Anxiety Is Just for Other People

November 30, 2018

I would tune out or give an unsympathetic nod when I would hear people talk about anxiety because I didn't understand what it really was or how paralyzing it could be. That was until I got cancer.

By my third round of chemo, I couldn't pull into the cancer center without dry heaving in the parking lot. I didn't understand why my body wanted to throw up long before an ounce of that toxic poison dripped into my veins, and mentioned the weird event to my oncologist when I checked in with him that day.

"Oh, that's just anticipatory nausea," he told me, without offering more than a basic explanation that the name itself illustrated.

I got it. My mind was anticipating what was to come after I was safely home and tucked into bed hugging the yellow bucket that became synonymous with my first year of treatment. I left his office and walked back down the hall to the large, bullpen-like infusion room. I happened to catch my nurse at the door, and filled her in on any updates from my appointment, casually mentioning the "anticipatory nausea" I was experiencing in the parking lot, as I tried to suppress my body's desire to vomit right there in the doorway.

"Oh, honey," she told me in her calming Southern voice, "that's just anxiety. You can take a pill for that!"

I've only ever had good case of nerves in my life, and would have previously (and naively) assumed that anxiety was just a bad case of jitters coupled with a belly full of butterflies and a side of unwarranted stress. I will confess I had no clue and therefore no empathy for how paralyzing this very real condition could be. If my pre-cancerous self had given it any thought, I may have even scoffed at the idea of someone needing medication to control something my mind and body could easy regulate on its own up to this point.

My infusion nurse let me in on a little secret. The little pills they had given me to take for nausea doubled as an anxiety medication in the normal word. "Just pop one of those before you leave the house for your appointments, and you'll find it so much easier to walk in the door." I normally wouldn't have believed that such a tiny pill could land such a powerful punch, but in my first two rounds of treatment I saw that tiny white dot take the edge off the powerful nausea that followed me around in the week after every infusion.

After sitting down in my infusion chair, I wondered why my oncologist didn't call it what it really was or suggest I take a pill that could making walking into my appointments so much less dramatic for my body and my mind. I also wondered how many other patients were being shortchanged by their providers and suffering though this added unnecessary stress that surrounds treatment. This wouldn't be the last time I would find myself short changed as a patient, and potentially left to face side effects of this disease without all available resources.

As my rounds progressed so did my anxiety. What started off as one pill as I left the house turned into a second pill as I pulled into the parking lot. I soon added a third pill on my way home from my infusion, and set my timer to go off every four hours as I worked to suppress the pending and debilitating nausea. That sneaky anxiety would sit on my shoulder for my first five years of chemo, and wait for any moment to attack. As I drove past the cancer center on the freeway, I had to glance away to avoid the physical reaction that would wash over me from simply looking at the building. A few years later, I had to walk out of the room during a conference as an oncologist gave an extensive presentation about these nausea-inducing chemotherapies I knew all too well. It was amazing that just the words could trigger something that would manifest itself physically.

Anxiety was now a very tangible thing to me now. How can it not be when you walk into a building every other week to knowingly make yourself sick? Or wake up every day with a disease growing in your body that you know may kill you? It was an eye-opening lesson for me that created empathy and understanding I did not have before. When someone tells me that they rely on medication to help re-center their mental health, I get it at my core. I understand the power one little pill can have in picking you up off the bathroom floor so you can walk into the lion's den with ease. I'm just sorry it took a cancer diagnosis for me to understand.