My permanent part time job is to worry. I’ve held this position for over 30 years. On my resumé, I describe it as progressively responsible. I’ve moved up to management, and have an ever-growing number of people to be concerned about – two of whom I built myself, with worry in mind. Even people for whom I have no direct accountability have made it onto my roster.
I never signed a worry contract. I don’t get paid, not even in appreciation. Because worry, when you can’t keep it to yourself - and I rarely can - is less a skill to be celebrated, than an annoyance, albeit an understandable annoyance. But someone has to do it. There is, after all, a direct correlation between love and worry. Don’t let anyone tell you that’s not true.
My ever-expanding job description demands a set of core competencies. These include whining, pacing, tearing up, moving purposelessly through the house/office with goals in mind while accomplishing nothing, and transitioning within seconds from worry to anger or relief, when the subject of my concern walks through the door or calls. These core competencies have long been the butt of Jewish mother jokes. But I have made them fresh and modern by wearing skinny jeans, and saying fuck a lot.
Sadly, worry is undervalued. There are no worry awards, unless cramps or the exhaustion cup counts. It’s not fair.
I may be a creative thinker, but my worry takes limited though dramatic forms – dead, dead in an alley, dead in a car, dead in a plane - basically terminal. Late, delayed, busy, stopped for a snack along the way, forgot to call, no battery, ran into a friend, benign. Optimism and positive thinking - not so much my areas of expertise.
So what does all this have to do with cancer? Are you fucking kidding me? Last October I was handed the biggest worry gig of my life. Everything else pales in comparison. Of course worry has a way of looking retrospectively unimpressive, but I know how much effort and energy went into each and every one of those earlier gigs.
Initially it was overwhelming, but I have successfully wrestled my cancer panic into a box. Unfortunately I forgot to get out of the box first. Packing-taped myself in from the inside. Another skill.
Thursday night, before my oncology appointment, I was up at 3:00 am haggling with the future. On the electronic symptom screening sheet at the hospital the next morning, I checked off 0 for depression, but 3/10 on the anxiety scale. A slight underestimation, perhaps, but it’s not constant, so I try to estimate the mean or median. That’s how I got 3.
I talked to Dr. J. and Dr B. about what I’ve already discussed with you – my fear of treatment ending, and what’s to come.
I realize now that the 18, 24 or 30 year out remission stories likely don’t apply to me. Oddly, aggressive lymphoma is curable; indolent, not so much. I’ll probably be back here at Odette Cancer Centre. And then there will be more treatment. And so on. Hopefully, we’ll cobble together my decades to come. I'm told that’s possible.
Dr. B is a positive and rather matter-of-fact kind of person. Unlike Dr J, she doesn’t pull out helpful stats, ooze empathy, or make me want to leap off my seat and hug her. She’s practical, always smiling, and has little time (it seems to me) for anxiety. It’s not her life, not her cancer, but I get the feeling she simply doesn’t buy into worry. I try not to see it as an undervaluing of my life’s work. Her advice:
I try to get my patients to focus on excellent outcomes, on long remissions, because why bother thinking about the alternative. How’s that going to help anything?
Clearly she doesn’t do psychiatry. The approach is simplistic, could almost fit on a T-shirt. But she’s right. Worry is not a skill, it’s a stain.
I’m an old dog, hard-wired to jump at the angst bone, and I can jump impressively high. But it’s an unsatisfying catch. I have no clue how to learn a new trick, but I’m willing.