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Turning a Corner

by Roger Tunsley

Inspiration image

It’s Sunday evening, around nine o’clock. My wife, Kathy, and I are watching TV. I turn to her and ask if she would like anything – a snack or a drink. Then I suddenly remember; I have a scan in the morning and I’m not supposed to have anything to eat or drink after eight o’clock. I mention this to Kathy, and then we both realize what’s happened and we grin at each other. I’ve turned a corner.

In 2006, I was diagnosed with Stage III esophageal cancer. The memory of that moment is as clear as this morning’s breakfast, but the rest of that day is a mystery. The world stopped with the word – cancer. It twisted and bounced inside my skull like some awful screensaver. I saw the doctor’s lips moving, but I was not taking anything in at all. Luckily, Kathy was with me, and although deeply shocked herself, she was able to remember the important information.

My treatment was successful. Chemo and radiation, followed six weeks later by the removal of my esophagus and a good portion of my stomach, the remains of which were pulled up into my chest and reconnected.

I returned to work two months after the surgery. Life was good. But in a month, I was due for a check-up and a CAT scan. A gray cloud of anxiety grew overhead. By the day of the scan, the gray cloud of anxiety had become a black storm-cloud of paranoia. I was scared.

I had to wait three days for the results. The storm cloud stayed in place. I was not easy to be around. But the scan was clear. The sun appeared, and the cloud melted away.

Three months later, I had another scan. The storm cloud was there again. Again, all was clear, and the cloud disappeared.

By the day of the scan, the gray cloud of anxiety had become a black storm-cloud of paranoia.

The doctors now suggested that I move on to a six-month scan routine. They told me that statistics indicated there was no difference in survival rates between three- and six-month scans in cases like mine. They acknowledged that many people needed the emotional support of scans, but that it was unnecessary in time, cost, medical resources, and more importantly, why submit yourself to yet more radiation when you’ve already had a lot during treatment? I agreed, of course. I trusted these people with my life.

But as the day of the check-up got closer, my cloud of apprehension reappeared. Here come the dark thought processes. All of the intellectual points of three months ago were for nothing.

On the day of the check-up, I looked the doctors squarely in the eyes and told them that I would prefer to have a scan. Now, if you please. My tone was measured and calm. My voice was steady and low. But they both looked into the windows of my eyes and saw the emotional meltdown going on inside, the petulant little boy in there, jumping up and down and screaming “I want one, I want one, I want one!” and that he wasn’t going to stop until he got one. Hey, it worked when I was six.

It also works when you’re sixty, apparently. They both smiled thinly and said, “Certainly, if you want one, you can have one.” I had to make a deal, though. If I had one now, I’d definitely move into a six-month routine from now on. “And no sulking or tantrums in August” was the unspoken message. I got my scan, and I was clear once more. We had a further chat about the risks of continued radiation, and I agreed that from now on, it would be every six months. And so it was.

Which brings me to my most recent scan. I had actually forgotten about it until the evening before. I looked up, and the storm cloud wasn’t there. I have moved on, into a new, less anxious place.

I’m not naïve enough to consider myself cured. I know that the risk of recurrence is ever-present. I understand that we are all different in how we perceive and respond to risk and fear. But there was a time, not too long ago, when I did not believe that I would ever lose the storm cloud of fear. I’ve turned the corner – out of the shadows and into the sunshine.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Roger Tunsley has lived in Sharon, MA, with his wife, Kathy, since 1989. In April 2006, Roger was diagnosed with Stage III esophageal cancer. After undergoing treatment at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, he has remained cancer free.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2010.