By Heather Millar
Last Friday, I went in for what I hope is my very last clinical trial appointment, a brain MRI and a series of cognitive tests to see if—18 months after my last chemo infusion—I have any residual problems related to what’s commonly called “chemo brain.”
For about two years, I have been meeting periodically with the clinical coordinator for this study. She’s a recent college grad, a bright young woman who’s planning a career as a nurse practitioner. We’ve become friendly. She always asks about my daughter. I always ask about her father, who has myeloma. We talk about schools and recipes and science and cancer.
This time, my young friend is upset. She’s devoted to her father, and a recent test showed microscopic traces of blood in his urine. Blood in your urine is almost always a warning flag; but it doesn’t have to be a death sentence. Sure, it might be bladder, kidney, or prostate cancer. Or it could just be an infection.
My young friend, who’s obviously comfortable with science and medical databases, was off and running. She had researched every possible reason for this microscopic bit of blood in her Dad’s urine. She was running down studies on various cancers. She was looking into clinical trials. She was already figuring out the survival odds for prostate cancer patients who also have myeloma. She was driving herself nuts with worry, all the while keeping her father oblivious to her concerns.
I’m all for being informed. Lord knows, my response to a cancer diagnosis was to turn it into a research project. But this is what I told my young friend, “Stop!”
There are so many possibilities, so many different outcomes, so many different variables in any cancer patient’s journey; in any patient’s journey for that matter. It is simply impossible to nail down every fact about every potential twist in the road. Don’t cross a bridge until you come to it. Don’t worry about a test result until you get the test result.
When I was first diagnosed, a friend and breast cancer survivor gave me a very, very good piece of advice: “Don’t cling to any test result, or any bit of information. Because it will inevitably change.”
And that’s exactly what happened: At first, the docs told me my case was “just early stage, very treatable, probably no chemo.” Then, as more test results came in, the genetic profile of my cancer made it clear that, yes indeed, I would have chemo, and radiation too.
I hate saccharin exclamations about how cancer makes you a better person. Isn’t there a less harrowing way to become a better person? But I will say this: I am actually a less anxious person after enduring the crucible of cancer. What else can life throw at me, really? Short of a metastatic diagnosis, what can really be so, so bad that I can’t get through it?
I could make myself nuts reflecting on a study that shows that only 63 percent of patients with my “Oncotype DX” genetic profile make it to five years disease-free. But I just choose not to do that. What’s the point? Beyond eating right, exercising and limiting my wine consumption, I have almost no control over whether my cancer recurs. So I try to put the worry aside.
If and when my cancer recurs, I will throw myself at it whole-heartedly, researching everything I can find out, and choosing the most aggressive treatment I can find. Until then, I will not worry, or at least, not too much.
Likewise, I told my young friend, if the blood in her Dad’s urine turns out to be serious, she can turn her considerable intelligence to fighting for the best treatment for her father. But flipping out before she knows what it is? Honestly, that will just drive her crazy. It is driving her crazy.
Life is full of bumps, full of uncertainty. We don’t need to manufacture it. What do you think?