Ask any cancer survivor, our greatest fear is relapsing. Heard of scanxiety (scan anxiety)? It’s a real thing.
Defining scanxiety: The tension which builds particularly amongst those who have or have had cancer as they move towards their regular check up scan, hyperscanxiety being the period as they await results.
I think most of us can agree that this is the absolute worst part of remission. I personally experienced so much scanxiety before each biopsy, PET and CT scan. It always felt like I was about to take a test which I could never prepare for and I hated them to say the least!
3 months after remission I had my first follow-up; my oncologist ordered a CT scan. A few days later, the results came back showing several enlarged lymph nodes on the left side of my neck. I automatically went into panic mode as I watched my worst nightmare unfold before me.
My oncologist wasted no time and set me up for a biopsy right away. We got the results 4 days before the wedding (great timing much?) which confirmed my worst nightmare. I had relapsed.
With my amazing oncologist’s permission, I was allowed to delay chemo and go on with the wedding and honeymoon as planned. Setting all cancer related thoughts and emotions aside was one of the most difficult things my husband and I had to do, but we both agreed that we won’t dignify cancer by allowing it to destroy one of the most important milestones in our relationship.
The series of emotions that followed the second diagnosis were the classic “Five Stages Of Grief” I later discovered.
That I was shocked is an understatement. I could’t really believe it, I kept repeating “it’s back” over and over in my head over the next week but it felt too cruel to be real. Life must be playing a trick on me. It couldn’t be. I felt better than I had in a long time. Surely there was a medical mistake; my biopsy sample must have been switched with somebody else’s. Unfortunately, when my PET-CT scan came back positive I realised it was no mistake. My cancer really had come back and I had to face reality.
It didn’t take long for the anger to set in. I had finally started to move on with my life. I was exercising again and regaining the muscle mass I’d lost, finally losing that cortisone weight, my hair was slowly growing back, I was due to return to university to finish the masters degree I had to pause a year ago and my fiancé and I were excitedly planning for our upcoming wedding.. Life was good and I was about to lose it all.. again! I felt utterly defeated. I think I found moving past this stage the most difficult part because I couldn’t understand why this was happening to me. It just seemed so unfair, my husband and I had already been through enough; long distance, first cancer fight and now this. Is this what my life is going to be like from here on out? Is cancer forever going to be in my life? For a while I refused to talk about it with anyone, not even my husband, my best friend in the world. I kept going back in my mind to try and understand what went wrong but I couldn’t fathom out the cause of my relapse. I was on the perfect track or so I thought; I fully responded to the treatment less than halfway into chemo and was in full remission when I was done and was recovering beautifully afterwards. The odds were in my favour but somehow I still lost.
I kept going back and forth between the anger and bargaining stages for a while. Thinking about all that I was planning on doing and how it all has to be postponed again. Maybe I relapsed because somehow life figured out I was taking it for granted and I wasn’t really appreciating the second chance I’d been given. I promised that if I made it through this time, I’d be more productive and wouldn’t let a day go to waste. I would appreciate the smallest things in my life more than I already do and I will never take anything or anyone for granted ever again.
Before I knew it, I had spiralled into depression. I hated the mindset I was in; it was incredibly toxic. I felt incredibly weak, which I hated, and it made the negativity that much more difficult to get past. I later understood, however, that it was a phase I had to go through before I could get the peace of mind I needed to face what lay ahead. I was plagued by thoughts of all I’d lost, all I was about to lose and what I might never have in the future. I hadn’t started chemo yet and I was exhausted. I had no energy left in me for a second fight, I was going into this completely unprepared.. But can you ever really be? According to statistics, my odds this time are lower than what they were the first time round. For the first time in my life I was aware of my own mortality and I feared for my life, of losing the life that I’d envisioned for myself and worst of all of leaving behind my husband of two months. I think that was when my “fight or flight” instincts kicked in ..and I chose to fight.
I refuse to be another “statistic”. I am 24 years old and I still have a lot to offer this world. I am young and I have access to medication that can still cure me, a fantastic medical team taking care of me and the world’s best support system: my husband, my best friend. I have way too much to live for and my will power, if nothing else, will get me through. And so after my month-long struggle, I finally reached the final stage of grief: Acceptance. The funny thing is that when I was first diagnosed, I took the news better. Maybe because I’d been expecting it or maybe because I had no idea what I was really in for. I was in fight mode from day one. I accepted it right away and moved on. I guess the unexpectedness of its return this soon, or at all, and it clashing with all the dreams and plans I had drawn for my life made it so much more difficult to accept. I think what helped me get through the phases better were: 1. Time (mostly) and 2. Talking to someone I trusted about what was on my mind. It didn’t always have to make sense and sometimes even I had no idea what was really going on, but talking to my husband about them helped me rationalise and understand what I was going through much better.
P.S: I am aware that this post tackles some depressing or shall I say, less positive emotions than I would like. However, when I started this blog I promised myself to be as honest and transparent as possible no matter how vulnerable that made me feel. I believe that vocalising my deepest fears is the only way to really help other cancer fighters and survivors come to terms with theirs. I want you to know that if you are still struggling with anger or depression.. It’s normal.. There is light at the end of that tunnel and if your depression is getting in the way of your daily life, do NOT be afraid to seek professional help.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” – Ambrose Redmoon