Friday, January 24, 2014

Between Anxiety and Awareness

For the six months that I had chemo, I didn't have a single cold. I don't recall a sniffle, a scratchy throat, a stuffed up nose. Nothing. True, I lost my voice for a day after every round, but as everyone else in the house went through boxes of tissues that winter, the joke was that I was the healthiest person in the house.

Except for that cancer thing.

This winter I've had a couple minor colds -- which have quickly resolved themselves. And as the last one fully exited stage left, and as I had that great, post-cold day when you suddenly realize, 'oh, this is how it feels to be healthy," I started thinking about symptoms.

People process symptoms wildly differently - from paranoia and hyperbole to indifference. 

But a cancer diagnosis muddies the water here (doesn't it always). In the BC (before cancer) days, I remember thinking that there are so few days when we are 100 percent healthy. Few days when there is absolutely nothing physically wrong with us -- no scratchy throat, or runny nose, or headache, or insomnia, or fatigue, or indigestion, or sore muscle, or achy joint, or dried out skin, or scraped knee, or blister on a toe or whatever. These minor aches and pains came and went, but they barely registered as anything but an annoyance.

But in the AD (after diagnosis) life, even the most trifling of troubles can send you scurrying through the maze of self-diagnosis, with a cancer-related complication at every turn. Paranoia? Maybe. Anxiety? Sure, a little of that. 

There are so many stories of the grave consequences of undiagnosed symptoms. And in the middle of the night when your mind is vulnerable and your thoughts unchecked, it's easy to turn an upset stomach into a cancer recurrence.   

Symptom awareness comes with the territory, I suppose, and there's only a thin line separating it from anxiety. The trick is staying on the right side of the line.

A Note about This Blog: With this post, I'm starting (or attempting) to start a more regular schedule of weekly posts. When I started the blog back on 7/1/11, the idea was that I would post when I felt the need. That was pretty frequently two years ago; it's less so these days. So with a regular schedule, I hope to get back to a weekly Friday night/Saturday am post. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Staying Strong

In a few short weeks, it will be a full year since my last round of chemo. It seems like forever. I don't have another scan until September; my blood work looks fine; I remain, despite my tendency to think any ache is lymphoma-linked, symptom free. I am essentially living the same life I was prior to June 30, 2011.


I tried to think the other day of how I felt before I was diagnosed. What a day was like when the thought of cancer was as distant a thought as winning the lottery? I could only fantasize about either -- and the lottery was the better choice. It's been 2 1/2 years and it seems like this is how it's always been -- which doesn't mean I'm always thinking about cancer.  

But when I am thinking about cancer, and in particular, my cancer,  I occasionally think about dying. I think any cancer patient who says they don't is either trying to protect someone or very, very good at optimism. When I do,  it's always the prospect of missing out on things I'm looking forward to that's the saddest. (Ric Elias talks about this in his short Ted Talk, 3 Things I Learned While My Plane Crashed , which is worth a view.) When we're young, we think we're invincible; when we're older, we often think of ourselves as immortal -- that we're always going to be there.  

Even when the prognosis is good, cancer removes any illusion of that immortality. 

It's not that I often think of dying, but the idea of not being here will sometimes invade my thoughts at my weaker moments. It's been said that fighting cancer is as much a mental battle as a physical one. I'm not sure about that. But I do know that when I'm feeling tired, infected with a touch of symptom paranoia, or otherwise run down, it takes effort, real mental effort to keep those negative fantasies at bay. 

It's always tempting to live from appointment to appointment rather than take each day as it comes -- to carpe scan instead of carpe diem. When I find that temptation hard to resist, I resort to the best therapy I know. 

I run. 

I run for the exercise. I run to stay in shape. I run to counterbalance the ice cream I might eat later. I run to infuse energy into my body, to boost my mood, and my productivity. And some days, I crawl out of bed at 4:45 am and take a train into Boston so I can run to affirm my health.