Making the Best of Fearing the Worst

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By Andrea Cooper
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 2, 2008

I began my career as a crier in kindergarten. My teacher must have been having a hard day when she made me stand in the hall, just like the bad kids, because I was bawling so much. But I couldn't help it. She had asked us to draw a picture of our fathers at work. My father owned a shoe store. He brought out dozens of pairs of sandals to women who left with none. He chased my Yorkshire terrier through the store when the dog unexpectedly escaped from the back. He swore when checks bounced. How could I draw a picture of that?

So I cried. It came naturally, and still does. Crying is not a highly respected activity. God forbid you burst into tears at work; even at home, most friends and family are willing to tolerate only so much. Americans revere positive thinking. We learn that optimism brings health, and we buy books that invite us to imagine what we desire so it will come true. I can go along with all that, sort of, when times are good. But should the hint of a problem arise, the smiley-face doctrine doesn't work for me. I think negative.

Once I had kids, it didn't take them long to notice that. We were climbing our carpeted steps, my daughter the kindergartner in back, her toddler brother crawling in front. He stood suddenly, then swayed backward like a bowling pin about to topple. I shrieked. He glanced over his shoulder, confused by the mother who sounded like a baby, then calmly resumed his crawl. "Mom," my daughter reproached me, "I hope I'm not as scared as you when I grow up."

I admit my approach to life has been a little over the top. At least it was until the afternoon when my mammography results came back looking questionable. The receptionist who called said only that I needed to return the very next day for a more comprehensive screening.

Plenty of women get summoned for a repeat screening, but I didn't know that then. I sat stunned at my desk, my mind ricocheting. I would never see my kids grow up. I would never write a book. I called my husband, a nurse who knows much more about breast disease than I do. He assured me everything was likely fine. I agreed, I really did, but it was hard to keep "fine" in my head when I naturally veered toward "order lilies for the coffin."

That night I remembered we were changing health insurance companies, and cancer probably would qualify as a preexisting condition. My family would go bankrupt caring for me. I was about to have the "just let me die" talk with my spouse when I thought better of it and called my best friend. She prescribed chocolate cake and Benadryl. I actually stopped crying long enough to fall asleep.

The next morning, I shivered in the radiologists' lobby. An aide noticed my expression and patted my shoulder, but her colleague was all business. "Come on," Nurse Frosty urged, shaking her head as my husband rose to go with me. In the X-ray room, she explained the initial films showed possible calcifications in both breasts. These calcium deposits may be benign, or they may signal the presence of cancer cells. Guess which option I thought applied to me.

Frosty spent the next 10 minutes flattening my breasts between the X-ray plates like marshmallows in s'mores. I whimpered, and half-expected her to roll her eyes. I took a few deep breaths and apologized for my tears. "Well, I was wondering what you were going to do if you need a biopsy," she volunteered. "You'd probably faint right on the floor."

With the second set of photos, the radiologist concluded I was fine. Euphoric, I bounded out to my husband. The gray sky no longer looked clouded with doubt. My life wasn't ending, and maybe this would be a catalyst for change. Maybe tomorrow I would sail out of bed on a wave of endorphins like the optimistic people do.

Though it hasn't exactly turned out that way, this most recent experience with crying taught me something. Even if I imagine catastrophe in glorious, excruciating detail, that doesn't mean it will happen. This is fairly shocking news for people like me who've been trained to believe even our fleeting thoughts influence our destiny.

Now I can envision myself wasting away with obscure diseases, my children paralyzed from diving accidents, or nuclear destruction scheduled for 9 a.m. tomorrow, and none of it will happen. My tears, my worries, are all for nothing. There may be no power in positive thinking, but there's no power in negative thinking, either. That's what I call real joy.

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