Dealing with cancer is not just a physical challenge. As if surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation weren't difficult enough, there are scores of mental mind games your cancer plays with you as well.
I've blogged about both the mental and physical effects my cancer has pummeled me with. I've discussed my survivor's guilt (why did I survive when others with my same kind of cancer haven't?)
I've blogged about the sudden shock of being done with treatments and feeling alone, bereft, and not sure what to do. I've talked about my pre-surgery anxiety and my post-chemo depression.
I thought I had my cancer emotions under control. It's been a hell of a year; my family and I have endured a lot and we've come through the other side. I've experienced it all, right? I've faced my mortality, fought the fight, and so far have emerged victorious. I looked my demon in the eye and it blinked; not me.
But there was another mind game my cancer was playing with me - one that was so insidious that I wasn't really aware I was being affected by it. It was the deepest and hardest-hitting one yet.
For the past six months, ever since my treatments ended and I was in "recovery" I made a promise to live my life more fully. To embrace and appreciate every single day. To love the people in my life better - to let them know how much I care. I decided to no longer embrace mediocrity and to challenge myself often.
This new outlook has served me well. I refused to let cancer dictate the terms of my life and I used it as a goad to realize what was truly important to me. I moved into a better house. I proposed to my girlfriend (we're getting married in 23 days!) I started working out again. I determined to be a better friend. I am closer to my siblings than ever. I go surfing every chance I get. I quit my job and started a new one.
Yeah - it's been a good year, even with the cancer. You could almost says because of the cancer. I stopped taking life for granted and started living again. I became a better man in many ways.
So what's the problem? What mind game is my cancer playing on me?
You've read in my blogs that I have been having anxiety about my 6-month PET scans. Am I still cancer-free?
Slowly, over the course of the past month, that anxiety grew from a nervous uncertainty to a raging, full-blown, anxiety and certainty that I had cancer. And I never said a word, to anyone. I had built up this image of me as a cancer fighter - I had spit in the face of my cancer. I had this "amazing" attitude; everyone said so.
This past month I felt like a fake. I was ashamed of myself - because my fear and anxiety were consuming me, and I wasn't talking about it. Not even to Carey.
You see, I had done too good a job at living my life. I was doing all the things I said I was going to do. I was, through force of will and lack of hesitation, making the good things in my life happen. I'm getting married in 3 weeks! I'm going on a honeymoon. I'm participating in my kid's lives more than ever.
I love my life now more than ever. I cherish everything and everyone so much more than I ever thought possible. I am in love with my life and with everyone in it.
So you can imagine how the small, nagging, doubt in my head slowly grew to monstrous proportions. I could lose it all. I could get my PET scan and find out that the battle was beginning anew - all the progress I made coming out of my shell and embracing life suddenly and quickly reversed as I was forced to focus inward on myself and my cancer. I might die and lose everything.
I have embraced so many good things in my life, and made good things happen, that a small part of my brain that always "waits for the other shoe to drop" grew and consumed me.
I was in DC two weeks ago, lying in my hotel bed, when it hit me hard. I had a full-blown panic attack. I couldn't breath. I couldn't focus. My chest hurt. My heart was pounding. It took me a full 30 minutes to recover.
From that point on, a darkness started settling over me - so thick that I couldn't deny it any more. I went surfing, but I was afraid doing it. I was lost too often in thoughts of my own demise.
I planned my wedding, but fears that it would be overshadowed by my cancer colored every thoughts and action.
I did my job, but I wondered if I would be able to do it and for how long if I had to restart my treatments.
I finally told Carey about it. She tried to reassure me. She did all the right things. She never, not once, denied my feelings or tried to tell me it was an impossible reality. She held me, wanted me to talk it out - and I tried, but not really.
I didn't listen to her. She told me she was with me all the way - that we would have a wonderful wedding no matter what. That all the things I had accomplished wold not go away just because I may have cancer still.
I didn't believe her. I didn't want to - I was wrapping my misery around me like a comfortable blanket. It quickly became comfortable to me - this misery. This certainty that I was dying by inches from this cancer.
So yesterday. I went into the imaging center to get my six-month PET scan. I already knew the results. I was dying. My cancer had spread. I was resigned to it.
I thought morosely of the irony of cancer-causing radiation being injected into my body to be used to detect my cancer. I put on a brave face and smiled at Carey. I endured the entire ordeal and tried not to voice my fears. But they were there.
I had to take a sleeping pill last night to get to sleep, so great was my anxiety. It started taking its toll on Carey as well. She was on edge, had a headache, and a very stiff neck. Her signs of stress.
I woke up this morning and called my doctor immediately; knowing was better than not knowing. The wait was intolerable. I told the nurse-practitioner that I was convinced there was a problem because I had been having neck pains for two or three weeks. I needed to know my results as soon as they got them.
I have a great relationship with my doctor. Normal results take 48 hours, but less than 24 hours from my scans they had the results. They called to the imaging center, had mine moved to the top of the stack, and got my scans evaluated and posted.
NORMAL PET SCAN. NO SIGN OF CANCER.
My nurse called me back and told me the news. I thanked her, hung up the phone, closed my office door, and openly wept.
In my 12 months of fighting this cancer, I have not once cried. I got teary-eyed watching other people react to me, but I never cried for myself. Today I did.
I was so convinced that the other shoe was dropping - that my cancer was going to laugh at me and take away all of my gains - that I had already put one foot in the grave. Nothing and nobody could tell me differently.
The blanket of misery and anxiety came off of my so quickly that I couldn't handle it emotionally. I sat back and wept as I had not done before. I called Carey on the phone - she was on her way to work - and I could barely tell her my scans were clean, I was crying so hard.
She cried with me, on the phone. She told me she loves me, always. She said, again, that sh e's with me no matter what. She took the opportunity to say "I told you so." I laughed and agreed with her.
I do have neck pains - they have been there for about three weeks. But now I can look at them objectively. I have nerve endings still regenerating from my surgery last year. The doctor said they would eventually pain me. I pulled a muscle surfing two weeks ago. My stress is also a factor. I don't know why or what my neck pains are - but I'll ask my doctor next week. One thing for sure; it's not cancer.
This is the mind game my cancer played on me, folks. Because of my cancer I embraced my life more fully than I ever had before. And because of my cancer I was more afraid than ever of losing it. And I let that fear consume me.
Maybe this cancer WILL come back one day - but that day is not today. I can't live at death's doorstep - and I almost let myself go there. I have an amazing fiance. An incredible family. The best friends ever.
They say the definition of anxiety is to be so afraid of a potential future that it ruins your present. Well - that's true enough. I let my fear of cancer re-occurrence color and affect my present.
I can't say it won't happen again - but now I know what to look for. I wonder what other mind games my cancer has in store for me?