When you have cancer, there’s no such thing as “routine scans.”

In which I meditate upon the Tumor of Damocles…

Early-stage cancer that hasn’t spread can sometimes be treated with precisely targeted radiation, or even removed surgically. When dealing with a discrete tumor, oncologists can sometimes be quite confident that all of the cancer has been removed or destroyed. But even then, they may ask patients to return for “routine scans” at certain intervals.

If your cancer has spread and metastasized, you’ll definitely be back for “routine scans,” and maybe even a biopsy. (Actually that “metastatic” cancer word simply means the cancer is moving, spreading, and “beyond static.” Meta Static.) And even if radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or targeted therapy seem to have worked, there’s always the chance your cancer could return later. It only takes a few of those malignant cells lurking in some dark corner of your body.

So once you go metastatic, you’ll never go back. Best case, you’ll still be returning for ‘routine scans.” If those scans go well, their frequency will decrease from once every month or two to invervals of three, six, and twelve months—and maybe even once every five years. (Personally, I’m just now moving up from three months to six.)

Rationally, of course, there’s no reason to become extra anxious during the days, weeks, or months before these “routine” scans. After all, the news will rarely be black-and-white. It will never be “all clear forever,” and it will never be a final death sentence. It’s only a snapshot, and there’s always one more thing your oncologists can do. Still, if you’re the patient and it’s your scan, it will never feel routine.

If you’re the patient, it’s as though you have the Tumor of Damocles hanging over your head. Forever. What do I mean by that?

If you haven’t heard the original “Sword of Damocles” story, Damocles was a guy in ancient Greece who, as legend has it, hung around the court of King Dionysis I of Syracuse. Like many, he spent just a little too much time flattering the king. He told the king incessantly that he was a great man, a wise ruler, and incredibly deserving of his wonderful, luxurious life of ease.

So eventually the king grew tired of this and asked Damocles if he’d like to switch places for a day and actually experience a king’s life of luxury and ease. Of course, Damocles agreed immediately. Next day he’s sitting on the king’s throne amid piles of gold and silver, young girls feeding him grapes, that sort of thing.

But then he looks up and sees a sword hanging over his head, held only by a single hair from a horse’s tail. Suddenly the king’s velvet throne feels a little less comfortable.

King Dionysis explains that when you’re king, you have a lot of enemies. Sure, you have riches and treasures. And you are king. But you’re always watching over your shoulder. It’s like always having a sword hanging over your head by a single hair.

So Damocles, I suppose, must have told the king “Point Taken,” or something like that.

Which returns us to our “Tumor of Damocles.” If you have one hanging over your head, then what do you do with your newly acute awareness of your own mortality?

I can’t answer that for you. I’m still working on the answer for me. But I think it might be something like this…

Be worthy. The past is past. Now live life to the fullest. Make plans, but live your life and make your choices knowing that every year, month, week, or day could be your last. Be the best, kindest person you can be.

Come to think of it, that might be an OK plan for just about anyone.

Author: alcambronne

Retired photographer, author, and cancer survivor living in northwest Wisconsin.