Anxiety and the cancer survivor

One year ago I was diagnosed with cancer, and now I’m done treatment (six months ago, actually). I’ve been carrying on with my life, for the most part. But in the last few weeks, my anxiety levels have gone from zero, to mild, to moderate, to sometimes high.

What does your anxiety look like?

Mine feels like a guitar that’s strung too tightly: discordant, out of tune, and ready to snap violently at any moment. It’s a rock in my stomach and a lump in my throat. It’s physical pain when I try to breathe deeply. And it’s waves of sudden fits of irrational rage that stem from the unexpected inability to cope with normal, everyday things like prioritizing my day or deciding what to have for lunch. And it’s not really knowing how to talk about the fact that I’m having anxiety attacks.

So many things have happened this summer that remind me of a year ago.

I went on a multi-family camping trip with my daughters – last year we left Adam behind due to his crippling sunburn, but this year he came along, which was much easier to manage. We had a good time in the woods, even with the extra responsibility of the new puppy in our lives.

kids at the beach
Camping involved swimming and beach lounging. It was good.

Last year, when I took the girls camping on my own, all three of us had a nasty summer cold that culminated in a febrile seizure for Pandra well after we returned from camping, followed by a trip to the doctor’s office — the same trip where my doctor heard my cough, called me back into her office and checked my lymph nodes. And found the first of my tumours.

This year, I again caught a summer cold from Pandra. It’s been a few weeks, but that feeling in the back of my throat still hasn’t gone away — that feeling you get from phlegm and post-nasal drip and gunk that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. That feeling I had for the entire two months before I started chemo, at first because of the cold I had in the summer, and then afterwards because I had a lemon-sized tumour pressing against the back of my esophagus.

I’ve been taking Lyra to Vancouver Aquarium’s Aquacamp for the past few days, because the teacher’s strike means she isn’t able to start grade one, so we’re stuck trying to find other options to keep her engaged. Her summer daycamp was driving her crazy. But she went to Aquacamp last year for a week, right before school started, and it was her favourite thing in the world. Sending her again was an easy (if expensive) decision. I enjoy taking her on the commuter train with me every morning, and picking her up from Stanley Park at the end of the day. It’s a mini adventure that makes my daily commute about four hours long, which is exhausting, and still fun.

But it’s all so much like last summer.

I’m ready for summer to be over

I’ve been looking forward to the end of summer, and for school to start, so that Lyra can see her friends again and get back into learning things and the daily structure that she seems to really thrive on. And so that we aren’t paying so much money into daycare that we can’t afford to do fun things. The teacher’s strike has wrecked that for us, sadly. But while that bothers me, we’ve figured out ways to handle it (by not doing fun things that cost money and sacrificing other things so we can give Lyra something to do that she really enjoys.

But in the past couple of weeks, I’ve been feeling increasingly anxious. It was minor, initially… just some occasional nights when I had trouble falling asleep. It got worse as we got closer to the time when my cancer issues began, although I didn’t initially make the connection. And the camping reminded me of the cold, and then I got a cold and had that pressure on the back of my throat. And now for a couple of weeks I’ve had a tightness in my chest, and I’ve had trouble breathing, and I’ve had moments at work when I’ve had to get out of the office to go for a walk because my anxiety levels were too high for me to function effectively.

I couldn’t place why, for a bit, until I started listening to my brain at night when I couldn’t get to sleep. There have been more of those nights lately. When I took a moment to listen to where my mind wanted to take me, I realized what was happening.

I’m afraid the cancer will come back. That my treatment wasn’t long enough. That it wasn’t totally eradicated and now the lemon behind my esophagus is growing again, pressing against my throat, making it hard to breathe, hard to sing. That the tightness in my chest isn’t because I’m anxious, but because there’s less room than there should be.

When I think about these things, I get afraid. I don’t want to be the kind of special you get to be when you’re a cancer patient. I don’t want that attention again. I don’t want to need chemo again, or to learn that I might not see my kids grow up.

A few days ago it was my ninth wedding anniversary with Adam. I don’t want it to be one of the last we get to celebrate.

It figures that my courage would choose to sell out now

So yes. I’m having some anxiety issues.

And I keep forgetting to breathe properly, because it hurts my chest when I breathe too deeply. Probably because of the anxiety.

I’m due for my next check-in with my oncologist in the next couple of weeks. It’s safe to assume that the cancer is not back, and that I just have a lingering cold, and that everything else is anxiety from all the familiar things going on around me that remind me of when I learned I had cancer. But because it’s not completely ridiculous to think that the treatment didn’t work, or that the cancer came back, I can’t not think it. It’s unlikely, but not impossible. And the possibility is enough to keep me feeling like I’m walking on a rope bridge at the edge of a cliff.

The bridge will probably hold. But what if it doesn’t?

I’m afraid of heights.