Stepping Into The Fear
Would you live your life differently if you survived cancer? What about if you knew that you had a significant chance of developing a second kind of cancer in the relatively near future?
I settle into the lazy boy chair in the pre-op area of UBC Hospital. Orthopedic shoes squeak towards me and I feel an almost balmy breeze as my nurse shakes out a freshly warmed blanket and tucks it around my feet.
“Are you comfortable dear?” Even through her coke bottle glasses, I can see the concern in her eyes. I nod and pretend that I am not at a hospital and I am not about to get my chest carved up for the third time. She continues, “So, is this your last operation?”
Mid-celebration (I would have fist pumped if my IV wasn’t in the way), she says the words that inevitably cause dark clouds to circle over my head and then open up to drench me with fear, anger, and frustration.
“So, have you already had your ovaries out?”
Damn you! I want to say. I’m 31, single, and want to have a family. Could everyone shut up about my ovaries already? Can’t you just give me this one day to celebrate the end of breast cancer?
Instead I mutter something about how I hope to hold off until I meet someone because I love kids and would like to start a family. A look of pity flashes across her face, so I paste on my best fake smile as I wink and ask if she knows any eligible bachelors.
Later that week, as I recover from surgery, I struggle to shake off the mental hamster wheel that her ovary question has started. I have groggy conversations with myself about how I need to stop worrying and focus on the positive. After all, I am done with breast cancer (hopefully forever) and I need to make plans for the future.
Then, I read an email from a second cousin who shares my genetic pre-disposition to breast and ovarian cancer. Her words leave my mouth dry and my heart pounding. At 28, she was diagnosed and fought breast cancer and now at only 41, she has cancer in both ovaries and needs immediate surgery followed by aggressive chemotherapy.
This news crushes me. Hasn’t she gone through enough? She and I had recently talked about our risks and we agreed that we still had time to make decisions because the earliest diagnosed cases of ovarian cancer in our family were postmenopausal. We didn’t want to rush into the no-man’s land of mood swings, low libido, hot flashes and all of the other side effects (in addition to infertility) that this operation would cause. How could we have naively thought that cancer would play by our rules?
Now, I can’t help but wonder about my own fate. What if I have to get my ovaries out in the next 2-3 years? What if I wait too long because I want to have a family and then I get cancer again? And then the throat closing thought that haunts me while I try to fall asleep at night: what if I die of cancer before I have the chance to really live?
After a run of sleepless nights, I make the choice to step into the fear. Yes, I’m scared that I might get cancer again and die far too young. Yes, I’m scared that I might never fall madly in love and give birth to babies with my Dad’s blue eyes, my Mom’s loving spirit, my tenacity and my future husband’s devastatingly good looks (a girl can dream, can’t she?)
But, the reality is that I don’t get to decide any of those things.
All I can control is how I live right now.