Fear: The Unwanted Passenger


Author’s note: I wrote this piece a few years back but, of course, it still speaks to me. Probably always will. You might feel the same. 

I visited my dermatologist the other day. “Fifteen years!” she said. So long ago, yet sometimes so close. 

The thing is, once you have had a diagnosis of cancer – no matter the stage or the treatment required – you have that diagnosis in the back of your mind, always. It’s a little thing we professionals call fear of recurrence. I think of it as an unwanted passenger in my car.  

Carolyn Vachani, RN, MSN

It starts out riding in the front seat- perhaps barking out directions or telling me how to drive. As time goes by, it moves to the back seat. No longer in your face everyday, but always in your line of sight. Over time, as you learn to cope with it or put it behind you, it might move to a trailer riding behind the car. Mine is usually there. I do what I can to keep it there – stick to my follow up plan, practice sun safety, and see my doctor when something concerning comes up.  

That’s when the unwanted passenger moves up to the front seat again. Maybe it’s an ache or a pain, or a look of concern on my doctor’s face. But there’s that passenger again- telling me how to drive. Often times it is for completely unreasonable reasons, but the pull is strong – everyone wants to ride shotgun, right?  

Last year I had a bout of vertigo. Room spinning, ears ringing, and a constant headache. My doctor said it was likely viral and would pass in a few days. I was outraged. What medical school did this woman go to? How did she not see the obvious connection to my melanoma history? When was she going to order the brain scan? Life remained on this high alert level – think red on the homeland security scale – for 2 days. On the third day, I awoke with no room spinning, no headache and no ringing. Guess that doctor was right after all. Sir, you can move to the back seat now. 

Despite that lesson learned, there is no doubt that the next time a new symptom arises, that passenger will join me up front again. While I can’t make him go away completely, I like to think he spends more time in the trailer as time goes on. I hope your passenger can get in the trailer too.


Carolyn Vachani is an oncology advanced practice nurse and the Managing Editor at OncoLink. She has worked in many areas of oncology including BMT, clinical research, radiation therapy and staff development. She serves as the project leader in the development and maintenance of the OncoLife Survivorship Care Plan and has a strong interest in oncology survivorship care. She enjoys discussing just about any cancer topic, as well as gardening, cooking and, of course, her sons.