Seeking Serenity: Serious illness won’t get off my back
July 26th, 2011
05:15 PM ET

Seeking Serenity: Serious illness won’t get off my back

Editor's note: CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of Seeking Serenity: The quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times.

One of the most stressful things about having a health crisis, aside from the fear of death, is the lingering paranoia.

It’s like that houseguest from hell who invites himself for a visit and then decides he will never leave. Because here you are, trucking along for 30-some-odd years, assuming that that the achy back is from the Kundalini yoga move gone awry and that lingering cough is from the cold you caught from your frenemy.

But once you’ve sparred with a serious illness like cancer, almost overnight you start seeing conspiracies to off you everywhere. Joyful, grateful and almost giddy you are to have survived at all, you bob up and down in constant waves of stress and anxiety. They can build to near-tsunami proportions each time you lose another friend who got her diagnosis at the same time as you or sat there beside you while you both received chemo or chatted with you in the waiting room during radiation.

And so if it doesn’t resolve within a day or two, the achy back becomes bone cancer and the lingering cough becomes lung cancer. More than likely, it’s all in your mind.

But then you also start remembering that thing you read in the Quarterly Journal of Om Shanti about how dwelling on something for too long can actually go on to create that condition so then you become totally and utterly paranoid. At this point, you fear that though you probably didn’t have an illness last week, you’ve probably now created it by obsessing about it for the entire past week. Thus, you're putting it out there into the universe which - collusive son-of-a-gun that it is - happily obliged by now giving you a case of incurable something or other.

Some people call it the Law of Attraction. (What, you thought the Law of Attraction is just for the good stuff?)

And, in my case, you would think that having almost annihilated myself the first time around by putting off a doctor’s visit for more than a year - and thus advancing a potentially simple case of cancer-caught-early to a full-blown, late-stage, kick-some-behind-and-take-some-names cancer - I would now be hopping off to the doctor at the first sign of a toe ache.

You would be wrong.

Because fear runs deep and so does denial. And also because I now begrudge doctors for: a) having completely messed up my lifelong delusion of being the healthiest person in the room; b) making me bald for the second time since I started retaining memories (the first time, courtesy of a Middle Eastern tradition of shaving your child’s head so their hair will come back fuller which, by the way, is a bloody myth); and c) injecting me four times with a chemo drug known as the Red Devil. I’m not kidding. It’s really called that.

“At least go see a primary care physician,” urges my husband. “Get those swollen lymph nodes in your neck and that cough looked at.”

“I don’t have a primary care doctor.” I respond. “Just my oncologist.”

My husband gives me a look: “That’s like having no way to get to work other than a plane.”

“Well, I never really needed a doctor because I was always the healthiest person in the ... don’t roll your eyes at me!”

But since by this point, the stress of unresolved symptoms has become more unbearable than the symptoms themselves, I call my husband’s new primary care physician first thing the next morning.

I get an appointment for two hours later. Given that I’ve been told most doctors around here are booking weeks and months in advance, that right there should have been hugely telling.

I pack up my kid, and we drive to an old medical building down the street. We park and step into a 1960s time warp. I can’t figure out how to maneuver the old-school hand-crank-operated elevator, so we walk up the two flights of stairs to the doctor’s office. We fill out endless paperwork, hand over the co-payment and wait until we’re called.

With his bald head and graying Friar Tuck fringe of hair, the doctor looks older but when I examine him closely, I notice that his face is unlined. He is peculiar in a way I can’t quite put my finger on.

Maybe it’s his monotone or his occasional outbursts of “zip, zip, off you go!” when he wants me to get on or off the examination table. Or that he checks my blood pressure three times. Or that my visit, which is about lingering flu symptoms, somehow culminates in him irrigating my left ear and introducing me to the food pyramid.

He looks in my throat, in my ears, in my eyes, listens to my breathing, feels my neck and my spine and declares me to be on the mend from some kind of virus that “must be making the rounds.” 

I feel relief, albeit a qualified one - the kind of relief I might feel when my old uncle Haji Mammad Agha, who considers himself an expert on medicine because he used to import and export medical supplies between Iran and Djibouti, gives me his very authoritative opinions about my ailments.

When I tell my husband about my appointment later, he laughs and says he had an odd experience during his last visit too. He says: “I went to see him because my back was hurting from working out and he just told me to stop bending over ... ever. Which I thought was kind of strange.”

“But,” my husband points out, “he did go to medical school inSanta Cruz.”

“There is a medical school inSanta Cruz?” I ask.

“I guess so.” He shrugs.

I go to Google and confirm that there is no medical school inSanta Cruz. Maybe my husband got it wrong? Or maybe the doctor attended the Colegio Oficial De Médicos de la Provincia deSanta Cruz de Tenerifeon theCanary Islands?

Either way, I’m thinking I’m going to leave it at that. I do feel better, after all. The cough is resolving, my back feels better and the swollen lymph nodes are receding. And the stress is mostly relieved ... for now.

Also, maybe some things are just not meant to be scrutinized that closely.

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soundoff (76 Responses)
  1. Tom

    "Fear runs deep and so does denial" – isn't that the truth! I can only imagine what it's like to be living with a constant cloud over my head. I've read lots of pieces lately on resilience, acceptance and being comfortable with uncertainty. But it's much easier said than done. I'm glad it seems like you've kept a good sense of humor about the whole thing. Maybe that's the key. Thanks for sharing – great post!

