As I’ve learned some things about cancer, it’s become apparent to me that every cancer patient is unique. That statement is not the cliché it appears to be. Not only is every form of cancer different in its cellular biology and behavior, but how we are physically affected by it—symptoms, staging, treatment response, etc.—is infinitely variable. More than most diseases, cancer is a disease of one.
I’ve educated myself as much as possible about melanoma. In doing so, I’ve become acquainted with several people who have the disease or have survived it. One close friend has died from it. I learned just last week that the mother of someone else I know has metastatic melanoma and has a poor prognosis. Being close to cancer, and understanding its many manifestations, gives me a sense of control over it, however illusory that may be. Being open about it allows me to be supportive to those in need. We can never walk in the slippers of someone else who has cancer, but some of us have been granted the grace of being able to come alongside those who do, and to offer knowing comfort. We are at times called upon to be angels to others, if only one that’s tarnished and with a bent wing.
I’m not without my own fears. Adjusting to life post-treatment is a process, I’ve discovered. One never fully arrives. A shock runs through me every time I hear about someone newly diagnosed with melanoma, or whose disease has advanced. I feel it too when someone famous is stricken by cancer, as billionaire Paul Allen was last week. I experience these emotional jolts because I know that my cancer could recur at any time, and that my health is always provisional. If it can happen to _________ (fill in the blank), it can happen to me. It’s been about 21 months since my surgery and over a year since my treatment ended. But not a day goes by when I don’t think about the possibility of the melanoma returning. The thought haunts me.
There are several things that can trigger an acute response: a follow-up appointment, an unusual ache or pain, news of someone else’s medical misfortune. This fear of recurrence is not crippling, and I don’t consider it morbid. What it sometimes does is give me a lump in my throat, and a shot of adrenaline to my body. My heart races, which sends up my blood pressure. It can disturb my sleep. It crowds out other thoughts from my mind. I don’t often speak of it because it’s a conversation killer. Sympathy mixes with embarrassment when I mention it. It can sound like a play for pity.
On the lighter side, it can also be useful for getting out of things you don’t want to do. “Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t make that meeting on Friday. My cancer might be recurring.” I haven’t actually said that, but I reserve the right to do so.
While I’ve dealt head-on in this blog with weightier issues, I’ve rarely mentioned my fear of recurrence because it seems ungrateful. After all the blessings I’ve received, and the normalcy to which my life has returned, why bring it up? What purpose would it serve? Given the really serious psychological and long-term physical effects that many cancer survivors suffer, I’m fortunate to have arrived at this point intact. My cancer experience has been no picnic, but it’s not the trauma it could have been. I’ve experienced very little pain, and no nausea. I didn’t lose my hair. My surgery didn’t disfigure me. Immunotherapy didn’t cause the cognitive dysfunction that chemo can. I didn’t have to scrape festering boils with pot shards. I am not Job.
I’ve had to conclude my fear of recurrence is partly a residual fear of death, despite my progress in coming to terms with that inevitability. I believe this emotional response must be primal. No prayer, no act of will seems to dent it. I fear, too, losing control again of my life. No one should ever be happy about putting themselves in the hands of our grotesquely dehumanizing healthcare system. What cancer patients must submit to is obscene. It’s no wonder people fear cancer the way they do. To go through harsh medical treatment and then die is the grossest indignity I can imagine. Being treated for advanced cancer is a high-stakes proposition. You don’t want to have to do it a second time having survived the first.
The best I can do for now is to believe that my fears will subside with time. I’m told to expect this by others in the melanoma brotherhood. I also take comfort in the knowledge that God has already dealt generously with me—far beyond what I thought was possible. Every day lived is another day of grace. Should my melanoma recur, the Holy Spirit will continue to reside within me as he has been. Nothing important really changes. My life with God, and my confidence in his power, is not at risk. Ultimately, it is this assurance that will get me past my weak and fleshly desire to be cured to the lasting comfort of actually being healed.