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Jennifer Giuffre-Donohue Headshot

Remission With a Side of Hypochondria

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I recently went for my six month CAT scan... meow (sorry I had to). I'll be four years cancer-free in September of this year. Being given a second chance at life is not something that I take for granted. I try to remember all of the lessons that I learned while going through treatment as I go forward with my life. At that time I thought to myself what can I take from this terrible experience and how can I make my life better if and when I come out on the other side? Even though I had a good prognosis, I was diagnosed with one of the most treatable forms of cancer, stage two Hodgkin's Lymphoma, I was still afraid that I might die. Good prognosis or not, this is cancer we're talking about. By definition these are cells that have gone rogue, they're not known for their cooperation. I knew my chances of beating it were good, but what if I fell into that percentage that didn't make it?

I knew that my state of mind would have a lot to do with my experience. Would positive thinking magically make the cancer go away? No, but being obsessed with dying wouldn't have helped me either. Truth be told, the thought of chemo scared me almost as much as the cancer scared me. What if the chemo kills me? What if it damages my heart or lungs? I weighed my options and decided that chemo was my best one so I had to make peace with that decision. If I was going to go through chemo I had to see it as my ally and not view it as poison running through my body. I learned this particular lesson from reading Dr. Bernie Siegel's books. If you don't know who he is, he's a health care rock star. His work with cancer patients will give you hope. If you're going through cancer you should check out his books. If you're not going through cancer read his books anyway to remind you that the only time to live the life you really want is now.

Being a young cancer survivor is a paradox. On the one hand you have a long life ahead of you. On the other hand because you're younger you'll have many years of testing to make sure there are no recurrences. This exposes you to more radiation from all of the testing which can lead to other cancers somewhere down the line. Remission meet hypochondria. Obviously the benefits of testing outweigh the risks but the fears are real. Prior to having cancer I was one of those people who went to my regular doctor visits at the right time and other than that I only went to the doctor if I was really sick, which wasn't often. It's only been in the last year that I can relax after having my CAT scans and not count the days until I hear back from my oncologist for the results. Don't get me wrong, I still want to hear my results but I know the doctor will call me if something is wrong. I just don't stress incessantly until I get that call...as much.

Here's what I think about post cancer. On the days that I don't feel so well hypochondria rears its ugly head. Did the Hodgkin's come back? Did the chemo damage my body and is this a side effect of the chemo? Do I have another type of cancer from all of the testing? As a friend and fellow cancer survivor once said to me if your pinky toe hurts you think, "Oh my God, is it cancer?" I know that's sounds dramatic but the emotional effects of cancer stay with you and fear of a recurrence is a big one. So how do you reconcile the fear in your head? Confront it head on. To push it down into the dark only makes it scarier. It's like that shadow on your wall in the middle of the night that freaks you out but you turn the lights on and it's only your sweater. You have to acknowledge the fear but you also have to be able to balance it so that you don't let it rule your thoughts.

I take a deep breath and then remind myself of all of the things that I'm doing to keep the odds stacked in my favor. I go to my doctor visits and keep up with my tests regularly. I try to manage the stress in my life in positive ways for example, eating well, exercising, meditating, having fun and going after my dreams (not that I do all of these things all of the time, but I do my best). Then I have to remind myself to live in the present moment. The past is over and I don't know what the future holds. So to waste the present worrying about what may or may not happen is a waste of my life that I've been given back. I owe it to myself and to the people who have died from cancer or who are still in the fight to embrace my remission and to really live my life. After all doing everything you can not to die is not the same thing as living.

My most recent CAT scan revealed that I have a renal cyst (which I promptly Googled). It's most likely nothing and my oncologist is going to watch it. Now I love the internet but the information you find can be good and bad. You'll find information that tells you what you have is probably nothing or you'll find information that tells you you have cancer in your pinky toe. Obviously you should talk to your doctor and not diagnose yourself. Am I slightly worried? I'd be lying if I said no. So now I have a choice, to stress out about this newest find that's currently stoking the flames of my hypochondria or ask whatever questions I need to of my doctor, decide what course of action to take, if any, and then chill. Sometimes I still get freaked out but I mostly think of my cancer experience as this little devil sitting on my shoulder, poking me and reminding me to live my life to the fullest because there are no guarantees of tomorrow for anyone. What dreams or fun have you been putting on the back burner waiting for that elusive "some day?"

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