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What, Me Worry? And Worry, and Worry

I know a woman who has lived more than 30 years after a diagnosis of estrogen-negative breast cancer. When I asked her recently if she still worried about it returning, she said, “Not really.” I love that the fear eventually goes away, but I hope it is far sooner than 30 years, as by then I will be 90 and, at the rate I am going, I will no doubt have already forgotten just about everything.

Now, though, the concern remains. It’s not a constant worry, not something I jump to immediately. I do not live a paranoid existence, waiting for the next health shoe to drop. But occasionally, when I have a minor issue, two and two adds up to cancer in my crazy mind.

I have a history of stomach ulcers, which I usually can control with diet. It has been almost eight years since they bothered me. Lately, though, I have ignored my usual healthy eating and have been having too much Diet Coke, fried foods, and coffee.

So my stomach has been hurting. I self-medicate — antacids, aloe vera juice, lots of water. And, of course, no Diet Coke, fried foods, and coffee. And I am fine.

But it was a long winter and I ended up with a nasty cold that did not go away, so I resorted to the comfort of Alka Seltzer Plus, which clears up my head marvelously. It also contains aspirin, which is a sin against ulcers.

So this past week, I was awakened at night with the stomach pain. Pain that kept me up. I’d had a martini and knew my stomach could not handle it.

But I worried that I had stomach cancer. Before I had breast cancer, I never jumped to that conclusion. I knew it was my ulcers acting up and I dealt with it. If I needed stronger medicine, I got it.

This time I decided to go to the doctor for peace of mind. He, however, also did not like the idea of stomach pain waking me up, so he ordered an endoscopy. “I do not think I am going to find anything, but I would feel better if we checked you out,” he said.

He also raised the specter of stomach cancer, something he has not mentioned in the nearly 20 years I have been going to him. But there was the big red flag was on my chart: breast cancer. Breast cancer once means the possibility some other cancer eventually. Of course, I always had the risk of cancer in my future, but it did not seem all that real. I was happily oblivious to that possibility.

And I am now told by doctor after doctor that my risk is elevated. I am at code orange, always open to a full-body search, that happy oblivion gone.

And so, despite my reluctance to have unnecessary tests, despite fairly conclusive evidence that this was all related to stomach ulcers, I had the endoscopy.

I am fine. My stomach was simply irritated. The doctor took a biopsy and, even though results are not back, he says he is confident it is not cancer. The stomach looks and acts like it has in the past. I also am confident it is nothing more than irritation.

He gave me stronger medicine and I now stay away from problem foods and aspirin. And I no longer am worried about stomach cancer.

Mostly. And for now. I am almost five years past diagnosis and I may celebrate my anniversary by instituting a no-worry rule.

I do worry, though, about whether I can pull that off.

[Editor's Note: This post originally ran on February 20, 2011. Pat is now almost six years past diagnosis.]

This post was borrowed with permission from Pat's personal blog, Positives About Negative. Pat is the author of Surviving Triple Negative Breast Cancer and the co-author of The Magazine From Cover to Cover, also published by Oxford. She has been a magazine writer, editor, consultant, and professor for more than 35 years. She headed Drake University's magazine sequence for 22 years before taking over as director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2004. In May 2006, Pat was diagnosed with early-stage hormone negative breast cancer and retired from Drake in 2007 to focus on health writing and her health. She had surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, and is now healthy, fit, and cancer-free.

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