Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
Using some simple reminders that life is still happening can help put cancer anxiety and fear back where they belong.
It happens every time I meet another person with metastatic breast cancer: I am reminded that no matter how long you've been living with disease, whether well short of the 36-month median life expectancy to years past it, there is relentless stress and a sense of loss. For me, at three years since diagnosis, anxiety and loss are at a steady near-boil level.
I recently met a woman who was diagnosed with metastatic disease five years ago. When she commented that it's hard living with cancer, I recognized her painful and sad expression. Like so many of us, cancer had forced her to give up aspects of her life that had given it meaning and value. Living with that kind of constant loss is hard. You're not living the life you had, often your body feels unfamiliar, and your mind can play tricks on you - follow the sadness far enough and hopelessness creeps in, even when treatments are going well. Sadness and hopelessness are tricky because when someone - your partner, a good friend - tries to cheer you up, those emotions can cause further emotional retreat, since it reinforces the idea that no one really understands what you're going through. At least, that's how it is for me.
Cancer can make my world smaller in good ways. I want to spend more time with those I love and not waste it on things (or people) who matter less. But it can also make it smaller in ways that cause further pain and loss. Sometimes it can feel like my life is now so small that there is only space for cancer. It's no wonder that anxiety levels can sometimes boil over. I remind myself daily that I am not just living with cancer, but living. Sometimes those reminders work better than others. For instance, nothing gets through the fear I feel when sitting in the oncologist's office after a three-month scan. Nothing. Not even when I think about what someone else has said about this type of anxiety: "What do I have to be anxious about? I already know progression will happen."
On a typical day, though, I fight back against the creep of hopelessness using simple, but effective, for me, refrains: Cancer is not the main event. Yes, it's most likely what will eventually end my life, but it doesn't have to be at the center of everything I do, all of the time. Cancer can go on the backburner, right alongside anxiety, and just be part of my experience and not the main experience. Open the door, or at least a window.
When you have constant pain or fear, whether it is ratcheted up or just humming along at a low level, it's a very easy thing to say no to activities and people who once would have made you eager to do more, see more, live more. No, you're not the same person you were, but you are not just a person with cancer. Be brave. These are probably the two words I say to myself most often. I'm not a fighter doing battle or a cancer warrior, but bravery is demanded from everyone, including me. I live with cancer drugs, surgery, radiation, side effects and they will not define me. Be brave. Open the door.