Fear May Be Cancer's Greatest Toxin


Is low grade stress something we've just gotten used to as patients with cancer?

As a man with breast cancer, I've had my share of angst over these last few years. Oddly, it wasn't my mastectomy surgery or my follow up procedures that scared me. It was the MRI and blood work that got my hackles up. But that was my own discomfort with sharp needles and tight places, it really had nothing to do with my cancer disease.

Fear or anxiety is an "on again-off again" side effect of my disease. Most days, I don't think much about my missing my left breast, but as a male breast cancer advocate, I read or write about cancer every day. So cancer always has a quiet voice in the background of my life. It's a low-grade stress.

I've been wondering about the actual detrimental ramifications that fear may have in our lives as cancer survivors, whether it be the fear of recurrence, or dying, or losing a loved one or the endless other scary elements that having a life-threatening disease might conjure up.

Like it or not, our world has become a fearful place for many of us. Politically, spiritually, economically and now even medically there are a lot of fearful thoughts to reckon with. The coronavirus has instilled a sense of panic not only around the world but right here in my own senior community — where anxious folks have been spotted hoarding toilet paper and bottled water for the dreaded infection that they fear will surely find its way into our small town of Vail, Arizona.

Or not.

Those two words, in my view, are the key to engaging a precarious life. Overwhelming fear is a clever adversary, and it always leaves out that "or not" clause in its proclamations of death and dying.

I've gotten used to adding those two words to any fearful thought that passes through my head whenever I'm aware of it. We hear a lot of talk about living in the present moment and mindfulness these days. I suspect that these may be "buzz words" that have lost their importance due to a societal misunderstanding of them. These aren't tools to enhance your life because you've spent a week in a retreat or a month in meditation or a year in a Zen center. I spent an entire year living in residence in a Zen Buddhist temple in Hawaii to study such things and I can honestly say that nothing has changed in the way those fearful thoughts whirl around my busy mind every day. What changed is that I have a slightly better chance of observing that fear, and sending it on its way.

Or not. There are no guarantees in life or in cancer.

If I were a single, sinister cancer cell with the relentless objective of devouring a healthy human body one cell at a time, fear might be my greatest coworker. Stirring up cortisol is a dandy way to wreak havoc on our internal organs and possibly weaken our immune system and perhaps even diminish our resolve to live a longer life. Cortisol may be the prime suspect in those fearful thoughts that can get a grip on cancer survivors.

Think of cortisol as nature's built-in alarm system. It's your body's main stress hormone. It works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation and fear. Cortisol is made in your adrenal glands. That "fight-or-flight" instinct you may feel in a crisis is what cortisol does best.

Fear is a natural part of the human experience whether we are working to survive cancer or just pushing our way through life. However, there is a distinct difference between your normal healthy fear and toxic fear. Healthy fear serves to keep us safe, but toxic fear can make cancer survival a bumpy road.

And as always, when cancer is a part of our lives, putting the hazards of life in perspective just might leave us with more time to enjoy the moment we have right now and the opportunity we may have to be cancer free tomorrow.

Or not.

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