Finding Calm in the Face of Cancer


An easy-to-use list to stay calm when the cancer panic hits.

It's 1:00 a.m. and I'm still awake. I've been waking up every hour all night long. I have a new pain spot on my back and I have become convinced that the cancer is growing. So I am scared ... very, very scared.

Cancer is terrifying. Michael J. Fox describes his experience of Parkinson’s Disease as crossing the street and getting stuck in the middle of the road as a bus hurtles towards you. You know that the bus is going to hit you, you just don’t know when and how bad it’s going to be. Learning to remain calm while watching the bus fly at you is one of the greatest challenges of living with metastatic cancer.

The hardest part for me is that when the panic comes, it comes in the middle of the night. Normally, I would call someone to find support, but calling after bedtime is not a popular move. So I’ve had to learn how to calm myself. While I do have a prescription for Ativan (I joke that having cancer makes me a legalized drug addict), I try not to use it unless the panic is really bad. I don’t want to build up a tolerance for the drug and not have this aid when I am truly desperate. I have a few calming methods I’ve used over time, but lately I’ve been more scared than usual and I need more tools in the toolbox. So I asked the women I know in a private group for metastatic breast cancer and they suggested a bucketload of calming methods. Here is the list in an easy-to-use format:

  • Meditation: Guided meditation, breath-focused meditation, prayerful meditation, whatever works for you. Sit up, lie down, stand, any position works in meditation. I’ve used guided meditation with good success, including times I’ve been in pain. Another cancer patient recommended meditations from the website and I’ve downloaded several (they sell CDs and MP3s). There are a plethora of sources for meditation CDs. But, if you prefer learning meditation in person, many yoga studios offer meditation classes. A good place to start in finding meditation classes in your area is by searching the Web or asking the social worker at your treatment center.
  • Mindless entertainment: Comedies, the Home Shopping Network, music videos, crime shows, movies, anything that will keep your mind off the matter at hand. Music videos work for me, but they’re harder to find nowadays since MTV stopped showing them. So I've had to settle for talk shows or crime dramas (I joke that death comforts me, at least murder does). Whatever works, watch it.
  • ASMR Videos. Some people are calmed by gentle sounds or actions. This is called autonomous sensory median response (ASMR). An excellent example of ASMR videos are the painting instructions of Bob Ross whose show "The Joy of Painting" was broadcast on PBS from 1983 to 1994. Many claim that the sounds of his whispering voice and the strokes of the paint brush lulled them into a state of relaxation. The ASMR Lab website has links to a wide variety of ASMR videos.
  • Crafts: Adult coloring books, knitting, crocheting, cross stitch, scrapbooking, any craft is a great take-me-away. I had not heard of adult coloring books before the women in my group brought them up, but these are apparently very popular. I found that craft stores sell adult coloring books, along with colored pencils. While going through my first chemo, I used counted cross stitch to keep my mind off things. I was able to stitch in the middle of the night, when the steroids were keeping me awake. Unfortunately, the combo of Taxol and steroids meant I did not count accurately, so the resulting project is a bit out of whack. But it did its job and kept my mind occupied.
  • Physical activity: Walking, running, bicycling, yoga, gardening, swimming, dancing. Move to keep calm. My mother, when my parents were divorcing, walked our Old English Sheepdog, Sybil, for miles and miles. My mother was a stay-at-home mom and was about to re-enter the workforce while caring for four children — she was understandably stressed. The walking seemed to be the only thing that kept her sane. And the dog sure was happy.
  • Playing games: Sodoku, crossword puzzles, board games, jigsaw puzzles and online games all work in the world of calming. Plus, with online games, some cancer folks say they have found a sense of community among other gamers like them happy to talk and offer support.
  • Reading: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, silly magazines, serious magazines — Reading is a great escape. I love People magazine myself (it’s my guilty pleasure). I’m a voracious reader and being able to spend time in someone else’s world is just the ticket I need.
  • Music: For me calming music is gentle-toned, go-to-sleep music. But for others it may be heavy metal, rap or punk. Loud, soft, gentle, energetic — If music works, dial it up and float away.
  • Plan a trip: I discovered this technique recently. I am planning a trip to England; I’ve never been and have always wanted to go. The excitement of discovering things to see in England has been helping to keep my mind off cancer. I am very grateful for this since my next scan is scheduled right after I return from England. Planning the trip seems to be cutting my usual scanxiety down to a more manageable level. I certainly can’t afford constant trips to England, but maybe weekend trips? Or I could focus on that big trip next year? I’d plan a trip to Hades if it helped me stay calm before a scan.
  • Deep breathing: Last, but not least, deep breathing. Years ago, a counselor taught me the 4-7-8 breathing exercise. When things get really rough, I find that this always works within a few minutes. Here’s how it works:
  1. Exhale completely through your mouth.
  2. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to the count of four.
  3. Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  4. Exhale completely through your mouth, to the count of eight.
  5. Inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

As my counselor explained to me, this works because it pushes the carbon dioxide out during the long exhale, and brings more oxygen in, allowing oxygen time to circulate in your body and calm you during the seven count holding of the breath. Once I stop this breathing technique, I will, at times, become anxious again, but at least the few minutes of calm puts a break in the pattern. And I can always go back to the breathing exercise for more.

I hope you find this list helpful. I know that when I’m in full panic, it is hard for me to think. The goal was to create an easy-to-follow reference list that will help us all soothe the panic when it’s bearing down. I mean, as long as I have to stand in the middle of the road, waiting for the bus to hurtle towards me, I might as well read a few good books, watch fun movies and breathe deep. Oh, and maybe I can also dance.

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