By Gabrielle Fecteau
The story of my latest cancer scare
I lay on the ultrasound bed. Everything was quiet. The room was dark.
This type of test was familiar. In the past few years, I had come to learn the procedures well.
Every few seconds, I could hear the ultrasound capturing an image and lymph nodes being measured. The long strokes of the ultrasound handle under my arm interrupted the sounds and deepened the silence.
I watched the monitor for familiar nodes. I still clearly remembered the highlighted shapes surrounded by darkened space in the images which had initially led to my diagnosis.
This time, nothing.
In that moment, tears flooded my eyes. I knew they weren’t seeing the lump I had felt under my arm. There was no hovering over nodes, less measuring and many enquiries regarding where the apparent enlarged lymph node had been originally found.
I felt relief. I knew what a clear scan meant for my life.
I also felt betrayed. My body had told me one thing, and now doctors were saying something entirely different.
“My body had told me one thing, and now doctors were saying something entirely different.”
This wasn’t the first time my care team and I decide to investigate unusual symptoms. It has happened two times separate from this most recent experience.
Each time, tests had affirmed that everything was “normal.” But a part of me has stayed stuck in the emotions surrounding a cancer scare.
Health anxiety as it shows up in my life
My thoughts about my health often occupy by mind. With these thoughts come strong emotions — deep fear.
I worry about doing something that could help my cancer to come back. I obsess about the changes I notice in my body and my mind. And anticipate the changes that would come with a positive test.
I live in constant debilitating fear of cancer.
I believed for a long time that I was bound to live with these overwhelming thoughts and emotions forever. They always seemed to serve a purpose in protecting me against a new cancer diagnosis.
This is when I learned about health anxiety — specifically, the concept as it is shaped in the book Overcoming Health Anxiety by Katherine M. B. Owens and Martin M. Antony.
Owens and Antony (2011) define health anxiety as “persistent, unrealistic, maladaptive worries and all the problems that accompany them” (p. 6). They note that people who live with a medical condition, such as cancer, are not immune to health anxiety (p. 20). In fact, cancer and other illnesses can be a cause of health anxiety (p. 26).
The message I took away from their research: I am not alone.
To me, health anxiety has meant facing debilitating symptoms in my everyday life. I experience this anxiety as nagging thoughts in my head, draining physical sensations and rocky relationships with my care team.
For years, it had been very easy for me to dismiss health anxiety as a very interesting concept, but not one that applied to me. I would find excuses for my behaviour and justifications for my debilitating thoughts.
But health anxiety does impact my life. It has for years.
Now that I accept this, I feel empowered to work towards managing this type of anxiety — to dance with the ups and downs of a cancer experience.
Strategies that help me manage my health anxiety
Since having learned about health anxiety, I have had one cancer scare, the one I described earlier.
During this scare, I tried to manage my emotions and my thoughts differently.
1. I prioritized balance in my life between my cancer experience and the life I have built for myself. This meant giving myself time to sit with the difficult emotions associated with finding a lump under my arm. It also meant focusing on things that are important to me: my family, my work, my hobbies and my dreams.
2. I made advocating for myself a priority. I knew I had to trust my body and myself. I know my body better than anyone. From this space of understanding and love, I was ready to show up for myself and find ways to help support my health.
3. I gathered the knowledge I had gained over the years to use at my advantage. It was important for me to prepare myself for what was to come, whatever the outcome. Everything I have gone through in the past few years have given me the strategies I need to get through anything that life has planned for me.
4. I leaned on my cancer community, and they wanted to show up for me, as they always do. They helped me manage my cancer experience, including the emotions that were difficult to manage within the uncertainty of a cancer scare.
A testament to my body’s health
This cancer scare led me to an important realization. Throughout this entire cancer experience, scans and follow-ups have more often than not supported my health.
And although the process of medical testing is exhausting with all those difficult emotions and many appointments, it helps me see how truly amazing my body can be at times.
I’m choosing to shift my perspective towards understanding that my body is giving me a win. I think it’s been telling me that it’s actually on my side. Maybe it’s time that I listen.
“I’m choosing to shift my perspective towards understanding that my body is giving me a win.”
Let’s look at it this way, if someone lets you down once — although in a dramatic and traumatic way — and has been apologizing and making it up to you in every moment since (or almost), would you find the space for forgiveness?
Well, I probably would, especially someone who means so much to me.
Over the years, my body became this person. It let me down once in a very big way, the cancer big kind of way. But since, it has shown up for me in many bigger ways, helping me recover, grow stronger, and engage with life.
My idea: That one time my body let me down became my story. But it doesn’t have to be. The story can be of those many times my body has supported my life.
OWENS, Katherine M. B., and Martin M. ANTONY (2011). Overcoming Health Anxiety: Letting go of your fear of illness. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, 158 p.