Down the Rabbit Hole

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My back hurts.

It’s a pretty minor pain, to be honest. I’ve had issues with my back much of my adult life (another hereditary thing, I’m certain, since my mother and sister both suffered/suffer back issues), and I’ve had backaches much worse than this. Plus, I’m coming off several major surgeries to my torso, I’m on Tamoxifen, I’m going through menopause, and I lift a 30-pound toddler on a daily basis. Of course my back hurts.

But that rational explanation can’t quite quell my fear. Even the smallest twinge of pain conjures that insidious little voice in my head, whispering, “maybe it’s cancer.”

On a good day, I tell that little voice to fuck off, pop an ibuprofen and keep it moving.

But on bad days, I turn to the place I should probably avoid most–the internet.

It all starts with Dr. Google. After I’ve Googled symptoms, I’m usually still unsatisfied. That’s when I go to a place I definitely should avoid.

The community message boards on breastcancer.org are actually a really great resource. Women and men at all stages of the game can talk to each other, share stories, ask questions, offer support–it’s truly a fabulous space.

It’s also a dangerous place for a person like me. I usually start by scrolling through the topics, but when I can’t find threads addressing my particular issue, I do more targeted searches. These searches bring up threads that are years old, full of people experiencing symptoms and fear similar to my own.

As I scroll through these threads, I can’t help but notice something that makes my heart sink. Members of the message board all add a signature to their posts that lists their diagnosis(es), treatments, etc. Most of them started out with early-stage cancer. There are folks whose cancers are hormone-receptive (like me), folks with no lymph node involvement (same), folks who seemingly should’ve been done with this mess after the first go-round. Their stat lists also include things like “Stage IV,” “bone mets,” “lung mets,” “liver mets,” “brain mets.” (Mets is shorthand for metastasis.)

When you see words like that on a post that’s several years old, you can pretty much draw some solid conclusions as to what has happened to those people in the interim.

In Nina Riggs’ brilliant memoir The Bright Hour, she talks about this online medical obsessing in the essay perfectly titled: “www.heyninariggseverythingisgoingtobeok.com”:

A couple years back, when a therapist helped me realize through a series of exercises that the only thing that would satisfy me on the internet was a website that explicitly said: “Freddy and Benny are going to be just fine. So are you and John.” I laughed out loud at myself. But it didn’t really stop me from seeing disaster at every corner, or checking from time to time to make sure the magical website did not in fact exist.

Yep, that’s what I need. I’m looking for some validation that what I’m feeling is no big deal. A little reassurance that it’s nothing, and I should stop freaking out all the time. I know this is nuts. I know there is nothing on the internet (or anywhere else, for that matter), that is going to give me this reassurance. And even if it did, would I believe it?

The thing is, coping with all of this calls for a healthy dose of faith. I certainly have a strong faith, and while turning my fate over to God and my oncologists is freeing in a way, it’s also terrifying. Just like riding on a plane, I no longer have control, and I think that’s what scares me most.

 

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The Bridge

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Exhibit A of why I’ll never be a visual artist.

This morning was my last session with the therapist at the cancer center. She’s a master’s program intern, so she’s graduating next week. I sort of felt like our time was kind of winding down, anyway, as I’ve talked ad nauseam about my anxiety over recurrence/metastasis. She has introduced me to some techniques to help manage said anxiety (hello, meditation!), and also helped me see some of my underlying issues with control and needing to always have it together for others (it’s the responsible oldest/middle child in me).

As part of today’s session, she asked me to draw a bridge that represents my journey, and draw myself somewhere in the photo. That’s the masterpiece you see above (pretty sure my sisters got all the genes for visual artistry in our family).

In explaining my drawing to the therapist, I divulged a longstanding irrational fear of bridges. There’s something about them that’s always kind of freaked me out, particularly those over water (I also have an irrational fear of water I can’t see the bottom of, too, so I’m sure that plays into it.). I told her about the Bonner Bridge that takes travelers out to the Outer Banks–that one has always given me the willies. I mean, look at it:

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I drove over this thing at night once, and nearly peed my pants before reaching the end. 

I also told her about a recurring dream I have about crossing a precarious bridge, usually represented as the old I-85 bridge over the Yadkin River linking Rowan and Davidson counties in North Carolina (I grew up in Rowan county). I’d post a photo of that one, but it was permanently closed in 2012 (see, I was freaked for good reason!), and images are few and far between on the internet.