    July 27, 2011 at 13:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Michelle

    I'm trying to figure out what the point of this article is. It sounds like you went to the sort of quack doctor who would focus on checking your ears if you went in to complain of rectal bleeding. He's a quack and you ought to find a real doctor.

    July 27, 2011 at 13:34 | Report abuse | Reply
    • glj

      As a cancer suvivor I was thinking the same thing!

      July 27, 2011 at 15:02 | Report abuse |
    • Ann

      Also a survivor, who just had a PET scan today due to a swollen lymph node, I was also wondering what the heck was the point? I was diagnosed stage 3 breast cancer, 6 chemo cycles (including the Red Devil too), 33 radiation treatments, double mastectomy, wounds that took many months to heal, failed reconstruction, but I'm ALIVE. I will do my part to help my doctor keep me that way for as long as possible for my husband, kids, and for me. I like my life. Of course it's scary, and the thought of a recurrence is almost paralyzing, but she needs to see her oncologist!

      July 27, 2011 at 16:45 | Report abuse |
    • Diane

      Really Michelle?

      July 27, 2011 at 23:09 | Report abuse |
    • Karen m

      I think she was trying to be funny and give those of us with health crises a little boost of humor. I for one appreciated it.
      ...Don't roll your eyes at me..." Cute!

      July 28, 2011 at 00:46 | Report abuse |
  3. Wendy Sue Swanson, MD

    Powerful piece. I really enjoyed it. My only disappointment came at the end.

    I firmly believe there are incredible doctors, in primary care, that are great partners in health.

    I work hard to provide my patients an open door, a place to come and tell me how they feel. I work hard to provide my patients a medical home. In addition I author a pediatric/parenting blog, I tweet about health care and pediatrics and I share insight 7 days a week about health. If you'd come to see me, I would hope I would have listened to your concern, helped you understand my professional opinion about a viral etiology and reasons for follow-up. And I would be happy to have shared my credentials (my MD and Master's degree from an Ivy league medical school). Your point is a very important one (linger toll of having serious illness/injury) but there really are fantastic, passionate, caring primary care doctors. I really do hope you find one. And I hope we can tell those stories, too.

    July 27, 2011 at 13:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ShellyTea

      Dr. Swanson, I completely agree with you regarding primary care physicians.

      As an early stage breast cancer survivor (mastectomy with tram flap reconstruction), I can wholeheartedly relate to the author's post. Every 6 months after my surgery, I'd march into the radiology center for another mammogram. For years, the drill was the same with each visit – take a set of comprehensive images, sit and sweat while waiting for the radiologist to review, then await the tech's return to tell you the doctor wanted additional images, only to be told, everything looks good, see you in 6 months. Luckily, those days are over and I'm back to my annuals and rarely need the "additional films".

      But in reference to your comments regarding primary care physicians, you are so right. I've had the same primary care physician for at least 20 years. He was my father's physician and slowly, my mother and I started seeing him. At first, we weren't too keen on him as he lacked some interpersonal skills, but he's an awesome physician and he grew on us too. I recall right before I was diagnosed with BC, I was paranoid about the biopsy (how silly that seems now) – do I go with the stereotactic or the surgical), I scheduled an appointment with my primary care and he spent 30 minutes sitting in the room talking to me about pros and cons of each method. The buzzer went off every 10 minutes to alert him that the appt. was over, but he just ignored it. Gotta love him!

      My suggestion is to take the time to find a good primary care doctor; it's so worth it!

      July 28, 2011 at 12:40 | Report abuse |
  4. Mary

    I completely and unhappily understand the point this author is making: after you have had cancer, life changes forever. Headaches, body aches, and stomach aches now have the potential to be the harbingers of something far worse. I have experienced many times the "tsunami-like" fear of facing blood tests and doctor visits. In truth I have often postponed them due to the fear...but as I'm sure the author would agree, denial doesn't work like it used to either. But we are still here today to talk about this....and that is really something for which we can be grateful. I am.

    July 27, 2011 at 13:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • glj

      I did that for a year or two, then I quickly realized it is not going to matter. If they find a recurrence then I will have to face it. If they do not, well I live on another day. so I ignore the aches and pains except when I have to go to the doctor.

      July 27, 2011 at 15:05 | Report abuse |
    • Kathy

      I experienced everything this author wrote about. The fear can be constant for those of us that has had this dreaded disease. For example, I have a frozen shoulder and refused to go see a doctor originally because I was afraid I had bone cancer. I dread every annual check up because you never know what the doctor will say. I also relate to the part about her oncologist being her primary doctor. I was also very healthy before my bout with cancer and did not have a primary physician. Therefore, I used my oncologist as my primary physician until my friend forced me to go to his doctor to get a check up after my frozen shoulder problem. He too thought it was ridiculous that I thought of my oncologist as my primary doctor.

      July 27, 2011 at 15:43 | Report abuse |
    • Theresa

      I am a cancer survivor too, although it was not breast cancer. I competely understand the roller coaster of fear that came with going to all the follow-up appointments after my surgery. It gets better with time but there is always a part of me that thinks about how long it took me to get someone to listen to my concerns regarding my health in the first place. Be vigilant and don't give up until you get the answers you need to be healthy.

      July 27, 2011 at 20:23 | Report abuse |
  5. Marla Heller, MS, RD

    Please get a better, more empathetic physician. You need someone who is paying attention.

