Cancer and the Imagination

Posted on: September 30th, 2016 by

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When I was a teenager, I wished my active imagination would always stay vivid.

Unfortunately, that wish came true.


Being diagnosed and treated for cancer unleashes a maelstrom of emotions. But lately I have been wondering if a cancer experience heightens our imagination. We imagine our deaths. We imagine our physical pain and suffering even before we endure these. Our post-cancer-diagnosis minds go places that our pre-cancer minds did not.

One would think that, 15 years after diagnosis and treatment, I rest easier with each passing year. That time and distance heal. But truth is, each year presents me with more mental obstacles. Each year I struggle to manage my PTSD.

My imagination center, which I was once grateful for, is now a Pandora’s box of horrible scenarios. The active imagination that once led to fun stories and wonderful daydreams is now filled with nightmares. I don’t rest easy nowadays, although I try my best to do so and to live in the present.

But every so often, something jars my imagination.


For example, this week my best friend, let’s call her K, had an outpatient surgical procedure. I drove her to and from the surgery and stayed with her in pre-op. While the nurses were hooking her up to an IV, I heard the beeping and sounds of the machine that measured her vital signs. I glanced over at the monitor and suddenly I was triggered: I perceived the monitor lights as turning black and white and flashing in my head. The smell of latex made me sick. I felt numbness around my mouth. I was having a full-blown panic attack and PTSD flashbacks, but I kept it under wraps for the emotional well-being of K.

With each medical visitor who came by to visit K and explain the medical procedure, and with the beeping of others’ monitors as well, I experienced a hurly-burly of emotions. I wanted to crumple into a ball and cry continuously. My mind went back to when I was going through cancer treatment. My mind went back to the time I lost Faun. To the time I lost Virginia.

I cannot lose K.

Then I was in the waiting room, where unruly panic seized me. I tried to reassure myself when I saw doctors coming out to speak optimistically to loved ones about their loved ones’ procedures. I kept hearing, “All went well. She’s resting comfortably” and “He did great; we found nothing major.” Then it was my turn to find out how K was. And to my shock and fear, a Day Surgery staff member told me, “The doctor wants to see you in the consultation room.”

My imagination spiraled out of control at 1,000 miles of panic per hour. I wondered, why do I need to be seen in the consultation room when every doctor has been coming into the waiting room to see family and friends? My PTSD spawned catastrophic, irrational thoughts: “I’m sure the doctor wants to see me privately because my friend has cancer” and “Why am I being ushered in the consultation room if it’s not serious?” and “Is my friend alive?” The walls of panic kept closing in on me, and breathing became difficult. On shaky legs, with numbness spreading to the rest of my body, I walked into the consultation room.

Thankfully, the doctor showed up shortly after. The waiting game simply isn’t my cup of tea.

The physician seemed calm, relaxed, and smiled, explaining the procedure and showing me pictures of the surgery, which kept me in my heightened state. She took a biopsy and is sending it to pathology to see if there’s cancer or a pre-cancerous situation. K would know the results early next week. All I had to hear was the word “cancer,” and my mind wandered the dark crevices of imagination. Desperate to get the doctor to say, “It’s not cancer,” my numb mouth said, “But it could be benign, right?” The doctor was unreassuringly reassuring: “It absolutely could be benign,” she smiled. “We just have to see what pathology says.”

My rabid mind went through repetitive loops, replaying the most horrible scenarios. Thanks, cancer, for fucking with my imagination.

I thanked her, returned to the waiting room for an hour while my friend was in recovery. And all I kept thinking was how it probably was cancer and how my PTSD was heightened and how I wish I had brought Xanax with me. Oh and how I needed to pencil in an appointment with my shrink.

When I was permitted to see my friend, I relayed to her what the doctor said, all the while keeping my paranoia at bay to reassure her. We are still waiting for results, and every minute seems like a lifetime with no lifeline. My wise friend said, “I won’t worry until there’s something to worry about.” I’m trying to embrace this perspective.

According to the insightful novella Typhoon by Joseph Conrad, having too much imagination can be a negative quality. The story centers around a new seaman who feels superior to a boring steamship captain because the captain has “just enough imagination to carry him through each successive day, and no more.” Yet, when a massive typhoon hits the ship at sea, it is the unimaginative captain who is able to safely guide the boat. The new seaman, who has a vivid imagination, cowers and crumples under the weight of disastrous what-if scenarios.

I now find myself longing to be the steamship captain. I want minimal imagination these days, just enough to get me through each moment. So whenever a storm comes, perhaps I’ll finally know what to do.

Do you feel cancer has played with your imagination? Either way, I would really like to hear about your experience(s).

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4 Responses to Cancer and the Imagination

  1. Kathi had this to say about that:

    PTSD is a bear. Yet I also think it’s that we know so much that we didn’t know before that makes us crazy. We scarcely need any imagination because we’ve lived this horror. All we need is our memory. And then some situation can revive all our memories all at once until we’re overwhelmed. I hope your friend will be all right. I hope you will be okay. Hugs.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thank you, Kathi. You’re right: it’s the very knowledge of what nightmare has unfolded that makes us so scared out of our minds. I hope my friend is OK. I know that wherever the chips may fall, I will be fine. This week has been rough emotionally. Thank you for your support, dear friend.

  2. Nancy's Point had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,
    First of all, I hope the pathology report held good news. And it’s so nice you accompanied your friend even knowing how hard it would be. I used to be one of those, let’s not worry about it until we need to, sort of thinkers. I guess mostly I still am. But no doubt about it, cancer messes with our psyche. Sorry you had such a tough week and again, I hope your friend will be okay. No matter what happens, she’s lucky to have you in her corner. As am I. xo

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for your kind words and well wishes for my friend. It turns out that it wasn’t cancer, but the cells are atypical, so she’s undergoing some preventive measures.

      Absolutely cancer can mess with our psyche.

      By the way, I’m lucky to have you in my corner as well. :)

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