Fear can be a powerful enemy. If it hooks its claws into you, it can reduce even the strongest human to a mere puddle of flesh and bones. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world,” and I think he is absolutely correct. Since October, I have spent the past six months taming my cancer fears and trying to keep them in their cage where they belong. And, for a while there, it worked. I was able to convince myself that I was a normal person, just going about my daily routines like other healthy people. Aside from my oncologist checkups, regular blood work appointments, and antibody treatments every three weeks, I tried to keep cancer out of my every day life as much as possible.
Unfortunately, though, I have not been feeling well recently; so this week, the fear mongrels were able to sneak past the door of their carefully constructed holding pen and unleash themselves upon me with a force that I was unable to stop. In the past few weeks I have been thinking that something is definitely wrong with me, and I began to fear the worst. My college roomie and friend for life came to visit for Easter Break, and so we took her and her boyfriend to my favorite city in Chile: Valparaiso. It was so good to see them and we all had a tremendous time, but my fears were barking at my heels the whole trip. Unfortunately, the city of Valpo consists of a series of steep hills overlooking the port, so you have to climb a lot of stairs and walk up and down sloping roads in order to go anywhere in the city. I had to hold on to the railings for dear life, in case I fell and really hurt myself. Having my toe all bandaged up due to my fifth ingrown toenail surgery, probably didn’t help me to stay balanced. For a former college athlete, my lack of fitness and strength has been a drastic mental shift for me. It doesn’t seem so long ago that I worked out every day, endured strenuous training sessions, and summoned the strength to make long sprints down the field at the end of the game. Now, about all my body can handle is being pulled around the park by my dogs when I take them for a walk. Mush, doggies, mush!
At school I have also become increasingly dizzy. Anytime I lift my head to write on the board or swivel around in my chair to answer my students’ questions, I become disoriented and feel like the world is spinning all around me. These dizzy spells also come with heavy doses of nausea that have made eating un-enjoyable. For a foodie like me, that has been a special type of torture, (but also has allowed me to lose a few pounds…) Last week I became so nauseous that I had trouble eating anything, because any time I ate a meal, whether it was healthy or not, I would have horrible indigestion afterwards. And every morning, when I woke up, I would desperately flail about, blindly reaching for a fruit drop to suck on so I didn’t vomit when I got out of bed.
I recently chaperoned an MUN (Model United Nations) trip to Curitiba, Brazil, in which my friend Erica and I spent four consecutive 14-hour days shepherding eleven preteens through international airports and helping them write resolutions and speeches about difficult topics such as eliminating safe havens for international terrorists. As I packed my bag the night before the trip, I tearfully pleaded with Jon, like a five year old, not to make me go. I knew it was going to be rough on my body and I let the fear that something was wrong reduce me to a sobbing mess… After a few minutes of Jon reassuring me, I pulled up my big girl pants (to quote Erica), gathered my courage, and went on the trip that I knew I had no choice but to go on. When we returned last Sunday at midnight we were happy to be home, but completely shell-shocked: all of our energy wiped clean away. All I wanted to do was take a day off of work to sleep, but it was pretty important that I go, so away I went. I had several doctors appointments scheduled for Thursday, so I decided to take the day off and set my mind to surviving until then.
Unfortunately, in that time, my fears about my declining health multiplied to the point that I was almost positive that my cancer had returned. It was time to see my doctor and tell him the bad news. The major problem was that Jon was coaching a basketball tournament in Buenos Aires and had already left, so I would have to face the doctor alone. Jon has been worried about me also, and was not happy leaving me by myself in my fearful state. But just like my MUN trip, he really had no choice but to go.
As I went to my appointment I was drowning in cancer memories. When my name was called, I trudged down the hallway, knowing the doctor would not be happy to hear my news. As soon as I told Dr. Majlis my symptoms, I could immediately detect the look of fear and panic on his face as well. (Doctors in Chile REALLY need to work on their poker face…). He wanted to hospitalize me immediately so that he could get the results of the brain scans sooner. I was not expecting to spend the night at the hospital, nor to get any life-altering news without my husband at my side. So I told the doctor that I wanted to wait till Jon came back to find out, and that I couldn’t stay overnight because my dogs had to be fed and I was the only one with keys to the house. Dr. Majlis considered me request as he examined me to find out how bad things had gotten. After a few tests he breathed a huge sigh of relief. “I don’t think it’s as bad as we feared. I think you have vertigo.” I have had a clogged left ear now for a few months, so that made sense. He called a neurologist to come by later and check me out as well. After a series of tests where she shook my head violently from side to side, she also concluded that she thought it was vertigo, rather than a tumor. She scheduled an MRI for the next week, just in case, but the urgency of the test diminished greatly. My mental state was pretty rattled and my phone had died, so Renea and Elliott came to stay at the hospital with me while I did my regular treatment. Due to their help and the thumbs up from Majlis, I breathed a little more deeply and could feel the weight of my fears alighting themselves from my shoulders.
According to the statistics for metastatic breast cancer, I’ve been living on borrowed time for the last three years, especially the last year since the cancer re-metastasized in my brain. Eighty eight percent of patients die before they reach the five-year mark, but I’ve spent the last six months pretending like I’m a medical miracle and immune to the cancer demons. Since my last treatment, I’ve become greedy. I’ve let myself think into the future, dream about the next international teaching experience, plan our travel destinations for the next year, and even consider purchasing a vacation property. And after allowing myself to think these thoughts, I realize that I’ve put myself in a precarious position. The truth is that now I need more time to be healthy. My sister is getting married in Costa Rica in January, and I have to be there to celebrate with her and Dustin, and I WILL be healthy while doing so! I WILL experience more wonderful trips with Jon, I WILL visit friends and family during the holidays, and nothing, not even cancer, is going to stop me.
So that’s me putting back on my brave face. Keep your fingers crossed that my MRI next week confirms that I have vertigo instead of a brain tumor, so I can crack my whip and send my cancer demons fleeing back into their cages where they belong. I will not let fear stop me from enjoying life. Life is precious. Hold on to it as tightly as you can.