How does that happen?
I wonder: how do others manifest fear when confronted with things that go bump in the night?
For me, my feet go entirely numb when presented with a precipice and the interminable distance to the rocks lurking at the bottom, so very far away, and yet so close, just waiting to break bones and disassemble my frail body.
I recall vividly when I, as a young teenage boy, undertook to swim the breadth of the lake with my Uncle Bobby. Reaching midway and hanging in the water to rest, I became aware that my legs had become both completely numb and had also begun to ACHE. The ache was not what one might expect of an ache secondary to exhaustion. I was terrified. I could not see the bottom of the lake, which I had always been able to see. You see, I had never ventured more than a couple hundred yards from shore and this lake is crystalline in its clarity. But that day, no lake bottom in sight. Only the lurking denizens hidden in the depths which I could not see and which surely had intentions of dining on me.
Here I was treading water midway across the five miles from our cabin, in a lake renowned for its mile plus depth. I overcame my fear as we hung there treading water, listening to my uncle and the banter we kept up with family members in the boat which had accompanied us. I never repeated that swim, not because I couldn’t swim the distance, and not because I was never dared to attempt it again, but because that terrible numbing aching pain in my legs when I think about it.
Another similar experience happened on a day out elk hunting in the mountains of western Alberta. I had to cross a scree slope to access a particular likely looking ravine where we had seen elk moving days before. I made my way carefully across the slope to where a huge tree had fallen diagonally across the edge of the slope. I was presented with the need of having to get down on my belly and possibly scoot under the tree, or clamber up over it to continue my journey. I elected to climb up and over this massive tree trunk. I slung my rifle up onto a broken branch and scrambled up and onto the trunk. I reached down on my left to retrieve my rifle and rehung it on a broken branch on the uphill side of the trunk. I lifted my left leg to swing it over the trunk and realized that my boot laces were entangled in the broken limbs. I sat there a moment wondering--do I get off the tree and free my laces or do I try to reach down and free them. It was then that I heard a distinctive grunting growl and, looking up the slope some 50 yards from where I sat, a she grizzly sat on her haunches rocking and growling.
I remember as if it had happened moments ago. My legs went completely numb. I sat wondering, do I try to shoot her from here, where I sit trapped? Would I kill her instantly or would I wound her, incense her and ensure her intention to devour me right where I sat? Perhaps I ought to simply shoot myself and be done with it. Realizing that fear had literally paralyzed my lower limbs and hoping to conceal that fear from the bear, I sat there and simply stared at her, and she at me. I guess she got tired of watching the helpless human because she eventually got up and wandered away, grunting her amusement under her breath. Once again, my legs had defined my terror. It took a very long time before I could get my legs under me for the walk back to camp.
Yet another experience with how my body reacts to fear occurred when I took a vacation to Cabo San Lucas with friends. I rented a snorkel, mask and fins and swam out into the rich colourful environment of the reefs. I was unfamiliar with swimming in tidal waters and did not pay a lot of attention to where I was relative to the shoreline. It was then that I noticed a large nurse shark swimming slowly along the bottom and looking very close and threatening.
I lifted my head to find that the tide had carried me several hundred yards from shore and I was certain that there was now no way I could manage a frantic swim to shore and beat this shark to the shallows, even if I could stir my legs into action remotely resembling swimming. Once again, my legs had defined my fear. I did what any paralyzed man might otherwise do, I simply hung in the water as motionless as possible hoping not to attract the attention of the shark. Eventually, the shark swam off, paying absolutely no attention to me. Only once it was out of sight did I attempt a very quiet swim to the beach and stumbled out of the water glad to be alive, cheating the loss of my lower limbs once more.
So, for me, fear happens like that. When confronted with things that go bump in the night, my legs fold up and refuse to work, numbed by fear. It was like that when I sat in my surgeon’s office and he said “I’m afraid it is cancer, Mr. Bryson, and we will need to schedule you for a mastectomy as soon as possible.”
So, why now? What causes fear today?
I have been feeling some indistinct discomfort in my right underarm for several weeks. I haven’t thought too much about it as it has been very hot here lately and perhaps the heat is getting to me. When I get into bed for the night I tend to lay on my right side. I thought that the pressure, temperature and humidity was causing me more than usual perspiration. I didn’t connect the fact of this discomfort with the recognition that I have also been massaging my underarm more than usual until today.
Today, as I walked round a new lovely little shopping mall with my wife, I once again found myself massaging my underarm and found what feels like a lump or grossly enlarged lymph node in my underarm. So, what happened then? My legs went out from under me, of course.
I’m not going to panic. But, does that make the numbing pain in my legs any less noticeable? No, it surely does not. How do we react to our battles with cancer?
For me, I mark the anniversary of my surgeries and my survivorship; I struggle against what seemed insurmountable odds at finding a support group; I continue to tilt against that windmill that says only women suffer breast cancer and only women are welcome in the support groups; I establish a Facebook presence and open a blog where I hope other men, confronted with this leg numbing experience, can find support. I refuse to give up on being part of the solution and I find a way to get involved and participate in world class genetic studies through the University of Washington and Dr. Mary-Clair King’s genetic labs. I reach out to Alan Blassberg and he has me laughing in no time. Diversion. Support. Understanding. Reassurance. Humour. What wonderful things for a friend to gift us with.
In 1985 my surgeon and I discussed a series of nine surgeries, over three years to restore the use of my forearms and hands lost in an industrial accident. Was that a frightening prospect? Well surely. And three years later I had full use of both forearms and hands once again, perhaps a little stiff but that would work itself out. No reason to believe that I would ever lose the function in my hands again, the injuries were repaired and I was healed. Can we ever know that to be true when we discuss cancer and its treatment? Can we be certain we will never experience another cancer? Is the experience of breast cancer and follow up surgery and treatment a one-time event?
No, cancer is insidious and we cannot know when or even if we will have to do battle again. But, can we allow that possibility to take over our lives and leave us with frozen legs for the remainder of our lives? We cannot. I cannot!
What can we do? What can I do?
I can reach out. Inform myself. Participate. Become part of the solution. Support others in their battles. Educate myself and others. Be watchful and deal with the numbing sensations when they occur and seek medical expertise when needed and trust that life and the cosmos will support us. And, life is finite, so live every minute that is given to us. Fear is real, but it need only be a motivator to seek advice and move on.