I thought I was going to be sick. My heart was pounding. My stomach was twisted into one big great knot, and my palms were sweating. I worried that when I met the fellow for the first time he would shake my hand and notice. It didn’t matter that I had read my own MRI on the patient site of the hospital, or that if something was wrong I surely would have heard from the doctor before now. At that moment, sitting in the doctor’s office staring at a piece of paper about new chemotherapy regimens tacked to a bulletin board, all I could think about was one word: Cancer.
Up until a few years ago I was just seeing my surgeon who created the kind of treatment that I underwent in order to kill the tumor that was inside my eye. But somewhere down the line my primary care doctor stated that she didn’t feel comfortable checking in with me regarding the maintenance of the cancer and wanted me to see an oncologist. I remember that just the word, oncologist, scared me. Enter Dr. M, by far and away my favorite doctor (maybe because he has never had to give me any bad news, knock on wood). Dr. M and I only see each other once a year. He states that my MRI looks good (it is recommended that I monitor my liver to make sure that nothing ever spreads) and that he thinks following me so closely is a good thing, as he is well aware that it decreases my anxiety over the year. Plus, he always mentions that it “balances out his day nicely” since he likes to pat me on the back and say, “See you in a year!” I have a feeling he doesn’t get to do that with very many patients.
Still, it is nerve-wracking. One of my least favorite comments that I hear when people find out that I’m a cancer survivor is, “Well, it must get easier over time.” I feel as though only people who have never had cancer say that. Nothing about cancer is easy. Yes the more years out I am from the cancer the less the doctors seem to want to see me. But sitting there today, waiting 20 minutes for the fellow to come in and speak with me before Dr. M, I realized that 5 years later, it’s still scary. There is always the possibility that somebody could get sick. But when you’ve already been sick, you perhaps worry about those possibilities even more.
I couldn’t help but think about the first few months with the cancer, about wondering what the future would look like, about having my eyelid clipped open to receive radiation, about crying on my best friends shoulders because I didn’t want to scare my parents anymore than they already were and do that in front of them. I couldn’t help but think about how many people suffer so much worse than I did, and then become scared of the future. Most of us can push things like cancer to the back of our brains, but when you’re sitting at your oncologist’s office, that’s a hard thing to do. I practiced my breathing. I thought about what I was going to pack for my girls getaway to California this summer. I wondered what I would have for lunch when I got home. I tried everything I could to not think about cancer. It was hard.
I mentioned this to Dr. M, after we were done talking about our summers and how my last name has changed since he last saw me. I told him that even though in my heart I knew that things were OK, I still felt kind of sick to my stomach and scared. And bless him, Dr. M looked into my eyes and said, “That is so normal. It’s PTSD. You’ve been through a lot.” Just those 11 words and I immediately felt better. Here was a doctor who wasn’t telling me that it “should” get better. He wasn’t telling me to buck up because I’m lucky (even though I am). He was giving my anxiety a name (PTSD) and telling me that my anxiety was warranted. And suddenly, I had a much better perspective on the work that I do as a therapist. So many of my clients have anxiety and I was reminded that to name it, validate it, and to explain the normalcy in such a circumstance, can relieve it in a big way.
Next week is my 6th month check-up, and hopefully I won’t see Dr. M until next year. There are many days when I don’t think about the cancer at all, which is a blessing and some place I never thought I’d get to. But when I do think about it, I let myself feel whatever I need to feel. I don’t deprive myself of the grief, anger, or sadness that I occasionally feel just because others have been through worse or because a certain amount of time has gone by. And then I move forward. Because I didn’t survive cancer so that I could stay in the past. I survived so that I can look towards the future, even on the days with Dr. M.