Ronni Gordon is  a cancer survivor and long-time journalist who has written about her journey, about health and fitness, and about how she and others have prevailed in difficult situations. She brings to her writing a mix of personal experience with knowledge about the health-care system and how cancer patients can navigate it. A graduate of Vassar College with a master's degree in journalism from Boston University, she is a freelance writer who worked in daily newspapers for more than 30 years. She has been published in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dana FarberCancer Institute magazine, and Cancer Today magazine. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her dog, Maddie, short for Madison (Avenue) in honor of her hometown, New York, and is mother of three grown children, Ben, Joe, and Katie

Ronni Gordon

Keeping a Lid on 'Checkup Anxiety'

Tuesday, 20 Aug 2013 09:51 AM

By Ronni Gordon

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No matter how long you have been out of treatment, you can't help but feel some checkup anxiety.
 
I always put on nice clothes for my checkup at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, along the lines of "look good, feel good." Also I think that if I look good, they are less likely to find anything wrong with me. Not true, of course, but it is kind of a magical shield.
 
As I drive down to Dana-Farber, my heart beats quickly. Checkup anxiety diminishes with time, but it never totally goes away. Recently, the night before a routine checkup, I dreamt that they said that although my blood counts were still good in terms of leukemia, I was in heart failure.
 
Driving to Boston can be treacherous under any circumstances, but it's worse if you’re distracted. One hot summer day, a driver in front of me stopped short at a stoplight right near the end of my 90-minute trip from Western Massachusetts. In the second that I had turned to grab something out of my purse, I tapped the rear of his car. Then a woman behind me banged into my car.
 
A police officer appeared and directed the first car into a lot on the side of the road. Shaken up, I didn't follow quickly enough. "Move, move, move!" the officer shouted. I burst into tears. He didn’t cite me, but because I had hit someone from the rear, I got an insurance surcharge.
 
I usually bring newspapers and books, expecting a long wait. I try to schedule a little treat, like a stop at Starbucks.
 
After I get my blood drawn, I take a handful of free Tootsie Rolls, my comfort food. Then I wait for my appointment. There is solidarity in the crowded waiting room. I talk to familiar people and even listen to overhear a comment that might be useful.
 
Once I heard one woman reassure another that if you wait in a room for a long time, you shouldn’t worry that there is something wrong with you and they are figuring out what to do about you. (I do this often.) "You don't know what they’re doing," the woman said. "They could be having a coffee break or something."
 
I was especially nervous at my first clinic appointment post-transplant nearly five years ago. I read and reread a New York Times story about the popularity of gourmet jellybeans. I counted my breaths slowly, from one to 10 and back.
 
The anticipated moment comes when you finally get a room and your doctor or nurse practitioner (or physician’s assistant if you see one) looks at your blood counts on the computer screen or comes in with the printout. My doctor and I both love tennis, and I always know that things are OK when he asks me about my game.
 
Last comes the ceremonial, liberating removal of the white patient ID bracelet. Occasionally I forget, and if I stop at my sister’s house or she has accompanied me, she cuts it off as soon as possible.
 
You realize you will survive to see another appointment.

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