monsters at the door
aka life after cancer
By Deb Baer Becker
I had a health scare just before this column was due. A routine physical revealed a low white blood cell count. I’d had a low white blood cell count last year, too. This number was even lower.
White blood cells fight off infections. I worried that my immune system was compromised, something that can happen, in small percentages, among those of us who have had strong chemotherapies and radiation.
This blood cell stuff scared me to the marrow, which also happens to be where white blood cells are made. My negative thoughts gathered in their situation room, forecasted
an immune system shut down, and sent out a Worst Case Scenario Alert.
I had a panic attack.
Jeez, it’s not like I could run to the toilet, stick my finger down my throat, and throw up the chemo and radiation I had seven years ago! It’s too late! Besides, that chemo and radiation was the cure; it’s the reason I’m still here.
I did not look like a kick-ass breast cancer survivor on the day that I met with my trusted and gifted internal medicine goddess, Dr. Serna.
I fidgeted on the exam table, nervous as a chicken, ready for fight or flight. The table’s paper crackled beneath me when I reached to peck a tissue from my purse.
The late summer sun filtered through the window’s silver blinds, a bird’s eye view of the freeway. I watched hundreds of cars racing by, like anxious thoughts.
The door opened, and Dr. Serna walked in. Her authoritative presence always calms me. She’s tall and thin, and I can never remember to ask if she runs marathons. She’s much
younger than me, which is how I like my doctors now that I’m over fifty.
Dr. Serna set her laptop on the counter, pushed her wavy pony-tailed hair away from her face, looked at the computer screen and said, “Okay, so we have your labs back, and everything looks good, except for the white blood count, right?”
I sniffed and said, “Uh-huh.”
Dr. Serna, said, “You’re worrying, Deb. Don’t worry! You’re normally on the low side, and you’re healthy. We’ll repeat the test in two weeks. I’m sure that number will be higher, okay?”
I said, “But, Dr. Serna, 3.7 is really low,” while I dabbed the crumpled Kleenex on my soon-to-be-X’d-out eyes.
Dr. Serna leaned over and put her hand on my arm, looked at me over the top of her wire-rimmed glasses and said, “Deb, I’m not worried, so I don’t want you to worry. We’ll repeat the labs, and your number will be higher, okay?”
“You know I’m a bit of a worrier,” I said, and blew my nose.
I am the reigning Queen of Negative Anticipation! Super Anxiety Woman! I’ve catastrophized all of my molehills into mountains! I’ve even asked Jesus, “But, Sir, what if
my faith is SMALLER than a mustard seed?”
Dr. Serna picked up and closed her computer and said, “I know you’re going to worry, so I’m giving you an assignment: ask your cancer team to FAX me all of your previous labs. That will give us solid information. Information will make you feel better.” And she left the room.
Information! That’s right!! I function much better with solid information.
So I called medical records and they rounded up my labs from 2010 to present, and guess what? The labs showed a consistently low white blood count over five years - good
news! But I was still anxious and worried.
I waited out the days until I could get my labs done. Waiting: the haven for worry. I tried to distract myself from all of my “what if thoughts.”
On some days I reorganized closets, cabinets, and drawers. I actually used my iron and ironing board. On other days I sat with all of my worried thoughts. It was a difficult two weeks.
The new labs showed a perfectly normal 6.7 white blood cell count.
A great wave of relief washed over my whole being. In its wake, I realized
I don’t want to wear the Super Anxiety Woman cape anymore—it’s exhausting.
So I asked for help. I’ve started working with a recommended therapist, and I’ve found a daily meditation app called Headspace.
I am still a kick-ass survivor. This is how we survive.