'Houston, We Have a Problem'... Or Not


Many survivors face times of worry and anxiety. An upcoming appointment, a scan, a new lump, bump or spot can all be triggers for feeling intense anxiety. Here are three simple tools from a fellow survivor to help cope in those times.

Have you ever had that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach? You know, the one that makes you feel like your whole world is shaking? What causes that feeling, I wonder. It's almost as though our nerves are screaming to our brains, "Houston, we have a problem!"

As a cancer survivor, I am far too familiar with this feeling. I am twelve years out from my diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer yet given the right set of circumstances, it can feel like I just received the news yesterday.

Recently I looked in the mirror and saw a small light red spot like the spot that indicated the start of inflammatory breast cancer. I was in the middle of some doctor visits for routine blood work and dealing with some other issues. When I saw that small spot, it was like a spigot of chemicals released in my stomach and I thought I would have to sit down. My mind was reeling. It took a couple of minutes for me to remind myself that not every spot I have had in 12 years was cancer. It took a few days for me to shake the feeling of impending doom. It took a week for the spot to lighten and go away. During that week my mind felt preoccupied and my emotions were all over the map. Maybe you can relate?

Ken Goodman, LCSW, writes in Health Anxiety and How to Beat It , "As you imagine the worst, your body's alarm system sounds off in the form of symptoms of anxiety (racing heart, tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing, jitters, tingling, lightheadedness, nausea, stomach discomfort, sweating, headaches, etc.) giving your imagination additional fuel to create great works of fiction."

Not every survivor experiences this but many do. Here are three simple tips I have used to help me when anxiety over my health looms large in my mind and body.

1. Meditation. I meditate on all the times that I have been worried or scared and it turned out to be nothing. When my mind tries to remind me about the one time that it was something, I pray. I pray for strength and wisdom to be present in the current moment. I pray for the ability to appreciate the day without health anxiety. I focus on deep breathing, which can cause the stress my body is holding to melt away.

2. Move. I find when I am busy moving from task to task my mind is less able to ruminate on worry. Whether it is organizing a drawer, a project I have been unable to get to at work or a quick walk around the block, movement seems to help unlock my brain from fixating on the lump, bump or spot that has me concerned.

3. Make lists. Making a list of all things positive pulls my mind away from the negative. Sometimes, depending on the week, that list may start with something as simple as, “I am breathing.” Listing things I am thankful for reminds me of good things that can shrink fear. My list will also show me that there are things I can focus on that are more productive than worry. It may move me to grab a cup of coffee in a pottery mug, something that is comforting to me, or to call a friend who is struggling and get my mind off of my own circumstance.

If you have not yet developed coping methods for when these moments strike, I encourage you to do so. It is easier to consider what might help when you are not drowning in the moment of worry. Whatever methods you use, make sure they are healthy and healing. Consider sharing them with your closest friends or family. There may be times when you need to be reminded to use the tools you have developed to talk you off the edge!

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