When You Live in the Fear of Inevitability

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I sat quietly in the exam room, waiting. The walls were a dull, slate grey, a far cry from the waiting room full of natural sunlight and designer furniture specifically arranged to make us forget where we were. There were no windows in this exam room, no pictures. The small stack of magazines on a side table in the corner were dog-eared, with stale headlines. I had crappy cell service, so it was no use looking at my phone. And I was trying and failing to avoid my own gaze in the full-length mirror that hung on the back of the closed door.

It had been years since I had been to a doctor, let alone an OBGYN. Like so many other millennial women in their 20’s, affordable healthcare had been hard to come by for several years, and I figured as long as I was healthy and everything seemed to be functioning normally, I’d be able to get by.

And for a long time that worked. Until it didn’t.

I turned 30 in the fall, and almost like a timer going off, things changed. The grey hair was annoying enough, but my period was suddenly, frustratingly, mysteriously M.I.A.

Tests told me I wasn’t pregnant, which was sorta disappointing, but also a relief.

I didn’t know what was going on, but still, I waited, willing my body to do its thing and just act normal.

I dreaded every part of what I knew I needed to do. The conversation with the doctor about why it had been so long since my last visit. The conversation about what was going on with my body. The conversation about my family medical history (Cancer. So much cancer.) The blood tests. The pelvic exam. The very particular feeling of reliving the trauma I had witnessed my mother suffer through as a cancer patient with every needle prod, every invasive examination. This is how it starts, whispered a paranoid little voice in my head.

Eventually my anxiety came full circle and I decided that knowing what was actually wrong would be less stressful than obsessing about a worst-case scenario, so I made the call to schedule an appointment.

My period finally showed up that morning of the appointment. Of course.

//

I hear the busy chatter of voices coming down the hallway and finally the clatter of the door latch. A tall, skinny woman with flaxen blonde hair bursts into the room, introducing herself as the doctor and asking about a dozen questions in a single breath.

She sinks down onto the swivel stool in front of me and jiggles her knee while we talk. I get the feeling she would run in place to burn energy, if she knew the patients wouldn’t complain about it.

I start explaining why I’m there and we delve into all the things I’d rather not talk about.

“Family medical history—it says your mom had cancer. What kind? How long? Did any other women in your family have breast cancer or another reproductive cancer?”

“Yes,” I say, and recount what I can remember: a grandma, a cousin, an aunt. Breast, ovarian, thyroid.

“That’s why I was a little scared to come in,” I mutter quietly at the end.

She nods and shrugs.

“Well, if that’s it, your risk really isn’t that much higher than anyone else’s. The average woman has about a 9-in-1 risk of getting breast cancer, but a woman whose mother had it and whose other relatives had a different kind only has a slightly higher risk of 7-to-1.* Just keep in mind that it’s not inevitable.” She states this matter-of-factly, without comfort or judgment.

“So, you’re saying I’ve been worried all this time, and I probably don’t need to be?”

“Well, it’s certainly something to be aware of, but you can’t obsess about it. You just need to take care of yourself and live as healthy as possible. Don’t assume you’ll get cancer, and definitely don’t treat your body like you assume you’ll get cancer.”

She moves the conversation quickly along, jotting down notes to schedule an exam and full blood test for a future date.

//

A few weeks later, I return for the exam and the blood test results, which are completely normal. The doctor discusses birth control options to help regulate my cycle, and leaves the room so I can get dressed.

I’m awkwardly shoving one leg into my jeans when I notice my reflection in the full-length mirror again. I stand still before it, letting myself meet my own gaze.

How many years of my life have I spent agonizing over that fear of inevitability?

A solid twenty. I feel every second of it in my body—in the tightness between my shoulders, the heaviness in the pit of my stomach. The trauma of everything I remember lingers there, as if it was not my mother but me who lived it. Even in therapy, my memories are all tangled up with hers and my therapist stops me often to point it out. Hospital stays, cancer treatments, conversations with loved ones—moments I was not present for, but heard told so many times that my body has stored them like a filing cabinet, ready for the retelling at any given moment.

And not just the trauma, but the shame and self-loathing of so many women in my family, including my mother, who haven’t felt at peace with their bodies, who haven’t felt like they could live up to societal standards of how women should look and move.

The doctor’s comments don’t magically heal any of this, they just illuminate the things I had been trying to compartmentalize in a dark corner of my mind.

I thought I was better at this than I am.

I believe in body positivity and living a healthy life, perhaps for others more than myself. I still catch myself hiding from my own body, trying to pretend like it doesn’t exist and need things, like my love and my hope.

I drive home with the windows down, the breeze of the first real spring day whipping my hair in my face, and let myself feel the lightest possibility, like the sunbeam on my shoulder: I’m gonna be okay.

_______________________________

*This is a paraphrase from memory, so the ratios may not accurately reflect research data on the breast cancer risk for daughters of patients.

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Bethany Suckrow
I’m a writer and blogger at at bethanysuckrow.com, where I shares both prose and poetry on faith, grace, grief and hope. I am currently working on my first book, a memoir about losing my mother to cancer. My musician-husband, Matt, and I live in transition as we move our life from the Chicago suburbs to Nashville.
Bethany Suckrow
Bethany Suckrow

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