It may be gone, but it's never forgotten

A friend of mine recently found out her cancer has returned—only months after giving birth to a healthy baby boy—and it reminded me of this post I wrote back in July for the Thrive Through Cancer blog. She's on my mind all the time—but that's also for selfish reasons: What if mine comes back, too?

Originally posted here on July 1, 2015.

About a month ago, the “normal” tension in my neck and shoulders—from carrying around a far-too-heavy bag, dealing with the stress of working multiple jobs, and managing a house renovation—started to get worse. A strange, slightly painful, tingling sensation had started radiating from my right upper shoulder, moving up the back of my neck and to my scalp.

When I tried massaging my upper right shoulder—that spot near where your neck and shoulder connect—to alleviate some of the pain, I noticed a couple of half-inch nodules that didn’t seem like your standard muscle knots. I tried to ignore them and decided to watch them for a week to see if they would go away on their own; however, as a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor, there was always that little voice in the back of my head—What if your cancer is back?

Seven years ago, I had been scratching my other shoulder and discovered some lumps along my collar bone. The following months were filled with doctor’s appointments and differing levels of biopsies, resulting in my cancer diagnosis less than a week after I graduated from college. Six months of chemotherapy later, I was cured; but that didn’t mean my mind was immediately set at ease.

This time, seven years in the future, things were different—I was now far from a college student about to leap out into the great unknown of the “real world”—but it was an equally difficult time in my life, full of change: In short, there’s no good time to “get cancer.” I had just accepted a new job and would be moving from Seattle to the Bay Area with my husband in a couple of months. We were about to wrap up the renovation of our duplex home and find tenants for the units. Everything seemed to be falling into place; but all of that could quickly come crumbling down if the C-word returned, uninvited, back into my vocabulary.

After a week, the nodules were still there so—after Googling for maps of the lymphatic system and discovering there, in fact, could be some lymph nodes in my aching shoulder region—I nervously emailed my oncologist whom I hadn’t seen in a few years. Being one of the few young adult patients he’s served, I must have stood out to him in his inbox because he responded quickly, forwarding me on to his nurse who said there technically wasn’t an appointment slot available for me that day, but to come in anyway and they could probably squeeze me in for a quick checkup.

At the checkup, my oncologist did the typical “squish all the squishy parts” routine—neck, abdomen, groin—searching for enlarged lymph nodes; and felt the nodules in my shoulder, but said it would have been a strange location for lymph nodes (phew). He said that I seemed okay and that I should just watch the nodules for any changes: Essentially, “Have a nice life.”

Really? That’s it? It almost felt like a letdown. I had been preparing for all these terrible scenarios in my head—maybe the job I was about to leave would take me back… maybe I wouldn’t even need chemo… but maybe I would and I would also need radiation, which I didn’t have the first time around… I really don't want to have a balding mullet again... what if it’s a worse stage than last time?

Even though my oncologist said I was fine, it seemed too good to be true. Regardless of his conclusion, I still felt like I needed to find out what what was wrong, and get rid of the pain (and the neurosis) caused by the nodules.

A friend of mine had recommended a certain acupuncturist to me a number of months prior and, while I’d never tried acupuncture before, I thought it might help with the nodules, or at least help me relax a little. The acupuncturist ended up prescribing me a castor oil treatment, which was messy and a bit smelly, but ended up dissolving the nodules—likely cysts, she thought—completely after just a few days.

While I’m relieved the lumps are now gone, it’s still so disheartening to me that this feeling of dread will never completely go away. Whenever I notice something different about my body, my mind defaults to, What if your cancer is back? And it’s not like I’m a stereotypical hypochondriac who doesn’t have anything health-related to worry about: I am a cancer survivor and I have a legitimate reason for my concern.

At nearly 30 I shouldn’t have to worry about cancer, but I do. It’s just another part of my life and it will be with me for always. But until I actually have something to worry about, I’m going to go about my life, enjoy my newfound love of acupuncture, and work towards finding more balance and getting rid of the so-called “normal” tension in my back. I’m sure my whole body and mind will thank me for it.

Paige PauliComment