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Fear of Recurrence: A Surgeon and Breast Cancer Survivor

A Cancer Patient’s Long-Term Unease

Once you get a couple years of living past a cancer diagnosis, you start to get a little smug. Yeah, I got this. I beat this thing. I’m a rock star. Now, I’m ready to tell my story… Before that, for a long while during and after the whirlwind of disease, it was a bit too touch and go to risk it. I didn’t want to be mid my I-survived-cancer memoir, only to find out that my cancer was not actually gone. That’s not a very funny or uplifting story to tell.

While, I may not have shared it with the public, I started recording my twisty tale almost immediately after my diagnosis. Whenever something weird or crazy would happen, I would jot it down. At first pass, I transferred this hodge-podge of emotions into my computer. Later, I would revisit each experience and try to weave it into a somewhat coherent tale. When I was finally satisfied, I’d often email the piece to one of the few inner circle friends who I wasn’t shutting out in those dark, early days.

My initial motivation, aside from the catharsis of downloading my thoughts, was preservation. I was afraid that if I did not record the journey, my foggy chemo brain would erase all memories of the year’s events. In a way, “the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” might have been great, but there are pitfalls to life-amnesia too. This had previously been demonstrated twice when my sleep-deprived baby brain had blocked out all the colicky, vomit-filled and miserable nights and left me only with the memory of the sweet smell of newborn skin. That’s how Alex and I ended up with three kids in such quick succession!

When the acute treatment phase of surgeries and chemo and radiation was finally over, I needed at least a year to recover my recognizable self. After that, I needed another two full years to utter word “survivor” out loud. So, all in all it took me four whole years to publish this book, Hell & Back and to dare call myself a dragon slayer of breast cancer. But, there is always regression. Regression to the fear that once consumed me. Mostly, this is triggered by an upcoming oncologic check-up or while waiting for the results of tumor marker labs. The most unpredictable surges of fear come from ball-crushing stories of recurrence, no matter the age it occurs.

Like, that recent Sunday morning. I was happily watching my seven-year-old daughter play tennis. I was relaxed, because I was alone, with my coffee and my computer in front of the large glass window. Another mother behind me cracked a funny joke and she and I started talking. Her name was Tara. Soon, I mentioned my book and we played people-geography and quickly came up with a common friend who is also an ENT surgeon at Columbia University Hospital. She was great! This new mom friend was so encouraging of my efforts and all excited about buying my book on kindle. Then, she dropped the bomb.

“My younger sister has stage 4 breast cancer.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. How is she doing?”

“Well, she started with Stage 3B, about four years ago when she was thirty-two, but now it metastasized to her sacrum.”

“Can she walk?”

“Yes, but with a limp. They removed the tumor surgically and she has a cage in her spine. You’d otherwise never know. She’s vivacious, upbeat, just like me.”

She saw the color drain from my skin, and the smile fade from my lips.

“Don’t worry, she had inflammatory breast cancer, triple positive (ER/PR/Her2-Neu), which is really rare AND totally different than yours.”

I looked at this smart, funny, red-haired woman in front of me, with two daughters, age-matched to mine. And, I pictured her sister, who I now knew lived in Chicago, with her three young kids and her husband. My heart was racing, my mind recalculating my odds… “four years later.” Just like me.

While I was lost in thought, Scarlett emerged from outside, flushed with excitement about her practice and eager to leave.

“Come on, Mommy. Let’s go. Why do you always have to talk so much?”

She skipped across the room and made a quick pit-stop at the snack machine.

I handed her a dollar and mouthed good-bye to my new friend.

“Wasn’t I amazing today? Did you watch me?”

“You were spectacular sweetheart. I am so proud.”

We piled into the car and headed out to our weekly post-tennis Starbucks ritual. It was a beautiful, sunny day…

Most days I’m flying through life, cup of joe in hand, flipping between my multiple roles: surgeon, mother, wife, and manager of the house. But, every tale of recurrence stops me dead in my tracks. I am always left wondering.

When will it be my turn?

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