Worrying and cancer go hand-in-hand. It's possible to take a step back from excessive worrying and give yourself a break.
A day of worry is more exhausting than a week of work. -John Lubbock
I admit it. I’m a worrywart.
I’ve worried about little things and not so little things. When big worries have me in their grip, it’s hard to fall asleep and, if I finally pass out, I’ll probably find myself wide awake again in the middle of the night with no hope of getting back to sleep.
I also can't eat when I’m really worried.
I’ve worried over cancer through exhaustion and back around again. I’ve done stints of long-term worrying (six and a half months from my first worrisome mammogram to my mastectomy) and intense, short-term worrying (15 harrowing minutes waiting to discuss a post-mastectomy mammogram.)
To validate all this worrying, I try to convince myself it gives me control. Perhaps by running through every possible outcome I’ll be prepared for any eventuality. Maybe I’ll find a solution if I just keep thinking it all through. Of course, mostly I just end up exhausted and hungry.
Cancer brought me to the pinnacle of worrying and forced me to search for relief. In a panic about my upcoming mastectomy, I found a guided imagery CD, Preparing for Surgery: Guided Imagery Exercises for Relaxation & Accelerated Healing. I put it on my iPod and, at least once a day for weeks, let Dr. Martin Rossman focus my imagination away from worries and onto relaxation. At night, guided imagery calmed my nerves and got me to sleep.
When the day of my surgery finally arrived, I was nervous but ready. I took the iPod with me into pre-op and continued to listen to the guided imagery exercises until I actually went into surgery. That CD made a huge difference and helped get me through a horrendous experience.
After surgery, I discovered another tool to help combat what I like to call “predicting the future” worrying. It’s the worrying I do when something goes wrong, or may go wrong, and I immediately start throwing around statements like, “Now this (insert bad thing) is going to happen and that (insert bad thing) is going to happen.”
When I’m pessimistically predicting the future, I’m letting my mind run amuck. Mindfulness is the practice of reining in my “monkey mind” by becoming aware and focused on the present moment.
I learned that an easy way to approach mindfulness is to observe my breathing. The great thing about breathing is that it’s mobile, discreet and always available. Of course, I’ve been breathing all my life, but once I started watching my breath everything changed. Now when I’m stressed I’ll find myself automatically taking a moment to stop and breathe in and out slowly. Just that one breath is enough to interrupt a cycle of full-blown worrying.
Becoming more mindful and focusing on my breath taught me a simple truth:
Most of the things I worry about never happen.
If that’s true (and it is) then it’s also true that I’ve caused myself a lot of needless anxiety, fear and stress for no good reason.
Which is reason enough to rein in my “monkey mind.”
Believe me, I’m still a worrywart. But even though I continue to plunge head first into worse case scenarios, I’ve become better at observing what I’m doing. With that little bit of self-awareness, I’m able to take a step back from the “what ifs” and focus myself on the present moment, which is enough to worry about for anyone dealing with cancer.