Remembering the Day my Heart Stopped: Combatting Fear as a Cancer Survivor

A male breast cancer survivor discusses the fear and fabrications created in his head and how he deals with them.

You’ll likely remember the famous words spoken by Franklin D. Roosevelt when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

How right he was. From the time I was brought into this world — under hot lights, dangled upside down by my ankles, spanked to start my first breath with my mouth and nose suctioned to open the airways — I began a journey through a wonderful world that often brings us great joy, but is also a harbinger for great fear.

As a cancer survivor, I’m well acquainted with the particular forms of fear that are part and parcel for my disease. But I’m also aware that in addition to being afraid of things we see, many patients with cancer have to deal with the fear of their indefinite future.

While undergoing any of the procedures that are designed to save our lives, we’re forced to look at a future date when we may or may not be bestowed with the official designation of “No evidence of disease.” Cancer really compels us to see life as a day-to-day experience.

It’s possible to create any number of stressful scenarios in our imaginations.Here’s a perfect example of that from my own pre-cancer life: In fact, I was only 10 years old.

Bedtime for me was 9 p.m. and on one particular night I was following my usual routine of letting my imagination take me on a voyage to faraway places while listening to the TV that my parents were watching in their own bedroom. My sleepy brain was busy with thoughts of flying and magic and dragons — the usual things that 10-year-old boys think about (I hadn’t really discovered girls yet).

For no particular reason, I decide to count my heartbeats. I placed my right hand on my heart and listened to the steady rhythm of that mysterious organ that was pushing blood through my adolescent body. I listened for the longest time and was just about to fall asleep when the beating grew ever fainter, then slowed and stopped.

I pressed my hand deeper into my chest, searching for that life-giving sound of a healthy heart, but to no avail. A sudden rush of adrenaline pulsed through my body as my life erupted into a panic that wrenched me from my bed and onto the floor.

According to my parents who have retold this story a number of times, I burst through their bedroom door, convulsed with fear as I threw myself across the bed and screamed “My heart stopped!”

I’m certain that behind the look of surprise I saw on their faces, there was also a stifled laughter percolating through them that they dare not let escape. To their credit, they never actually laughed out loud, but instead they sat me down on the side of the bed as my dad put one arm around me and explained how the human heart works — even if we can’t always hear it.

That was a long time ago. But the discovery of a new lump or new pain in our grown-up bodies can have that very same effect on us cancer survivors.

It may be helpful to remember the biology of fear: why it has evolved, what happens in our bodies when we are scared and why it sometimes gets out of control.

As far as evolution is concerned, fear is ancient, and to a certain extent, we can thank fear for our success as a species. After all, any creature that does not run and hide from bigger animals or dangerous situations is likely to be removed from the gene pool before it has the chance to procreate.

Fear is experienced in our minds, but it triggers a strong physical reaction in our bodies. As soon as you recognize fear, your amygdala (a small part of the brain that coordinates emotional responses) goes to work. It alerts your nervous system, which sets your body’s fear response into motion. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released. Your blood pressure and heart rate increase. You start breathing faster. And before you know it, you might actually convince yourself that your heart has quit on you.

Long after my heart-stopping experience as a child, I discovered the benefits of Laughter Yoga (a breathing exercise that is practiced around the world) Zen meditation, guided imagery, Qigong and a handful of other useful relaxation methods.

And yes, I still have breast cancer, but I also have some simple, useful tools to help me whole-heartedly keep those irrational cancer fears in check.

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