Fighting fear in the middle age

Middle age comes with worries and none more fearsome than health concerns

Of all the New Year wishes I received, the most meaningful was one titled A New Year's Prayer.

A friend WhatsApped it to me. It goes:

"May God make your year a happy one!

Not by shielding you from all sorrows and pain,

But by strengthening you to bear it, as it comes;


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Not by making your path easy,

But by making you sturdy to travel any path;

Not by taking hardships from you,

But by taking fear from your heart;

Not by granting you unbroken sunshine,

But by keeping your face bright, even in the shadows;

Not by making your life always pleasant,

But by showing you when people and their causes need you most, and by making you anxious to be there to help.

God's love, peace, hope and joy to you for the year ahead."

I am not a religious person, but I found comfort in those words.

Maybe it is because I am now firmly in middle age (and menopausal), but life does seem to have more shadows than light.

Failing health, medical bills, pain, death - these are things that will come sooner rather than later.

When I was in my 20s, 30s and even 40s, the new year was a time of celebration and hope. There were so many things to look forward to, wish for and dream about.

My new year wishes centred on words such as success, love, romance, fun, luck, prosperity, joy and abundance. May all your dreams come true! May you find the love of your life! May you strike 4-D! May you be promoted at work!

The last couple of years, though, the greetings that my friends and I exchange repeatedly centre on just two words: health and peace.

It's not that there's nothing to look forward to at this stage, but at my age, the milestones coming up aren't exactly in the same celebratory category as when I was younger (marriage, first home, parenthood, job promotions).

The biggest fear of middle-aged me is my health.

I fear falling ill, being in pain, seeking treatment, being incapacitated and my life as I know it now changing. And as a woman, there are just so many things that can go wrong with your body.

You would think that because I am so jittery about my health, I am diligent about going for my yearly medical check-ups.

On the contrary.

I regard health screenings with as much dread as I did examinations when I was younger. If I can avoid them, I will. Waiting for the results is more excruciating than waiting for my O- and A-level results years ago.

I got my last medical check-up in April 2013.

The doctor didn't like a reading in my pelvic ultrasound then and said I had to get re-tested three months later. Those months were a nightmare. I was in a constant state of fear and dread; my imagination ran wild.

Thankfully, the second reading was okay, but I was so distressed by the experience that when 2014 came, I couldn't bear to go through another health screening.

I had a colonoscopy that year though, a procedure I had been putting off. I told myself that I had done my part to look after my health.

When 2015 arrived, I had myriad excuses to delay my yearly check-up again. There were too many things happening at work, I told myself. I had to cover the General Election. No time.

When things settled down at the end of the year, I rustled up more excuses.

There was no point doing it before my holiday in December because if it was a bad report, my holiday would be ruined or cancelled.

I promised myself (and my husband H) that I'd go for my health check in the new year.

But the spectre of the screening clouded my holiday. I couldn't get it out of my head. I kept fretting about possible outcomes.

Then I got my friend's new year greeting and decided that it was time I be made of sterner stuff.

As the New Year's Prayer said, one can't run away from sorrow and pain, but one can try to be stronger when faced with bad news.

I made an appointment for my health check.

But old habits die hard and cowardice kicked in again. I chose to do it on Feb 20, after the Chinese New Year, because I wanted to go away for that long weekend and didn't want bad news to put a dampener on the trip.

Last Monday, I found out that someone I know had discovered a medical condition after an annual medical check-up.

The news shocked me. It also hit me how stupid I have been.

If I have cancer or any other disease, surely it is better to know it earlier than later? Knowing it early will mean treatment is more likely to succeed and will increase my chances of survival.

My life as I know it will change of course, but isn't it better to face this head-on than to bury my head in the sand and wish the illness away?

I also thought back to the essays that American actress Angelina Jolie had written.

As you might know, Jolie has a gene that makes her a lot more at risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer. She lost her mother, grandmother and aunt to the disease.

In 2013, she had a preventive double mastectomy. Early last year, she followed up with removal of her ovaries and fallopian tubes. Both operations vastly reduce her risk of getting cancer.

After her first operation, she wrote an article in The New York Times explaining her decision.

In it, she concluded: "Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of."

After the second operation which, among other things, meant she can no longer have children and which brought on forced menopause, she wrote another essay.

"I feel at ease with whatever will come, not because I am strong but because this is a part of life. It is nothing to be feared," she said.

"It is not easy to make these decisions. But it is possible to take control and tackle head-on any health issue. You can seek advice, learn about the options and make choices that are right for you. Knowledge is power."

Knowledge is indeed power and how silly I am to be so scared of my own shadow.

All of a sudden, Feb 20 seemed too long to wait. I regretted not doing my health screening earlier.

I tried to bring forward the date, but couldn't as all the slots were taken up. But I managed to get one key part of the screening - the mammogram and ultrasound - done earlier.

I did it last week and it was a nervous two days going for the test and waiting for the report.

The results were okay and it was a tremendous weight off my shoulders.

There are more tests to be done on Feb 20, but at least I have one fewer thing to worry about - for now, at least, because no one knows what tomorrow will bring.

On radio the other morning, I caught a talk show on Kiss92 where a psychiatrist was talking about how stressed out Singaporeans are.

He said the difference between people who are worriers and warriors is how the first group always asks "what if" while the second approaches life saying "even if".

I've been a "what if" all my life. I want to be an "even if".

So for 2016, here's what I aim to do: Go for yearly health check-ups from now on. Get the best medical insurance coverage I can afford. Stay calm. Smile. And say that little prayer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 17, 2016, with the headline 'Fighting fear in middle age'. Print Edition | Subscribe