A woman is thinking with thought bubbles crowding around her head

What If???

What if chemo doesn't work? What if it comes back? What if I hadn't been diagnosed when I was? What if I hadn't been pregnant and had an ultrasound? What if the fertility doctor had done my surgery instead? What if they really didn't get every spot? What if the chemotherapy (chemo) didn't kill every cancer cell? What if... What if...

Bet we could all sit around and go through more and more what ifs. In the life of a cancer survivor, these questions are always popping up. Not only when you're diagnosed but months and years after. The questions may change but the feelings accompanying them don't.

My questions were simple at the start

In the beginning, my questions were seemingly simple. My what ifs were easily answered or calmed by either my doctor or personal support team. They mostly centered around the initial shock of diagnosis, treatment, and the immediate life after chemo. The questions and what ifs came fast and furious after my last three week appointment.

We get so used to seeing our lab techs, receptionists, CNAs, nurses, and oncologist at regular intervals. My appointment three weeks after I was done with chemo was a huge blow to my confidence. My what ifs became what now? Who was going to keep an eye on my body, which had already betrayed me once? How was I going to live without seeing all these medical people every three weeks. What if it came back? What if I got sick again?

Ever so slowly these new questions and what ifs fell away as I got into a new routine with my now normal. Seeing my oncologist every three months, then six  months until at my five year check I went to once a year! How could he do this? What if it comes back? What if I don't know if something is a symptom or sign of recurrence? What if there are still cancer cells floating around in my body just waiting to land and grow?

The what ifs never really go away

Now close to nine years post-diagnosis, I know the what ifs aren't going to totally go away. With each passing month and year, the questions have changed but never gone. The major anxiety of not seeing my oncologist more often has somewhat gone away. Each twinge of new pain or ache doesn't have me immediately running to call the oncology office. I now keep track of these things, write them down, and call only if the ache/pain lasts more than two weeks.

How do I manage these what ifs?

I've learned to further grow the relationship with my primary care doctor. She knows my concerns and is confident I know my body. She's open to my calls and fears when I need to have someone look at something maybe not major. She knows sometimes a cancer thriver might be a bit crazy and driven when convinced the cancer's back.

Next, I started seeing a counselor to help in dealing with anxiety, depression, and grief. We also discuss the what ifs. She has shown me how to turn the bad what ifs around. Instead of what if this is cancer again, I take a deep breath and ask what if it's just a stomach ache.

Lastly, I keep in front of me the profound words of a fellow ovarian cancer survivor. When I met her I was only eight months out of treatment, she was in the middle of fighting her second recurrence. We met at a conference. I was full of my "normal" week before my upcoming three month appointment with my gyn/onc anxiety. She looked me in the eye, then said, "Debbie, why are you letting the cancer take more from you than it already has. By thinking and worrying about if it's back you are giving it more power to take away your happiness and life. If it's there it's there. Worrying about it won't make it go away. Enjoy your days and life."

I may still have times of what if, and I'm sure you will too. In these times, I let the questions come then look them square in the eye and say "Cancer, you can't take any more of my life from me."

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