I don't have breast cancer. I had it once, but I don't have it anymore. At least that's what my doctors confidently tell me now. I should feel relief. I should feel gratitude. I should feel alive. Others in my life certainly do; they tell me all the time. "You're cancer-free, that's amazing," they say. "You must be so happy, you can put that chapter behind you and move forward!" Their words are kind and I pretend to agree because I can't admit the truth to them. For as much as I want to feel all of these things, and as much as I try, I can't seem to rid myself of cancer's longest-lasting side effect: Fear.
Usually the fear hits when it makes sense, like when someone else I know gets diagnosed, or when it's time for a routine checkup. But sometimes it comes when I least expect it, like when I'm in the middle of a business meeting, putting the kids to bed or grocery shopping. Its intensity ebbs and flows, and as more time goes by it's often fleeting, but the fear can also can linger, making a mess of me, especially when it shows up when I should be celebrating. Like when I pass a disease-free mile marker.
Each year the odds of my breast cancer resurfacing go down. The first three are the ones to worry about most; if it's going to come back, it will probably happen then. When I hit three years in August, instead of the relief I expected I felt panic, instead of excited I felt distraught. And I was filled with shame and guilt about it. I found myself spiraling into a low of depression and anxiety I hadn't experienced before. I couldn't understand why this fear, like the cancer that gave birth to it, spread and infected so many areas of my life. But regardless of how much I questioned its origins, I realized it was pointless.
I will likely deal with this fear forever because I am mutated, corrupted. I am BRCA2 positive, so my risk is higher for multiple cancers even without the breasts, ovaries or tubes I had surgically removed. My father, from whom I inherited the gene mutation, was diagnosed with prostate cancer ten years before ultimately dying from liver cancer at the age of 67. I watched him suffer horribly the last year of his life, and am terrified of my children witnessing the same. Even the thought of it tightens my chest and quickens my breath.
As a parent there is no greater fear than of someone harming your child. I am now my own worst fear personified. Not only because I might force my children to face my death prematurely, but also because I may have passed along my tainted genes to their three sweet, freckled, faces. "You didn't know you had BRCA2 until you got diagnosed and your youngest was 5," my friends tell me. "It isn't your fault." Their words don't work here either.
Seeing myself in my babies used to give me a secret sense of pride. There is something quite intriguing about watching features reveal themselves in a human being you helped to create. You wonder where you will surface in them. I was sad than none of my children got my blue eyes, but pleased that at least my youngest got the shape of them, my oldest got my soft, shiny hair, and that my middle got my nose.
Now when I see these traits I secretly apologize, sure that the more features we have in common, the more likely it is that we share the BRCA2 also. "I'm so sorry," I whisper too quietly to hear, tears welling, as I gaze across the room at the one who looks the most like me, "I didn't mean it."
Each child stands a 50/50 chance of inheriting this gene mutation from me; it will legally be their decision if and when they find out they have it after they turn 18. Until then I will need to sit with the fear that cancer threaded into my life, knowing that it has likely also woven itself into the worlds of my children.
I try to deal with the fear when it swells in the tried and true ways I know: I remind myself that I am okay. I talk with my husband who has been through cancer too and who knows the fear well. I meditate. I write. I exercise. I make my checkup appointments and get my blood drawn. I lay perfectly still in scanners as they bang and bong, and I wait for doctors to tell me they see nothing and all looks good. All of these help push the fear back, at least for awhile.
But as a mother, the fear for my children is a constant and I doubt I will ever feel much relief from either it, or the guilt over why I have it, any time soon. Instead I think of my own father and that I have never, for one minute, blamed him for my cancer. I know he was unaware of his BRCA2 diagnosis when he had me, as I was when I had my babies, so I will simply hope that if one of my children is diagnosed, that they will find it in their hearts to forgive me for putting them in harms way.
In the meantime I will do my best to beat back the fear when it claws its way up by celebrating the small victories and reveling in the minutiae. By continuing to check off medical boxes with consistency and surveillance. And I will do my best to trust that my doctors are right. I will work hard to absorb those words my friends and loved ones tell me. But mostly, I will spend time with my family that I adore, and soak up as much of them as I can. I will not only model a healthy lifestyle, I will show the value of a healthy life. And I will love every inch of those sweet, freckled faces. Even the ones that resemble mine.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October. To read all posts in the series, visit here.