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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Damn the Uncertainty

If only....Sign at a local church

One thing is certain about aging. It will be filled with uncertainty. I remember a friend who was considering early retirement and, therefore a reduced pension, say, "If only I knew how long I'm going to live, then I'd know how much money I'd need." Of course, she couldn't know and, playing it safe, she decided to stay long enough at her job to garner a full pension. Uncertainty hangs over everyone. Like the saying goes:"you could die in a car crash tomorrow." But it is the awareness of uncertainty, the sense of the fragility of our lives and our choices, that grows stronger as we age.

Throw an illness, like cancer or heart disease, into the mix and the
uncertainly can become paralyzing for those afflicted and those around them. I'm in the midst now of trying to not let uncertainty control my feelings, my outlook and my plans. To not let worry ruin the good in my life. And I am really struggling with that.

Peter has finished his cancer treatments: his radiation, his chemotherapy and his surgery.* Now, he is recovering and getting back to his writing projects, starting to think ahead, talking about a road trip soon and a longer trip in the fall. I'm still not able to join in wholeheartedly.

This week we met the oncology team and they seemed quite certain that Peter is doing well now that the tumour is gone from his esophagus and the nearby lymph nodes. But the surgeon is still concerned so we have to wait for a future CT scan for more news.

Some people - and maybe I'm one - are more anxious about uncertainty. Perhaps I'm what Julie K. Noren, the author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, calls a defensive pessimist, someone who uses worry and low expectations to prepare for the worst and think out strategies. Noren says the "half-empty" people aren't worse off than the "half-full people" if they use their pessimism as a tool. That's worked for me time and time again with short-term anxiety about traveling to a dangerous place or taking on new work and life challenges. In those cases, it meant planning for all possible outcomes and not allowing my fear to become panic. In creative processes, I knew I didn't care enough about a project if I wasn't constantly uncertain about its outcome. The accompanying anxiety forced those back-of-the-mind solutions to pop into my brain.

But cancer seems different and this uncertainty is going to be long term. Even patients declared cured of cancer walk through life wondering if the cancer will return. So do their loved ones. "Cancer is a tricky disease," the oncologist admitted. "If we see it again, it's usually in the first two years."

I looked online for some guidance on living with this kind of uncertainty and found the expected "list," advice of The American Cancer Society for patients, advice from a psychologist in Oprah Magazine and lots of guidance on living in the moments from Buddhist sites. There wasn't anything particularly new to me. I did already know I should be trying stress reduction techniques, mindfulness, focusing on what I can control. But that's the rub. We can do what we can to safeguard Peter's health and the life we've built for ourselves but there are no set strategies to stave off cancer's return, no map I can draw to gain control of my own anxiety. I admire people who can truly live in the moment with spectres of disease or financial disasters looming over them. I'm just not sure how to become like them.

What did get me thinking about how to rise above the anxiety was a reference to Eleanor Roosevelt and her views on fear in one article. "You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face...You  must do the thing you think you cannot do." It reminded me that for years I kept another quote of hers nearby. "Do one thing every day that scares you." I can't say I've done something frightening every day but the idea of it has helped me to get on a motorcycle for the first time, travel into a city divided by civil war, drop a job that wasn't working for me. But for me, trying something scary always came with a backup plan.

Now it's this anxiety over cancer that scares me more than anything. But I'll be damned if it's going to rob me of the joy I feel in my garden, the pleasure of an outing with Peter, my desire to learn new skills. I don't have a clear road map yet. I'll keep reading about it and keep Eleanor's quote in mind each morning, trying to fill each day with more life than fear.

The other day over lunch at our sunny table, Peter and I pulled out old maps and planned a short road trip. He grew excited about a museum we could see, a bar that specialized in grappa. I grew excited about traveling again, of seeing new scenery and making new memories that didn't involve hospitals, nursing clinics, cancer centres and fear. Happy at the possibility that there will be days without fear over the uncertainty. D

*Peter is blogging about his cancer treatments and his own emotions in his
 The Man Who Learned To Walk Three Times blog.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your story and thoughts. Even though I am neither aging nor dealing with a major illness of a family member I can relate to this because I struggle with anxiety about the future quite a bit. I hope that Peter is fully recovered and that you both can enjoy the upcoming beautiful weather to the fullest.