    July 27, 2011 at 14:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Patricia

    I had stage 3 breast cancer 5 months chemo and yes the red death 6 weeks radition,7 surgeries in 14 month 3 large blood clots do i run to my Dr's i say Dr's i have had 7 Dr's in the 14 months no i dont go to the dr unless its for a follow up.FEAR will not controll my life i beat the cancer and will deal with the sniffles or cough if it doenst go away then ill see my reg Dr.People need to take controll of there life dont let the fear of cancer scare you into a early grave–fight back im not ready to give in im only 51 and i beat cancer and will not fear life..

    July 27, 2011 at 14:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jeanne

      Way to go Patricia! You are an inspiration my dear. Keep strong:-)

      BC Survivor

      July 27, 2011 at 16:01 | Report abuse |
    • ShellyTea

      Patricia, I'm right with you. I was diagnosed with early stage BC only because I had good physicians who believed in starting mammograms early. I think about ailments, and yes, more cancer, now and again, but I don't live in fear. If I feel something isn't right, I go to the doctor with the intent to face it head on. I want to know if I'm sick, the earlier the better so I can address it. I eat a very healthy vegetarian diet, exercise (at 51, I'm a dancer) and live life to it's fullest. I'm realistic, but not wasting a day worrying about more cancer.

      July 28, 2011 at 12:53 | Report abuse |
  7. Paige

    Oh do I get this!! My cancer was thyroid, the easy to treat kind. Like I wanted to have cancer to begin with! I am good at pushing it to the back of my mind until I have to go see the Endocrinologist or have bloodwork or a scan done. The stress goes thru the roof!! Hang in there and know that you are not alone!

    July 27, 2011 at 14:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • William Kenly

      I have thyroid cancer, too. MTC, not the easy kind to treat. It is ten o'clock at night. I have had a good day. Would have liked to see a little more rain. But this moment is what I have. Maybe tomorrow. But right now is what I have. My lesson from MTC? That dwelling on yesterday or tomorrow are traps that rob us of our enjoyment of today.
      William Kenly
      author of "The Dogs of Divorce" and "The Dogs of Luck"

      July 29, 2011 at 22:49 | Report abuse |
  8. Jacqueline

    Amanda, I don't care what anyone else says, I can totally relate to your article. I do have a good primary care physician–but he and my family and friends have to put up with my fear and numerous doctor appointments, which have all turned out to be nothing. Thank God, and I am very grateful. But my life will never be the same. I had stage three breast cancer and go in monthly for injections of faslodex. I know fear is a big part of my life–and it always has been. I was taught well. Anyway, something physical comes up, I go to the doctor, it turns out OK–and then I have peace again. I believe in the saying that if you are worried about something, do something about it (hence, my appointments). If you are worried about something and can't do anything about it–don't worry–what's the use. So, my point? I don't know, but I can totally relate to you and feel grateful that you wrote this article for me and others to see.

    July 27, 2011 at 15:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Jeanne

    I get the article too, as a breast cancer survivor. I too have bouts of fear with simple things as an ear ache, or a headache or the occasional gas bubble, thinking uh oh....

    BUT, as strange as this may sound, I do look forward to my 4 month follow up with my oncologist (most times) ...although, I do shake in my boots from time to time...LOL...it at least makes me feel like I am in control of doing the best I can concerning early detection, etc. Denial is the killer.

    Back to the aricle. The ending was dissapointing. I feel the message is perhaps not a great one. The article, at least my interpretation, made the Dr. seem, too laid back? In my opinion I would want a Dr. to be a little bit more concerning...I don't know, maybe I am a little too close tot he situation?? Nice article however!

    July 27, 2011 at 16:14 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jeanne

      I meant to add, thanks for writing the article and keep strong!!

      July 27, 2011 at 16:16 | Report abuse |
  10. Finn

    I know this dance. Am I gaining weight, or is my waistband tight because the ovarian cancer is back and I'm developing ascites again? Is my back sore from jump spinning kicks or have I cracked a vertebra because of my osteoporosis? Cancer survivors don't generally walk around shaking with fear over these things, but the thoughts do crop up. Partly it's because we've lost our sense of invulnerability, and partly it's because we know we have to pay attention to symptoms that may signal a recurrence or a second cancer because catching them early gives us better survival odds. Learning how to pay attention to body changes without stressing too much over them is a challenge all survivors face.

    July 27, 2011 at 16:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Merry go round

    When you have cancer, which I had, and you tell people, you set some very supportive comments but you also get some of the most idiotic responses. I had a friend who is a nurse say to me, "My uncle had your type of cancer and they gave him such high dosages of radiation that they killed him." Or, "you will be fine." Or, "we all have to die sometimes."

    I went from worrying about the trivial problems in my life to obsessing about my health; fearful that any change in my body meant the cancer had returned. I became 100% self absorbed, dwelling on everything I ate, reading everything I could about prostate cancer, and I researched holistic treatments. It drove me into this health consciousness craziness. Eight years later I am cancer free but health conscious obsessed.

    When you are confronted with the possibility that your life might end it changes one perspective for ever.

    July 27, 2011 at 16:34 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Survivor

      After I was diagnosed with Endometrial cancer I was always taken aback a bit when someone would make a comment like, "well, if you have to have cancer this is the best to have because it's so treatable." That might be true and I understand that they were trying to give a positive spin but it's not always the thing you want or need to hear at the time. I remembered thinking that somehow the type of cancer I had was not as terrible as someone with breast cancer or lung cancer and that it shouldn't concern me. It is scary regardless of the type of cancer you are diagnosed with.

