The woman with the crisp white coat who showed me into the darkened ultra-sound room was familiar. In fact, I remembered her well, because her name is Claudia, and she is from Brazil. It’s an odd examination, the ultra-sound: you are in a darkened room, in close proximity to a technician who slides a wand up and down your goop-covered abdomen (in my case), and stares at a screen, without uttering a word on what she is seeing. You can’t make aimless chitchat because she is concentrating so you are left with eyes turned towards the ceiling, wondering if she is seeing something you are not going to know about until your doctor calls you.
For years I worried I would get cancer. It was an irrational fear, as cancer doesn’t exactly run rampant in my family. Then I did get cancer, I got through it and I thought I was done worrying. Or, at least, I was done worrying about my ability to get through something so life-changing. I knew I would have to live with this shadow for the rest of my days but I was so happy at having come out at the other end somewhat unscathed that I believed I would be able to manage my worry.
It’s commonly accepted now that patients who have gone through potentially lethal diseases suffer from a form of PTSD, and more studies and programs are targeted at helping them regain the emotional balance they had before getting sick. I can attest to that. A year after my surgery, after weeks of radiation therapy, endless blood tests and doctor’s visits, nearing my year mark mammogram, which was already making me tense, I began experiencing a weird pain in my abdomen. First I decided it was stress related, then maybe it was all the food I ate over Christmas, but the dull ache refused go away.
After driving my family to insanity, constantly worrying about what it could be, I finally go to the doctor’s. She has no explanation so she sends me for an ultrasound. Because of my history, she says. That is what they all say: I sneeze and I get sent for an MRI, because of my history. No matter how well I feel, how healthy I look, cancer is not a disease I will ever be cured of. It might never rear its ugly head again but, then again, it might. Some people have smaller chances than others but one is never off the hook completely.
During the three weeks I was experiencing this vague and mysterious pain, I could actually see my mind slipping and knotting and taking into consideration the most outlandish outcomes. Yet, I was unable to stop it. For all my familiarity with meditation and mindfulness, the shock I experienced the day I discovered I had breast cancer was still making its ripples felt, clouding my judgment. And there was nothing I could do. I realized the magnitude of what I had felt that day, and the monumental effort I made to shut everything out so I could take care of it without looking too far into the distance. If a car backfiring can drop a war veteran right back in the middle of combat, an unexplained pain can convince me to think some other part of me is broken.
It is no way of living, I kept reminding myself, pushing it aside and trying to get on with my days. I have to strike a balance between rationality and fate. The ultra-sound revealed nothing was amiss. All my internal organs are working the way they are supposed to and doing fine, thank you very much. The dull pain is still unexplained. My doctor suggested I see a gastroenterologist. I probably won’t. I am chucking it down to stress and moving on, hoping to have learnt a lesson for the next time something hurts. Which it will, because, at my age, body parts hurt for no reason other than repeated use for over half a century. Eventually, something will break down for good. In the meantime, I am determined to train the monkey in my head to be a bit more disciplined.