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Cynthia Huggins Headshot

My Year of Fear: Facing Down Cancer

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I've been scared for the past fourteen months. Since Wednesday, November 21, 2012, when a very kind voice on the phone said to me, "I'm sorry, but you have breast cancer."

It was the night before Thanksgiving. Otherwise I would have received the diagnosis in Dr. Collins' office, but she didn't want to wait until after the holidays to tell me. I appreciated that. In a way, it was probably easier to hear the news alone, rather than in the physical presence of other people.

After the call ended, I had one of those "either sit down or fall down" moments. I quickly sat. And I stared out my bedroom window for a long time, more or less in shock. My partner was visiting her family over the holidays, so I just wandered aimlessly around the house alone all evening. Every now and then I'd hear myself saying, "I have cancer."

It took a while to sink in, like I had to talk myself into believing it. I'm basically an optimist. Until I'm presented with proof to the contrary, I tend to believe that things will work out. Maybe not perfectly, but okay. So even though I had endured three different tests to determine if that "tiny little anomaly" in my breast was actually cancer, I had pretty much assumed -- or at least convinced myself -- that it would turn out to be nothing.

Suddenly I had a week to make a decision. Choice A = Lumpectomy and radiation. Choice B = Mastectomy, one side. Choice C = Mastectomy, both sides. Chemo was a wild card. I'd never been thrilled about the whole breast thing anyway, having spent my life feeling far more gender neutral than gender female. So I opted for Choice C and a future free of "brass ears."

The surgery went fine. Excellent surgeon, nurses and staff. I could have done without the icky drainage tubes, but they were gone in a week or so. No evidence that the cancer had spread, so I've been able to avoid radiation and chemotherapy. I have an excellent prognosis as long as I faithfully swallow my tiny little magic pill every night for the next five years, according to my oncologist. (It still feels surreal to casually mention "my oncologist." Sort of like saying "my wooly mammoth" or "my iceberg." How could I, Cindy Huggins, possibly have an oncologist?)

In the grand scheme of things, I have nothing -- nothing -- to complain about.

But inside my head, something had changed. Recuperating on a medical leave from work for the first month or so, I found myself thinking, "This isn't so bad, being here at home all the time." I could feel myself gradually losing the desire to be around other people, except for my partner and immediate family. I started to avoid making the day-to-day decisions that are just part of routine life, and instead began leaving them mostly to Laurel. For the first time in my life, I didn't want to go to church or return to work. I just wanted to stay at home in my safe little nest.

I wrestled with thinking that I was being lazy, but the truth is that I was -- still am -- afraid. Even today, I'm not exactly sure of the nature of the fear. I just know that I have responded to cancer by turning inward and minimizing my interaction with that great big, dangerous, unpredictable outside world. I felt -- still feel -- a powerful drive to protect myself from something darkly ominous and beyond my control.

The fear has an actual physical aspect. Sometimes I'll suddenly realize that my right hand is securely pressed to the left side of my chest -- the side where the cancer was. I find myself crossing my arms frequently, as though holding a protective shield in front of me. Rationally I know that my chest has healed nicely, if a bit concave, but I still feel a compulsion to hold the world at arm's length.

This is all new to me. Although a confirmed introvert, I've always had the courage to face just about anything. I've taken on huge challenges throughout my life, convinced that I can do anything if I take it one step at a time. Just do the next thing and don't get overwhelmed by the big picture. That's been my philosophy and it has worked pretty well for fifty-six years.

But now there's something inside my head that's scared. I'm afraid of the cancer that might -- just might -- be hiding, waiting to reappear if I let down my guard. I stumble over whether to tell people that I had cancer or that I have cancer. My oncologist carefully explains that I will never honestly know whether my cancer has been "cured." We cannot cure cancer -- we can only treat it.

Suddenly I notice that people all around me have cancer. Several members of my church are struggling with cancer. A close friend recently lost her husband to prostate cancer. My partner's oldest sister, one of the wisest people that I have ever known, just died after a five-year struggle with ovarian cancer. A beloved colleague's throat cancer has returned after five years. I've never really been afraid of death itself, but being scared of cancer is somehow different.

Hard stop, Cindy.

I am a person of deep faith, and my spirit is far bigger and stronger than cancer. I have a loving partner, a caring family and wonderful friends, and a fantastic job with amazing colleagues. My fellow church members are incredibly supportive, and I have the best darn therapist in the world. Maybe the fear will always be there, but I refuse to let it rule my life. Even if my cancer does return and even if it does eventually kill me, I won't spend the rest of my life in fear.

And maybe someday I'll actually believe what I've just written. I'm not there yet, but I'm working on it.

Everyone responds to cancer differently. This is my story.

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