Scans… they are the bane of cancer survivors and their co-survivors. It’s as if you can’t escape them- for they happen at the beginning of treatment, frequently during treatment, and exists as a possibility throughout the duration of one’s existence as long as you are still being monitored for cancer. They are ordered to identify where the cancer is in the body, to examine the effectiveness of intervention, to determine whether or not it has spread, or to understand the meaning behind certain physical symptoms that indicate something is potentially wrong.
To say the least, there really is no such thing as a neutral scan.
At my last check in with my favorite NP at my oncologists office, she noticed that my onc had put it in the plan to have another PET in February. Typically PETs are ordered for the reasons above; however, when I was originally diagnosed they did find a spot on my hip that they were never able to fully clear of suspicion initially. The follow up scans showed that did not change, so the NP was surprised to find the order in there. She did not remove it, but surmised that likely it was there just as a reminder to discuss whether or not it is necessary.
On one hand, I know that my onc generally follows the rule of thumb that you only scan if there are physical symptoms present. On the other hand, this conversation caused a cascade of thoughts in my brain, such as…
- planting a seed of doubt- am I truly feeling good? Have I been downplaying any physical symptoms and living in denial? Can I trust my own wisdom? Am I foolish to say that there is no need to do it? Will that decision hurt my family?
- a stark reminder of how critical the 3 year marker is for my type of cancer- triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). If you make it to the 3rd year with no evidence of disease, it greatly increases your chance of long term survival. It’s not a guarantee of course, but it does add a dose of pressure to the 3rd year marker.
- hypervigilance- I am supposed to be mindful of changes in my body, so I can be an accurate reporter for my onc? It’s a fine balance between to paying too much attention and too little, yet there is no device on the market that can “show” you if you are “doing it right” or not.
That being said, even though cancer takes away a lot of things from us, either temporarily or permanently, we deserve to live as fully as we can “between the scans”. It is a fundamental human right we should all cherish.
Knowing it is a right, and getting yourself there, is the challenge. Keep in mind, this is a judgement free zone- I want to encourage you to reduce the suffering that comes along with self criticism and reap the reward of compassion by accepting yourself for exactly who you are, at all times.
We are going to experience a wide arrange of emotions as we learn to love ourselves exactly as we are. If we reject our thoughts and feelings, we also dull our ability to receive important messages of insight and intuition from deep within. This can lead to more anxiety, depression, or PTSD, rather than less, as well as decrease our warning system that helps us to know when we need to ask for help.
The metaphor that comes to mind is that of a lighthouse. A beacon of protection that warns us of danger and us to safety. Even if the light is somehow disruptive, would we choose to turn it down simply to free ourselves from the annoyance? Keeping our fingers crossed that no one crashes into the rocks the lighthouse was created to protect us from? Probably not.
Yet we do need to cultivate a way of distinguishing between a true distress signal and one that is processing and letting out that which we repressed to survive.
If you need a few tips on how to begin this process of acceptance, validation, compassion and staying present, check out these posts below:
- Becoming empowered even in the face of uncertainty
- Digging out from the aftermath of cancer
- My 5 favorite tools for coping with cancer
- Scanxiety and it’s anxious brothers and sisters
If you live in Maine and wish to learn more about living life as well as you can between the scans, I will be leading a workshop, “Living Fully Between the Scans: Finding Healing, Connection and Hope for Cancer Survivors and the Their Loved Ones” at the March 2018 retreat being offered by Caring Connections. It is FREE and open to all cancer survivors and their loved ones. Registration links will be coming soon!
– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, and a former oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Individual Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; workshops; and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.