Still Fearful Years Later


QUESTION: Your site has been most helpful to me in dealing with my fears. I had a lumpectomy almost 2.5 years ago for a 1 centimeter, grade 1, ER/PR positive, invasive breast cancer that spread to three lymph nodes. I had four rounds of Adriamycin and Cytoxan with six weeks of radiation. I am on tamoxifen. I recovered very well as I was in overall good health when the tumor was discovered.

Although years have passed and I am healthy, I still struggle with a lot of fear about recurrence. Some days are tougher than others. Like right now, because tomorrow I have a checkup with my radiation oncologist. I actually do have some days where I don't think of cancer at all. I would just like to have a lot more of those days. I wonder if it is all over for me eventually because of the lymph nodes. My oncologist has been very positive and very pleased all along with my progress. He told me that my cancer was still found in an early curable stage. Of course, I realize technically that there is no cure but if I live well into my 80s without a recurrence (I am 51) I'll take it! Any additional suggestions on how to gain continuing peace of mind will be deeply appreciated.

ANSWER: Please don't think it unusual that you have fears. Your life has certainly been changed by the presence of cancer and not all fear connected with that can be erased. It might be helpful if you think in terms of two kinds of fear—healthy and paralyzing.

Healthy fear is that which makes us pursue medical follow-up when a piece of us says, "I'd rather not know." Healthy fear is evoked when we are faced with reminders of past disease—i.e., testing, routine exams. Healthy fear lives toward the back of our minds rather than in the foreground. Paralyzing fear, on the other hand, involves self-talk such as, "Why bother? You'll probably never live to see 60," etc. Paralyzing fear keeps us from the fullness of life and sometimes, literally, keeps us from getting up in the morning.

It sounds like you are speaking of a normal healthy fear. The fact that each day of your life is not defined by cancer reflects a good and life-affirming attitude. Freedom from fear is rarely perfect, especially when the fear stems from one's lived reality. However, your quest for total freedom from fear seems to indicate that you are and will be living more and more on the fear-free end of the continuum. I trust that you will continue to tap the resources that have helped you succeed thus far—knowledge, support and care, humor, faith, reaching out to others—and that you will embrace the healthy fear so tightly that it diminishes any residual power over you.

—The Rev. Dr. Lynn Vanderhoof, D.min.

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