In the book the protagonist describes her 10 year old sister's battle with cancer. Leukemia, I think. I remember gripping the sides of the book in fear, wanting badly to put it down, look away, but unable to force myself to do it. I had to know - does she die?
And my life-long fear of cancer was born. When I was twelve I had some stomach pains and spent a week barely functioning, convinced I had stomach cancer.
My friends would tease me, because every little ache and pain I had was - in my mind - a symptom of cancer. It became kind of a running joke: oh, there goes Ellie, she has cancer again.
Even when my father was diagnosed with Lymphoma (which was a 'watch and wait' kind of cancer and a splenectomy successfully put him into full remission for seven years - he never had to have chemo or radiation) I didn't really think of him as a cancer patient. Maybe because he didn't look sick - ever. He never lost his hair. He didn't lose weight. When his spleen got enlarged they removed it and that, we all thought, was that. His sudden death last June (because he didn't have a spleen to fight back an infection, which led to sepsis) still didn't feel like a cancer death. Or, perhaps, I was too scared to think of it that way.
Then, last November, it happened. My lifelong fear: I got cancer.
I expected to fold up like a lawn chair, give into the fear. That didn't happen.
It wasn't until I was given the "all clear" that I folded up like a lawn chair.
I spent two days crying, almost non-stop. I couldn't function, sleep or eat, I was so paralyzed with fear. That was four months ago.
The past four months have been their own journey - different from treatment, but scary all the same. I realized that all of my attention had been focused on the fight. I wasn't thinking about after the fight - I just wanted to get there. In my mind, if treatment was successful, I'd get to check off the cancer box: did that. DONE.
The fear that came after treatment was my denial - my fighting the truth of my new normal with every cell in my body. I didn't want it to be true - a lifetime of wondering if it will come back.
When I stopped struggling against that truth and reached out for help, the fear got better. I joined a cancer support group. I started therapy with someone who specializes in cancer patients. And I'm writing about it, here.
Through talking about it with other patients and survivors, I learned that trying to get rid of the fear is impossible. I need to find a way to accept it, lean into it, even. The more I push it away, the bigger it gets.
It's like when I crave a drink. Of course I crave a drink sometimes. I'm an alcoholic.
Trying to be stoic about it, or a super-hero, gets me nowhere. I'm told by others that have walked the path before me that I'll get used to my new normal as time goes by. The appointments will be less scary. I trust that this is true, because I see the grace and strength in them, and it's something I want for myself.
Just like with early recovery from alcoholism; I trusted the brave women who had walked the path before me. They told me it would get better, and even though it felt like it never, ever would - it did. I believed because they believed.
I will believe the graceful, brave, amazing cancer patients and survivors - that it will get easier - until I can believe it myself, and I'm getting there.
Day by day.