to say that i’m afraid of getting cancer is like saying that there are a lot of drops of water in the pacific ocean. an understatement as vast as the universe. well. not quite as vast but very nearly.

i’ll never forget one of my doctors who asked me about cancer in our family history. it was one of many appointments that i’ve had over the years, to figure out why i get hives. side note, they still don’t know. anyhoo, this doctor asks me, so, tell me about your family history for cancer. boy, was he in for a treat. so i go, well, my grandmother died of thyroid cancer. my grandfather died of bowel cancer. my other grandmother probably had lung cancer because she was an avid smoker yet her lung tissue was so fragile that they couldn’t take a sample for a biopsy. but most likely, yup, lung cancer. my father has had cancerous melanoma removed. my sister died from a cancerous brain tumour. my mother’s aunt died of breast cancer. my mother’s cousin died of breast and ovarian cancer.  pause. that’s everyone i can think of at the moment, i say at the end.

the doctor stares at me. big blue eyes through thick spectacles. he doesn’t say anything at first, doesn’t blink. after a couple of moments, he utters, well, that’s not good.

no shit it’s not good.

i can’t say that i was ever a fully formed hypochondriac but i will admit that diseases, symptoms, medicine in general have certainly whetted my appetite for more knowledge, something i’ve always been a fan of, for better or for worse. in this case, maybe for worse but you know what they say, first year medical students all think they have the diseases they’re studying. i’m not saying that i was ever a medical student although sometimes i wish i had been a doctor.

because of my skin problems, i have seen more doctors than most and have thus received (and investigated) more information than most.

besides, this fear of cancer has always lurked somewhere. in my formative years, cancer was usually a death sentence so when Barbara was diagnosed, the panic attacks came in full swing, with full force. and they only intensified my fears after she died.

it was then that nearly every day i would have an invasion of the what ifs.

what if this headache is also a brain tumour. what if this irregular cycle is ovarian cancer. what if this rash is liver cancer. what if these lesions are mouth cancer. what if. every fucking day with the what if.

thanks, google, for making me crazier than usual.

grief set all of my fears into high gear, into overdrive which, in turn, caused me to actually develop symptoms. develop diseases. all in all, they were just the regular kind with one cause in common: stress. which led to a weakened immune system which led to colds, sore throats, eczema, hives, hair loss, acid reflux, dry skin, migraines, insomnia, memory problems. weight loss. and not the kind you’d want. the kind where people ask you if you are ill.

you name it, i probably had it. remember, i’m talking about ‘minor’, ‘regular’ diseases that most people don’t even notice. they deal with them and move on.

not me, my friends. not me.

i dwelled on every sniffle like it was my last one. i couldn’t help it. it drove me mad. i drove myself mad. which of course only made the symptoms worse. duh. so i found myself, yet again, in a vicious circle. i was absolutely terrified that i would die. it was a spectacularly terrible time to be in my head.

somehow, eventually i got out of this prison of panic. not sure how that happened but it did. with lots of hard work, i guess. self-acknowledgement. therapy. tending to the wound.

and after a whole lot of dealing with all of this, mainly the stress of grief, i tried to put myself in Barbara’s position. she lived with that tumour in her brain for 6 years. that she knew of. who knows how long it had been there. chances are, not very long. these tumours don’t just sit around for a decade and then attack. they’re more direct and quick. which, i suppose, is a good thing. honestly, i don’t know how she did it. how she didn’t drive herself insane. i probably would have.

maybe because she didn’t really know all of our family’s history. or she never gave her disease a second thought. or she just knew how to deal with it.

to take this one step further, i would imagine myself having cancer and having to tell my parents, my brother, my partner. all of which would have broken them and me. then i’d imagine how we would all say, what, again? how is this possible? inevitably i’d imagine the most cataclysmic case possible that would end up with me dying. i couldn’t bare to have my parents lose another child. my brother lose another sister, a thought that made me more miserable than you can imagine. a thought inflated with absolute panic. one that i had little control over. that nearly drove me over the edge. i already saw myself drifting into chaos with no return in sight. no return possible.

thankfully i found my way back.

but these thoughts were driven by grief. if such an affliction could be bestowed upon my sister, who most definitely didn’t deserve it, what horrors prowled in the darkness behind me? surely, they must be much, much worse for i am a person much, much worse than my sister.

this was grief chatter. unfounded and deceptive. i know that now.

it does make me sad that we never talked about it. her disease, i mean. about all the implications, the possibilities. the fact that we didn’t talk about it made me even crazier after she died. there’s always this remnant of a baseless feeling that if more had been said, something would have been different, would have possibly been better. completely illogical but present nonetheless.

i guess it could have gone the opposite way too, with us arguing, driving each other apart. this way we just didn’t talk about it. the monster was there and she was receiving treatment to get rid of it and that was it.

i had another doctor tell me to get a brain scan after i told her about my migraines. no, thanks. if they find anything, i know what awaits me. this way, i don’t know. so maybe that’s how Barbara dealt with it all. out of sight, out of mind kind of thing. pretty smart.