I hadn’t been alive for very long, and I was pretty sure I didn’t want to die yet. But the little poster in the front window of the barber shop in Little Falls, N.J., told me it might not be long.
In stark bold letters, the poster announced “The 7 warning signs of leukemia.” I didn’t know exactly what leukemia was, but it sounded scary and in the late 1950s it was almost always fatal. The poster said it was cancer of the blood.
I did an inventory for the signs. “Change in a mole or wart” — well, my little body was littered with moles, but I was pretty sure they all looked the same as the day before. “Fatigue” — no, I had plenty of energy; I was a kid after all. “Hoarseness” —
I cleared my throat. Was I hoarse? I did have a little bit of a tickle there, a small frog perhaps. I tried a few words.
“Hello? Hello? Oh no.” My voice was a little ragged.
I might have leukemia! It was a real possibility. The poster said so: My voice was hoarse.
I squirmed my way through the haircut, panic rising in my soul at every clip. Why waste my time with a haircut when I might have so little time to spare?
Afraid to say anything out loud, I was quiet on the way home, and the next time I was with my mother without the brothers around, I approached her and said solemnly, “Mom, I have to talk to you.”
She could tell right away that I was a tad distraught. No doubt she looked around the house to see if anything else was broken, but the look on my face told her this was different from guilt. I led her into a bedroom and closed the door.
“What? What is it?” Now she was starting to get anxious herself.
I threw myself against her apron and hung on for dear life.
“One of the symptoms of cancer is hoarseness and today I’m hoarse!!!” I wailed.
For just a moment there was no sound in the room except for my terrified sobbing.
And then, a soft laugh.
You know the scene in the movie “A Christmas Story” where Ralphie gets in a fight and afterward his brother, Randy, hides under the kitchen sink? When Mom asks what he’s doing there, he screams, “Daddy’s gonna kill Ralphie!”
Mom gives a soft chuckle and says reassuringly, “No, Daddy’s not going to kill Ralphie.”
That’s exactly how I sounded that day and exactly how my own mother sounded when she said, “No, you don’t have cancer.”
Patiently, she told me I needed to have more than one symptom before I needed to consider the most dire diagnosis. I realized I probably was going to live. The fright eased its way out of my tiny frame.
Lesson learned: Wait until you have all of the facts before jumping to conclusions. So often we become afraid because we only understand part of the story. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” says the old proverb — but the emphasis is on the word little. If you don’t have full knowledge, you can make a dangerous mistake — such as being paralyzed by fear.
The leukemia society didn’t mean to frighten a little boy that day, but planting a little fear in your mind is a common motivational tactic. The idea of the poster was to get you to a doctor, but it also works for product advertising and politicians.
When I sought more information from the closest trusted source at hand — my mom — the fears were dispelled.
Are you scared of something you don’t fully understand? Get more information. Most of the time, the situation is not as dire as you fear. And even more often, as I learned by discovering I didn’t have leukemia, the situation is not even a “situation” at all.
This column is an excerpt from the book Refuse to be Afraid.