      July 27, 2011 at 20:31 | Report abuse |
    • Felicia Fuller

      Hi, My boyfriend was diagnostic with stage 1 prostate cancer. He is also seeking holistic treatments. Can you elaborate on what you mean by holistic treatments?

      July 28, 2011 at 11:58 | Report abuse |
  12. Chartreuxe

    As a survivor of three different forms of cancer, I understand. I remember Red Devil. Were it me in this situation, I'd find another primary care physician. This fellow doesn't seem to be a good fit. Cancer survivors need medical care from people we can believe and trust in. I'd ask my child's physician for a referral for a good primary care doctor, but that's me.

    My experience with my cancer surgery was dreadful. I was badly treated and malpractice was involved. Now I have good doctors and I'm very happy with my care. I trust these people with my life. That's what we do, you see, we trust them with our lives.

    July 27, 2011 at 16:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Chris

    Heck, you don't even need to have had cancer to feel that. I get paranoid every time I feel a twinge in my abdomen or have a cough! Maybe just a touch of hypochondria...

    July 27, 2011 at 16:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Margaret C

    I'm in the middle of radiation for easily treatable breast Cancer. I had a complete meltdown last week when I focused for too long on the fact that it might recur or come in the other breast. I too hate that this has happened to me...or to anyone. I am also profoundly grateful for the effective treatments they have today, and for the fact that I have health insurance that covers it.

    July 27, 2011 at 16:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Brandi

      Margaret....My heart went out to you about the 'complete meltdown' . I've had many, and in the beginning...they were the worst part of cancer. The unknown, and the worrying. I'm still fighting this battle, and the fear always looms above, but there are great, fun days. 🙂 My kiddos are my world, and watching them see me get better, well.....it helps. Stay strong..and many prayers your way.
      Breast Cancer since age 32
      Surviving since age 32
      Just turned 35 !

      July 28, 2011 at 05:16 | Report abuse |
  15. Judith Fraser MFT

    On Cancer, Judith Fraser, Marriage, Family Therapist, Los Angeles, California


    “Where’ve you been?” George, an acquaintance at my neighborhood gym asked as he stepped onto the treadmill next to mine. “You’ve been gone for at least 6 months.”
    Since I’d always felt comfortable sharing bits of life with him in the past I answered truthfully, “I had Cancer. But, now I’m okay.”
    Actually I was moving slower than usual, but just to be up and out of bed seemed like a huge improvement over what I’d gone through. The operation plus 6 weeks of radiation had left me feeling like a rag doll with some of her stuffing pulled out.
    I glanced out the windows that stretched across the gym to our right. The Autumn wind blew some of the multicolored leaves from the nearby trees against the glass. They made a gentle crinkling sound –– reminding me that the season was, once again changing. Time was moving on and I was still very much a part of it.
    George tilted his black cap down over his dark eyes to block out some of the glare from the sunlight. “Well, what did you do to cause that?” he said in a low, even monotone.
    My stomach tensed as his words exploded in my head. What had I done to cause that? My fingers gripped harder around the handrail of my treadmill to steady my legs. I forced my breath to go deeper into my diaphragm in order to calm the zigzagging of my heart.
    Since I’d shared something vulnerable about myself, I expected my friend to say something encouraging. “Well, looks like you made it through a difficult passage” or “Sorry you had to go through that,” simple statements that would have felt good. Instead, his words –– sounding direct and all knowing –– shook me to the core.
    He was making me look at my shadow side, the part of me in the past that felt secure in the false belief that I was in control of my life. The arrogant, innocent part that thought I was above such a serious illness as Cancer. Never mind that 90% of my relatives had died from Cancer in the past. I’d willed myself past their genetic weakness. I ate the right vegetables, fruits and fish. I took vitamins, exercised (like I was doing at the gym), meditated on a daily basis, and even taught stress reduction to hundreds of over-stressed people. My head was on straight and my feet were on the ground. Cancer was all a matter of the weak willed, right? And, I wasn’t weak, ever.

    Pictures of myself sitting in my doctor’s office danced across the inside of my head as I continued walking on the treadmill.
    I’d gone in to see him because my stomach hurt. The pain had been persistent and no matter what I did, it wouldn’t go away.
    After my examination, he stood in front of me, glanced down at his chart then up into my eyes. “You have Cancer,” he said as gently as he could.
    “Cancer?” I questioned. I could feel my forehead tensing into thin, squiggly frown lines. “No.” I shook my head. “There must be some mistake, all I have is a stomach ache.”
    His eyes softened. I’m sure I wasn’t the first one to question his diagnosis. “It’s definitely Cancer,” he said. “And, it’s advanced.”

