I received a certificate of completion, signed by all of the radiation nurses, and stuffed it away into my binder full of cancer paraphernalia. Then three days later, the skin on my chest and back finally began to turn pink, then dark red, then tan, with lots of itching in between color changes, which needed lots of lotion to curb the annoyance.
The burning in my throat lingered for a week post-radiation, causing distress with each swallowing, then it suddenly disappeared. I can't even recall when it really went away because it happened so quickly, practically healing itself overnight.
I noticed a minuscule, light blue bruise on my left arm...
And I've had a variation of the same cough for months. It probably came on the heels of a cold from a few weeks ago, but...
Last weekend my back began to feel strained, like a knot was forming in the muscle around my right scapula. It came out of nowhere and kept me up for most of the night, pinching...
Hot flashes appeared again, lasting a few minutes throughout the day, with night sweats that have been different in nature from the menopausal ones I'd been used to before cancer hit.
These are some of the minor symptoms that I had when I was first diagnosed. The cough, hot flashes, and bruise can easily be written off as symptoms of a cold, lingering menopause, and clumsiness.
But the same kind of pinched muscle in my right scapula that first began on my left scapula eight months ago? That's what started the whole symptomology that lead to my diagnosis in May.
My mind runs wild with worry. And questions.
My sister reminded me that I have a choice to feel paranoid, so I tried not to panic. And thankfully, I had a scheduled appointment to see my medical oncologist two days later where I would have an opportunity to ask all of my silly and paranoid questions.
Like: can cancer recur this quickly, just ten days after treatment ended?
And if not, that would explain these symptoms as belonging to other reasons, but the muscle that has constricted into a knot? Well, I suppose that can be attributed to stress, which I've been trying really hard to steer clear of. Stressful thoughts, that is.
Like paranoia and worry.
The day before my appointment, I had to ask for an emergency massage from my therapist. The knot had tightened its grip, making my workday long and uncomfortable. Thankfully, after a deep-muscle work out, I felt a bit better, but it didn't last long enough. I had another fitful night of sleep, awakening every few hours to re-heat my heating pad or take pain relievers.
Hmmm, this was beginning to resemble the weeks before and after my first chemotherapy, carrying around my heating pad as my constant companion, while taking analgesics round-the-clock.
By morning, it wasn't any better. In fact, within a few hours, I was feeling electric shocks in my right shoulder. It seemed to run along the course of my radiation line, so I assumed that my nerves were being jolted back to life. I was to see my doctor that day, so I went about the day as planned: Christmas shopping, acupuncture, then MD.
When I explained the symptoms to him a few hours later, I struggled to find the words that didn't make me cry from worry, and he politely cut me off. "I'm 99% sure that this is a residual side effect from radiation, that's all."
I sighed with relief, mostly because it made sense.
He prescribed some Prednisone to ease the pain and reduce any inflammation, then asked me: "Have you ever been in a serious car accident?"
"People who are in accidents are afraid to get back into a car for days, weeks, sometimes months. You're going through the same thing. Your body has been under attack for nearly a year and it only makes sense that you're paranoid about new symptoms that may resemble the old ones."
"My job," he continued, "is to make you feel comfortable, not just medically. And when you're not comfortable, I need to figure out why. It's my job to get you back into the car."
I nearly cried.
"The prognosis for your cancer has a 3-5 year cure rate of 85-90% and that's really, really good," he continued. "In the meantime, I will be seeing you every three months, then every six months, probably for 2-3 years."
My paranoia quieted down, and my trust in my overall health and emotional wellness returned.
Besides, he and I were very impressed with my perfect blood work. Not one single value was abnormal.
So I filled the prescription, returned home, and was surprised when I had another fitful sleep. By morning, the intense pain in my back was gone, but it had also traveled to my ribs and underarm.
Then it hit me.
Oh shit! This is how shingles started!
Twelve years ago, I'd had a similar experience of pain that started in my back, then within days, had traveled to my ribs.
I can't believe my doc and I missed this.
I had been so consumed with worry that lymphoma was returning, that no other possibility even entered my brain. Our discussion did not even veer into other considerations.
I immediately phoned the office and a triage nurse answered. I explained what I believed was happening and within an hour I had received a new prescription. By days end, I was feeling a bit better.
But new paranoia was trying to settle in, too.
In May of this year, just after I was diagnosed, I was told by my first oncologist that there is a definite link between having shingles and getting lymphoma later in life.
So if the shingles on my left side from over a decade ago caused lymphoma on my left side this year, might this right-sided shingles be a precursor to getting right-sided lymphoma later?
To ease my concern, one of my coworkers posed an interesting theory: the first time shingles appeared, I hardly knew I had it since it never produced a rash, only pain. This time, the pain is much less intense from what I remember, but the rash is obvious. I have a line of pink dots running from my sternum, across my right breast, ending at my right scapula.
It was a bit itchy at times, but after a few days, it and the pain in my muscles and bones is finally subsiding.
Perhaps, my coworker theorized, because shingles stayed "trapped" within my body last time, never appearing on my skin as a rash, maybe that's why lymphoma erupted 12 years later. Now, this episode is clearly showing its presence, so maybe it will not have to morph into lymphoma later.
I like that explanation, whether it fits or not.
But either way, it quickly dawned on me that fretting about future events now is simply futile. It's a huge waste of emotional energy that I cannot afford to entertain.
So I plan on not allowing my fears to overtake me.
After all, I am well today because of my vigilant efforts that complemented medical technologies. And if cancer should return one day, I am well-equipped to handle it.
Isn't that the point of hardships, to discover what we're really made of? We have an innate capacity to endure whatever life presents, and that's very good news, indeed.
So if you'll excuse me, I have a bold and beautiful life to live.
I'll start by getting back into my car...