Fear seems to be a part of daily life for those affected by cancer, and one of the biggest fears survivors face is that of recurrence. But along with that fear, there are many other fears, and most of them have names. For instance, a fear of tests that involve scanning the body might be called scanxiety, a combination of the words “scan” and “anxiety.” Most of the catchy names for various cancer fears have been coined by those touched by cancer's power, but not all fears associated with cancer have names.
There's a certain type of fear that comes over a person when faced with routine cancer checkups. Periodically, after a diagnosis of cancer, a person is scheduled to have blood work and other tests performed every three, six, nine or 12 months, graduating to annual checkups for the first five years and then in longer increments afterwards. That fear is similar to a fear of recurrence, but differs slightly.
The fear I'm speaking of is the type of fear that hits as you approach the door to the cancer treatment center or the oncologist's office. It's a fear felt deep down in the bottom of your stomach. It's almost like the feeling experienced when taking a ride on an elevator and you quickly reach the bottom floor. That queasy, “oh-my-goodness-do-we-have-to-do-this-again” feeling can be overwhelming. I've experienced this feeling many times over the past four years.
In order to give you a good idea how the fear begins and culminates, I'd like to share my own personal story.
On my last check up, the scheduler gave me a little appointment card. As I was leaving the office, I noticed the date was six months from my previous visit. When I got home, I immediately wrote the date on my calendar and put it into my phone with a reminder, so I wouldn't forget.
As months passed, I made mental note of how many more months it would be until the oncology visit. Without realizing it, I'd already begun to dread going. There was nothing specific about the visit I didn't like. My doctor was nice, the staff were professional, and I had great confidence in knowing my wellbeing was their first interest, but still, there was a feeling in the pit of my stomach that just wouldn't go away.
The week before the appointment was scheduled, the feeling of uneasiness grew stronger. In my mind, I pictured the cancer treatment center and the halls filled with people in various stages of treatment. It always made me feel nervous passing by them as I walked through the halls toward my destination although I didn't really understand why.
The day before I was to see the doctor, the feelings of fear mounted. Not only was I afraid of seeing the oncologist and having blood tests run, I noticed I was anxious about driving to the clinic. So, I did what I had done for the past few years: I gave myself a pep talk and told myself I could get through it.
On the day of the appointment, after arriving at the cancer treatment center, I gave myself another pep talk before getting out of the car and going up to the front door to the facility. As I reached out to press the bar on the glass and metal door, that all familiar feeling came on strong. Paralyzed with fear, I stood at the door for a few minutes and took a deep breath. This was something I had to do.
Mustering all my strength, I made a conscious effort to open the door. As soon as it opened, I could see others, just like me, milling around. There were women in turbans, people connected to IV poles lounging in recliners, and some of them had that unhealthy look of cancer written across their faces, but there were also others. The others looked healthy and strong. Passing by a large, plate glass window, I noticed I looked healthy and strong, too!
I managed to push through the feelings of fear that seemed to encompass me and went through the routine of visiting the oncologist but wondered why I felt such an overwhelming sense of fear in the first place. Was it a fear of the unknown? Could it be a fear of hearing news I didn't want to hear or was it simply going through the motions and remembering the trauma associated with the initial diagnosis? This unnamed fear was real and even without speaking to other survivors, I knew they must have faced it at some time, too.
In thinking about this unnamed fear, I remembered an acronym I'd once heard shared for the word fear. The acronym components are as follows: F stands for the word False, E stands for the word Evidence, A stands for the word appearing, and R stands for the word real. That acronym, in my life, has proven true: False Evidence Appearing Real. Perhaps this unnamed fear I was experiencing should be named the “False-Evidence-Appearing-Real” Fear. In thinking about fear this way, I'm able to disarm its power over me.
Hopefully, at my next checkup, I'll remember my feelings of fear can't be trusted although they seem to be very real.
It's normal to feel nervous, anxious, or even fearful after experiencing a cancer diagnosis and that's because we're human and we're wired that way. Facing the unknown is scary, but allowing fear to incapacitate to the point of making one unable to function isn't healthy. So, let's take the power away from fear by remembering the acronym, False Evidence Appearing Real and in doing so, we shift the power from fear's hand back into our own.