    At the time I was stunned and shaken. I felt like I was in the middle of a seven point earthquake. The world went fuzzy. For a few minutes I wasn’t sure where I was, or who I was. Did he say the C word? I remembered questioning his expertise. Maybe he has the wrong Judith Fraser? Wrong report? In a second, he’ll notice his mistake, and it will all be another glitch in my past. I pulled on the cloak of denial as easily as a child pulls on a Superman or Princess cape.
    It must have been a great effort at the time, but somehow I managed to ask: “What’s my next step?” Even in that frail state I wanted some control over something.
    “A CAT Scan.” The doctor answered.
    A recent dream, that I didn’t understand when it occurred, suddenly became quite clear. I was on an ocean liner. I tried to save a cat perched on the edge of a railing. And failed. The cat bit me on the back of the neck. It was my unconscious trying to alert me to my body’s need for modern machinery.
    After my operation the doctor announced, “The Cancer in your uterus was unusual. It was a sarcoma and could have grown anywhere in your body. You were fortunate that it grew in an area that is protected.” The doctor looked down at his chart, then added, “you also had another kind of Cancer in your cervix that we’ve cauterized.”
    That’s when I realized the intelligence of another dream that I had. There was a large pool of water with a guitar case submerged in the center on my patio. I fretted that the guitar inside would be ruined. The delicate strings and smooth casing would no longer be able to send music into the world.
    Over to one side of the pool was a broken pot filled with small flowers. I worried that the flowers would die. They were no longer safely contained.
    The guitar case in my dream was a perfect image for the protection my body had provided for the Sarcoma. It gave me hope and a greater respect for the wisdom of my body than I’d ever had before.
    The second symbol in the dream –– the broken flower pot –– was telling me that my cervix was going to be “deflowered”. Wow! That was a lot of information that came from somewhere deep inside of me.
    “What alternative treatments have helped cases like mine?” I remember asking the doctor.
    “I don’t know,” he said.
    I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back I can see that he really didn’t hold out much hope for me. He thought my days were numbered. But, then he wasn’t the one having amazing dreams, I was.

    At the gym, the leaves continued to make their slight tinkling sound as they hit against the windows nearby. I LOVE LUCY, was on one of the televisions suspended from the ceiling. Several people on various pieces of gym equipment listened to the show on their ear phones.
    I still hadn’t answered George. Not, because I wanted to be rude, but because I didn’t know what to say. My silence seemed to encourage him to go further. “You know we’re responsible for everything that happens to us don’t you? I mean, everything that happens to us is of our own doing.” Drops of sweat beaded on his deep forehead.
    I knew that he wanted to help, but I felt like we were both speaking a different language. I couldn’t speak his and I couldn’t explain to him what was going on inside of me. In fact, I was afraid to tell him what was going on inside of me for fear that somehow there would be another judgment that I couldn’t face.
    “I can help you see what you’ve done wrong,” George said as his chest heaved in and out from the quickness of his steps.
    The noise of his words continued to beat against my body like an unsuspected hail storm as we continued to walk side by side. His workout was set on “random” and included various fast speeds and high inclines. My workout was set at “manual”, a slow pace –– no inclines. I was not trying to keep up –– just trying to move forward.
    The cacophony of sounds from exercise machines and various conversations of those around us wove in and out of my self-guilt. Lucy and Desi laughed silently as she finished one of her delightful pranks. At the same time my mind continued to struggle with George’s question.
    Had I done something to cause my Cancer? I asked myself. Thoughts whirled through the dark cave in my head searching for somewhere to land that would make sense. Every once in a while they landed on something.
    Once it was sadness. Our family dog died a few months previous. A friend told me that sadness can weaken the immune system. The death of our dog was devastating. My heart ached so much I wanted to take it out and hold it in my hands.
    Then food. “You are what you eat,” the saying goes. I had to admit that I hadn’t always eaten well. There was a time when I had to have ice-cream after dinner. And fried foods used to taste good, a long time ago.
    Then again, maybe it wasn’t food, maybe it was breathing in too many toxins. I read recently that standing next to the pump when you put gas in your car can cause Cancer. And, the air––that brown haze that hangs over the city can cause Cancer. I can see that haze hovering like a dirty carpet from the mountain ridge above my house.
    Possibilities of what I might have done wrong raced through my head, but I still didn’t know what to say to my friend.

    At home I continued to ponder George’s words. What had I done to cause my illness? Everything that happens to us is of our own doing. I’d heard those phrases before, but this time was different. Accepting getting a cold, or the flu was different than getting Cancer or something that could actually kill me.
    After a few days of pondering, I realized that even if I had caused my illness or been responsible for it in some way, the self-blame of those thoughts was stressful. It kept me looking at the past, not the present. It kept me away from seeing the positive of what had occurred. I had gone through a dark passage of the soul, a ”hero’s journey,” and emerged on the other side with a bit more wisdom, a lot less expectation and a deeper respect for my dreams.

