A woman is surrounded by dark swirling clouds, but is still able to look up and see light shining down on her.

Wondering and Worrying: Could It Happen to Me?

On the leukemia side of my life, I get upset if someone dies of the same disease. First, because I’m sad about it, and second, because I identify so much that I think, “Oh no, this could happen to me.”

Worry over skin cancer deaths

The same thing can happen with skin cancer deaths. If you hear about someone who has died of the same skin cancer that you had (or have), you might feel extra vulnerable. It happened to me after a melanoma death.

The feeling you can't shake

It’s hard to apply rational thought to emotional reactions, but I try to take a step back and get my brain to de-escalate. These days, bad news spreads quickly. Maybe you’re cool and collected and let things wash over you. I know a few people who have this gift. I am not one. And sometimes I get in a state where I worry about what will hit me or a loved one next.

For example, a friend’s wife died after being hit by a bicycle rider in New York. She was in a crosswalk. He ran a red light. In addition to feeling horrible for the friend and family, I worried about my daughter being hit.

The squamous cell type of worry

Accidents, murders, horrible diseases...you can hear about all of these things and feel like crawling into a cocoon. You can think, “I could die of this!” Or you could say, “Just because something happens to someone else doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to me.” The latter is more rational, because, at the risk of stating the obvious, a tragedy is not "catching" like the flu is. But it's almost like a channel of vulnerability gets opened when you have a disease and you hear of a death from it. The melanoma death that I wrote about had a degree of separation from me. That's because, thankfully, I haven't had melanoma (knock on wood). But a death from a squamous cell cancer, the same type that I've had over and over, is another matter.

Will I be one of the lucky ones?

One doctor told me that my SCCs would continue to be an annoyance for me. He took a step back and said he meant annoying with a capital "A". He meant he didn't want to diminish them, especially those needing Mohs surgery. But he meant that they were unlikely to be fatal and were not a threat to me like my acute myeloid leukemia was.

I recently heard of someone who died from a misdiagnosed squamous cell cancer that had festered, undiagnosed, for years. That made me worry. Could something insidious be hiding on some part of my skin? Could the doctor have been wrong by calling my squamous cell cancers annoying and nothing more?

Putting worry and anxiety in their place

Up to the point where worry and anxiety are survival mechanisms, they are helpful. They can make us stay vigilant and report spots that don't look right. But once we have done everything in our control to check things out, they are an unnecessary weight. I don't have all the answers about how to shed the weight. Sometimes I'm good about changing my focus, doing something productive, or engaging in an activity that I love, such as tennis or yoga or walking my dog. Other times, not so much, but it helps to realize that the cloud will pass.

Key takeaways

1. We have commonalities, but everyone is different. Someone else's death from skin cancer does not have any bearing on the survival of another skin cancer patient.
2. If a spot doesn’t look right, get it checked out. Then, if you start to feel anxious, you will know that you have done what you're supposed to do. Remind yourself that you've done what can be done, and maybe rationality will win the day.

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