Experiencing fear on a regular basis comes with the territory of being a cancer survivor. It's a very normal and even healthy part of cancer survivorship, but something that needs to be managed, so here are six tips on how to help cope with and overcome it.
1. It's Okay To Be Afraid
It doesn't matter what type of cancer you're diagnosed with, what your age or prognosis is, nor even if you have a "good cancer". The fact is, when it's your ass and life that's on the line, and you're the one left wondering if you're going to live or die, a cancer diagnosis is just plain terrifying. It's okay to be afraid, it's okay to not have the answers that we need, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
2. Fear Might Come When You Least Expect It
Fear isn't just something that we face at the time of cancer diagnosis and treatment. It's normal to experience fear in the years after while "S.O.S" (Stranded On Surveillance), and can hit you at the most unexpected times, and in the most bizarre ways. Like when standing in line at Starbucks one day, almost a year after my cancer fight had ended. I had been feeling good for a change, and had finally managed to forget about cancer for awhile, only for two people behind me to start talking about how a friend had been diagnosed with cancer, and how awful that was. My heart sank into my stomach, and it all came back.
I'll never forget the day that I was out for a run, when a paralyzing wave of fear swept over me that was so intense that I collapsed onto the curb in tears. I couldn't even believe what I was afraid of. I was terrified at the prospect of having to get the retroperitoneal lymph node dissection (RPLND) surgery done for testicular cancer, except that I'd already had this surgery done 18 months ago! I had always wondered why I hadn't so much as batted an eye going into that brutal and highly invasive surgery. Sometimes our fears are repressed in order to get through challenging situations.
I sat on that curb in tears for about 15-20 minutes, letting it all out about a surgery I'd already had long ago. I was so embarrassed and ashamed. I didn't understand why I was feeling this now, but it felt so good to release whatever this was. I was never afraid of that surgery again, and the recurring nightmares I'd been having about it stopped for good. I quickly realized that I had so many more repressed fears bottled up inside of me like this, and that they just needed to come out. My emotions had simply switched off while fighting cancer, and now they were finally coming out, years later.
3. Find Healthy and Productive Outlets
Running over lunch became my daily ritual. It was an hour just for me, away from the office and away from my family, where I could privately work my way through all of my inner pain, without distraction. There's nothing worse than having fight-or-flight type anxiety freewheeling inside of you with nowhere to go. Running, specifically outdoors, with the wind on your face and scenery passing you by, was just so satisfying in a very primal way, and gave this dark energy the perfect place to go. No matter how badly I'd been feeling before, I always felt so much better physically and mentally after a run. Running didn't just work wonders for my body, it worked wonders for my mind as well.
I also took up writing, per the encouragement of a friend. I didn't always understand what I was feeling or why, and plenty of times my thoughts or fears made absolutely no sense. Writing about them, in the form of a private journal at first, helped me to make sense of my inner hurricane of thoughts. Slowly but surely I managed to unravel what was truly behind a lot of these inner fears and insecurities, who and what I really was inside and what I needed, and began to find ways to heal. Plenty of quality time with family and friends along with an active lifestyle became a necessity for life in general, but running and writing became my two primary outlets for processing all of my inner fears and pain.
4. Be Your Own Best Friend and Advocate
It's important to be your own best friend and advocate. Don't make the mistake that I did, where for years I was closer to my own worst enemy, beating myself up for being afraid of a "good cancer," with a good prognosis. Stop this. It's okay to be afraid. Our fears come from the deepest and most true part of ourselves. Never deny what you feel, and don't deny your true self. Clean up your inner dialog and be your own best friend and advocate.
When you're overcome with fear and find yourself sitting in a corner in tears, would your best friend beat you up for this? No. My own best friends have told me that they couldn't possibly imagine what I've been through, and have been mortified knowing even half of what my cancer experience has entailed. They're not the ones mourning the loss of friends that didn't make it, sweating out scans and dealing with scanxiety, nor are they dealing with so many physical and mental challenges such as bodies that don't work like they once did, and depression or even posttraumatic stress. Cancer survivors need strong support to make it through all that we do, and that has to start from within. Cut yourself some slack, and kill off that negative internal dialog. Love and accept yourself and all that you feel unconditionally, and be your own best friend and advocate for yourself in handling your fears.
5. Find People That Can Support You
When fears about cancer are already pushing you beyond the limit, you're going to notice more than ever how other people in your lives affect you. Make sure that you have the best people for you in your life, that can help bring a sense of calm, and positive energy into your world. Part of being your own best friend and advocate, is allowing yourself to find those people, and removing others that just aren't working for you. Especially as young adults, cancer can be such a lonely and isolating experience, because so few peers at our age will have experienced anything like what we have. Community support can be vital, and today I enjoy a wonderful mix of both regular and cancer community friends that I couldn't be without. They all add so much to my life, and help me to feel complete.
6. A Little Faith Can Go A Long Ways
Slowly but surely, I found my way through my years after cancer. I found the outlets that I needed, I continued to run and write as my outlets, and led a busy and active lifestyle surrounded by family and friends that always managed to put a smile on my face. But I couldn't stop being afraid. My fears about cancer always managed to find ways to come back and haunt me, and with it, periods of depression that could last weeks or even months, and periodic episodes of posttraumatic stress that would put me back in that corner again, huddled up in tears.
Ultimately, it was neither an attitude, a routine, nor lifestyle, that helped me to finally overcome my fears. It was faith. When I talk about faith, I mean that in the broadest possible sense to encompass anything and everything that faith can be. I don't go to church, and I'm still not a part of an organized religion, all things that I had shunned in the past and continue to shun today. What I finally developed was an independent set of spiritual beliefs that worked just for me. I gave myself something to believe in about what we are, and where we go after our physical lives end, all based on things that I've experienced and believe in myself. There's no right or wrong answer when it comes to something like faith. Developing faith is just as individual of a journey as surviving cancer is. For me, after years of struggle, finally allowing myself a system of beliefs took the wind out of the sails of my fears of death and dying of cancer, and today I'm living my life without fear for the first time. I'm free.
A little faith can indeed go a long ways.