On Sunday I turn 25, which is a fairly big milestone, but my mind has been on a different milestone all week. Tuesday marked my 75th day of being cancer-free. You would think that would be cause for celebration, a whole seventy-five days without abnormal cell growth and multiple doctor's visits a week. To be honest though, I'm nothing but anxious. I'm excited and thankful to be able to celebrate 25 years of life this weekend, but I'm also wary of what comes next. As I said in a previous post, you're not considered a "cancer survivor" until five years out with clean results. I'm not even 5% of the way there yet. Yesterday I mustered up the courage to google "cervical cancer recurrence rates." 10-20% of people with Stage IB-IIA (where I fell) develop recurrence in their pelvis or lungs. This usually happens in the first two years after the initial diagnosis and treatment, so I'm still not in the clear.
I know I should be happy that I'm well and not dwelling on the past, but it's so much easier said than done. I've been reading late-ESPN anchor Stuart Scott's autobiography this week, "Every Day I Fight," and it's been comforting to have read the words of someone who has been through the same thing and felt the same anxious feelings. For those of you who are unaware, Scott was diagnosed with appendiceal cancer in late 2007 and after serveral bouts with the disease, passed away this past January. After his first clean scan following a round of chemotheraphy, he described what it felt like to be told you're cancer-free and it couldn't have been more spot-on to how I am feeling now, so I'll share it:
"A couple of years ago, a study of cancer patients showed something very interesting. Two years after diagnosis, the average level of depression among patients tends to drop back down to match the general population. But after completing a course of cancer treatment, the level of anxiety among patients booms
I totally get it. One day, you're in the fight: Your calendar is filled will scans, blood work, biopsies, and doctor's appointments. You hand on your doctor's every word. Then-just like that- you hear that it's gone, that "there are no visible signs of cancer" in your body, and you're as mentally unprepared for that as you were when you first got your diagnosis.
Don'e get me wrong. Being in the fight sucked... But at least you were in the fight. Once you're told your cancer is gone, so is the thing you've made your focus every single day.
It's so true. Now what? Every time I get an abdominal crap, I freeze and immediately my mind flashes to "IT'S CANCER." Whenever I feel slightly sick-to-my-stomach or exhausted for no reason, my mind tells me, "IT'S BACK." I can't shake the feeling. Some nights I struggle to fall asleep thinking about how there could be undetected cancer cells growing in my body. After all, I was diagnosed shortly after a clean pap smear and exam. Just because they didn't see it in my last check-up doesn't mean it's not there. I constantly feel like there is something more I should be doing to make sure it doesn't come back. So I eat well, I started working out again, I take vitamins. Will any of those things help should the cancer come back? Who knows. But at least I feel slightly in control.
I'll share one last passage from "Every Day I Fight" before I wrap up this post:
"That anxiety never leaves you. In fact, it only gets worse-because you're no longer taking proactive steps to combat the disease... Once, when I was a few years into the fight, I asked Lance Armstrong if he still thought about cancer-and dying from it-every single day. 'No, not anymore,' he said.
And how long did it take him to get to the posint that it wasn't on his mind daily?
He smiled. 'About twelve years,' he said. 'It took me a while.'"
Cancer is hard, but so is living your life without cancer. I didn't think it would be as much of a daily struggle as it has been. I don't need you all to flock to my side now that you know of my anxieties, but just understand why I may not have as much "pep" as you would think someone who just got their life handed back to them 75 days ago should.