Fear is an emotion with a bad press. It may have served our ancestors well in our evolutionary past, when we were faced with mortal danger at every turn, but what place does it have in modern-life? What use is the 'flight or fight' response on the daily commute? Or in the supermarket? Or at the school-gate? We describe ourselves as 'fearful' about our job, our marriage, and of course there are our endless fears about being unwell (let's face it who wants be ill?) But, until I developed breast cancer in 2009, I think I can count on one hand the number of occasions when I felt true fear - you know, that total and overwhelming body-mind experience when your heart pounds, your breathing-rate increases and shallows and all the hairs prick up on the back of your neck in a genuine 'Body-get-me-out-of-here-right-NOW-terror!'
I think it's fairly safe to describe the way we live as risk-adverse. So many aspects of our lives are regulated. We have cameras everywhere. I wouldn't dream of allowing my 9 year old daughter to walk to school on her own even though I could cook a meal for six and make a fire at the same age (I did live on a farm). Here in the West we have never had it so good. Yet we are almost constantly told that we are vulnerable, frail, in potential danger or unhappy - 'Will alcohol cause cancer?' 'Is it safe to eat sausages?' 'Is my career fulfilling my needs?' 'Signs that your partner is having an affair'. As for motherhood - I'm not even going to go there, but I will confess that I am not a Tiger Mother (my partner refers to me as 'Soft Touch Mama').
When you get a cancer diagnosis - or, I imagine, any life-threatening illness - Fear suddenly moves into your home. It's like the most inconsiderate, unwanted and troublesome house guest. Like the Tiger who came to tea in Judith Kerr's book, it eats all the food in the house; it drinks all the milk. It also uses the last of the toilet paper, steals your best perfume and makes the most terrible mess - everywhere. As if that isn't enough, it stalks you in your own home and creeps up on you when you least expect it, spoiling the small moments of quiet joy that you once took for granted. I used to lie-awake, literally in a state of terror - my heart racing, my skin soaked in a cold sweat. Even now, 4 years into a remission, the mere mention of the word 'scan' is enough to make me tremble and the prospect of an 'anaesthetic' makes me want to run for the hills. Oh yes, me and Fear are well-acquainted.
When I found out I had a BRCA1 mutation in 2011, it was painfully apparent to everyone around me that the odds of developing another breast cancer meant that risk-reducing surgery was a no-brainer. But I swung between the terror of getting cancer again, and the dread of a 12 hour operation. I was like a rabbit trapped in head-lights and became completely paralysed by Fear. I realised I had to make Fear my friend. I had to ignore the mess and the disarray. I had to stop running and look Fear in the eye. It took more courage than I knew I had to master this primal, all-consuming emotion. I realised that if I stopped and listened to my fears, I took some of their power away; the mess didn't matter so much.
I did go on to have the mastectomies in 2012. Unfortunately, cancer was found in the tissue removed from my breasts. It was a particularly sneaky cancer because it hadn't shown up on any scans. By having the surgery, I had potentially saved my life. And so I have to say thank you to Fear for helping me to work out where the dangers lay, how to go forwards and how to survive.
PS Fear still pops in for a visit now and then but not as often.