A cancer survivor offers advice for those facing anxiety and fear about cancer that takes control of their life.
For anyone who has faced a head-on collision with cancer and lived to talk about it, I know I am not alone in saying I worry too much mine will come back. At times the fear of landing back in a chemo chair, being suspended in the air in the radiation vault or worse, having yet another surgery to remove it, is stifling.
Rather than feeding this endless worry, wouldn’t I be better served if I focused on living the days I have been given?
Even so, my worry is not without reason. Twice a year I have follow-ups with my oncologist. Once each year I get a blood test to see if my CA-19 tumor markers are rising. Then I meet with her, where smiling, she says, “How are you doing?” To which I always reply, “Fine.”
After all, how could I not be fine having faced pancreatic cancer nine years ago and still be here when few see two years, and most don’t see five? I don’t break a sweat for this one.
But the second one is quite different. For this, I have both a blood test and a CT scan. In the weeks leading up to it, my anxiety level expands each day to the point where I feel like an overinflated balloon waiting to explode. A horde of “what ifs” assails me. Much like a dog with a bone, my mind gnaws on if this could be the one where she looks away and says, “I’m sorry but…”
Considering this, lately, I’ve been asking myself how much should I worry about something I have no control over. How do I get beyond worrying about my cancer’s return? For me, I am finding it helps to:
1. Take care of myself.
There is something to be said about eating right and getting enough exercise with ample rest. I am fortunate in that I have a partner who makes sure I eat right, even making me eat my broccoli. And the gym I go to is nearby so that removes the excuse that it’s too hard to get there.
To make sure I go, I’ve made a deal with myself: if I’m not outside doing yard work or shoveling snow, I go. A side benefit of this is my yard looks great and my drive is always shoveled.
Getting enough rest hasn’t been a challenge as I read before going to bed and use a fan to create white noise to help me not wake up every time the house pops or groans. Take care of yourself.
2. Accept my cancer may come back.
No one knows if their cancer will come back but if mine does, I will simply have to face it again. Much like my first tangle with it, I am confident I will step up and face it. After all, what choice do I or any of us have? Accept your cancer may come back.
3. Embrace my worry and fears by writing about them.
While it may seem counterintuitive, writing about your worry and fears helps you to come to terms with them. Repressing them seldom works. Putting them out of your mind will only lead to them boiling over at the most inopportune moment.
Instead, it is healthier to embrace your worry and fears. While I’ve never been committed to keeping a journal, much like Joan Didion, bestselling author of “The Year of Magical Thinking,” once said, “I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Hence, embracing your worry along with your fears by writing about them can help you come to terms with them.
4. Have a talk with myself.
Once I’ve written about my worry and fears, when I find myself continuing to worry, I sometimes have a talk with myself which goes something like this:
My mind: “I’m scared. What if my cancer comes back?”
Me: “Why are you worrying about something you can’t control?”
My mind: “But I — I need to worry about it!”
Me: “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
My mind: “But — but what if it comes back?”
Me: “Stop it! You’re driving me nuts with this nonsense. If it comes back, we’ll deal with it then. Can you think about something else for crying out loud!”
While this talk doesn’t always work, it does help to calm me. Have a talk with yourself.
5. Meditate or pray, or both.
Let’s face it, dealing with cancer is overwhelming on a good day and impossible on other days. For those who have no belief in anything outside themselves, I encourage them to meditate. This can soothe a person’s mind.
For me, I’ve found that praying which — in itself is a form of meditation — helps me realize as much as things seem to be out of control, there is a higher power, or God if you will, who has things under control regardless of how crazy they may seem to me. Meditate or pray, or both.
6. Live the best life I can.
Instead of worrying about things I can’t control, I’ve found it’s better to focus on living the best life I can. Rather than live within myself, even in this COVID-19 helter-skelter atmosphere, I try to get out and have coffee or lunch with a good friend, most often with someone who hasn’t faced cancer.
Why? Sometimes a conversation with another cancer survivor can descend into the rabbit hole of cancer rather than living the best we can. I have found I need to talk about “normal” not “cancer-normal.” Live the best life you can.
Rather than worry about the future none of us can control, focus on taking care of yourself, accepting your cancer may come back, embracing your worry and fears by writing about them, having a talk with yourself, meditating, praying, or both, and then living the best life you can.
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