Coping with cancer paranoia

September 4, 2012 Marci McNaghten


In this article:

  • A Providence cancer survivorship guest blogger shares her story about one of the lingering emotional effects she faces since surviving cancer.

  • Cancer can trigger anxiety and fear in families -- even long after the doctor says you’re cancer-free.

  • A Providence oncologist talks about adjusting to the “new normal” that comes after surviving cancer -- and what can help.

As a cancer survivor, I worry about getting cancer again. But I worry even more about my kids getting it. When my first child, Will, was ten months old I noticed tiny red spots on his arms. In a panic, I rushed him to the pediatrician. (Red spots on my legs – which meant my blood wasn’t clotting properly – were one of the first signs of my childhood leukemia).

The doctor reassured me that Will’s spots were harmless. He also reminded me that cancer in children is really quite rare. Rationally I knew he was right, but I also knew better than most that – yes – it may be rare, but it does happen.

My next scare happened a few years later with Will’s younger brother. My husband and I noticed a lump on Jonathan’s lower left leg. I googled “kids, lumps and cancer” on the internet. Sarcoma came up – a cancer of the soft tissue. What I read about sarcomas in children was not good. My stomach started doing somersaults, and the rest of me felt like crumpling on the floor and pretending this wasn’t happening.

We took Jonathan to the pediatrician, who wasn’t as reassuring as he was with Will. Instead he referred us to a surgeon at Children’s Hospital. When we saw him, the surgeon couldn’t immediately diagnose the problem, so he recommended we bring Jonathan back for testing.

After a long week of waiting, an ultrasound showed no sign of cancer. The lump was, weirdly, caused by an “unidentified foreign object” – possibly a splinter of wood – that had lodged in Jonathan’s leg. Since there was no infection or pain, he would not have to undergo surgery or treatment…big sigh of relief.

With the latest kid crisis behind me, I was free to leave the hospital. But I wasn’t free of my cancer paranoia. My kids, unfortunately, aren’t the only recipients. My husband has been victim to it, and if my parents, brother and nieces lived closer, I’m sure they would be, too.

Not surprisingly, I also turn these fears inward and worry about getting cancer again myself. Any odd lump, spot or pain in my body can send me into high-anxiety mode. I went online and typed in “cancer paranoia” to find out if others experience this, too. Many results came up. Some were from people who’d never had cancer and were terrified of getting it; others were from survivors who’d had it and were terrified of it returning.

I couldn’t find anything about transferring cancer paranoia onto family members, but I’m guessing I’m not alone. Fortunately, in my own family, my husband (who’s known me for 23 years) has long since learned to deal with my random moments of paranoia. And my kids are still too young to notice when those moments occur. As for me, I’ve come to realize the paranoia is something I’ll likely deal with, to some extent, for the rest of my life. I try to keep it in check and not let it impact me or family members too much. It’s just a residual effect of having cancer and probably not something I’ll ever be able to shake completely.


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