In my drawing, I put myself halfway across the bridge. There’s a pretty substantial chunk of land behind me, and a smaller one ahead with a sign: “Normal life.” That’s the goal. That’s the magical place I’m trying to reach. I’m not really sure what it looks like. In my drawing, I’m almost half-way there.

Below me, the water churns. I wasn’t planning to draw water at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized the water was the perfect representation of my fear. If I fall off the bridge, I could drown or something in that abyss could reach up and grab me. I might survive, but I could just as likely die.

That’s what metastasis/recurrence looks like to me. I could survive, but I also could die. So many others have.

But on the bridge, I’m safe. I’m moving forward. I’m figuring out a way to make sense of all this, to live life without constant fear, to get closer to “normal,” whatever that means now.

Another point the therapist made was all the worrying I do is a way to trick myself into thinking I can prevent something bad from happening. It’s true. If I’ve thought about it, considered it from every angle, run through all the scenarios, they can’t possibly come true, can they?

Of course they can. And that’s where I am right now. In meditation, I’ve learned to acknowledge these thoughts when they pop up, and then send them on their merry way as I get back to focusing on the moment at hand. The truth is, obsessing about this stuff isn’t going to stop any of it from possibly happening. Rationally, I know that I’m still under pretty careful surveillance by my doctors, and they’re likely to catch something should it arise. In the meantime, fretting and Googling and working myself up into a froth isn’t doing anyone any good.

All that is easier said than done, of course, but I’m working on it. And step by step, I’m going to get across that bridge.

A Letter to My Fear

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This morning I had my first appointment with a counselor at the cancer center. Our session was mostly paperwork and getting-to-know-you questions, but toward the end, she asked me what tools I’m currently using to cope with my emotions in the wake of my diagnosis and treatment.

I told her about this blog and other writing I do, and before I left, she encouraged me to use some writing exercises to help work through all the feelings I’m experiencing now. One of her suggestions was to write a letter to my fear and/or my cancer. It sounds kind of hokey, but I’m going to give it a shot, starting with fear. Here goes.

Fear,

I won’t use the salutation “dear,” as you are no more dear to me than a smear of shit on the bottom of my shoe. You are no friend of mine. You are the enemy. You live to undermine me. To torture me. To keep me cowering in the dark, unable to make a move without worry or anxiety.

You’ve always been around. Even before cancer, you’d rear your ugly head before big presentations, on airplanes and even on days that should have been nothing but happy, like my wedding or the day my son was born.

But now, you’re especially vicious. You’re around every corner, it seems. No longer content to just lurk in the shadows, you parade around in the bright light of day, emboldened and relentless. You don’t care if I’m at work, at home, in the middle of something important or joyous. Like the unwelcome guest that you are, you horn in on good moments, popping up in places you don’t belong. You rob me of sleep, of solitude, of peace.

You drive me to Google symptoms over and over again. Pelvic pain. Back pain. Neck pain. Every little twinge sends me into a frenzy. The old me would chalk it up to sleeping wrong, exercising too hard or eating too much rich food. I’d pop an Advil or antacid and keep on moving. But with you on my shoulder, such nonchalance is impossible. Nothing is brushed off. There’s no such thing as just a little ache. Everything must be over-analyzed, scrutinized, fretted over. Every little feeling could be the beginning of impending doom when you take over my brain.

And here’s the thing–I don’t know how to shake you. I know my good buddy time will help me, but he takes his…well…time to do that. So what am I to do until then? Just put up with you? Allow you to control me? Allow you to make my life hell?

And if we’re being truthful here, even time won’t banish you from my life completely. You’ll always be there in some way, lurking around along the edges, just waiting for the opportunity to strike. You can smell my vulnerability like blood in the water–you know all my soft spots and when I’m at my weakest. No predator has ever stalked his prey with more deft cunning than you.

My only course of action is to face you. To call you out. To tell you to fuck off. To allow the rational side of my brain to tamp down the irrational, obsessive side more often. I know this will not be easy. This is going to be a bloody, brutal fight between you and me. But I’m ready. I’ve fought scarier, more dangerous opponents than you. Ask them how that went. I have reinforcements, and my team is stronger than yours. Let’s do this.

Until next time,

Jennifer