By Gwen Darien
By Gwen Darien
For years, I’ve had these coffee mugs with a dotted line around the center. Above the line is inscribed “Half Full”; below is “Half Empty.” I never gave this message much thought until recently—I’ve always considered my outlook reasonably optimistic and have taken it for granted that I’m a half-full person. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about if I really am.
As I’ve given this more thought, it has become clear to me that I have a positive outlook on many facets of my life. But since my diagnosis with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, 14 years ago, I have developed persistent thoughts of dread and pessimism about certain things—the most important of which is my trust in my own health and that of those for whom I care.
Trust. It can be one of the first things that is undermined when you’re diagnosed with cancer. Trust in your own body. Trust in your doctor. Trust in the tests. How do you trust in the future? Sometimes it seems nearly impossible to get rid of the nagging undercurrent of rumination that things may not be OK. Because, at least once, and most likely in a life-threatening manner, things were definitely not OK. In CR’s March podcast, Cynthia Ryan talks about how, since her first cancer diagnosis, she no longer has the sense that everything will be fine—there is always ongoing doubt. I think most cancer survivors know exactly what she means.
These feelings certainly ebb and flow as one gets further from the original diagnosis without a recurrence. But, some traces remain. My tumor was in my mediastinum (the area between the lungs). And, by the time I was diagnosed, my left lung was almost completely filled with fluid. In the months before my diagnosis, it became progressively more difficult to breathe, but my internist at the time dismissed my symptoms as a combination of allergies, bronchitis and hypochondria. To this day, I surreptitiously check the breathing of the people close to me: family, friends, strangers sleeping on the train. Breathing is my obsession—how can I trust that what happened to me won’t happen again, to me or to someone I know?
In CR’s first anniversary issue, we deal with many issues that focus implicitly or explicitly on trust. In “Money’s No Object,” we report on a rather surprising study that suggests doctors’ financial ties don’t worry many cancer patients, despite the fact that “many people believe that money muddies the waters of medical research.” In “Reality Check,” Sue Rochman explores the evidence behind the cancer screening tests that we have come to put our faith in. How well-founded are our beliefs that particular screening tests will save our lives?
As for me, some days I manage the uncertainty of life after a cancer diagnosis better than others. I have a doctor I trust, but I continue to fear that each time I see her, she will impart some horrible news. And I don’t know if I’ll ever trust my body again. As difficult as it is to acknowledge, I think I’m learning that the only way for me to be OK is to accept that on some days, the glass will be half-full, and on others, it will be half-empty.