    I continued drinking my wheat grass juice three times a day. My husband, Ian, had a special set of shelves made for me to grow my own grass. Just running it through my hands made me feel good. And the smell –– umm, there’s nothing like the fresh scent of healing wheat grass.
    My daughter, Tiffany, took me to see her acupuncturist several times a week. Besides strengthening what he called my “kidney” area, he also gave me a small jar of dried, ground mushrooms to help my body build more strength to fight off Cancer. Even with surgery and radiation I knew that my Cancer could be lurking inside waiting for an opportunity to grow once again. I was to have Cat Scans every 3 months for the next year to give me a head’s-up to fight back as quickly as possible.
    Amy, my daughter-in-law gave me a drawing book complete with colored pencils. I continued to put my feelings –– in abstract form –– on the white pages of the book. Amy’s an artist, when she draws something you can tell what it is. When I draw, it’s colors and shapes. No one can tell what it is but me.
    My friend Lynne Goldklang shared her healing tapes with me. I particularly enjoyed the one that took me deep inside a cave in my body. The cave was filled with treasures. Each time I visited the cave I unearthed new possibilities. They were golden nuggets of a happy future.
    Our son, Neal, the chef, and Amy, the manager, were about to open their own restaurant. It was a dream for both of them that they had worked hard to achieve. I didn’t want to miss sharing in the beauty of that moment, let alone miss eating their delicious food in a beautiful setting. (The restaurant opened in Hollywood and is now on it’s way to a new location downtown Los Angeles).
    When anything stressful came up I did the Inner Journey Process I developed with my friend AnnaMay Sims. I would breathe into the stress with awareness by imagining my breath in a caring way, weaving in and out of the dark, wiry webs that stress creates. The Journey helps me to be compassionate with myself in new ways as I let go of judgment about what should and shouldn’t be.
    It was this process that helped me to reexamine the fear that had come up when my friend questioned me about being the cause of my illness. The message I received from that amazing intelligence that lives inside of me was, “Maybe he’s right, maybe I caused it. But, it doesn’t help to examine how or why. Just be compassionate with the Cancer. It is the stressor.”
    I began to examine what I’d kept trying to deny. I had Cancer. I may still have Cancer. But, I turned the negative thought about Cancer around.
    I began to question my beliefs as well as my friend George’s beliefs. What if Cancer isn’t always bad? What if my Cancer was trying to help my body rebalance itself? Questioning in this way brought about a new answer. It was one of those “aha” moments that spring from deep within. It’s hard to say the exact words, but In an instant I was given a gift of incredible insight.
    I realized that all the female parts that used to be tucked so neatly inside of me were now gone. Thanks to radiation, even the lymph nodes that surrounded those special organs were gone. I didn’t miss them. They served their purpose and gave me two beautiful children. Losing my female organs didn’t make me incomplete. It allowed me to let go of something I didn’t need anymore. It was a part of my body that had saved my life by absorbing dangerous cells in an area that could be removed.
    I continued to look at Cancer as if it was a teacher––trying to help rebalance my body. The effect was amazing. It changed my thinking in so many ways.
    The weakness I experienced from my operation and the radiation reminded me to put day-by-day problems in a different perspective. If a dead car-battery delayed me in getting to an appointment, it was no big deal. It was just something that, in time, could be taken care of. If I was too tired to meet friends for dinner, it was no big deal. We could have dinner another time. When an electrical shortage cut off all the power in the house, it too was no big deal. I knew the power would eventually return to normalcy. Most of the day-to-day problems I experienced while going through my recovery were not life threatening. They were just little bumps or detours in the road of life.
    Many years ago my children had a toy called a “Chinese finger trap”. (A small, round cylinder woven out of bark.) When they put their index fingers into each end and pulled, their fingers would get stuck. When they surrendered to the strength of the trap, their fingers were set free. They loved the experience of it. To them, it was magic.
    As I continue to search for the positive within problems that come up for me, I think about that trap. When I try to control things that I have no control over it makes me feel like I’m stuck. When I “let go” and do my Inner Journey Process, I feel the release of stress fall away.

    July 27, 2011 at 17:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tufi

      I totally relate to this. But I would have told him..."Your turn will come"

      July 28, 2011 at 00:22 | Report abuse |
    • Tilly

      Thank you for such beautiful words. Your words give me a lot of courage and hope-after we lost our 25 yr old cousin to stage 4 stomach cancer. You are an amazing woman to have come out of this and still have the strength to take this change positively.Hats off!

      July 28, 2011 at 08:40 | Report abuse |
    • Chartreuxe

      Judith, capitalising the word cancer gives it power. If you're doing this deliberately, perhaps you should rethink your reasons. If you're doing it subconsciously, that's an issue you should perhaps look at with someone who can help.

      As a survivor of basal cell, squamous cell and endometrial adenocarcinoma ovarian cancer, I believe that the only thing we do to 'deserve' cancer is eat, drink and breathe. No one *deserves* cancer, not smokers or drinkers or anyone.

      Words have power. Use care with them.

      July 28, 2011 at 15:50 | Report abuse |
  16. Tom Z

    I'm a colorectal cancer survivor from 1993 and have been cancer free since. But, I agree once you've had the diagnosis that you are always fearful of the most minor things. That being said, you do become cautious about your health, tending to more concerned and using your Docs more. Through all of this, I still evaluate every Docs diagnosis and do my own research before drawing a conclusion based on the Docs findings. Unfortunately, they make mistakes, too.

    July 27, 2011 at 17:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Nancy

    Judith, thank you for posting that. I had a double mastectomy and just finished with my second surgery for reconstruction last week. I am so disappointed because, for all of the pain (9 months with tissue expanders and both surgeries) I do not look very good anymore. Your posting really helps put it in perspective. I don't need my breasts anymore – I finished breastfeeding my child 18 years ago. Appearance doesn't matter. I am alive.

    July 27, 2011 at 17:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Jan

    I have been very blessed, I've not had Cancer...however, I have had several friends, sister and brother that have had it! I have seen one friend suffer the Red Devil and radiation...my sister with chemo..4-FU and my brother with surgery that produced a clean cut..with no ruther cancer to deal with. These people have survived for over 8-years..wow! I am so glad...I have also had a dear friend die from Cancer...but she sent out fighting and thinking positive even when the odds were
    so against her..I miss her everyday! To those that have survived this terrible disease...we who have stood in the "shadows" support you and saluate you for your courage. I am so greatiful to have my Sister and Brother...it could have worked out in another direction...I hope if the time ever comes that I have to face this disease personally...I can have the courage to fight and survive...I'll admit I don't know if I have that kind of courage..it takes a very special person.
    Currently, my friend Mark is fighting for his life...everyone at work loves and supports him..and it has been a really great experience to see everyon come together and support him...God Bless you all!!!

