Thursday, November 12, 2009


“Canceritis,” a perennial subject in cancer circles, is an informal diagnosis of cancer anxiety.

Say you’ve had cancer, you’re in remission, and you get a headache. What’s the first thing you think of? Despite the fact that 999 out of a thousand headaches aren’t from cancer, and that people who’ve had cancer can still get plain old headaches. Because of your history, it’s natural that you go to this worst-case scenario first.

Canceritis bedevils almost everyone who’s had cancer, and it seems to be permanent. Sure, every time it happens you get a little more used to it, so a little less anxious, but it persists anyway. Where once you were relatively carefree, now this invisible little mischief-maker rides constantly on your shoulder.

“I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” said a friend who’s lived with active metastatic lung cancer almost twenty-two years now. “I co-exist with my cancer. If it wants to go away, that’s fine with me, but if it stays, that’s something I accept, too. It reminds me that I’m always vulnerable. With or without cancer, as a matter of fact, we’re all mortal, and we don’t know when we’re going to shuffle off. Knowing that in my bones, I don’t put anything off. And I suspect that consciously living with mortality is somehow therapeutic for me.”

That’s how she deals with canceritis. Others find other strategies. I heard of a man with prostate cancer who lived at the edge of his chair in regard to his periodic “prostate-specific antigen,” or “PSA,” blood tests. Slight, medically insignificant variations in the result would send him into emotional frenzies. One evening he decided to calm himself by taking a drive through the city. Never mind which city, but a stray bullet passed through his car window. Now he doesn’t worry about his PSA so much.