It Is OK to Be Afraid When Your Life Is at Stake


Breast cancer survivor says let's call a spade a spade: We are afraid our disease will kill us. But, there is help to manage that fear

It is always normal to care when something goes wrong with your body. When I broke two bones in my foot last summer, it hurt, and I knew I would need surgery. I worried when or whether I would walk normally again. I was concerned, but I wasn't really afraid. My broken foot was not going to kill me.

Cancer is a different animal. Will the doctors be able to remove it, stop it from growing or keep it from spreading? What about the potential for harsh side effects and new cancers down the road caused by the chemotherapy and radiation treatments? What about cancer that can hide in the body for months, or years, only to come back again? Will I live? How long will I live? Will life ever feel normal again?

Cancer generates a lifetime of fear and worry for many cancer survivors, and those feelings become the new normal. I dislike that term "new normal." Most cancer survivors would give anything for even five minutes of "old normal." Please let me put my head back in the sand. Please?

Cancer is not like getting a disease that can be treated and fully recovered from. Even a heart patient is given a sense that something in their body that was damaged has now been repaired. Often, cancer is not definitively fixed. Still, we as cancer survivors can learn to live with cancer fear and uncertainty.

Research and treatment is catching up to what cancer survivors already knew: cancer is a fearful ongoing event. PTSD, anxiety and depression are possibilities that can be treated and helped. As patients, we can communicate these needs to our doctors, to our fellow survivors (individually, support groups, online support groups), and to talk therapists. We can get help coping with the emotional side of a cancer diagnosis as well as the physical aspects. There are treatments for the emotional side effects of cancer when we speak up.

Sometimes it is hard to speak up. We don't want to acknowledge that we are afraid of our mortality, literally afraid for our lives. We may not want to bother our doctors, or we may feel embarrassed or ashamed for our fear. I remember I had to face it and define it before I could even talk about it. I wanted to live. The audacity! I was scared.

For me, I needed to acknowledge and own the fear and then I had to speak up to get the help that I needed. I learned that every time I faced my fears and the possibility of my mortality, it got a little easier. Really. Still, it wasn't easy.

Facing my mortality really is not easy in a society that doesn't like to look at or talk about death. Our entertainment movies tell us to be strong, stoic heroes. I definitely am not a hero. I am just a wife and mother who wants to live a while longer, if possible, and to not die a painful death. Oh, yes, the pain component. Who wants more pain? Yet, our television heroes are brave and stoic about their pain, too. Maybe there is a yelp and a little blood from a minor wound, but in the next scene they are all smiles and clean clothes. Ugh.

Our societal avoidance of death and pain does not do cancer survivors or anyone else any favors. Life has the most meaning when death is on location, too. Cancer survivors understand that life is precious, and we are grateful that there is beginning to be more help to cope with the ongoing fear of a cancer diagnosis. The fear and worry do get better over time with patience and help.

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