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

Imagining the Worst, With Internet Scares

Tuesday, 31 Dec 2013 01:32 PM

By Ronni Gordon

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Thanks, or no thanks, to the Internet, it is possible to not only imagine you have a fatal illness but also to get verification for it.
 
If you have had cancer, you might be doubly susceptible to giving yourself a death sentence. You could look up every lump, bump, pain, or ache and read that you have a recurrence or a secondary cancer. And if you were a worrier beforehand, you are doubly at risk.
 
There are antidotes to this propensity, ways that you can distract yourself, but sometimes it’s hard, especially if one thing happens after another like it did for me this month.
 
It started with a full-body rash from taking penicillin. My dentist had prescribed it for an abscessed tooth after I had taken a "penicillin challenge" to see if I still had the allergy that had been on my chart since childhood. I passed the test but broke out anyway. The allergist apologized, saying my reaction was as rare as getting hit by lightening.
 
While this was happening, I walked my dog on a lakeside path where sticks and rocks were partially hidden by a blanket of leaves. I had fallen while jogging on this path before. Everyone had told me to never jog there again. But when a short straightaway came up, I thought I would jog just a tiny bit from one tree to another. "You’re going to fall," I said to myself. And that is just what I did, banging my head and scratching up the side of my face.
 
I hobbled back home, and, determined to do something good for myself, went to the gym the next day and road on a stationary bicycle. I rode hard and fast because I  wanted to get out of there. The next day my quads were incredibly sore. This pain lasted long after an internet search for "quad injuries" told me that I should have healed. I said to my son, "Maybe I have a tumor sitting on the bottom of my spine."
 
"If you had everything you gave yourself, you'd be dead by now," my son told me. My doctors ordered an X-ray of my lumbar region, followed by an MRI. So far they have turned up nothing more serious than an inflammation caused by arthritis. They attribute the slow healing process to my long-time use of prednisone, prescribed for side effects of my bone marrow transplant.
 
Then came the toothache from hell. My pain persisted after I had a root canal. The surgeon said the tooth probably had a crack in it and would need to come out. I have already lost five teeth due also to the use of prednisone, which inhibits the body’s ability to fight infection. I imagined myself ending up toothless. One night I even dreamt that I was spitting out bits of teeth.
 
It is a good thing that during this period my dishwasher broke, giving me the opportunity to follow the dictum of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, which is that while washing the dishes, one should only wash the dishes.
 
At first I was annoyed that I would have to wash all my dishes, but then I remembered this advice that I had read in a little book called "Peace is Every Step." It simply means to concentrate on exactly what you are doing rather than imagine catastrophic outcomes or look backwards and dwell on what could have been.

This is one area where the Internet is actually helpful. If you look up the phrases "washing the dishes" and "mindfulness," you will find many ways to help you focus on one thing at a time, and if you are a cancer patient or survivor, to help you get through every day one step, and even one breath (or one tooth) at a time.

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