    July 27, 2011 at 18:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. punkrscrnd

    Being a 2 year cancer survivor, this article really spoke to me. Two years ago I was diagnosed with Cutaneous Leiomyosarcoma. After just two surgeries my oncologist declared me cancer free. Thanks goodness I didn't need chemo or radiation. You would think that from that point, it'd be over. WRONG. I understand the constant worrying. Is that sore throat cancer? Is my sore back cancer? Is the pain in my stomach cancer or maybe just indegestion? It's always there, lingering in the back of your mind. So even though the battle was won, the mental and emotional war is far from over. Just keep thinking postive. Go to your check ups with your oncologist and make sure you discuss any and all questions or concerns you have. Stay healthy. I wish you the best.

    July 27, 2011 at 18:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. margaret costello

    I had a simple mastectomy and radiation therapy for 6 weeks a year ago only to find my cancer had cropped up again in the same breast. I opted for a double mastectomy so I can sleep at night not worryng about the other. Thankfully it is DCIS early stage and chemotherpay was not not needed. After 4 months I still have a lot of painful spasms which are much better when I do things I enjoy and stay active for me riding my horses. My physical therapist thinks my spasms are because my body is on guard for another insult and I have to teach my body to relax and trust again. It's starting to help. I was an oncology nurse 25 years ago and care these days is dramatically improved. I thionk knowledge is your stongest weapon but get it from a reliable source. Be careful of reading too much on the intenet It can freak you out and not apply to you at all. Find a good oncologist with a full team to support you through your journey. It's like joining a club no one wants to be a member of, but there is a lot of good of suppot out there and lots of people living well long after they were diagnosed. Good luck My best advice is follow your doctor's advice for follow up, and try to live every day to the fullest. You will begin to apreciate all the little joys in your life and it can be even richer knowing every day is a gift.

    July 27, 2011 at 20:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Diane

    For me, it was a heart attack. I feel like I am always looking over my shoulder. Like I'm being followed everywhere by a dark stranger. I am using my time more wisely as a result. I am working on allowing myself to forgive myself and others for wrongs that have built up like a stack of poker chips, just waiting to topple over. Meditation is my new best friend. I'm learning to read for pleasure again. Reaching out to others is a blessing. Still, I lost my invincibility on November 17, 2010. Maybe that wasn't so bad.

    July 27, 2011 at 23:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Bonnie

    Be serene, since we all leave this world someday. Repent of all evil doings and believe in Jesus for forgiveness of sins.

    July 28, 2011 at 01:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Bonnie

    It's nice no American is starving to death in USA. A very fortunate country.

    July 28, 2011 at 01:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Afflicted

    I understand, somewhat, the fear we cancer survivors face. However, since my cancer diagnosis (stage 3, with 90% lymph nodes positive) took me deep into a faith relationship with God (which I'd been avoiding til that point), I have peace on that subject. In fact, what I've been through since the cancer has made the cancer seem like a walk in the park, and I sometimes wish it would come back and take me away, because heaven would be so much better than the suffering I'm going through. Statistically, I have no chance of survival past 15 years. Realistically, I know God can and will do what He wants, and statistics mean nothing. I'll go home not one hour sooner or later than He wills. In the meantime...relax, all you worriers. You won't do anything good for yourself, and in fact, will only hurt yourself with your worry. Since this is extremely hard to do with just willpower, I suggest getting into a relationship with God, because He cares, and can and will help you deal with everything. Even the stuff that they tell you will only get worse. He's all that keeps me going, and everything I have to look forward to.

    July 28, 2011 at 02:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. inez

    sure was hard to read all that comments i had a necie she had brest cancer she passed july 1st 2011 she was only 35. I miss her so much now we just have mermory of her

    July 28, 2011 at 04:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. N

    It's not the doctor's fault that you got sick. Life just isn't fair sometimes. That's what you need to come to terms with.
    You're an idiot if you don't go to the doctor when you think something is wrong.

    July 28, 2011 at 04:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. CPRS Toronto, Canada.

    As a Melanoma cancer survivor (Stage 1) which was a mishaped mole on my back that was spotted by my mother, I can absolutely relate to the paranoia (has that mole changed? was this spot there before or is it new?) and the craziness dealing with the aftershocks of diagnosis. But as soon as creepy thoughts enter my mind, I give my head a shake, smile to myself and thank God (and my mom and my dermatopathologist) that I'm alive. Oh, and I use sunscreen everyday now.

