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My Fear of “The Big R”

by Fredricka R. Maister

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Cancer – just the word could spin me into ruminations of doom and gloom, pain and suffering, and possible death. Ironically, despite my very real fear of one day hearing “You’ve got cancer,” I never truly believed that I would ever be diagnosed with the disease. I was young, physically fit, and health conscious. I didn’t indulge in junk food, didn’t smoke or drink, and was born to a family with bad cardiac DNA, not wayward cancer cells.

Deluded about not being “the cancer type,” I experienced a rude awakening in 2005 when a routine mammogram revealed that I had breast cancer. When actually confronted with “The Big C,” I was too caught up in a frenzy of doctor’s visits and radiation sessions to absorb the impact of the diagnosis. More consumed with self-blame for not preventing the cancer than with fear of its lethal possibilities, I believed that I had somehow caused my cells to mutate by overreacting to stress, exposing myself to environmental carcinogens, and eating too many over-baked slices of pizza.

I now know that getting cancer is a crapshoot. Cancer “happens,” and there is no wonder-pill or magic potion to ward it off. Nor is there any assurance for cancer-free survivors of a cancer-free future.

Given that reality of uncertainty, I find that my fear of The Big C has morphed into fear of “The Big R” – Recurrence. An earache … cancer of the inner ear? Inflammation of my sciatic nerve … stage IV bone cancer? Discomfort in the lumpectomy area … could it be back? My thoughts inevitably race to recurrence.

Even though I cannot control The Big R, I refuse to let my fear of it interfere with my peace of mind.

Am I just a drama queen with an overactive imagination? I think not. This worst-case-scenario consciousness is not unusual among breast cancer survivors, and for good reason. Consider Elizabeth Edwards, who discovered that her cancer had returned when she sought treatment for a fractured rib. I have a friend who recently dealt with a second breast malignancy after 14 years of being cancerfree. I’ve even met survivors coping with third recurrences.

I’ve heard that after five years, the more time that passes without a recurrence, the less likely it is that a woman will experience one. Unfortunately, numbers cannot predict the identities of those whose cancer will recur, making any breast cancer survivor fair game. Remembering the shocking effect of my first bout with cancer, I know better than to blithely assume that I am not “the recurrence type.”

Even though I cannot control The Big R, I refuse to let my fear of it interfere with my peace of mind. Not caving in to anxiety requires constant vigilance and proactivity.

I am aware of my tendency to catastrophize every ache and pain. Rather than suppress my feelings, I acknowledge that my kneejerk reactions are natural for someone who has confronted cancer. I end up chuckling at my uncanny ability to conjure up a cancer recurrence out of everything and anything. Cancer of the inner ear? Puh-lease!

I do what I can to lower my risk of recurrence. I listen to the health experts, exercise, eat organic, eliminate sugar, take Vitamin D. I never skip mammograms, MRIs, or doctor’s appointments. I try to take the stressful annoyances of my life in stride. Waiting in line at the post office, dealing with incompetence, encountering people with an attitude – none of this matters in the larger scheme of things.

And when those scary thoughts of The Big R sneak up on me, I remind myself that breast cancer is not the death sentence I once feared. Because of major clinical advances and a greater number of successful treatments, women are surviving even multiple recurrences and living longer, healthier lives.

Will I be among those women if my breast cancer comes back? That is the uncertainty I face every day.

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Fredricka R. Maister is a freelance writer who lives in New York, NY.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2010.