How to tell if you’re cancer free

My chemotherapy treatments are winding down in a few weeks. By the time you read this on Sunday, I’ll have just two more to go. And you might be wondering, like I was, 1) how my health care providers will know for sure that I’m cancer free after treatment is over, and, 2) how will they know if it returns in the future?
I’d heard of PET scans, which can be used to detect some cancers. I had assumed that at some point during cancer treatment I’d have to have a PET scan to determine if the treatment is working or if there are other affected parts of my body.
It turns out, those scans are not recommended for breast cancer patients who are at stage 2, my doctor told me. For some other types and stages of cancer, they might be.
When my tumor was removed during my lumpectomy back in March, the surgeon told me there were clear margins around the tumor and that the cancer was detected in only one of my lymph nodes. The former, as I understand it, means that the surgeon removed all of the cancer. The latter means that the cancer likely had not yet spread to other parts of my body. Those things together, as I understand it, mean I’m cancer free until proven otherwise. In my estimation, the 16 rounds of chemotherapy followed by however many rounds of radiation that my oncologist prescribed are not to kill any existing cancer in my body, but a measure to make sure no more of it grows.
After treatment, I’ll rely on regular self examinations and yearly mammograms to detect any recurrence of breast cancer I may have.
I’ve heard other breast cancer patients talk about the anxiety that comes with life after treatment. Some of them live in fear of their cancer returning. Mammogram days are scary. Aches and pains that might be ordinary for other people make them worry the cancer has returned or metastasized to other parts of the body. I’m not usually someone who worries a lot, but I can certainly understand their anxiety. Once cancer has happened to you once, what’s to stop it from happening again? Like anything else, that’s something I’ll have to take one day at a time.

I’m looking forward to meeting with the doctor who will do my radiation treatment soon and hearing how that will go. I know only a little about radiation from what I’ve heard from other breast cancer patients and survivors. Some of them say it makes them fatigued. One woman I know said she slept for 12 hours a day during radiation. Others report that it burned their skin. Still, I’m assuming that part of treatment will be easier than chemotherapy. I guess we’ll see when the time comes.

On another note, as much as I had panicked at the thought of having a blood transfusion to treat anemia, I still haven’t needed one. My body seems to be healing that on its own. At my last treatment, my hemoglobin had gone up to 8.7. It’s still not great but it doesn’t warrant having to get blood. I’m always very relieved when the nurses tell me that.

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