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Canceritis, an ever-present worry

Dr. Jeff Kane
Columnist

Marie told her friend, “I had a headache yesterday. Maybe I better go get an MRI.”

Her friend replied, “For a headache? Don’t you think that’s a little much?”

“Well, my breast cancer’s in remission, but how can I be sure it hasn’t returned and gone to my brain?”

She can’t be sure. Ever. That’s why “canceritis,” an ever-present worry of recurrence, preoccupies many cancer veterans.

It’s not hard to put ourselves in Marie’s place. If you’ve had cancer and you get a headache, what’s the first cause you think of? Never mind that maybe only one out of a thousand headaches signals cancer, and never mind that people who’ve had cancer can still get plain old headaches. Inevitably immersed in your history, you naturally go to the worst-case scenario first. And then what do you do? Seek medical help? Ask advice from friends? Forget about it? In this case, Marie called her doctor, who convinced her the headache didn’t signal cancer … that is, 90% convinced her.

Canceritis seems to be a permanent residual in almost everyone who’s had cancer. Each time it arises you get a little more used to it, so a little less anxious, but it persists anyway. Where once you were relatively carefree, now this subtle discomfort constantly occupies the background.

“I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” said a friend who lived with active metastatic lung cancer twenty-two years. “I co-exist with my cancer. If it wants to go away, that’s fine with me, but if it stays, that’s something I accept, too. Canceritis disturbs me, but it also reminds me that I’m always vulnerable. With or without cancer, as a matter of fact, we all know we’re going to shuffle off, but not when, so we put it out of our minds. Now, accepting that my days truly are numbered, I don’t postpone anything that makes me feel good. And I suspect that consciously accepting mortality is somehow therapeutic for me.”

That’s how she deals with canceritis. Others find their own strategies. My friend Rich, who lives in Philadelphia, told me an instructive story. “I was nervous about my monthly prostate cancer blood tests,” he said. “When test days approached, I lived on the edge of my chair. Even though the doctor told me the results were medically insignificant I went into an emotional frenzy every time. But then one evening I decided to calm myself by taking a drive through the city. At one point I heard a loud noise and shattering glass. A stray bullet had passed through my car window. Now I don’t worry about my test so much.”

Dodging a bullet, whether literally or figuratively, invites a shift in perspective. Depending on how we frame it, canceritis might exist simply to torture us, or maybe we can make something positive of it. Or of stroke-itis, or coronary-itis. For that matter, why limit recognition of our human tendency to awfulize to illnesses? Don’t we do that with every difficulty we encounter? We can’t erase its disturbing message, but we can interpret it as encouragement to adjust our behavior, now, toward higher quality.

Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in Nevada City.


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