F.E.A.R. Factor: Advice From a Cancer Survivor

If there is one thing that all cancers have in common, it's fear. Whether it is the fear of a known, of the unknown, of loss, or fear of pain and suffering, fear is one of the primary symptoms of this diagnosis.
PUBLISHED October 16, 2015
Mike Verano is a licensed professional counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist and thymic cancer survivor with over 30 years experience in the mental health field. Mike has had articles published in national and international magazines and is the author of The Zen of Cancer: A Mindful Journey From Illness to Wellness. In addition, he maintains the blog, Confessions of a Pacifist in the War on Cancer. He and his wife, Kathy, live in Lanexa, Virginia.
"Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love." -Rainer Maria Rilke

If there is one thing that all cancers have in common, it’s fear. Whether it is the fear of a known, of the unknown, of loss, or fear of pain and suffering — fear is one of the primary symptoms of this diagnosis.

I have to confess that when it comes to fear, I have lived with its annoying offspring, anxiety, most of my life. For the uninitiated, anxiety, in its purest form, is like having to sit through a horror movie. The movie is your life, though, and the monsters, ghosts and zombies exist only in your head. My more clinical description for anxiety, the one that I share with clients who also carry the same freak-out potential, is that anxiety is when we worry about our worries.

“Everyone’s afraid of something,” I tell them, “those of us who are anxious have the extra fear of the worrisome thoughts themselves."

It was during a particularly intense and extended episode of anxiety several years ago that I was beaten up to the point of exhaustion. Traditional methods of calming my mind did not work, so I decided that there had to be another way to manage the experience. This started me down the path of meditation and the practice of mindfulness.

Contrary to much of what I was taught in my training as a psychotherapist, mindfulness practitioners were saying that it is the attempt to avoid the very things that scare us that creates our suffering. This seemed counterintuitive at first. Why would I not want to fight my anxiety? It was making my life miserable. What I wanted was a book called "Kick Anxiety’s Ass: 10 Way to Achieve Peace of Mind."

It wasn’t long, however, before the wisdom of the mindfulness practice of accepting the present moment, without judging or wishing it to be other than it is, began to payoff. The mindfulness axiom of “Whatever we resist persists” made perfect sense to me, as it seemed that my attempts not to be anxious only made me more anxious.

What I didn't know at the time was that my year of living anxiously was actually preparing me for the challenges I would face when diagnosed with cancer. The mindfulness techniques that I picked up during this period were essential to not letting the, “What next?” train run me over. The ability to step back from the thinking mind and stay in the now helped me to further understand that the only thing I had to fear was the fear of fear itself.

This is not to say that I was not afraid of having cancer, or that chemotherapy was going to make me sick and bald, and, of course, I was afraid I would glow like a nightlight after radiation therapy.

The fears associated with any life-altering illness are endless. Fortunately, mindfulness practices taught me to find comfort in facing those fears, not with a sword in hand ever at the ready to slay the beast, but by, as the writer Sheldon Kopp once advised, “... raising my right hand against fear and extending the other in compassion."

This practice helped me to look within during times that I was most afraid. The timeless promise of this ancient practice is the realization that, in the words of the poet Rilke, "We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us."

Through both my anxiety and cancer experiences I have learned to extend compassion to that part of me that feels so terrified, that would repeatedly say, especially during chemotherapy, "I can't do this anymore."

The mind trick I came up with at the time was to convert fear into FEAR: Face, Embrace, Accept, and Release. During these times, I would hear Rilke's soothing words in my head, "If an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and everything you do, you must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall."

Facing fear, rather than running the other way, brings one to a turning point in life; courage does not come before we face our worst fears, it comes from the very act of facing them. Embracing fear is not the same a loving the terrible things that are happening to us. It means having compassion for that part in us that feels so afraid, while still being willing to hold the moment in our awareness.

When we allow the moment to be as it is, without resisting or judging, a release comes from a very deep place. With this release the knots of stress, tension and anxiety, unwind themselves. This is the prize for walking through the doorway of fear, or, in my case, tiptoeing through — just in case it was a trap.
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