Living with Ambiguous Cancer Test Results


Educational Blog from One Cancer Survivor to Another

I did a medical test. I think I am fine. It doesn’t really matter which test it was, because all tests, whether screening or surveillance, whether imaging or laboratory, have the same underlying shortcoming. None of them are perfect. There is the scientific side of medicine and then there is the artistic side. A health care provider uses research data, experience, judgment, wisdom, and intuition to interpret, diagnose, and create a treatment plan. 

Cancer tests. Should I do them? If I do the tests, when do I do them? Before or after my vacation? Before or after a work deadline? Before or after the holidays? If you decide to submit to a test, beforehand, during, and after your mind can go down rabbit holes. If the results are not normal, you may be presented with further tests, which will lead to more questioning. If the results are normal, though, you often wonder, Can I believe the results? Are they truly normal? If you accept the encouraging results, it’s not long before you start wondering how long this peace of mind will last — an hour, a day, a week, a month? 

We desire to know with certainty that we are clean and will stay clean forever — or at least until the next test. But having certainty about anything in life is an illusion, in particular for cancer survivors who live in fear of recurrence. We long so deeply for comfort and reassurance that we will be fine and will go on living, but nothing will ever give us the certainty that we are looking for. 

As survivors we have to learn to become comfortable with a larger degree of uncertainty than we may have ever experienced before. That acceptance takes time, a lot of soul searching and perhaps talking with others. Every now and then your mind may wander through the mental door to the dark place. Rather than shutting this door with massive nails and locks, we should aim to be comfortable having this door open. This is easier said than done, asking our minds to not wander into the dark place too often and too far but just enough to briefly remind us of the grief and pain we have been through, to renew our sense of clarity, to not suppress fear, yet also not let it overwhelm us. In short, to find that sweet spot. 

Giving in and allowing yourself to fret and think of the worst-case scenario, but only for a well-delineated period of time per day (perhaps 5, 10, or 15 minutes) will hopefully allow you to fill up the rest of your day with healthier coping mechanisms (such as altruism, suppression, transformation, and humor). There is a time for everything — a time to worry and a time to “Eat, Pray, Love“, as a famous writer once said. Try to find that dynamic balance that works best for you and your loved ones.