01/22/2013 09:50 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Managing the Fear of Cancer

Three days after Christmas my brother and I sat next to my mother in a doctor's waiting room while she held a frozen bag of ethyl chloride to her neck. The "ice" pack was to numb her skin and muscle before she was to have a biopsy for cancer.

I discovered that afternoon why people hate doctors' waiting rooms. It's because of the fear. You know so little... and the stakes can be so great. Once you "know," once you can name the problem, you can categorize it, compartmentalize it, make choices about how to respond. There's some control in that.

Without entirely recognizing what I was doing, I tried to gain some control by talking about what I know. While we waited, I explained to my mother the chemical composition of ethyl chloride, explained how many carbons it has, where the chloride is bonded, why there are no numbers in front of the name.

Cancer has always been a presence in my mind, never too distant. Both my grandmother and my great grandmother on my father's side had breast cancer. They were two of the lucky ones who "beat" the disease -- yet not without sacrifice; they both had mastectomies. I have grown up knowing that I am at risk.

While I have looked in the mirror as a teenager and wondered about my vulnerability to breast cancer, I have never thought that I would have cancer to worry about from my mother's side of the family. Then in mid-December, my mother asked my brother and me to sit down, and she told us that she had to go and get a biopsy to test whether two nodules in her thyroid were cancerous.

I suppose I felt shock, though that word suggests something at once too violent and too passive for how I reacted. I suppose I was in denial -- although as an aspiring doctor, and one who has shadowed an oncologist both in clinic and into operating rooms, I am aware of the medical threats that cancers pose. I know I felt removed from the news. It was almost as if what I was hearing was the plot of a novel -- intriguing, but not quite real.

Yet in the doctor's waiting room, in the minutes before my mother's biopsy, my fears became terribly explicit and personal: What would be my mother's fate? What would her fate mean for me? Perhaps unwittingly -- but perhaps with a keen sense of what he was doing -- her doctor, Dr. Michael Sharon, helped me manage my fears. He invited me into the room where the biopsy was to be performed. He explained the procedure to come and showed me the prior ultrasound images of my mother's neck. He took me seriously, explaining it all as if I were a medical student under his guidance, not just a 16-year-old high school student. He satisfied my scientific curiosity and my fascination with the why and the how of the conundrum that is the human body. And he was funny. As he and the nurse prepped the room, they joked about how "handsome" he was and how "beautiful" she was, in addition to how "skilled" and "dependable" and "trustworthy" they were as a medical team. They couldn't have been kinder.

Then the wait really began. Not just the wait while the doctor conducted his ultrasound-guided needle aspiration, but the wait once we left the clinic -- the wait for the lab results.

The news came a week later in a text message from my mother the night before my cousin's wedding. It was a curious juxtaposition -- a wedding and the waiting for test results that could entirely alter the course of my life. My phone beeped. "Benign." Good news. She was safe. I was safe.

Then five days later came another message from my mother, this time not about her health, but about my aunt's. My aunt had just been diagnosed with cancer: lung cancer.

With that diagnosis my aunt now "knows." From the prognosis, she's started making choices: She's choosing chemotherapy and radiation. She's choosing what to do with the rest of her life.

As for me, I'm learning through all this. There is cancer and the threat of cancer all around me. But I'm learning that the more information I have, the more I am able to manage my fears. I'm also learning that whatever comes, making informed choices -- even limited ones -- will help me, my mother, my aunt, live our lives to the fullest.