12/21/2012 01:16 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

The Cure for Fear

My friend Andy and I shared an irrational fear of needles. When I told him an upcoming trip to Africa required a series of injections, he reflected that unfortunately, "the only cure is exposure." Two weeks later, as a surgeon explained that he would biopsy my newly discovered tumor by cracking open my ribcage and deflating a lung, I tried to look on the bright side: at least, according to Andy, I was well on my way to overcoming my fear of needles.

It's a fear that started early. There in the carpool lane, with child lock engaged, Mom would ask which I wanted first: good news or bad news. Without fail, these words meant that my immediate future involved a flu shot (and resulting Slurpee-bribe -- totally not worth it). I may have weighed 40 pounds, but it still took three medical professionals to hold me down and administer the shot. Terror has a way of crystallizing memories: though I have no recollection of the ensuing Slurpee, I can picture with perfect clarity the wallpaper, the outfit I had on (rainbow polka dot overalls, circa 1987), the layout of the room, and losing my lunch afterward.

As a kid, I would have rather suffered influenza than 30 seconds with a needle. Now, post cancer, give me the shot. A 24-hour bug leaves too much time to remember the way it felt to be in cancer treatment: waiting for the sun to rise and wondering if it had spread to my bones, spleen, and brain; the panic of suffocating on an operating table. The image of a masked man repeatedly forcing what looked like an orange screwdriver into my chest, and bone pain so intense I can still feel the echo of it five years later. Even knowing these fearful experiences are in the past, any form of incapacitation or enclosure has the power to open a floodgate of troubling memories.

I first discovered the intrusive aspect of post-cancer anxiety on a trip to Missouri in the month between my last chemotherapy and first radiation treatment. The moment I bent down to enter an elevator pod which would take me to the top of the St. Louis Arch, the close quarters and white walls triggered a wave of frightening images from the past year. As the attendant finished her introductory spiel, I knew if that door closed with me inside, bad, bad things would happen. In a burst of self-preservation, I leapt from the chamber and ran for the exit ramp. By the time my erstwhile boyfriend found me, I was in the lobby, huddled next to the taxidermy-ed body of a roaring bear (because nothing says "Gateway to the West" like a stuffed, dead animal).

Recently, when an acquaintance pulled me aside to praise my fearless fight against cancer, I had to set the record straight. Yes, surviving cancer takes the sting out of bad hair days and flat tires, but it also creates a sort of hyper-vigilance with regard to potential suffering whether on dates, at work, or even at a family meal. She was surprised, because when it comes to overcoming the hidden psychosocial consequences of cancer, people -- myself included -- have high expectations. For some reason, psychological effects centering on the fear of pain and death are perceived as a conscious choice. No one would put it that way, but friends who understood the inevitability of hair loss or nausea now urge me to "just stop thinking about it," to talk my way out of every 'what if.' Still, fear and reason refuse to mix.

Over the summer, I went on a trip with First Descents and met a group of young adults who have or have had cancer. They laughed at the idea of forgetting and moving on, of just deciding "not to think about it." They know the reality: cancer is bad, it can always get worse, and it often comes back. In their company I was able to give myself permission to be afraid. Oddly, when I did, the fear was no longer paralyzing. I started writing again, "ran" a half-marathon, picked up my guitar, went on some dates. I realized that I've come a long way from the frail, weeping girl whose only consolation was the company of a taxidermy-ed bear; even farther from the violent five-year-old desperate to avoid her flu shot. I obviously still have my moments. But when a power outage imprisoned 240 people on the St. Louis Arch for four hours, I sat back with a contented sigh. Don't get me wrong, I felt bad for the people stuck in the tiny elevator pods -- but at the same time, I'm glad to know that -- at least in one instance -- my fear saved me.