Last night I watched an episode of the Colbert Report with my family, which included an interview of Billie Jean King, the now retired American tennis champion who won 39 Grand Slam titles over the course of her tennis career. During the interview, she recounted her 1973 match against Bobby Riggs, a then 55 year-old retired tennis player. King was 29 years old at the time and would not retire for another 10 years. The match was incredibly hyped in the media and dubbed the Battle of the Sexes. Billie Jean King won handily and at the end of the match, Riggs jumped over the net to shake her hand and said, “I underestimated you.” King told Colbert that her first thought was, ‘I need to tell my dad about this. He always told me, “Never underestimate your opponent”.’

I have been working on an opponent, my own anxiety over the summer. And I was feeling on top of the world, having successfully faced a number of fears in addition to almost living a normal life. My sudden anxiety with my MRI caught me by surprise and sent me into a roil of negative emotions for a couple of days. I had not been thinking about the opponent, cancer, as much as I had been previously. I mean, yes, not a single day has gone by since 5/25/12 when I haven’t thought about breast cancer. And I recently met a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor who told me that he stopped thinking about cancer every day after about 10 years. But the layer of terror, which subsided to consistent emotional anxiety, had given away to occasional thoughts, many of them as neutral as a thought can be that contains the word, “cancer.”

As you know, I wrote about my tailspin in a couple of posts, first Restless, followed by the Zoo. As usual, I got a great deal of support in the comments section. Karen Sutherland, a fellow breast cancer survivor, wrote a long comment that extended the thoughts and feelings I expressed in my post, bringing them full circle. Karen wrote about how the scans remind us of how life can “suddenly change on a dime” just when we are feeling back to “normal”. And then she went on to say the following (Note: Mom, there are f-bombs here but they are not gratuitous as we are talking about cancer):

I think that if we can dig deep into what all within ourselves we’ve been able to have changed for the better, and drag it up alongside ourselves and hold onto it – tight – and tell ourselves that no matter what, it’s all still there, a part of us to help gird ourselves in darker hours, it may be a way to say to that fucking cancer – hey, you sneaky bastard, you may have gotten a hold on my life and tried to get me into your strangle hold, but look at me now. I am wiser, I’ve been there and done that, I know what’s more important than you, and I am stronger than I ever knew I could be. and I am determined, even if a little shaky at first blush. and I WILL NOT lose any part of it to YOU. nope, not gonna happen. I am not as vulnerable as I was to the pain and fear you inflicted – and I got people, a whole posse surrounding me, loving and encouraging me 24/7. and guess what – that love, empathy, compassion, understanding, deep caring, and concern from all my family and friends – that’s what makes me who I am. so get over yourself, cancer – it’s not you who will define me, nor make me laugh, feel intense gratitude, and super-human strength just when I need it most.

Karen reminded me of the strength of my support system and the strength of my identity. Cancer is a formidable opponent. It is big and hidden and deadly and terrifying. I think none of us underestimate it and for many people, it still connotes an automatic death sentence, despite advances in assessment and treatment as well as the fact that cancer is a group of many different diseases. Sometimes it is hard to turn away from the opponent, especially when we’re going along having a normal-ish life and find ourselves blindsided with reminders of what could have been and what could still be. And we might even respond to that sneak attack by being more anxious and vigilant to the point that the fear of cancer takes on an entity of its own.

I have a list of self-statements that I keep on file in my brain that have helped me cope with obstacles in my life, statements like, “Almost every problem has a solution”, “Don’t borrow worry”, and “patience, persistence, peace.” I am adding another statement to my list:

Never underestimate your team.