The Sky is Not Falling Yet: On Remission and Fear.

Hearing the diagnosis of cancer is like being suddenly thrown and held underwater. At first, you come up for air in frantic sputters. You flail. You are desperate for help. If you are lucky, you receive a life vest or ring, or some kind soul/s swim out to keep you afloat. You can rest, then. Backfloat. Look at the sun. This small, watery world becomes swimming, becomes wait.

nature beach holiday sand
Hopefully sipping a mojito or a mai-tai. 

The thing is this: it is permanent. You can never fully leave the cancer sea. Despite the stories of full remission, which are wonderful and true, and my hope is to be among them, cancer does return.  In many cases it becomes a long-term disease, resisted for many years. Sometimes it is fatal. Sometimes it never returns. Why are there such varying outcomes? Like so many cancer factors, the answers are complex. A person’s health condition at diagnosis makes a big difference. Comorbidities (and I dislike that term)  such as diabetes, smoking, and high blood pressure can impact outcomes. Some cancers are highly aggressive and fast-moving, some are slow and pokey. Genetic mutations play a role, as do age, gender, weight, race (unfortunately, and equity of care is a huge issue), tumor size, and stage of diagnosis.

But the fear of cancer’s return haunts me. Each new ache, each pain, can turn into a dark spiral of imagined lethalities. There’s a term for this long-term cancer worry: Damocles’ Sword Syndrome. In the original story, young Damocles admires the wealth and “luck” of King Dionysus of Syracuse. To teach a lesson, Dionysus allows Damocles to sit on the throne, giving him all of his riches. But over Damocles’ head is a sword, hanging by a single horse hair. A single hair. Damocles cannot enjoy the opulence, the power, and the bright wealth around him, as he worries and worries about the sharp and dangling and weighty weapon.

Cancer survivorship has its own sword, its own hair. Remission – and health – are a sure relief and wonder. It’s where I live now, not on a throne but a kitchen chair. Each day involves a series of routines which include physical therapy, meditation and writing, among others – that helps ground me in this day. But – and there is always that caveat, you can’t fully release, for always there is and yet or but or for now, and that is the crux of this, isn’t it? which is how do I go on? – there is the anxiety of a single “hair” – a scan, an ache, another lump – that lurks. The hair. It’s there. You just have to look up.

So, what to do? I have no easy answers. I have gone to support groups, have asked for help as needed. Understand the impact of this process on people around you, and let them talk about it. Also helpful: not talking. It helps to go hiking or to the mall. Writing helps. Exercise helps. Forgetting helps. Focusing on the garden or the trees or the dog or cat, making a meal. Somehow it helps to re-notice the love in ordinary living, the basic goodness of going on. This table, for instance. These chairs.

Not much wisdom here, I’m afraid. And here’s the truth: I am afraid. But here I sit, on this basic wooden chair, and am learning to practice living with both each day’s opulence and cancer’s sharp glint.

And a single hair.

Love, wobbling, out.

 

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “The Sky is Not Falling Yet: On Remission and Fear.”

    1. Magellan, thank you so much for your kind words. As a co-traveler on this alternate health road, I know we share the gasps for air. Thanks for being another life raft, another ring to buoy the fears. All the best.

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  1. Jojobird,
    You’re not alone. Does our common ground help us to stand in the face of fear? And what is the fear? That we will leave before we have grown to be old women? That we will leave our children without mothers? You’re right- forgetting this disease, paying no mind to the sword’s sharp edge- is one way to live.
    Falconer

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    1. Falconer, I am so glad to see you here. Every time I see your name, I think of Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” Things do, indeed, fall apart. I am hoping your falcons hear you, the falconer, and come home to rest on/in your arms. You, too, are not alone. The fear I have, that we might share, is of death and dying. I want to see my daughter graduate, go to college, grow older and launch into adulthood in whatever way she chooses. I want to be her imperfect, loving, laughing and at-times stern mama. Wishing you a peaceful holiday, and thank you for stopping by.

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  2. When I learned that breast cancer never really can be declared “cured,” only “no evidence of disease,” it really shook me and brought it home for me that it’s part of me for as long as I’m here. I’m very much working on being as in the moment and as grateful as I can be for what I have now.

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