Breaking Thru Scanxiety
By: Alona Metz, Founder of Thrivacious and BRCA thriver extraordinaire.
Today I had my first ultrasound to screen for ovarian cancer since I turned 35. As a woman who carries the BRCA1 gene mutation, I have up to an 80% chance of getting breast cancer (which already happened) and up to a 50% chance of getting ovarian cancer in my lifetime. Ovarian cancer is one of the deadliest cancers out there, because it is almost impossible to detect at early stages. The guidelines recommend that women with BRCA1 surgically remove their ovaries to reduce risk by age 40, and now many studies are saying that it is better to do this surgery by age 35.
My age. 35. But I can’t remove my ovaries yet! I haven’t yet had the opportunity to have children and I am not ready to give that up. I’m also not ready to go into permanent and immediate menopause, which is what will happen to me when my ovaries come out.
So every 6 months for the past 6 years, I lie back on a table while some technician or doctor probes me with a stick to make sure that they don’t see any tumors. As you can imagine, this is not only physically uncomfortable but it induces a lot of anxiety.
I thought I had gotten used to it, but in the nights leading up to this appointment I found myself tossing and turning. This morning I could barely eat. The procedure itself took about 30 minutes, including a waiting period while the technician talked to the radiologist and then came back in to take more images. Apparently that’s the protocol here in San Francisco, but since that had never happened to me before it really scared me. I asked her point blank, “does this mean something is wrong?” “Not necessarily, probably not,” was the response.
“Your doctor will contact you to give you the results sometime soon.”
Of course I immediately emailed the doctor when I got home to beg for a quick response. Hopefully I’ll get one, and hopefully, everything will be fine. I try to tell myself that worrying won’t help anything, and that I should just go about my life and G-d forbid if something is wrong I will deal with it when I find out. Easier said than done.
But I realized that I am upset at more than just this one test. Aside from my acute anxiety, I feel a deep sadness, an anger, a feeling of helplessness. It’s so unfair that I have to go through this every 6 months! It’s so unfair that this terrible, life-threatening thing is on the table! It’s terribly frightening to feel like you have a ticking time bomb in your body and there is nothing you can do to lower the chances of it going off. It’s just a lottery – some people’s explode, and others don’t. Would you want to take a chance of carrying a bomb that is 50% likely to explode?
Here I am, 35, still developing my career, planning to get married in just a few months, and hoping to have the opportunity to start a family with my partner before the cords are cut. And to think that all that could be swept out from under my feet and potentially taken away with a simple little phone call…
I imagine this is what many people in my situation feel each time they go in for these checkups. What cancer survivors feel every time they have to get a scan to see if anything has come back, or whenever they feel a pain, or a feeling of being unwell. Not a fun place to be.
So there I am, pacing around my apartment, trying to make sense of my feelings. After letting some of the steam out, which is necessary sometimes, I started logic-talking to myself: Will worrying now make a difference? It’s terrible that I have to deal with this, but isn’t it good that at least I’ve got my eye on it, and that the risk right now is still relatively low?
Aren’t I doing everything I possibly can to stay healthy, including exercising frequently, eating a low sugar, anti-cancer diet, and reducing exposure to environmental carcinogens? And of course, the real question: Aren’t we all going to die someday anyways?
Yes, we are. No one can escape it. Some people can accept it and do not fear death, while others (myself included) panic when we think about the ultimate end. But still, there it is, an unchangeable fact.
Suddenly I was reminded of why I do what I do every day – why I encourage others to be “thrivers” and empower them to go beyond surviving cancer to achieve their dreams. We cannot control how long we will live. But we can control how well we will live. I repeated that to myself out loud several times.
And then that spark ignited inside of me, that fire that says FUCK YOU CANCER, I am not letting you take this day away from me. I’ve survived cancer before and I will fucking survive it again if I have to. And in the meantime, I am going to soak up every bit of joy and love that this lifetime has to offer, no matter how long that lifetime lasts. I am going to break through that concrete barrier that tells me I can’t – because I CAN and I WILL. I am stronger than my genes and more powerful than my fear.
P.S. 5 minutes after this epiphany of strength, my doctor sent me a message saying the scan was fine. Sighhhhhhhhhhh of relief. Until next time, but when next time comes I am going to remember what I told myself today and I am not going to let that fear and worry overcome me.