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Controlling Your Fear

By Heather Millar

woman looking ahead

One of the biggest challenges of living with, and after, cancer is to keep control of your fear. You need a little fear to remember the very real threat cancer poses. That helps you to push away denial, to keep taking your meds, having your scans and keeping your appointments. Give in to too much fear and you become paralyzed and miserable and freaked out.

It’s a day-by-day challenge to keep that balance: just enough, not too much. Most days I think I maintain that equilibrium. Then, a few days ago, I was reading a weekly support group email. Another member of the group mentioned a woman who was treated for Stage 1 breast cancer in the 1980s. The cancer came back 30 years later, and the woman had just died from the disease.

Uh-oh. Big Fear Alert. My thoughts raced: “You’re never free of this. At five years a survivor, they call you “cured.” But you never know if that’s really true. Will the cancer come roaring back, a decade from now, or two or three decades from now? Or will I be lucky, like a neighbor down the street, who had breast cancer and a mastectomy more than 40 years ago and has never had a recurrence?”

I kept circling back to this train of thought. It went on for days, but I didn’t tell my family about it. Speak the fear out loud and that makes your fearful imaginings seem even more real.

Then I came across a press release from Houston Methodist Cancer Center that somehow broke through my fearsome feedback loop. It was one of those service-y lists that I see dozens of times a day.

The topic of the release: “Debunking Myths About How Cancer Spreads.” In it, docs tried to put to rest misconceptions about metastasis. For instance:

  • As yet, no evidence supports the notion that a needle biopsy, used to diagnose many types of cancer, causes cancer to spread. The biology of the cancer causes it to spread, not the force of the needle.
  • Research continues to dispute that massage spreads cancer through the lymph system.
  • There’s no straight line between sugar intake and cancer. However, if you eat so much sugar that you become obese, that does increase your risk.

I’d heard these points before, but somehow the rational, “let’s-get-real” tone of the release helped me to stop obsessing about my own mortality. The release seemed to be saying: Don’t create more monsters. Don’t worry too much about what you can never really know. Face the day. Pay attention to the science.

No, I’ll never really know if my cancer is gone forever. But there’s no point in creating more things to worry about. “Keep Calm and Carry On,” as the now popular World War II poster from Britain puts it.

If the British could keep it together when Germany was bombing London during the Blitz of that war, I guess I can put my irrational cancer fear back in the box. Mischief managed.

How do you cope with fear during cancer treatment and after? Let us know here.

 

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