When I was a child, fear came in many forms. It was the dark abyss beneath my bed and the ominous depths of the formidable ocean. Fear was evil witches, scary monsters, and venomous snakes. It was biting into an apple and finding half of a worm. Fear didn’t, however, extend much further than the familiar. It was never about loss or mortality. The reason being that death, at that point, had never touched me. Childhood, for most, is an impenetrable bubble of unawareness and bliss. You’re free to return to the sandpit, to swing across monkey bars and splash in the pool until after dark. Life as a kid seems interminable. Infinite.
I was 10 years old when I first encountered death; when I saw an unfamiliar expression flicker across my father’s face right before he broke the news that his father had died. I still think about that expression, as if those were the last remnants of his innocence and the beginning of the end of mine. The whole ordeal of death was strange and bizarre, and I remember just wishing for it to pass. And pass it did, yet something had changed in me. A new fear had found a home in my mind. The fear of someone I loved dying. It’s one we all have; one we learn to live with and yet return to every time a friend exits this world, or a child is taken too soon. Even the death of strangers, celebrities, the old man next door — all of it affects us — if only briefly before we carry on, forgetting the truth of our mutual impermanence amid the bills to pay and dinners to be made.
This fear, however, seems not to extend to ourselves. We worry about the death of others but not so much our own. Or at least not while we’re young. Not until we are faced with our own mortality. Before getting sick, I’d hardly considered my own death. If it happened, I assumed it’d be quick, a freak accident of sorts. I wouldn’t have time to mull over all the things I still wanted to do. Cancer changed that for me. Hospital beds are conduits for introspection. How can one not question one’s existence when hooked up to a drip in a room surrounded by sickness? Suddenly I realized how much I valued my life. How much I wanted to stick around for it.
And I lived. I got better. Yes, I had flirted with death, but I’d recovered. I was fine. At least I thought I was, until a few weeks ago, when I started experiencing symptoms. One thing nobody really tells you about being in remission is the chance of relapse. You think to yourself, “Surely after months of rigorous chemotherapy, I can finally relax. Right?” Apparently not.
Living with fear of relapse can be compared to swimming in the open ocean. You know how to swim, you feel relatively safe, but there’s always the chance a shark is lurking nearby. It’s constant insecurity. I look with envy at friends my age, at how easily they brush off illness. For them, a sore throat is just a sore throat. Fatigue is just a symptom of a hectic lifestyle. Why would anyone in their 20s consider these to be signs of something more serious? But that is the reality of a cancer survivor.
For the past month, while traveling across Europe, I’ve been dealing with symptoms that have triggered every type of fear possible. It’s not only that I’m afraid of getting sick again, but rather that I’m afraid of regression. I just want to move forward, not backward.
But as I await my blood test results and sit with this insecurity, I’m starting to understand that living with fear is a collective experience, not limited to cancer survivors. We’re all fragile beings. We’re all susceptible to the variables of life. It’s OK to be afraid of an unknown future.
To curb these feelings, I try to remind myself how dull a safe and predictable future would be. Imagine if we all knew what exactly would happen tomorrow. There is so much beauty in spontaneity. I try to see it that way, instead of dwelling in the fear. I can’t know what tomorrow will bring. Yes, I can try to take control of my health, through regular checkups, routine exercise, eating a balanced diet, and filling my life with love in the form of friendships, work, creativity, and laughter. But there comes the point when I, when we, have to let go. We have to let go of the desire to control it all. We have to live fully in the moment and learn to surrender.
“We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”―Charles Bukowski
Note: Lymphoma News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Lymphoma News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to lymphoma.