I Didn’t Understand Anxiety…Until I Got Cancer

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For those who have never experienced it, anxiety is a largely misunderstood condition. The unacquainted may not even deem it a condition, but rather a mood, an emotion, or an attitude. For most of my life, I was one of these people.

The Happiest Man in The World Has Anxiety

My mother once introduced me to a friend of hers by saying, “This is my son. He’s the happiest man in the world.” For the most part, she was pretty right. Even though on paper, there’s nothing extraordinary about me, I make a special effort to be content with life — happy with my lot and appreciative of my blessings. I’m very happily married. I’m a dad to a little boy who amazes me every day. I have a supportive base of family and friends. I’m a member of a close-knit spiritual community. I have a challenging job that I enjoy. To most, I display no reason why I should understand the anxiety that is capable of causing someone to nearly collapse in the shower…until that happened one day.

In March of 2017, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer in my right testicle. Though that sounds severe, it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. The survival rate for someone with a testicular cancer diagnosis still stands at around 99% if caught early enough. Heck, Lance Armstrong’s stage three embryonal carcinoma testicular cancer left a dozen golfball-sized tumors in his lungs with multiple tumors in his brain and he went on to win seven Tour De France races — which, even with the help of some illicit pharmaceuticals, is still quite impressive for a man who should be dead. My testicular cancer was more subtle — stage 1 classic seminoma, which my urologist told me, “If I had to choose which cancer to have, it would be that one.” After having my right testicle removed, a week at home to recover, and some scans to confirm that it hadn’t spread, I was essentially given a clean bill of health.

orchiectomy recovery
3 days after my orchiectomy (testicle removal surgery). I’m being silly. I wasn’t actually in a ton of pain unless I tried to bend over, sneeze, cough, or poop.

I’m a Hypochondriac

Though I healed up physically, the diagnosis left me a bit rattled. Past hypochondria that I once laughed about could now be stated almost as a diagnosis. 

Hi, I’m Ken — and I’m a hypochondriac.

Before long, every ache, bump, or swelling was “something” to me. I’ve typed and subsequently deleted many messages intended for my doctors. Though obsessive, no symptom ever seems severe enough to mention to a physician, yet every symptom feels important enough to provoke intense rumination.

Is it a fear of death? Oddly enough, I don’t fear death. I’ve physically been around death. I write about death as part of my job. Death isn’t scary. What is scary to me is not knowing what is happening within my body and ultimately the nature of my future.

Not Again

It wasn’t long ago that I started experiencing a dull ache in my groin. After a self-examination of my remaining testicle deemed it healthy, I wrote off as the result of too many squats in my workout or a change in the weather — nothing worth mentioning to my doctor. A month later, the ache persisted, and my anxiety skyrocketed.

The same ruminations returned. What could this mean? Should I research it online? Ah, of course not — that would only lead to a downward spiral of false information…or false hope? What would I hope to gain from such research? What if it says its nothing? What if it says I can’t have any more children? But I don’t want to bug my urologist. He’ll probably tell me I’m being paranoid. Would he actually tell me that? He’s a urologist, not a psychologist. But he’s a doctor…

After taking some time off from lower body exercise, the ache subsided…but remained. Though still present, the ache wasn’t necessarily the reason I made an appointment with my urologist. I made an appointment with my urologist due to my anxiety. Even if what he told me was the worst news imaginable, it would hopefully end the ruminating.

That Time I Had an Anxiety Attack in the Shower

While taking a shower the morning of my appointment, I decided to perform one last self-exam for myself before the doctor’s examination. An action I had performed dozens of times before now had new importance. My senses were heightened to detect any new detail. Due to my intensified focus, I felt a particular part of the epididymitis, the connecting tube on the backside, in a way I hadn’t before. My unfamiliarity with what I was feeling sent a wave of anxiety rushing over me. My empty stomach sank, and I felt a nervous retching-sensation creep up in my throat. I grew lightheaded and fell against the shower knobs. My knees wobbled unsteadily as I fought to turn off the water. I sat down on the floor of the shower, taking deep breaths until my stomach settled and my head felt more balanced. What had just happened to me? 

Stoic Anxiety — An Apparent Oxymoron

As I got dressed, I remembered the knowledge of the Stoic philosophers regarding fear and anxiety. A practice of the stoics was to periodically and deliberately seek discomfort. Some would dress for a time primarily in rags, sleep on the floor, do humiliating acts, eat the most basic food, or no food at all to induce the pangs of hunger. The idea is that once they had experienced what it would be like to be mortified, poverty-stricken, hungry, or without the comforts they had known, they would no longer fear such an existence.

I sought to see how I, too, could use this technique to settle my anxieties. The advantage I had in this regard was that I had already experienced what I feared. Thinking back to my past bout with testicular cancer, I recalled that, from the perspective of physical pain, it wasn’t as agonizing as I had assumed it would be. Sure, I was in pain and bending from the waist was virtually impossible (some have compared it to recovering from an appendectomy or hernia). Still, I even walked from the surgical bed to my dad’s car. A week later, I was back at work. Come to think of it, the worst part of my cancer experience was the anxiety stoked by the unknown — wondering if the cancer had spread. In this instance, due to a CT scan taken a month before my symptoms first appeared, I knew that was highly unlikely. Even if it was true, that was a pain for a later time that I needn’t torture myself with now.

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

– Seneca

To quell my anxieties, I considered the logistics of managing a second diagnosis of testicular cancer — mostly how to optimize recovery, how to keep the cat from jumping on my lap onto my surgical incision…again (probably the most painful moment of my life), and how to hug my toddler son without wincing in pain. As I started to plan for the worst pragmatically, free of vague ruminations, I began to see the fangs of my anxiety dull and its claws retract. I accepted my fate. I was ready to step into my doctor’s office and receive my second diagnosis of testicular cancer. In fact, I was almost looking forward to it…if only to get it over with.

What happened next was quite unexpected. My doctor found nothing of concern and said I likely strained my groin due to being a fitness idiot who doesn’t know how to stretch properly (ok, maybe he said it different, but that was the gist).

This guy scooped out my right testicle. Thanks. Dr. D.

Though I was immensely relieved by his assessment, the lack of cause for alarm left me perplexed. I had accepted my fate, but it wasn’t meant to be. I felt like I had packed a tuna salad sandwich for my journey…to a five-star sushi restaurant.

It’s Not All Trauma-Induced

My anxiety had been brought to life by a traumatic event, but for many, this is not the case. For some, anxiety comes on completely unprovoked — leaving a person feeling blindsided and without hope. For others, the tiniest stressors, virtually undetectable, can slowly accumulate into a full-blown anxiety avalanche. The one sin that we need not commit is our continued ignorance of Anxiety and depression best exemplified in one of the most hurtful rhetorical questions in existence; what do you have to be anxious about?

Our mindset must be of the now-famous quote by author Brad Meltzer:

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

Myself, the boy I made with my remaining testicle, and the cat who jumped on my incision a few days after surgery and I let live…a bottle of lotion, for some reason. 

Just a reminder that November is Men’s Health Month. If you’re a man between 15 and 35 or you know one, go here to add a monthly reminder on your calendar to check yourself for testicular cancer in the shower. Early detection saves lives!

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