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.
Four years' worth of high-stakes scans have made me an expert in four excellent ways to ease intense anxiety.
In December, I have what is sometimes called a "cancerversary." Actually, I have several of them. I have the date of my first appointment with the family doctor I went to when I was pretty sure something was going on with my breast; I have the date of the mammogram where the experienced technician broke protocol to show me what she was seeing and said it wasn't a death sentence (she also said not to stick my head in the sand, which was a good reminder to be a proper self-advocate); and I have the date of the biopsy that confirmed breast cancer.
December hasn't really been the same for the last four years. As with any anniversary, there are plenty of reminders that make it impossible to just shut the door and put the dates behind me. For instance, there's the fact that my oncologist always seems to schedule my high-stakes CT scans somewhere in the month. This year is no exception.
I've been so lucky with my response to treatment. The six months of Taxol, Herceptin and Perjeta, and the subsequent three and one-half years of just Herceptin and Perjeta, have given me that sought-after status of no evidence of metastatic disease. Of course, with metastatic disease, this label is subject to change at any moment. These scans are the method my oncologist will use to revoke that status. I hate them.
For me, the week leading up to the scans is a period when every single bodily twinge is a signal that my scans will not be "good," that they will show something that is concerning or worse. I have experience finding my way around this anxiety:
Grounding I just recently learned this term, but the technique is something I've been doing ever since I've had these stress-provoking appointments. The idea is to find a way to stay in the present despite intense anxiety. Online, you can find many different ideas for how to do this. I have two reliable favorites: The first is to concentrate and go through the facts, for example stating where I am, the day of the week, the month of the year, the year, the season, how I feel; the second has to do with physical grounding and includes placing my feet firmly on the floor, walking slowly from one wall to another, touching things in my bag and thinking about their texture, their use, their warmth or coolness. It is interesting to me that these simple exercises for emotional, cognitive, and physical grounding are used in cases of PTSD and trauma.
Positive Self-Talk I'm not a big supporter of denying my own feelings, but in moments of panic, which I sometimes come close to experiencing as I wait for scans or their results, I do talk to myself about how I have faced cancer and that I can face its progression. I remind myself that I know I have treatment options, regardless of what the scans look like and that I know many women and men who've made it past progression and found drugs that work well. I tell myself that my family is strong, that I am strong, and that scans cannot change that except in the very short-term.
Prep for Stress After so many scans over four years, I know that I am going to feel a lot of stress as the day for the scans approach and that it builds until my oncologist shares the results. Fortunately, there's usually only a day or two between scans and results, but this is a rough way to live. I try to cut myself some slack and remind myself that it makes sense that my ability to focus or really be in the moment with my family is not at its best during these days. But I also make time to exercise, get outside if weather permits, and load up on healthy foods along with the unhealthy food that I sometimes turn to when emotionally overwhelmed.
Releasing Control I can't control what is going to show up on those scans. I can take all the preventative steps in the world but, even then, I don't have control. It's important to remind yourself, if you're feeling stress about scans, that they only show what has happened and do not show what will happen. Although it is maybe overused, the saying that you can only control your reaction is appropriate here. I think that acceptance of what is to come, readiness for the possible next steps, even before you know the results, helps ease some of the tension.