I’m one of those people that has always been hypervigilant about my breasts–getting yearly mammograms and ultrasounds, checking myself constantly, and getting felt up (by my doctor) as often as my health insurance would allow. I’m also one of those people that has dense, lumpy breasts, so I often felt something, which always turned out to be nothing. But one day, the nothing turned into something. At 45, a mother to children who had already lost their father, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Of course, that turn of events sent my already-present anxiety into overdrive. Cancer is such a frightening word. I imagine even people without anxiety disorders panic when they learn they have it.
My diagnosis was even more frightening because my mother died of cancer. My mother was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when I was 13. After treatment, she seemed to be out of the woods; however, five years later, we found out she had breast cancer. A radical mastectomy and several debilitating rounds of chemotherapy would follow. Two years later, the cancer had spread to her brain.
Since I was only a junior in college, my father hid the extent of her illness from me. However, after a conversation on the phone where my mother was completely delirious, I knew that I needed to come home. I am so grateful for that time I had at home with my beautiful and spirited mother.
After my mother died, I stayed in Florida for the rest of my junior year. I wanted to help my father through his grief (and to teach him how to do his laundry). It was a tough time, but it was about to get a whole lot tougher.
By my senior year, I was back at Penn State to finish college. But it was a difficult year, one which would mark the explosion of my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Therapy helped me understand that the loss of my mother and watching her suffer through treatment was probably the cause. However, while this understanding was helpful, it did not lessen the severity of the symptoms that I faced. No matter how much it made sense that grief was the culprit, the constant rituals and compulsions took over my life.
It took me years to learn to manage my OCD, but, eventually, with a lot of support and some medication, I found myself in a place where my anxiety did not rule my life. And then I got cancer.
What nobody tells you about cancer is that you have to make a lot of important decisions at a time when it is almost impossible to think straight. Treatment is never cut and dried. You listen to your doctor, get second (and third) opinions, and then try to sort out the (sometimes conflicting) information overload. Fear is your constant companion, which makes listening to statistics and research on various treatments even harder to hear. My anxiety, as you would imagine, began to take over again.
Finally, I decided on a treatment plan involving a lumpectomy, radiation and hormone therapy. Unfortunately, the drug (Zoloft) that had been so helpful with my OCD had to be discontinued because it reduces the efficacy of Tamoxifen, the drug therapy that I would now need to take to fight my cancer. I was very concerned about this because I couldn’t bear an OCD flare-up on top of everything else going on. Fortunately, I switched rather easily to another anti-anxiety med (Effexor), which came with the added benefit of reducing night sweats which is one of Tamoxifen’s most common side effects. For once, my anxiety was a positive influence!
It’s been almost 8 years since my diagnosis. I would be a liar to say that I don’t spend time thinking about the what ifs: What if it comes back? What if it spreads? What if I made the wrong treatment decision? But I don’t obsess about it like I did in the beginning. Time, Effexor, and continued boob vigilance have helped me to feel less anxious and more in control of my life. Of course, mammograms, ultrasounds, and MRI’s spike my anxiety. But I have replaced most of my thoughts of doom with thoughts of early detection and hope.