Cancer anxiety has come close to taking me down, but I've learned how to put it back in its place and keep it there.
Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
I seem to dwell on the subject of anxiety. I find myself easily falling into a state of anxiety when certain tests, like three-month check-in CT scans, must be done and shared with me. Lately it has also caused problems when I need an IV placed. Anxiety, for me, is very different from garden-variety nervousness. If I’m not paying attention, anxiety has the power to knock me down and keep me down.
In my life and with my diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, anxiety is one of those emotions that is inevitable. It’s not a matter of beating or “getting rid of” anxiety. I know I have to learn how to live with it, preferably in peace and with acceptance.
Over the past 18 months, I’ve had lots of practice in finding ways to allow myself to acknowledge anxiety while not letting it take me down. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Don’t deny it.
Anxiety has a sneaky way of taking over my life. Maybe you’ve felt it too? Like all emotions, though, it doesn’t serve you well to deny it or hide it from yourself or others. I’ve found that if I simply say, “I’m feeling really anxious today” to the nurse holding that IV tubing or to a friend who asks how things are going, I immediately feel better. Not less anxious necessarily, but just naming the emotion helps. Naming it, out loud, can provide a reason for the racing heart or the physical tightness that occurs when anxiety is attempting a takeover. It won’t make it go away, but it lets me see this is not a new feeling and that I know what it is and I know how to handle it.
It’s no big secret that exercise can make you feel better (and experts think it might also specifically help with cancer treatments), but for me it is a mental health requirement. Getting my heart rate up for 30 minutes every day is a surefire way to control my anxiety about treatments. Because it releases a slew of feel-good hormones, exercise helps control the negative emotions that come along with any serious health diagnosis. When I was unable to exercise for two months because of radiation pain and a too-full calendar, anxiety quickly took over at every health-related appointment. It took someone else, who knew I was losing in my efforts to live with cancer anxiety, to point out that I hadn’t been exercising and maybe slowly returning to that would make a difference.
Those who know me, know I’m not big on the metaphysical. But people change. There’s a meditation practice called the body scan that I find particularly helpful in calming myself when I feel anxiety coming on. It is simply a method of slowly examining and acknowledging—without judgment—every part of your body. It can take as little as three minutes, so I find it useful when waiting for a test or when the nurses have a hard time placing an IV. In my case, it’s easiest to use the body scan technique when I listen to someone directing me, so I’ve found several videos on YouTube that I can get to from my phone. I keep a set of small headphones in my purse so I can listen in private if I am in the hospital.
Combine the physical with the metaphysical.
I’ve become a firm practitioner of an Eastern exercise called qi gong, which is similar to the better-known tai chi. It doesn’t get my heart going like the treadmill does, but the combination of specific movements with the mental focus on specific body parts is oddly comforting and relaxing. Qi gong is where I’ve learned that it is okay to feel something strongly but do nothing about it other than acknowledge it, which is exactly the secret when faced with cancer anxiety. I’ve found that just making one or two of the movements, along with the slower breathing, while waiting for the oncologist can help me find more calm.
I know that living with cancer anxiety is an ongoing experience. What works for me now may not work in six months and, with luck, I’ll find something that does work. In the meantime, I’ll get on my treadmill and practice what I preach.