Stuck in his own fear. How needle-phobia kept this cancer survivor pinned down.
I have needle phobia. I believe that I can trace this back to a childhood trauma. My father once piled all four of us kids into the car, telling us that we were going for root beer floats at the local drive-in. We believed him, and indeed it was true, but not until we stopped first for polio shots. This was in 1957.
I can still remember the confusing feeling of elation as I drank my root beer along with the contrasting feeling of distress and betrayal at being sabotaged and tricked by my parents.
I began to be suspicious of needles. I suppose I could have chosen to be suspicious of root beer, but I'll leave that to the psychologists among us to explain. The point is, I have needle phobia. As I write this, I know I need a flu shot, a pneumonia shot, a shingles shot and more…but not just yet.
So that's my background. I honestly have a true fear of needles. The irony in all of this of course is that, since my male breast cancer diagnosis almost five years ago, I've been poked and prodded more times than I can count. When I had both of my knees replaced a few years back, they came in every four hours to, not only wake me up, but draw blood in the middle of the night. The pain meds did little to diminish my anxiety. So, when the idea for having an acupuncture treatment was first suggested to me, you can imagine the reaction I had.
Here's how it happened:
My wife and I spent a year living in residence in a Zen Center; a Buddhist Temple in Hawaii, to study and practice Zen Meditation. Ironically, that's where I was diagnosed with male breast cancer. There were just six of us living in the residence hall with dozens of members who visited the center every day to sit in meditation with us. We had a variety of unique individuals living together, all of whom became our friends. There was a fireman. A chocolatier. A tree cutter. An artist. A professor. A stage magician. And a young acupuncturist.
In the 12 months that we were together practicing Zen, sharing meals and stories and walks on the white sandy beaches, we grew to trust and appreciate one another. My wife had several acupuncture treatments and the offer was always open for me to give it a try, but I was reluctant to experience acupuncture firsthand.
A few weeks after my breast cancer surgery, my friend again offered to help me with the pain and the anxiety I was feeling as a newly diagnosed cancer patient. I asked him a lot of questions. Mostly they were about the perceived discomfort I thought I might experience with needles in my face, my chest, my hands and other places. As always, he was not pushy in any way. He answered my questions and addressed my fears as he always had, and said the door was open to finding some relief, if only I was able to give it a try.
And so, finally, I did.
He took me upstairs to our residents lounge area; a quiet place set aside for reading, relaxing and of course, meditating. He had me lie down on a long sofa, and I watched with one suspicious eye as he laid out some very long and very thin needles - all sterilized and sharp and ready to do their work.
He asked me to breathe for a minute or two. Together, we gently inhaled and exhaled in rhythm, two friends, brought together to study Zen, with a sense of camaraderie and peace between us that was as real as it gets…
And then he slid a needle into my cheek, just below my left eye.
I remember thinking," You might be killing me, but I can't feel that".
"Breathe,” he said, and I did.
A second needle was delivered.
I felt a deep sense of relief and no pain. There were a couple of needles placed in my hand and one in the fold between my thumb and index finger. After that I have no memory of the procedure. Unbeknownst to me, I had fallen into one of the deepest and most peaceful sleeps I have ever experienced.
Over the next few months I received a few more treatments. I also gained a new respect for an ancient Chinese form of integrative medicine that, until that time, had frightened me. I still get a bit squirmy during my blood work and I realize that, as a cancer survivor, I can expect to have these procedures many more times in the future. But I've also come to better understand that the fears we carry, often related to an event that occurred long ago in our lives, can limit the prospects that may be available to each of us right now in our own health and healing. I wanted to make a point here. Fear is a double-edged sword. It might prevent you from the possibility of being hurt, but it might also hurt any chance of you seeing all of your possibilities.