When you sit in the waiting room at an oncologist’s office, you always have an invisible companion with you. It’s never acknowledged, but it’s always there. You try to ignore it. You notice, though, it always has its way with you: You talk more loudly than usual. Laugh too much. Or freeze into silence. Or seethe with irritation and frustration, ready to pick a fight with anybody unlucky enough to be around you.
“I was talking to one of my patients about it,” my oncologist said this week. “How she gets so scared when she has tests — mammograms, breast mri’s. She doesn’t know what to do with the fear.”
Oh, yes. Fear. That’s the invisible companion whose name never gets mentioned. We’re all ashamed of it. We live, after all, in a society that manufactures No Fear T-shirts and sentiments. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Never let them see you sweat.
You know how it is. There’s nothing more ignominious than being scared to death.
“How are you feeling?” That’s what you’re always asked at the oncologist’s office. They’re talking about suspicious symptoms, of course — a recurring cough, a mysterious ache, ankles that swell. So, how are you feeling? You never say the obvious, the omnipresent, the great unmentionable: Hey, glad you asked. I’m a nervous wreck. Can I vomit now, please?
No, forget it. That would be in very poor taste. Being afraid is in very bad taste, in the first place, and you need to learn to keep it to yourself, like your bathroom habits, your nose-picking, your time of the month. Too much information! Shut up, already! Whistle a happy tune and everybody’s a little relieved, everybody gets to call you brave, even though you know you’re not.
Someday, I want to think, this will be a thing of the past — similar to the way that cancer as an unmentionable, shameful secret is also a relic of another time. Someday, maybe, you’ll step into a waiting room and punch a Fear-O-Meter that indicates your level of anxiety from just-measurable to inches-away-from-a-total-screaming-meltdown. Then, your name will be called and you’ll enter the little office and jump into one of those unattractive little gowns and the first thing you and your oncologist will discuss is how scared you are and how difficult it is to live with that fear and pretend to be normal.
But that’s not happening yet. Today, I’m just happy to know another patient is talking to our wonderful, concerned oncologist about her sheer terror, that she isn’t so ashamed of it that she pastes on a smooth face or screeches with inappropriate laughter the way I always did.
So, let’s talk about it — that nebulous, smothering beast. Let’s name the fear and drag it out of the shadows where it thrives and haunts us.
“You’re so brave!” God, I always hated hearing that, even though it was said with the best of intentions. Sometimes, I’d say no, I wasn’t, I was just doing what I had to do.
But I always lacked the guts to say, “No, I’m not. You want to know the real truth? I’m scared to death.”
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)