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Ruminating on Rumination


It’s hard to let go of fear when that’s all you feel. It’s called rumination. The trick is finding ways to stop ruminating about the fear to be able to live fully until whatever is going to happen, happens.

It’s hard to let go of fear when that’s all you feel. It’s called rumination. The dictionary defines it as “giving thought to”; “mulling over”; “dwelling on”; or “worrying about.”

Primarily it is when something is all consuming and when you start thinking about it, you can’t stop. It is exhausting, draining and a pain when you are trying to heal.

I had it described to me by a therapist as comparable to a long play record that gets stuck in the middle and plays the same few notes over and over again, and no matter how hard you try to hit reset or bump the needle, you can’t quite reach it. That probably shows my age and I don’t even know if that can happen with today’s technology, but you get the idea.

That’s the way it was with me and the fear of recurrence after my cancer diagnosis. I was stage 2b, and after a mastectomy and chemo, the doctor said I had a good prognosis. But when you have a one-year-old, worrying that you won’t be around to raise her can bring you to your knees. It’s also what happens with people who have OCD. They can’t let go of something. I even had rituals I performed for my peace of mind. I began collecting angels. I blessed her every day and still do.

I also did all the things that we usually connect with fear of recurrence. Every ache or pain was cancer—whether it was a headache, a pulled muscle or simply a pain in my elbow.

Of course, you have all read this before when looking at the irrational (and often rational) fear that follows us from the moment we receive a diagnosis. And I think it’s far from totally irrational. We have just learned that our bodies can betray us in the worst way possible and if we get close to the “cancer community,” we see that many people do recur.

So, the trick is finding ways to stop ruminating about the fear to be able to live fully until whatever is going to happen, happens.

In my case I did some analyzing about what exactly I was afraid of: it wasn’t dying, it was leaving my child. So, I found women friends who were the kind who did not try to fix me when I told them I needed them to help my daughter in the event of my death. None of them said, “Stop worrying, you aren’t going to die.” They just listened to what I needed. I asked one friend to be in charge of my daughter’s needs in the area of dressing like the other girls. This had to do with being raised by a mother that had no clue how to help me fit in, and for all her other gifts, had no sense of style. Another friend, an expert in education, would help my husband find the best education for my daughter. Another friend, a Methodist minister, said she would take over her spiritual leadership, and when it came to cooking and homemaking, in case my child decided to go in a different life direction than I had, I asked her godmother to be there for her.

Luckily, for me, they were never needed, and it did calm me when I thought about how well she would be mothered, should I die.

But the ruminating was far from gone. I would have a thought about my cancer coming back and before I knew it, I had created a whole scenario beginning with the cancer and moving into my daughter at my bedside as I died in pain, and then the funeral. You get the picture. And it was exhausting.

Some therapy and reading helped me learn ways to distract myself and break the ruminating to continue with my life. I started teaching full time at a local university as well as working on a book about my experience. You would think interviewing women who had had breast cancer (ultimately more than 120) would only make it worse, but I found that talking with other women really helped because at the time, fear of recurrence had not been researched. Indeed, it was an issue that was finally brought to light by survivors and became recognized as one of the most significant issues for survivors.

I also began making jewelry. I shopped for antique jewelry that could be remade into something else. Ultimately it became a passion of mine that resulted in hours of fun and, while not a whole lot, a little bit of profit. When I would begin to ruminate and see that things were getting out of control, I would make myself begin thinking about designs for earrings and necklaces.

I was also proactive in stopping the ruminating by going in for blood work when it got really bad, which was often around anniversaries, such as my diagnosis dates and major holidays.

Another way to look at it is spiritually. The 23rd Psalm became my mantra. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”

I began to think of myself as living in that valley, moving in and hanging curtains. In reality, we all live there, but cancer survivors know it in a very real way. Live there and make peace with it.

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