Monday, January 26

Is Worry Good?

A week or so ago I had lots of fun giving my retirement speech at the great retirement party thrown by my friends from Scoular. As part of the speech I repeated a couple of "principles" I had come up with years earlier as I left Pillsbury - one of which is that "worry is good." In the speech I was referring to the fact (at least it seems like a fact to me) that any potential problem with a deal that I had worried about in my professional life never reared its ugly head. It was always the "random violence" of the unexpected that kicked us in the head.

This principle became more real to me a couple of years later. As most of you know, I was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor shortly after leaving Pillsbury. It was treated successfully and I have been healthy ever since. But I do get blood tests several times a year to ensure that there are no blood-borne signs that some form of cancer is returning. Those tests (by now about fifty of them) have always been fine, though they have been a source of worry for me every time. Except for one - about a dozen years ago. I was feeling great at the time and didn't get at all nervous and worried about the potential of bad results. And wham!!!! - there were some bad signs in the test. MRI's and some fairly painful bone marrow testing followed. And in fact everything was normal on closer inspection. But I have since taken it to be one of my obligations to worry about each and every blood test. I hardly think about cancer until my blood has been taken for examination. Then I do worry. Because I illogically believe that it's the safe thing to do.

The day after I retired, I had another blood test (as well as my annual bone survey - x-rays of every bone in my body. Unrelated but funny side note, my skull x-ray was rated as unremarkable). One fairly recent development in the testing process, on the whole a very good one, is that the results are quickly available online. I don't have to call a nurse and bother her. I can simply check the online site (every 10 minutes) until the results arrive.

Most of the results came in quickly, and were normal. Except for one, a test for "immature Granulocytes." The range of "normal" results listed on the web site for these immature little beings is between zero and zero. That seems a pretty small range. Here's what I saw:

Granulocytes, immature, automated (IG #)0.02 x 10^3/uL0 || 0
Of course, I didn't know a Granulocyte from a stick. But still I was worried (even more than the preventative worry mode that I was already employing). So I read about Granulocytes, learned that they were just a symptomatic marker for certain problems, can occur in the absence of any serious problems. I also learned about the three types of Granulocytes, and noted from the other test results that I was in the range of normal on each one. So that should have calmed me down. Of course it didn't.

My online research was conducted at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Fortunately, my regular doctor is also a friend and neighbor. So when I was sure that he and his family were moving next door, I took my laptop over for a professional read from someone who at least knows what Granulocytes are. Tony was reasonably sure that this was not anything to worry about. And that helped. More results which were also good helped as well. But my worry was still at a heightened level. 

I guess my worry continued was because I was concerned about irony. Cause wouldn't it be ironic if I retired and only then, after 16 years, had cancer return. And we have all heard those stories. Person retires and soon has some fatal or near fatal experience. The story I remember is that of our old neighbor at the cabin. She and her husband built their retirement dream home, retired to it, and he died a month later. Of course we all tend to imply cause and effect when we hear those stories. At least I do. Though if you think about it logically, if you know a thousand people who retired at age 60, it's statistically pretty likely that one or two of them will die in the next six months. Of course, there are no stories told about the 998 who are fine. But boy do you hear about the two who aren't. [Here's an interesting article I read recently which gives some insights on this general subject - ].

Believe it or not, I am not the worrier I was when I was a kid. In those days, if my parents said they would be home at 10 p.m. and it was 10:10 p.m., I was reasonably certain that they were dead on the highway. I've made huge progress in this area over the years. Actually, it was when I had cancer that I internalized the idea that you should solve the problems you have, and not worry unduly about those that you don't. Still, progress is not perfection.

A friend of mine once told me long ago about Maeve Binchy novels. I've never read any of her works. The friend said they were all the same. The main character spends most of the novel worrying about ____________ (fill in the blank, for me it would most often be cancer) and then in the last chapter or two they are _________________________ (I fill in this blank with run over by a bus ). There is a good lesson there, so I'm not going to read any Binchy novels in case my friend was just making this up.

I had my oncologist appointment last Thursday. Tim, my oncologist, could hardly have been less concerned by my Granulocyte reading (mature or immature). I had a pleasant conversation with him and headed on my merry way completely reassured.  I probably won't give any thought to cancer until my next blood test in June. Was the worry good? Probably just a waste of energy. Will I worry next time? You bet. You can't take chances with this stuff.