Cancer Survivorship 101: Identifying Your Emotions

07/29/2015 05:08 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2016

It was a normal Friday, I was outside playing with our three girls and walked over to the mailbox to grab the mail and there it was. An envelope addressed to me from a radiation and imaging center. I wanted to scream right then and there. Thank goodness the girls were too busy playing to notice that my face had gone white and I was trying to steady my breathing while also trying not to throw up. The thoughts were racing through my head at a clip that I didn't even know possible.

First, fear, pure fear. We can't go through this again. We have three kids now. It's been six years -- we are in the clear, his oncologist said that she didn't even want to see him anymore and that he could go to his primary care physician for annual checkups and blood work. If its back it will be worse. I don't want to see worse -- our kids can't see worse. Breathe. Try to breathe.

Second, anger. I opened the envelope and read -- charges for imaging done three weeks prior. How did I not know about this? I was immediately transported back six years when my husband sat me down to tell me he had been in pain for several months and finally decided to see a doctor. The doctor ordered an ultrasound and we had to wait for the results. Back then I was naive enough to think little of the information and wasn't really bothered by the fact that my husband waited so long to tell me what was going on. About a week later he sat me down again (all the time delays in diagnosis is a subject for another day), he told me that the doctor had called two days prior, Christmas Eve, with the news- an abnormal ultrasound which most likely was cancer. He waited the two days to tell me so that we, no, I, could enjoy Christmas with our daughter and my family and celebrate my parents' 40th wedding anniversary. I remember thinking how selfless he was to withhold that information and to carry the burden all by himself during what should be one of the most magical times of the year.

Fast forward six years, a surgery to remove a grapefruit sized tumor, four rounds of chemo and then three rounds of IVF to grow our family post cancer. We were no longer that naive young couple that felt invincible. We had seen, endured and cared for each other during the most difficult times either of us could imagine. I took great pride in the strength of our marriage. Now, after everything we have been through, how could he withhold this news from me? Having gone through the steps before I knew that to have imaging done meant that there were symptoms, a doctor was consulted and then the imaging scheduled and performed. I knew none of it. I go further down the rabbit hole and extrapolate to other areas of our marriage. If he could keep all of these appointments and important events from me, what else could he keep from me? Did he really go to the dentist last week or was he seeing another doctor? Can he be lying about other things? Does he trust me? Why wouldn't he share this with me? Does he not want my help? Am I not his confidant, his best friend, the person who fed and took care of him when he was too sick to eat and too confused with chemobrain to know what day of the week it was? Breathe. Try to breathe.

I then roll right into embarrassment. I am a selfish person, I am a horrible wife. How could I think of myself and our family at a time like this? It is his body, his health, his decision to share or not share what must be a terrifying situation. I talk about "what we have been through." Who am I kidding? I didn't lose part of my body to surgery, I didn't endure the arsenal of poison aimed at killing most of the cells in my body day after day for four months. I did not have to face my own mortality. I needed to put my ego and my feelings in check and once again, try to take a breath.

My husband finally came home a couple of hours after my whirlwind of emotion and after playing all the various scenarios in my head I simply hand him the envelope and say, "So?" Not burying the lead, he starts with, "I'm fine." Then I think I took my first true breath in about three hours and kissed him. He explained that we was only trying to protect me and didn't want me to worry needlessly. I can't say that he didn't get an earful that night or that I didn't blast a series of texts to my girlfriends for moral support because he -- I want to worry needlessly that is my job, I'm a wife, a mother, a caregiver. But at the end of the day, the denouement of the story that started with a little white envelope is that my husband is fine. What I have taken from this required, non-elective, course in cancer survivorship is that it is absolutely ok (and probably typical) to experience every emotion possible when it comes survivorship. There are no rules, no textbooks, you never know what is around the next corner but I guess that is true with life -- it is just a little but more bumpy when you check the "cancer" box on your medical history form at the age of 32. While I may have had the brief fear that cancer may have weakened our union, after reflection I can honestly say that cancer has made our marriage stronger. It has forced us to talk about challenging issues, deal with an onslaught of emotions -- often times contradictory emotions, and the need to understand that while we are a unit, a couple, a family, we are also independent people with our own hopes, desires and fears and it is ok if we chose to keep to ourselves at times...or so my therapist keeps telling me.