The Fear of My Cancer Returning Feels Like a Ticking Time Bomb
I am a cancer survivor.
What sort of image does that conjure? What are the words that typically come to mind: tough? strong? brave? Those words serve to inspire because of the narrative people place around cancer; it is an epic battle and cancer patients are warriors fighting for their lives.
But, the truth is, I never felt like a warrior. And now when I think about the fact that I am a cancer survivor, the first word that comes to my mind is afraid. That wasn’t always the case, though. When my cancer was newly in remission I mostly felt relief. But the longer I am a survivor, the more precarious my situation feels.
I was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 24. An “easy” cancer with a 10-year survival rate of 80 percent. It was very likely my cancer would go into remission with treatment. It was very likely I would continue to survive for at least 10 years. It is also very likely that’s not the end of it. Every treatment I received to rid me of that cancer was, in fact, introducing new threats… delayed threats. They are often called “late effects of treatment” or “secondary” diseases.
Radiation directed at my chest increased my chance of developing breast cancer, lung cancer, skin cancer and thyroid cancer. Radiation damage to the blood vessels in my neck increased my risk of stroke. Chemotherapy pumped through my veins was both cardio-toxic and pulmonary-toxic, weakening my heart and lungs and increasing my risk of developing related diseases.
The treatments also put me at a higher risk of developing Acute Myeloid Leukemia and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. At this point, the odds I will have a recurrence of Hodgkin’s lymphoma — my primary cancer — are extremely low. However, with each passing year, the likelihood that some secondary issue will surface increases.
It has been nearly 13 years since I was told my cancer was in remission. It seems like a lifetime ago. It’s been long enough now that I can go about my daily life for most of the year without cancer even entering my thoughts. But when something triggers my memory, or forces me to recall the fact that I was a cancer patient all those years ago, a flood of anxiety engulfs me.
Each year from October — when my family and I participate in an annual cancer walk — to February when I have my annual follow-up exams… the anxiety builds. It feels like a constant ticking in my ear, growing louder and louder, reminding me of the time bomb in my body. I don’t know when it is set to detonate, how it will explode or if it ever will. But I know it is there…a constant threat lurking just beneath the surface of my normal life.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
With any luck come February I will get a reprieve. I will feel that flood of relief and settle back into my day-to-day life for several months of hardly giving cancer a thought.