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Dealing with Cancer Anxiety

Posted Nov 14 2009 10:02pm


I was talking to a co-worker yesterday. He is finally getting to know me well enough to talk to me about my cancer. People know I have cancer - that I am a survivor with less than a year of clean scans under my belt - and are understandably hesitant to speak to me about it.

My co-worker is in awe of my attitude. He says he thinks I am a hero. He has perused my blogs, he knows a little bit about who I am, and his life was personally touched by cancer when his sister-in-law died from it a few years ago.

He said he thinks the reason I survived was because of my attitude and my spirit. While I admit that there is some kind of X-factor involved in cancer survivor-ship - I am not a hero. I agree that my determination, willpower, and refusal to give into despair have positive benefits for my body. I am definitely not a hero though - people much stronger than me fight cancer every day.

Make no mistake, though, people; I have survived this long mainly through the skilled treatment of my surgeon, my medical oncologist, my radiation oncologist, and the hundreds of health care professionals that have been a part of my care since August 2008. My surgeon, Dr. Lee. My medical oncologist, Dr. Dunn. My Radiation oncologist, Dr. Diamond. They are the heroes here.

My co-worker did ask me one really significant question, though. How did I deal with the anxiety of having cancer? When you have cancer, anxiety is a way of life. Dealing with it is an art and science in and of itself.

So what did I do? How did I cope? I wish I had a single answer, but it's not as simple as that. I will try and tell you what helped me, though.

First, I have three children. Matthew, Christopher, and Ashlee are my world. When I found out I had cancer I made a vow to myself (after my initial shock and despair period, which I kept hidden from them as best as I could). I vowed that I would never let my cancer consume my life, however much of it I have, with my children. It might make me sick. It might hospitalize me. It might take my hair, my weight, my health, and eventually my life. What it would not take from me though was a determination to spend as much positive time with my children as possible.

When you wake up each and every day and say to yourself, "How am I going to make an impact on my kid's lives today?" you find that you have little room left for worry. Don't get my wrong; my kids saw me sick, grumpy, and ill. They saw me lose the ability to concentrate. They watched me lose my hair. They saw me lose almost 50 pounds. They were there and saw everything - and I was honest with them every step of the way. But, as much as possible, I always tried to be positive and accessible to my kids.

Secondly, I staved off anxiety by doing research. I studied my cancer. I quizzed my doctors. I read myriads of online articles. I armed myself with knowledge. It didn't keep the anxiety at bay, but it helped me catalog my symptoms, understand what was happening, and helped keep me feeling like I maintained some semblance of control.

But there are times when the anxiety gets you - regardless of what you try to do. It's usually when you are alone or late at night. I do have a way to deal with that as well. It's not 100% effective, but it has REALLY helped me cope in the past.

In order to understand the exercise I am about to share with you you need to understand the definition of anxiety.

Simply, anxiety is to be afraid of something in your future. Anxiety is a fear of an event that has not happened yet - and may never happen. When a fear of a possible future eventuality affects your present, you need to take steps to handle that anxiety.

The key to dealing with an anxiety attack is to live in the "now." If a fear of the future is causing you problems - stop thinking about the future.

The best way to "live in the now" is to start a running dialogue with yourself about what your senses are experiencing at this particular moment in time. Like a mantra, repeat and catalogue your current sensations, over and over again.

Close your eyes - cut out the sense of sight which is our most difficult sense to ignore usually - and repeat to yourself what you are feeling:

I hear the radio in the living room
I feel an itch on my left arm
I feel a cool breeze against my face
I hear a ringing in my left ear
The air is cold in my nose
I hear the dog rolling around in her crate
I just got a whiff of the candle burning in the living room

Do this over and over again. Catalog your senses right now. You will find that thoughts of the past and future will intrude - your brain is going a million miles an hour and doesn't want to shut off so easily. Let the thoughts in, but don't hold on to them. Let them slip through as you continue with your sense catalog.

Eventually you will find it easier and easier to do this - to experience the "now." The more you do it, the less space you will leave in your brain for the future to intrude.

This technique is a basic mediation technique - the Meditation 101 course as it were. It's similar to contemplating the sound of one hand clapping. If you focus on one thing to the exclusion of all others, you will build a wall around your mind that will prevent the anxiety from keeping its hold on you.

When I do this at night I tend to fall asleep quickly.

So that's my secret, people. I am determined to live my life as much as possible in a meaningful way for my children and I use a basic mediation technique. I do not and did not use any drugs. I try not to succumb to despair for more than an hour or twp at a time. After all; if I were to lose my life to this cancer, I never want my children remembering me as being lost to despair. Even dying, I have lessons to teach them. Dignity, determination, and love are things I can always show my kids, no mater how sick I am.

If you have any great anxiety-management techniques, leave me a comment and share them here with the world.
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