But what I discovered is that losing control isn’t permanent — you just hand the reins to someone else for a while. My husband took every night feeding with our daughter, soothed every night terror with our son. Friends fed us unflaggingly during my five months of chemotherapy, and my parents looked after both kids at the drop of a hat. The minute I was diagnosed, the wagons circled. People wanted to help. I tamped down my pride and my perfectionism and I let them.
You will never catch me referring to my cancer as a “journey,” although I do sometimes think of the souvenirs I’ve brought back: gratitude, perspective, a renewed appreciation for the body that betrayed me briefly and then carried me through. But my anxiety is a souvenir too, and it lurks at the edges. When the kids are sick, I fret: is that bruise just a bruise or is it something serious? Is that headache normal?
There’s a saying in medicine: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” It means a patient is more likely to have a common, treatable ailment than an improbable, scary one. When I hear hoofbeats now, I go straight to zebras. I’m up at midnight, googling frantically, convinced the worst-case scenario is true. And why not? A terrible thing happened once. A terrible thing could happen again.
Of course, there are solutions to this: Meditation, journaling, Ativan for when the meditation and journaling fail. But the best solution, annoyingly, is time.
In the raw, confusing days after my diagnosis, I texted a friend of a friend who’d gone through a similar ordeal the year before. Would she be up for chatting? I asked. She would, she wrote, but she was about to take her two small kids to Costco. The glorious ordinariness of this knocked me flat. She’d gone through a mastectomy while pregnant, chemo with a newborn, and now she was going to Costco like anyone else? Would there be a day when I, too, would feel normal enough to go to Costco? I couldn’t fathom it. It seemed so far away on the other side.
In a couple of months, I’ll hit the three-year anniversary of my diagnosis. I am grateful to science and serendipity in equal measure. My hair is thick and full again, my scars have all but faded, and yes, I have achieved the ultimate prize of visiting Costco many times (now, of course, in a mask). In the darkest days of chemo, it seemed impossible I would ever say this, but here it is: most of the time I forget I ever had cancer at all.
Still, despite the havoc it wreaked, I can only think of myself as profoundly lucky: that I found it, that I beat it, that I’m here. And while it feels like all I did was just roll with the punches until the punches stopped coming, I hope that one day my kids can look back at my experience and learn something too.