False Alarms

Six months ago, I had a swollen lymph gland in my groin and a horribly distended belly. I was so uncomfortable, but I was also in a panic. I had learned that one of the signs of gynecological cancer recurrence was ascites, an accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity that made the belly swell. An enlarged lymph node in the groin was just icing on the cake—another indication that the cancer was back. I was sure…but I was wrong. A quick trip to the oncologist and an abdominal sonogram, and multiple doctors agreed there was no cancer. No explanation for the swollen belly or lymph gland, but I was assured it was a false alarm and there was no reason to worry. And mostly I haven’t.

But two months ago, I was awakened in the middle of the night with excruciating pain under my left arm. I assumed I had tweaked something on the tennis court that morning, so took some ibuprofen and went back to sleep. It was still uncomfortable the next day, and worse still, I had a palpable lump. I was terrified—it could only mean one thing. I was visiting my 92-year-old mother and didn’t want to worry her if I could help it, so I bided my time. My annual mammogram happened to be scheduled for the next week. I would find out soon enough. In the meantime, I researched swollen lymph glands when no one was watching, had an extra glass of wine with dinner so I would be sure to fall asleep easily, and most importantly, kept a smile on my face and the terror under wraps for a whole week.

The thought that I had cancer again was overwhelming. Yes, I knew I had the strength to get through diagnosis and treatment again, but I also knew what an ordeal it would be. I knew that it would be hard, every second of every day for months on end. I knew that I would go through intense anxiety, months of not recognizing my body or my brain or my emotions. I knew that I would get good care, that family and friends would rally to support me, that I would have a community through this, but I also knew that I would be alone in my fear, in my renewed existential crisis.

My heart sank when the mammogram confirmed an enlarged lymph node, high under my arm. To me, it felt warm and full, and just wrong, but in the image and subsequent sonograms, it looked normal. No signs of cancer, no signs of anything unusual, other than its expanded size. “Let’s just keep an eye on this,” said the radiologist. “We’ll check it again in two months.”

Two months is a long time to live on edge. There are lots of reasons to have a swollen axillary lymph node, but one remained prominent in my mind, and it was hard to put the fear of cancer aside. Last week, the same thing happened on the right side. First a sharp pain, then a sensation of fullness and warmth, a palpable lump. I saw the radiologist right away rather than wait the last three weeks for my scheduled follow-up appointment, but it was another period of excruciating terror. Didn’t this confirm my worst suspicions? Wasn’t this proof that I had cancer again? I snapped at my husband, got annoyed with an inconsiderate woman who blocked me in in a parking lot, I found it impossible to concentrate, impatient for the news I didn’t want to hear.

Another false alarm. The enlarged lymph node on the left was back to normal size, and still had its normal shape and structure. No sign of any cancer. Same on the right. No explanations for what might have caused the pain and enlargement, or why the lymph nodes could look so normal and yet be so uncomfortable, but it wasn’t cancer. Perhaps I was fighting off an unknown infection, or maybe it was the flu shot I had gotten a few days before the pain. We’ll never know.

Many of us have false alarms in the period after cancer. It’s not unusual. We’re hypervigilant, listening to our bodies for any sign that something’s not right. The twinges and aches and pains we would previously ignore become headline news in our new world. We now know that our bodies are capable of betrayal, that cancer can sneak in without symptoms, that symptoms shouldn’t be ignored. And so, we don’t. We respond to each new alert with the full force of conviction, determined that we won’t let cancer catch us by surprise again. In part, it’s a need for control, an attempt to take back some of that was lost in the battle for health the last time around. But it’s also about reestablishing trust that’s been lost. Like any damaged relationship, it will take time to rebuild as we search for level ground in a landscape that’s shifted.

As I approach the third anniversary of my cancer surgery, what I want more than ever is no more scary, inexplicable sensations, no more confusing test results, no more alarms, false or otherwise. I’d like to get through the week, the month, even the year, with just the occasional achy knees or sore muscles that every healthy 60-year-old can expect to feel. Maybe then, I can begin to trust that my body will keep me physically, mentally and emotionally well, well into my 90s. Maybe then, I can truly put the ordeal behind me. Maybe then, but not yet.

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