of not having to undergo yet another medical intervention. There should be a word for that rush of euphoria when there is no evidence of further disease.
If you readers have suggested coinages, please leave them in the comments. After all, even a rose by another name needs a moniker. The next time I face cancerchondria or scanxiety, I hope to use your inventions, for the words patients create illuminate our worlds.