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Fear, lifting

I can't sleep.

I know it must be scanxiety, because I leave for New York this morning.

But I’m not thinking about scans as I toss and turn—just everything else there is to think about. The summary I forgot to write and the email I never sent and the thinking that I’ll be able to do it on the plane tomorrow, maybe, unless I keep tossing and turning, turning and tossing like this, until Per drags me out of bed by pushing half a Ritalin and the latte I need to finish by 5:30 am, six hours ahead of the scheduled PET scan, followed by the MRI.

I listen to one guided meditation—no, this isn’t it, I say aloud—then move to another, my failsafe. But as she concludes by telling me I am at peace, I think to myself, no I am not. I am not! I am not at peace.

But I’m not anxious either, exactly. (At least not consciously.)

The word finally comes to me: taut.

I feel taut.

Pulled tight, tense—but ready to spring. And then, momentum, release, soar…

It feels like something is about to happen, and I hope I know what it is. But even if it’s something I cannot yet see, I sense it is good.

“How are you feeling?” is the question I get asked more than any other these days. I give the answer people think they want—“I feel great!”—and while it’s partly true, the whole truth is even better.

Because what I feel, mostly, is not afraid. I feel free—this freedom from fear sort of crept up on me somewhere in the past few weeks/months when I’ve been doing so much thinking but much less writing.

One of the best parts of my career has been leadership coaching that helped me clearly see fear, and all the negative ripple effects it can create. Dealing with cancer is difficult enough with all of the physical challenges of treatment—but it’s the fear that reverberates through your family and closest loved ones that is crippling and brutal and strikes when you least expect it; and most of that emotional mess is not shared or seen, even by me.

Two years ago, we were at Top Fear. I had just had my first recurrence, discovered days after I snapped and shared a selfie of my filled-out figure after completing a pitch—and just as we were all starting to watch daily news conferences about Covid-19. The double-whammy hit our family hard; coupling that with my Sicilian temper and normal teen developmental needs, life got a little…explosive. And I’ll admit that I took it a bit personally, in spite of my role at the root of it all. I was IMMUNOCOMPROMISED. It wasn’t MY FAULT. And this is LIFE OR DEATH.

We spoke with a family therapist, which helped marginally.

I talked with my own therapist, which helped a lot more.

Three months ago, I tested positive for Covid a few days after my mild symptoms were dying down. I was fine a few days later; and it’s only because Per had a much tougher time of it that I wasn’t tempted to wonder what all the fuss had been about.

A few weeks ago, my therapist mentioned that I hadn’t spoken about challenges with any of the kids for a while—was everything ok with them? Her question caught me off guard, and I had to think about it for a bit before I realized that mostly, things had been fine—and they had been for long enough to realize it had been so many months I wasn’t sure how many (which meant it wasn’t a function of my being in treatment or not).

Ultimately, I concluded that I just wasn’t feeling very afraid any more.

And, maybe as a result, neither are Per nor the kids. Not that everything goes smoothly—chores go undone, buttons get pushed, voices get raised, and eyes roll all the way back to the heavens—but Fear just doesn’t dominate the way it used to.

When it pops up to make itself known—which it did just a few days ago, interrupting an otherwise lovely spring break—I can recognize my fear as the root of the issue even as I am melting down in the lobby. In naming it, it loses some of its power. Then, I can be rational enough to see why it’s made an appearance: jet lag, sunburn / mom guilt over sunburn, vacation inflation, and yes—scanxiety knowing what the following week holds. Shit. I catch myself before saying something I will really regret, and excuse myself to go for a long walk.

Maybe scanxiety, that sneaky devil, is actually at its most potent when you are FEELING as good as I have been, making the threat of something on the scan feel that much more surprising—and thus the stealing of healthy status a worse offense. Because I really, with my whole body and soul, REALLY want to be healthy this time.

I mean it.

This is an important but unfortunate insight to have not even an hour after I was blaming various members of the family—with strong degrees of specificity—why each were to blame for my misery in paradise.

When I come back, I do that apologize-but-then-get-back-into-it thing, which is a handy reminder that my fear is unlocked by all sorts of things. But eventually we get extra vulnerable and wrap it up with hugs and I love yous—and then we head to a luau, where a fire-twirling hula dancer snaps all six of us into a much more positive and consistent emotional state.

After that, we sort of settle into the rest of our vacation, slathering on enough SPF, enjoying our time as a family together, and occasionally pairing off in twos or threes for walks to tide pools or for smoothies. Nathan went surfing, the twins fell in love with snorkeling, Evelyn thought every bite at dinner was the best thing she ever tried. Per was in full Per mode: he got us seats, got us water, got us reservations, got us around. He also got a tan; and I did, too—without a rash! By the time we were heading home, the conversation had become as predicted: can we stay longer / when we come back.

It was a wonderful vacation made better by a sense of optimism about what is about to come next. No matter what happens with my scans, I know that on some level, we are healed.

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