Last week, I had a checkup with my oncologist, Dr. B. I routinely go every 6 months, get my blood drawn, and then talk to him about how I’m doing. Usually, about once a year I get a CT scan. This time was a checkup without a scan… but it was still super anxiety inducing. Especially since I can't take my husband with me to keep me sane because, well, pandemic. Before my own cancer diagnosis, I didn’t really understand that once you get a diagnosis like that, it can really mess with you for a long time. A routine exam that would’ve never freaked me before out becomes an event that feels like you’re walking into the moment that will flip your whole world upside down… again.
It’s been almost 8 years since my diagnosis, and I’ve shown No Evidence of Disease (NED) for about 7 of those years (a HUGE accomplishment after stage 4, woot!). I don’t know what it’s like to maneuver this cancer world with a lower stage, but I assume the anxiety is the same for some no matter what stage they are or were. For me, at Stage 4, it feels like my doctors are just waiting for when it comes back, not if. Although, my oncologist would never say that to me. He’s a positive, glass-half-full kind of guy, and I like that about him. And as the years go on, he seems to have the same faith in my recovery as I do. Medically, though, my doctors would be correct in thinking that my cancer just isn’t prevalent enough to show up on scans or in bloodwork, however, I choose not to see it like that. In my eyes, I am cancer free and will continue to do whatever I think I need to do to keep it that way.
But there is still fear, doubt, and anxiety. Especially when I have to step back into the world where cancer is center stage with a bright spotlight on it.
These days, the fear, doubt, and anxiety is not there every day. As time goes on from diagnosis, I feel it less and less regularly. Usually, it rears its ugly head right around checkup or scan time. Even after 8 years.
When checkup time rolls around, though, I find myself feeling more anxious without making the connection between checkup day and my new mood a few days before. The night before, I can’t sleep. The morning of, I feel nauseated. I don’t feel hungry, and I just can’t decide if I want to cry, sleep, laugh, or be angry. I try to convince myself that it won’t be a big deal if I just miss this one and reschedule (except I’ve learned that Dr. B will track me down and ask me where the hell I’ve been!). Once I get into the office, I’m friendly and cheery with the medical staff and with other people in the waiting room, but on the inside, I want to run. I feel panic. Seeing all the patients coming in for chemo reminds me of my own experience and it takes me back to places I don't normally feel day-to-day anymore. I start to imagine the scenario I fear the most: my oncologist suggesting further tests because something doesn’t seem right. Every. Time.
But by the time I get into the exam room and he comes in laughing and happy, I relax.
This checkup was great! He said everything looked perfect! I was due for a CT scan this appointment, but we didn’t do one, and I asked if we needed to do another one for the next checkup in 6 months, and he shrugged. I took that as a great sign! And I left there feeling lighter than air, happy, and exhausted. I get myself so worked up, that I feel like it’s bedtime even though it was only noon when I left but I also felt like I had chugged a gallon of coffee. It is an incredibly vulnerable, raw event, every 6 months.
But despite how insane every appointment makes me, I grow from it. I learn to breathe deeper, and I’m reminded how much meditation helps me (something I’ve been slacking on lately, and this appointment reminded me how much I need it.). I’m reminded of how far I’ve come and how much healthier I am now! I’m reminded of my goals and inspired to keep up the work towards staying healthy. And I’m inspired to keep talking about my story and to share it with as many people as I possibly can. I’m reminded of how much better my life has been since I started taking better care of myself, and I will never stop even if I feel like my heart is going to drop out of my butt every 6 months when I visit the oncologist.