Fear. I thought I had its number. I thought we’d had a relationship, but that our relationship was over. I thought the surgeon had excised it, and that any little bits left simmering on my mental stove were safely kept under a lid that stayed on tight.
Then one day, the weekend after my first full week of radiation, the fear suddenly took on a life of its own and completely overtook me. I was helpless with fear, uncontrollably afraid . . . of dying.
It came on so quickly, like shooting pain or projectile vomiting, that I found myself overcome in the middle of a walk in the park. I sat on a park bench and my shoulders shook as I cried. I hoped that no one would see me, but at the same time wanted someone, anyone, to come by and tell me that of course I would live for many more years, see my children graduate from college, watch my grandchildren grow up, settle into old age with my husband.
That was a Sunday. The next day, Monday, I went to radiation, and told the radiation oncologist—whom I see on Mondays—that over the weekend I became terribly afraid of dying. “That’s normal at this point in treatment,” she said. I was getting close to the end, thinking about the future, how things would go for me long-term. Apparently, the real fear hits most people at that time.
Hunh! I had no idea that an emotion that strong, that overpowering, could be tied to something as mundane as a calendar. And suddenly I felt better. I felt the fear recede because I understood it as situational: less about the reality of my disease, than timing.
This twin lesson—the obliterating nature of real fear and that it can be managed—is perhaps the most valuable insight I will gain from my disease and treatment vis-à-vis my own clinical work in hospice. I have never felt fear like that before and now I know how awful it is. But I now also know that fear can be addressed, handled, assuaged. For me it took the physician’s matter-of-fact compassion and honesty. A different patient might need a chaplain visit. For someone else, looking forward to a blow-out birthday party could be the ticket to keeping such fear away.
We can live with fear rather than in it, and for cancer patients that subtle but important distinction nourishes our struggling hope, makes it feel real, whatever our diagnosis or prognosis may be.