hey, cancer! let's dance!
By Deb Baer Becker
I found out that I had breast cancer in a dream. It was 2009, and I lived in Maine. On a snowy January morning I woke up sobbing. The dream had no imagery, just a voice, distinctly male, which said, “Debby, you have breast cancer,” and then grief, despair, and anxiety filled my whole being, and I woke up shaking and afraid.
I was alone. The Hubster was traveling. I told my daughter about the dream. And whose voice was that? God? It would be so boring if it turned out that God really is a man. I’d rather think that God is a lovely and soft and nurturing grandmother. Momma-God.
The dream haunted me until I went to see my doctor, and that began my cancer journey, from mid-January of 2009 right up to today.
I’m a six-year breast cancer survivor. I survived a Stage IIB lobular invasive cancer tumor in my left breast, with one infected lymph node; an estrogen positive cancer. It took a whole team of dedicated women to save me, brave women who said, “We are not afraid of cancer.”
But I was scared shitless of cancer. Cancer was the monster that slept beneath my bed.
Too, I internalized the narrative from movies like “Love Story” and “Terms of Endearment” and “The Doctor,” terribly sad stories that show when people get cancer they die.
After my double mastectomy surgery, while I was lying in my hospital bed, I asked my oncology surgeon Lisa, “Is it gone? Is the cancer really gone?” I needed her reassurance like a child needs to know that her Mom has checked twice to make sure there’s no bogeyman in the closet.
Lisa leaned in close, put her hand on my shoulder, and said, “Yes, Deb. Your cancer is gone. The chemotherapy vaporized the tumor, I removed all of your breast tissue, and I took all nine lymph nodes under your arm. We kicked Cancer’s ass.”
I’ve lived anxious moments over these six years of survivorship looking over my shoulder, worrying that the cancer will come back. I’m more of an Eeyore than a Tigger. We can’t all be Tiggers.
I’d get a twinge, or a burning sensation in my chest, around the surgery and radiation site, and worry, “Is it back?” Hypochondria aside, I kept a lot of these worries to myself. Okay, I told my therapist who helped me learn how to cope with the worry and anxiety. We all have to accept the risks that come with our human existence.
Every six months I’d show up for my oncology medical exam nervous, worried, teary, anticipating the worst news. My therapist calls it negative anticipation, catastrophizing, and maybe even a little fortune telling. I’d had an aggressive cancer, I’d remind myself. And every time I left the exam with great news—cancer free!—I was elated. The Hubster and I would pop corks and drink sparkling wine bubbles to celebrate.
“See, Honey?! I told you, you’re really healthy,” my darling Hubster would say, and we’d hug and kiss and make love like people who’d survived a plane crash.
But every time another exam approached, I’d do this same dance. I was cured, but I was still dancing with cancer. Maybe I’d been dancing with cancer all of my life.
The fear of a recurrence is something with which all cancer survivors struggle. We all have to find ways to cope. Individual and/or group therapy, Yoga, exercise, volunteering, loving your family, wearing a pink hair tattoo—whatever it takes to smooth over our nubby nerves.
At my six-years cancer survivor checkup, I met a nurse who didn’t like my teary, anxious worked-up state of mind. She was a stiff little woman, ten years my senior, barrel-chested, with tightly permed hair. She said, “I see a lot of women like you who are worried about recurrence, and you shouldn’t be.”
“Why?” I said, “That’s why I’m here, right? I’m here to find out if the cancer has come back, right?”
Then she told me a story about this patient that she had, a nervous woman who spent her whole five years of survivorship afraid that the cancer would come back.
“All that time she had to live and all she did was worry. She ended up getting killed in a car accident,” said Nurse Ratched. She leaned in too close to my face and said, “I’m telling you this so you don’t waste your life.” I felt embarrassed and defensive.
That reminds me of a time when I was young and really afraid of flying, and someone told me, “Cowards die a thousand deaths, but heroes only die one.” Yes, I was struggling with fear, but I knew I was getting on that plane.
Solid information helped dissolve much of my fear of a cancer reoccurrence. I learned that as our years of cancer-free survivorship increase, our chances of a cancer reoccurrence decrease, even if we had an aggressive breast cancer. And I’ve been promoted to annual checkups.
While I do feel safer from cancer now, I’ll probably always be vulnerable to the worry that it could come back and X my eyes out; cancer is such a creepy disease.
Finally, I’ve found faith in Momma-God, and reassurance in that dream, a message sent to save me.