How I Found My Cancer and Chronic Pain Cheerleader

I’m lying on cold metal. I’m wearing a medical mask for COVID prevention and feel like I’m suffocating. My heart begins to pound. I turn slightly faint as sweat drips off my cheek towards my earlobe. It is followed by a tear. 

I know exactly what’s happening—the onset of a panic attack. They’d been dormant for a while but started resurfacing with my cancer diagnosis. The radiologist tells me she’s been informed I can’t have my wrists held down, but wonders if she can at least place my wrists in holders that are over my head and behind me. I tell her she can’t. I remind her I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and having my arms held down is a trigger for a panic attack. I’d only just made this realization during the preparation for my lumpectomy. It turns out you spend a lot of time lying down with your arms over your head during the process of diagnosing and treating breast cancer. During my biopsy, as two nurses and a doctor leaned over me, one gently holding my arm down, I had my first arm-related panic attack. The next one happened when my new oncologist examined me. I put two and two together and decided to preemptively warn all future practitioners. So by the time I’d had the lumpectomy, healed, and begun radiation, my oncology team was well-versed in my trauma history.

The radiologist’s assistant—at this point I don’t know anyone’s names or titles—a young man no more than 23—poor kid—clears his throat, an attempt to get his boss’s attention. She doesn’t notice him—not out of a lack of compassion, but because she is really trying to figure out how to accommodate my desperate plea to keep my arms free. 

“Are you comfortable?” he asks. “I can turn on some air.” I nod, almost imperceptibly, staring right into his eyes. They are sweet eyes that have the effect of calming me a bit. 

He walks over to the wall, out of my peripheral vision, and almost immediately, I feel a cool breeze blow down on me. Another assistant enters the room and asks if it would help to lift my mask a moment. I offer her the same imperceptible nod I’d given Sweet Eyes. She loosens my mask and wipes the tears now accumulating near my right ear.

By this time, the oncology radiologist has entered the scene. Normally, I am told, she’s not there for this part, but she wanted to make sure they could target the area that once enveloped the cancerous tumor while also keeping me from panicking. Now there are four people, all masked, standing over me, looking down at my exposed breast, blocking the air, and periodically moving my arms to figure out the best place to put them. The machine needs to record the coordinates of movement to target the exact same spot every time, they explain. They simply have to come up with a position that’s both comfortable for me and that can be precisely repeated every single day of radiation. 

I feel my heart skip. Every single weekday for the next three weeks, I will have to go through a similar process to save my body from any cancer growing or spreading. I’m actually sort of lucky, I consider. My prescription was originally for six weeks of radiation, but COVID caused them to double my daily amount of radiation in exchange for being in the building half the time. I don’t know it yet, but this exchange will come with deep exhaustion and painful burns over the coming weeks and months. It will also send me into a massive flare of my Rheumatoid Arthritis—which has to go unmedicated through cancer treatment. Because of this COVID protocol, I will spend the next few months in quarantine, barely able to walk across my own living room.

Sweet Eyes asks if there is something I can think about to help me through the anxiety. “Is there a face you might picture to boost your spirits right now, maybe? Like a cheerleader of some sort?” 

I immediately picture my mom, but the fact that she’d died of cancer just three years before my diagnosis stops me in my tracks.

I quickly start to think about my family, my lovely husband and two younger kids, who are waiting in the car because COVID protocols won’t allow them in the building. This is my 15-year-old daughter’s first outing in months. My son, 18, the healthiest among us, has been doing all the errands for us throughout the pandemic. I think of my oldest daughter, 19. She’d been a Certified Nursing Assistant for a year when COVID hit and she was thrust into double and triple shifts to handle the load. I hadn’t seen her in months because of COVID. It was too risky.

The tears begin to flow again. I can’t think of my family. I can’t think of what it might be like for them if this radiation doesn’t work. 

Sweet Eyes lifts my mask a bit and wipes my face some. “Anyone?” he prods

Chris Traeger from the show Parks and Recreation comes to me.

“Paula Fitzgibbons,” the voice of Chris Trager beams in my head, “You are LIT’RLLY the BEST cancer patient I have ever met.”

I giggle audibly. That my childhood celebrity crush-cum-hyper-positive television character is the cheerleader my subconscious chose delights me.

Sweet Eyes lays my mask back down against my face and says to the crowd, “Well, I think she found her cheerleader voice.”

That was just over a year ago. I pushed through those three weeks of radiation with Chris Traeger in my head cheering me on. One morning, I fell hard in the shower before my appointment. I was still shaken when I arrived at radiation so I added Conan O’Brien’s podcast to my anti-anxiety regime. Alternating Conan’s humor and Chris Traeger’s positivity got me through my three weeks.

As it turns out, that combination of humor and positivity has also pulled me through the rest of the past year, taking me from barely able to walk across my house to the day 10 months later when I jogged five kilometers.

There has been a great deal of discussion lately surrounding the use of positivity in healing, much of it labeling positivity as toxic. Here is what I have learned from the Chris Traeger in my head through cancer and subsequent recovery: positivity is only toxic when it is not what a person needs.

Always ask what the person needs.

Whereas someone else on that metal radiation slab might have pulled through by deeply feeling their sorrow or perhaps even clearing their minds of all thoughts, I needed hyper-positivity to persevere. It LIT’RLLY tricked my brain into thinking my rapidly beating heart and clammy skin were the result of heroic power and joy, rather than their true origins—trauma-induced claustrophobia, pain, and an understandable fear of death-by-cancer.

I have spent much of my life living in and processing my childhood trauma. I have journeyed through cycles of depression and anxiety, relationship struggles, loneliness, and a host of physical ailments scientists now understand can develop as a result of the inflammation caused by trauma. I’ve been through all the psychological and medicinal therapies for depression and anxiety. My subconscious choice of employing the voice of Chris Traeger to get me through cancer was no accident. I need both his hyper-positivity and his physical and mental acumen at this point in my life to treat everything from my mental health to my Rheumatoid Arthritis. It is also how I hope to stave off any recurrences of cancer.

Despite the oft-repeated view of hyper-positivity—that it is a futile attempt at a quick-fix that glosses over and denies reality—I engage fully with my trauma, physical limitations, and mental health. I work hard at it (more on that in future posts). I am intentional and focused in my treatment. And it is working—for me, for now. If it stops working, I will reassess what my brain and body need at that time. I am writing down some of my experience with the hope that others who might be ready for a change in treatment find encouragement and inspiration here.