I’m writing this on the eve of my 32nd cancer call. For those of you who have never heard of such a communication, it’s the term I use after I have been tested for cancer and I am awaiting the results. I must admit, my score is awesome. Cancer: 1, Me: 30. That pesky little 1 doesn’t seem to stack up to 30 when I see it written here in black and white. However, having lived through getting the cancer call in the affirmative 1 time was enough to change my life forever.
My friends know by now that I allow myself 2 weeks out of the 52 week calendar year to freak the fuck out about my cancer status. I had a particularly gnarly type of cancer called Chordoma. The average life span of a Chordoma survivor was 5–7 years when I first got diagnosed in 2013. With the advances made in medicine, the average life span is 9 years now. The fact that I am on the brink of my 7th year Chordoma free is no small feat. I ping pong back and forth between, “I did it! I beat the odds!” to “I should have died 7 years ago, why am I still here?” to “If I am just like the statistics, it’s any day now that my life is going to take a dramatic plunge again.”
I’ll be the first to confess, it is a very demanding way to move through the world. Being faced with my mortality in such a concrete way is frightening, humbling, and something I’d happily choose not to revisit every 6 months for the rest of my life. I have developed a legitimate case of medical PTSD. There is a term in the cancer survivor community called scanxiety. It references the particular anxiety one goes through when being scanned for reoccurrences of cancer. Whether it’s an MRI, a PETscan, CT, or ultrasound, many survivors who have tested positive for cancer once relive that possibility every time they get scanned.
Over the years I have identified several things that have helped calm my body, mind, and soul when getting scanned and waiting for the cancer call. The following acts are universal when it comes to self-care. One needn’t be a cancer survivor to benefit from any one of these tips.
If you haven’t heard of tapping, I encourage you to check it out. There are several practitioners on YouTube that guide you through mini tapping sessions for free. Brad Yates is a practitioner I stumbled upon one insomniac ridden night awaiting my current cancer status. I have been using his video clips to calm my nervous system ever since. While some of his clips are a little too woo-woo for me, I found his videos specific to decreasing fear, anxiety, and anger to be surprisingly supportive. I have had a 100% success rate in feeling better by the end of a video than I did when I began. In the case of scanxiety, it may not completely subside, yet it decreases it enough that I can focus my thoughts in more pleasant directions.
The premise behind tapping is acknowledging the feelings you are experiencing as you tap meridian points on your body that relieve anxiety and induce a state of calm. There is something incredibly soothing about having a physical directive to focus my attention on. The repetition of tapping the points with my fingertips allows me to focus on something concrete and tangible, controllable even. Voicing my fears and anxieties honors my feelings allowing them legitimate airtime. I am not denying, bypassing, or judging my emotions. I am respecting my feelings without allowing them to take over and drive me into drama or trauma land. It’s akin to parenting; allowing your child to experience their true sentiments, yet holding a reliable structure that contains their experience ensuring safe emotional space. I find tapping to be a powerful balance.
Living post-cancer is incredibly unyielding when treatments render you sicker with other diagnoses that make life harder to live, which mine did. I am compromised every single moment of every single day by varying degrees of pain and mobility issues. 50 weeks out of the year I don’t complain much about how hard it is to simply stay alive. The 2 weeks when I am getting tested and am waiting for the cancer call I give myself full permission to be authentic about how much this hurts.
I allow myself two freebies per year during the 2 weeks I go through the testing to confirm my cancer-free status. One week happens every 6 months. During that week I expect nothing of myself. Absolutely nothing. Ahead of time, I stock my fridge with food, I make sure my laundry is done, and my prescriptions are filled. This way I don’t have one logistical care in the world. I am free to freak out. I allow myself to cry vociferously whenever I need to, and tears are plentiful. I give myself permission to talk with my loved ones about how scared I am. I grumble out loud how much I hate getting tested. Some years I even allow myself to post on social media asking for support and prayers. I give myself a pass on everything. I give my incredibly valiant inner cheerleader the week off, and allow my inner doomsayer out of the closet.
3. Therapeutic Massage
For those of us who have been subjected to extensive medical testing, our bodies have been through dozens of invasions. I happen to be writing this during the COVID 19 pandemic of 2020, so I am aware of an even deeper visceral level that the testing touches. After being in self-isolation and only touching another human being 1 time in over 4 months, I felt the extremity of the medical testing procedures even more acutely. As someone who’s primary language of love is touch, it was extremely jarring to have a breathing tube stuck down my throat, a catheter plunged up my urethra, and an intravenous needle stuck in my hand as my first forms of touch after 4 months of complete deprivation. Realizing this was going to be the case, I had the idea of scheduling a therapeutic massage before my procedure, and another one afterward to counterbalance the trauma my body would endure. For a variety of reasons, I was unable to receive a massage this round before going to the hospital. I can attest to the difference in the lack it made. In times past when I have scheduled positive healing touch alongside any invasive procedures, it gives my body a fighting chance of not becoming one big ball of nerves.
Imagine you are walking barefoot in the desert with no hat, shoes, sunglasses, or water. The sun heating your skin, your breath becoming more labored with every step on blistered feet. Envision walking this way for hours, days even, until every muscle ached with exhaustion and you begged for water. This is akin to cancer treatment. Right at the point of collapse, a beautiful being swoops in, picks you up and delivers you to a gorgeous running river with water so cool and clear you can see your toes as you wade in. You surrender into the gentle waves feeling the heat roll off you like the ripples of the giddy splash your body makes. When you come up for air this gorgeous being hands you a fresh coconut filled with organic juice and a bamboo straw. You sit on the floor of the river, emerged in cool, cleansing water as you guzzle in hydration as fervently as the air you breathe. These, my friends, are what the 3 self-care tips in action feel like. Okay, okay… They may not be exactly the same thing, but you catch my drift. Tending to your beautiful self in loving, intentional, and compassionate ways makes all the difference in navigating through medical treatment. Heck, it makes all the difference in navigating through life. So what are you waiting for? Go get your massage on.
Author’s note: it’s 24 hours later. I got the cancer call. I thought you might like to know where I stand. Me: 31, Cancer: 1.