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Exploring Death Anxiety in Cancer Survivorship

by Ria PatelSurvivor, Immature Teratoma of the Right OvaryMay 2, 2024View more posts from Ria Patel

April 27th, 2020 is the day I will remember forever, as it is the day that I died. Looking back, I can only see my own naivety. The wide-eyed, hopeful version of myself. I never saw her again after that and I never will, but I can still see glimpses of her in the mirror.

I remember my skin feeling warm as I pushed open the door of my mother’s car. We were at the clinic for my post-op, ignorant to the life-changing news lurking past the front doors. This was the day I got diagnosed with cancer.

I find it impossible to describe my feelings in the first 48 hours. I’ve tried many times to put it into words, but I can’t. It’s easy to feel it again though. It makes my stomach drop and I become clammy. My cheeks flush red and I don’t know which emotion I am supposed to be feeling. I remember the room changed colors and I knew it was going to be permanent. The night of my diagnosis was strange and uneasy. I thought it would be the worst night of my life, but I hardly could have understood how much worse it would get.

Somewhere between grief and disbelief, I sat idle. Idle, every time they rolled me out of the recovery room. Idle, as they put me in machines and hooked me up to beeping things. Idle, as the fluids made me throw up. Idle, as my hair fell out. Idle, as I rang the bell, and they gave me a poster with some gift cards and a notebook with “Dream Now” written in a tacky font on the cover.

Shortly after, the panic began to set in. Each beep and smell of antiseptic tossed me down a spiral of confusion and distress. I questioned my mortality often, wondering how much longer I would have had to delay my initial doctor visit before it would have been too late. I realized that I would be indefinitely tormented by scans, each of which would determine the outcome of my life. Survivor’s guilt kicked in last: why did I get to be so lucky and ushered away into remission while many of the new friends I made along the way faced continuous relapse and bad news?

Rationalizing is funny. You can successfully “rationalize” countless times. This doesn’t stop the ruminating. Your mind pleads more and more. Things fell out of control so quickly and severely that I kept trying to make them fit into neat little molds; unsurprisingly, life doesn’t tie together seamlessly.

But it is in those seams in which our seeds are planted. Processing happens after the storm. Despite the draining and horrifying nature of cancer, afterward, in strange ways, I felt nurtured. I grew more than I would have in a decade without cancer. Having to face my fears head-on led me through a journey of deeper self-exploration. I understand my functionality (arguably “dysfunctionality”) more thoroughly. There is a juxtaposition between anxiety and resilience. I still fear the way things move but somehow continue gliding gently from one horizon to the next.

When I moved to New York, I brought along two companions: the fear of uncertainty and the fear of death. Being alone in a new city, I feared not, alas Uncertainty and Death would fill my ears with faint whispers asking me, “What happens next?” This is when my anxiety began to fully manifest. I tended to think of the worst thing that could happen at any time. It made sense considering how my doctor told me that the chance of me having an Ovarian Teratoma was under 10% and he assured me not to worry since the likelihood of it being malignant was somewhere under 1%.

At times, the anxiety was so unbearable I couldn’t leave the 100 of 200 square feet that I could call mine. It got to the point where nearly every time I stepped onto the Subway, I would have a panic attack and expect to die.

Ironically, looking back, this was one of the most creative periods in my life. It was my first year of art school. I was learning how to analyze things more deeply.

I began going through the journey of searching for platitudes to justify the meaning of life. Late-night Google searches and analytically finding meaning for each individual seed of my breakfast bagel threw me down at least 20 different paths and mindsets to consider. Somewhere within that tireless journey, fueled by Buddhist readings, cognitive behavioral therapy, and espresso, I settled.

The entirety of life is uncertain. The only certainty in my life is Death. When I thought of it this way, I felt conflicted. If I am so fearful of uncertainty, how can I be simultaneously fearful of the only true certainty?

This was incredibly freeing. In fact, the idea of death suddenly brings me great peace. Weirdly, sometimes, even excitement. Nothing material seems to have pressure on me anymore. I don’t need to be someone and be somewhere. I can just be. I can just exist and make decisions. If a decision is bad, I simply make another. If a decision is good, I reap its benefits.

Fearing death, even thinking about death, is the largest indicator of how alive I am. What an amazing thing it is to just be here. To be able to have my favorite coffee in the morning. To sit outside and watch families gathered together. To see something pretty and feel every color. To do something enjoyable and call my loved ones to tell them about it. How terrible would it be if I let fear hold me stagnant from doing what matters most? Simply existing momentarily in space and time, absorbing everything, with my consciousness to be questioned, in an unpredictable life, with a single constant: death.

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