Emergency Moves to Help Respond to Cancer Triggers

The cancer experience is far from over when scans turn up clear. Here’s how I deal with triggering reminders of the disease.

For those with cancer the fight for a healthy future doesn’t just end if we’re lucky enough to receive clear scans after treatment.

There’s the maintenance factor of follow-up appointments, revisiting depressing hospital environments and meeting with doctors throughout the year to make sure everything looks OK.

Information is power, sure, but that doesn’t mean I’m not freaking out at each appointment — after five recurrences, my brain has been trained to prepare for worst-case scenarios.

There are also the inevitable reminders popping up in everyday life, like cancer treatment commercials and diagnoses mentioned in TV/movies. Plus, anytime I witness friends experience setbacks, read unfortunate news on social media about other cancer fighters, or a celebrity announces a diagnosis (or passes away), I feel extremely triggered.

In the latter cases, I can’t help but wonder what type of cancer did this person have? What went wrong? Was it anything in their control? How do their circumstances compare to my own? My stomach tightens and shoulders grow heavy as cortisol floods through my body — a very similar reaction to experiencing scanxiety during the weeks around scans.

It's never enjoyable, but I’ve spent the past few years actively working on how to cope with these situations. I’ve gone through lots of therapy, self-help books and trial and error. And while everyone has unique strategies that work for them, here are a few of my go-to moves:

First, I remind myself it’s almost impossible not to have a reaction to scary cancer triggers. I can’t expect myself to never get rattled, not after suffering such extensive trauma. However, I can control how long it takes me to recover and how I respond. Once I recognize that my adrenal glands have started cranking away, I’ll set a 20-minute timer on my watch and tell myself that I’m going to hold off on overanalyzing or making any attempts at problem solving for at least that long. It takes a while for our bodies to resettle after being riled up, and I tend to think more rationally and make better decisions from a place of calm rather than getting swept away by emotion.

When I’m really in a high-anxiety state, I find that doing pushups, taking a long walk, journaling and/or listening to music help — and for me, it is usually high aggression music, something that matches the feeling of being caught up in turbulence. Calm, meditation music just feels like it’s too against the grain of the moment. Also, smoking medical marijuana can help take the edge off.

Those are my emergency moves. Then, more generally speaking, I focus my attention on what else I can control — basically, what I think of as my pillars of health: sleep, exercise, nutrition, nature, time with loved ones and leaving room for joy.

There are so many factors outside of our control in life, especially when it comes to cancer. And I’ll never be able to preventallthe triggers and reminders from jolting me every now and then. But by putting energy into more productive areas within my influence, I tend to feel better since they’re healthy outlets, and because then I can at least reassure myself that I’ve left nothing on the table.

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.