Please Don't Tell Cancer Survivors Not To Worry

August 8, 2020
Doris Cardwell
Doris Cardwell

Doris Cardwell received a life-changing diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer in 2007. While undergoing treatment, she co-founded a mentor program for the cancer center treating her. She also created community events to educate, encourage and empower people regarding cancer. Doris was the first Survivorship Community Outreach Liaison for her local cancer center. She is an advocate, educator and encourager on issues facing cancer survivors. Doris is a wife, mother, empty nester, survivor of life and lover of all things coffee. An avid speaker and blogger, she is available at www.justdoris.com.

That sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach is familiar to those who have heard the words "you have cancer". Telling someone not to worry post treatment can be like telling them to not breathe. Listening is more productive than telling survivors not to worry.

Have you ever had that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach? You know, the one where just for a moment, time stands still. I have had that more than once in my life. I am sure you have too.

Once you have heard the words, "you have cancer", that sinking feeling can be tied to those words.

Cancer is often called the gift that keeps on giving because, I think, some of us have so many lasting effects after difficult treatments. While we are thankful those treatments saved our lives, we may have constant reminders. Fear and anxiety after treatment are common struggles. You may be unaware if it does not apply to you. Many survivors do not speak freely with friends and family about this part of their survivorship. Often it is because they do not want others to worry.

When things come up about our health that cause anxiety, it can be difficult to come up with words that may describe the fear we feel. Maybe those around us have responded poorly in the past. Maybe we are too afraid to give a voice to what we feel. Maybe we do not have people who just let us talk it out, without trying to solve it.

My mind automatically goes to the day when I realized I had cancer. The phrase, "Don't worry, it will be alright!" loses power when you have previously been in the place where it was not alright! Why people struggle to understand this, I am not sure.

I was the victim of sexual abuse as a child and when our daughters were growing up, I often struggled with an intense amount of fear they would not be safe. Well-meaning friends would say, "Don't worry, God's got them, nothing will happen." Inside my head, my thought was ... "Seriously, did you not hear a word about my childhood. A lot happened to me." Now, I know that my feeling of intense fear for them was a result of my experiences and not a defect within me.

The same is true for cancer survivors. We have lived through hearing, "you have cancer." Some of us have gone through brutal lifesaving treatments. We have deep anxiety before scans and appointments. When it seems that something is wrong, we know it can be cancer, because it has been before. We have experienced a time when we were told that it was not OK.

Please do not tell us not to worry. For many survivors, that is like telling us not to breathe. We should be able to speak our fears in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. And we shouldn't be told not to feel them.

I try to focus on remembering all the visits where I have received good reports over the last few years. I remind myself that if something is wrong, just like I got through it the first time, I will get through it again. Whatever that may look like since I am a survivor. I no longer want the fear of recurrence to steal any moments from the rest of my life.

While it sounds good to say that, the reality is, I am not yet fully there.

If you struggle with anxiety and fear, find someone to talk to who will listen, and not try to fix it. Know that you are not alone and there are people who understand what you're going through. Realize that to a certain extent, it is normal to have some anxiety. If it starts to control you and the decisions that you make, it's time to seek help. Talking to a therapist, in my mind, is for the strong, not the weak. Be strong enough to realize that you need a listening ear. Often just getting the words out lessens the power of fear.

I sometimes remind myself of all the people I know living with metastatic disease. There are many that I have gotten to know online and at events. I admire them and they affect me deeply. I see how they keep living their lives despite cancer. I hold some of them in my heart as if to say, "If that happens to me, I want to keep living my life. I want to be just as active and vibrant as they are." May we all learn from each other that life is for living, no matter what!

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