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With Cancer, Fear Can Be Ongoing: Don't Let It Win


This longer-term two-time cancer survivor admits that if she could do it over again, she would spend less of her life letting worry sit in the driver's seat.

As an almost 10-year breast cancer survivor, what advice would I offer a more newly diagnosed patient with cancer? Please don't spend too much of your precious life looking in the rearview mirror.

Mostly what you will get is a kink in your neck. The essence of the pain that a newly diagnosed patient has is fear of dying. Is this disease going to ultimately kill me? How quickly? How much will dying and cancer treatments hurt?

I can't answer any of those very valid questions, and as a fellow cancer survivor I will say: Don't live the remainder of your life looking backwards at your cancer diagnosis and treatment. Yes, fear of recurrence and the uncertainty are daunting at times. Still, at the end of the day, week, month or decade, you will appreciate life more during the times you make the effort to live in the moment and look forward. How can I say this? Because I spent too much time as well as mental and emotional energy looking backwards and worrying in the last nine years of my life.

It is difficult, but the truth is that it is up to you to embrace and enjoy your life. No one else can do that for you — not friends and not even family. You. At the end of the day, it comes down to choosing your own attitude and approach to life. If you wait for external circumstances to magically make you happier, it won't happen. On the other hand, you can take steps to improve your life attitude immediately if you choose. Please choose, for your own sake.

I am not saying it is easy. I am readily admitting that I did not do as well at this as I wish I had. As humans, we like to know. We like certainty, which gets blown out of the water by a cancer diagnosis. It just does. Still, when we can work to emotionally heal from that life-changing event, our quality of life can begin to improve.

Sadly, the fear of recurrence and uncertainty want to destroy our quality of life. Don't let them. It is not easy but please choose to fight those demons. The soon-to-retire brother of a friend was just unexpectedly diagnosed with lung and liver cancer. The doctors gave him a very short time line. His response? He immediately began to tell everyone around him to retire now, if they can. He encouraged them to live their dreams now rather than to wait. Every human lives with uncertainty. Cancer survivors are more aware of this than most.

In “Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools,” the book I had the audacity to put together a few years ago, I encouraged fellow survivors with the following ideas, even though I was not as good at walking my own talk as I hoped to be. My thoughts were a combination of personal experience, tips from a talk therapist (who specializes in helping patients with cancer) and research. Here are a few of them:

  • Learn to cope with having less control over your life than you wish.
  • Focus on practicing gratitude.
  • Work to live in the moment to calm those racing thoughts.
  • Connect with your belief system and nature.
  • When you can find them, accept distractions, whatever helps you look outward rather than inward for a while.
  • Most important of all, connect with fellow cancer survivors even if you think you do not need to, as well as family, friends, and possibly a talk therapist.

I wish I could have those nine years of my life back. I would have done it differently. I have gotten gradually better at walking my talk. Baby steps. If I can learn to move forward, I bet you can too!

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