    July 28, 2011 at 05:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. guy

    After five years of cancer and cancer follow-up, the doctor declared me cancer free...ya right.....she asked if I'd like to stay on as a follow-up study for 5 more years...i said yes.....after a total of 10yrs...which seemed to go pretty fast....the doctor said...I do not want to see you in here again...get out and live your life...since then, I have not been paranoid about aches and pains...I just get on with life......when I do have aches and pains...I remember what my mom used to say about aches and pains..."walk it off" or "rub it hard...now stop your whining and get out there"

    July 28, 2011 at 07:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Justin

    You need to stop caring about "what ifs." I had anaplastic large cell lymphoma of the centra nervous system. The doctors told me they thought I would die but I'm still here 5 years after the fact. More than half of those years were spent dreading the thought of cancer coming back. It affected my mood, my outlook on life, and the people around me. Every little dizzy spell or strange ache made me wonder if this was the beginning of the end. At some point I realized that there is absolutely nothing I can do to prevent what "might" happen in the future. The only thing I can do is live my life for today, and plan for the future as if I'll live to be 100. If you don't,you'll be miserable up until the day you die. Remember the day you were told that there was no more sign of the cancer? Think of that day and all of the things you had to look forward to when you were given a second chance. Live your life as if every day is that day.

    July 28, 2011 at 10:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Mark

    I like all the other people who have commented have had cancer...lymphoma. So what! I know it's much harder on our family members and loved ones who have to watch, put up with and can't do a think to help!
    So why be nervous about getting it back? Thank god I (the family) didn't get paralyzed, or loss my limbs, or get MS...etc., it can always be worse!
    I now realize, thanks to cancer for waking me up, that we should all live each day, happy we are alive, have food and a roof over our heads and live in a great country!

    July 28, 2011 at 10:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. McKinney

    I can completely relate to the "cloud" feeling, although that has dissipated somewhat with time. I'm a 2-time cancer survivor, both times with Hodgkin's. First time was exactly 30 years ago this year when I was 20 years old. I've had radiation and chemo, not sure it was "Red Devil" but it was the MOPP chemical punch back then (based on WW1 mustard gas). The first several years after the first round (radiation) I was in a panic over the least little thing happening. Four years later, my hyper-sensitivity paid off and got the recurrence detected pretty early. It took several more years to calm down to just an advanced state of awareness rather than panic. However, this period in life does give some cause of concern when I'm apparently at high risk of secondary cancer occurrences due to the radiation and chemo, some of which are potentially even more lethal. So, DEFCON is now "3" and I'm starting up a set of annual detailed checkups to make sure I don't get caught by a surprise, but there's no guarantee.

    As others have said, there will come a time when you'll accept the hyper-awareness you have of your body. You'll be happy you're head of the those who have never had cancer. As I once told a doctor of mine about all the risk-awareness they tried to inform me about prior to radiation and chemo-the alternative to not taking the risk and surviving is really not worth considering, right? Pretty much makes the risks and nightmares pale in comparison when you think of it that way.

    July 28, 2011 at 10:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Maria Castro

    This article brought me to tears as my experience was the same. I go through periods of paranoia and paralyzing fear when it's time for a f/u with my doc (I also have rescheduled appts to postpone the possibility of hearing bad news). I know my life has forever changed and that it will be heard to let go of this fear and anxiety; however, I have my family and my relationship with God and this sustains me. I pray for strength and courage every day and for the strength and courage of all who are going through this. I know I cannot change what might be inevitable but I also know that He will see me through it. God bless us all.

    July 28, 2011 at 11:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. LynnP

    This essay is spot on! As a cancer survivor, I get it. The point of it is not about a "quack doctor" rather how we are forever shadowed by the fear of cancer. If it hurts or stops working, or first thought is that cancer has returned or spread. For me, finding some level of humor in the fact that my stubbed toe is NOT toe cancer makes it all a little easier. After all, despite what has happened, we are still here and should not take ourselves quite so serious. Stepping out of ourselves and our insane thoughts in the "cloud of cancer" is not only recommended, it is absolutely essential to living this thing called life after – or with – cancer.
    Thanks for the chuckle of identification this morning Amanda.

    July 28, 2011 at 11:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. John

    It effects the family also. I had prostate cancer, caught early and cut out in 2001. 2002 I was burned in an industrial accident and because of the thin skin on the legs I started leading a very inactive life style two years ago after reaching 270 pounds I found I could walk longer distances with out tears and blister forming on my legs. After I lost 60 pounds my wife asked" Are you sure your not losing weight because you sick?" It is the back of her mind just like it is in mine. It can be arrested, removed but once you have dealt with cancer it is there lurking in your mind. I hve gone from walking to mountain biking at 69 and not sure my wife approves but lets me anyway

    July 28, 2011 at 12:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Sir Vivor

    The real illness that won't get off a survivor's back is how your employer looks at you as a lesser being. There will always be a legally defensible "reason" that the Human Resources Dept will always marginalize you and your contributions to the company. And there is always a legally defensible reason why you're "just not the right candidate" for any advancement opportunity you have interest in. When you fight cancer, "ein," and return to work; the blackball in your file rapidly becomes an obvious pattern. Yes, they taught me well that I was inconvenient in costing the corporate health plan a lot of money by not going quickly off to death. Yep, I'll be crying for them if defense budgets continue to shrink up.

    July 28, 2011 at 12:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Julieanne

    I get the paranoia, we cancer survivors are always on borrowed time: http://passagesinpink.blogspot.com/2011/07/borrowed-time.html

    July 28, 2011 at 13:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Mark Weldon

    I am a Cancer survivor for the past 30 years and I can surley understand the stalking mental angush of disease. I would say that I ran to the Dr. on many false alarms the first 7 years after recovery. I don't do that anymore, not because I don't think cancer can return, but because if it happens I know I am a survivor and will address it in a short amount of due time. Good luck to all who are harassed by this disease!

    July 28, 2011 at 15:00 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.