Navigating Recurrence Anxiety as a Cancer Survivor
Let's get real for a moment. If I, David Ersland, want to help raise awareness about what cancer patients go through, I should probably open up about my journey. That said, I want to open the doors to shed some light on what it's like to be a survivor.
I want to talk about something that most survivors go through. While not the same for us all, we have some commonalities in themes. I want to speak to the anxiety around recurrence or our cancer coming back.
Reclaiming Normalcy: Embracing "Me" Again
About two months ago, I noticed that I felt strong for the first time since my acute myeloid leukemia diagnosis. I felt like I could handle my workouts better than I have in four years; I felt "normal," like my body hadn't been decimated by chemo and a stem cell transplant. This new sense of strength was a massive moment for me because I have been constantly working towards and hoping this would be achievable since 2019. To put it simply, I feel like me again.
And that is where the problem lies; I feel like ME again.
For almost four years, someone else's blood roared through my veins, keeping me alive and well, but that process took its pound of flesh and then some. It is hard to describe how that feels, but it's almost like you put on your favorite pair of sneakers, but someone switched them out for a 1/4 size smaller. They look like your shoes, but something feels a bit off.
That's how I felt like I was out of place in my own skin. Four years is a long time. It's long enough to have things become the "new normal", but this is how I feel now.
This is life. Better get used to it.
Recurrence Anxiety: Emotional Toll of Questioning the Future
While I was initially ecstatic to feel strong and like myself, a little seed of thought would continue to grow: why do I suddenly feel so good, so strong, and like myself?
"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth," I told myself about this new old experience in my journey. "Be happy and appreciative of the day and your present moment," but I didn't listen to my words of wisdom; how could I? I stared that damn horse right in the mouth like it had the answer to the meaning of life in its digestive tract.
Cancer survivors can have a lot of thoughts about recurrence, and I'm no different; it's a work in progress. That tiny seed of questioning blossomed and grew.
Thoughts quickly evolved from "I feel like ME again" to "Wait, ME failed me. ME tried to kill me. If I feel like myself again, does that mean my bone marrow is creating my own blood again to push Amy's donor cells out after a successful transplant? If that can happen, is my leukemia going to come back?"
Those questions may not seem like much, especially when trying to convey the emotional fallout they can lead to. If left unchecked, those thoughts can quickly snowball.
For a couple of months, I woke up every night in a panic that my doctor just told me my leukemia was back.
That panicked thought races and morphs into all the complex scenarios that would come with recurrence: having to call loved ones to tell them the bad news, talking to my employer, finances, and lastly, do I even want to go through that again?
I would love to say this was a gentle onset that some people experience with anxiety, but this is more like flipping a light switch, and you're suddenly thrust into a tornado ripping through the neighborhood that is your mental life.
Coping Strategies: Finding Reassurance in Others
I would then have to talk myself down with deep breathing, "You're okay. You don't have any symptoms. You still feel good. Your anxiety about this is not in control. Just breathe, clear your mind, close your eyes, and sleep."
Many young adult cancer patients are seen as strong and resilient. Almost like they are guaranteed to spring back to how life was before, with little thought to further aftercare outside of checkups, and that isn't the case. While I am a massive proponent of people seeing a therapist, and I see one often, I'm sure my brain would have eaten itself without the connections I could lean into from the people I met at young adult cancer camps like First Descents and Project Koru.
Good news, my brain was running wild, and it was indeed wrong. I made it to my checkup to have bloodwork done and speak with my doctor. Our last bone marrow biopsy in 2020 showed that my donor cells were 100% engrafted, and just to be doubly sure, my doctor ran a typing test that came back as Amy's blood type.
Amy, your cells are still kicking ass! Thank you!
Embracing the Present: A Life After Cancer Treatment
Through all this, it is important for me to remember to stop and take in the present moments. Enjoy the small things that stack on each other to build the beautiful world around us. Take in the joy and love that is around us.
Stop to appreciate that flower on your next bike ride; really lean into the feeling of holding a loved one's hand while strolling along a path at sunset; savor and let that first sip of your favorite beverage linger.
These moments make life genuinely spectacular, making the anxiety of wanting to be alive worth it. I am happy to be here and able to push toward more. Go with love and take in the world around you.
A Note from Odd Ball Jon
Go Further: Everest's Journey to Complete 3 Major Endurance Events this Summer
David "Everest" Ersland and I met during a cancer camp during the summer of 2023 on the Rogue River in Oregon. It became clear that Everest wasn't just a survivor, he's a cancer thriver.
He wasn't given a second chance at life when he was diagnosed in order to squander it.
Now he's on a mission to raise money to send other young adults impacted by cancer to Camp Koru in order to help others overcome their own recurrence anxiety.
When he was diagnosed, over 85% of his blood was cancerous. His prescribed chemotherapy treatment had no impact on the cancer and a Clinical Trial became his only hope of survival.
After another three rounds of a different chemo cocktail, he was in remission. But it wasn't yet over. He still had to undergo and work to recover from a stem cell transplant. And that's just what he did.
Four years after being diagnosed, Everest has completed an Ironman Race and a 100 mile gravel bike race. Next month he will complete the 100 mile Steamboat gravel bike race.
Then, in November, he will endure the 42 miles and 11,000 ft elevation gain of the Rim to Rim to Rim challenge, running from one rim of the Grand Canyon, to the other and back again.
All tolled, he'll undergo 242 miles in just a few short months to help others.
Stem cell transplant patients are not supposed to do this. At least, it's not typical and the medical community doesn't have much data to go off of. He's one of the few to push the limits of what they thought possible. This could break him...
But in Everest's mind, he's risking the biscuit for the sake of others.
He's doing this to raise money to send other cancer survivors to Camp Koru. I encourage you to check out his full story HERE and to donate if you can.
From first hand experience, these camps for young adults impacted by cancer are truly the first step towards reimagining one's life after diagnosis. Thank you Everest for showing us all what's possible. - Odd Ball Jon