Coping with Cancer Part II: Handling the Hard and Scary Stuff
Author: Dr. Susan Mecca
May 23, 2017
Our guest author today is Dr. Susan Mecca. She is a psychologist, author, and organizational consultant whose personal experience with cancer came from helping both her son and husband through lymphoma. In this article, she draws from not only her professional experience but also her personal experience to educate people on what to do after a cancer diagnosis. How can a patient and their family cope with the difficult and often terrifying moments that occur when dealing with this life-threatening illness? This is the second part of a two-part series. Read the first part here.
Handling the Hard and Scary Stuff
In my first article, I shared some ideas about handling the first few days after receiving a cancer diagnosis. In this article, I am sharing some of the strategies that my clients and I have used when dealing with panic, terror, fear, and anxiety that often accompany that diagnosis.
As you know, if you are living with cancer, crises bring many difficult, often terrifying moments into our lives. We are stretched beyond our comfort zones, time and again, by the news that we hear or the potential outcomes that we face. Decisions must be made where the choices can be ugly or daunting, and no one is available to take the blame if the wrong option is chosen.
So, how do you take back your power, when fear is threatening to run your life? Accepting that fear, terror, anxiety, and panic WILL happen during this crisis is the first step in reclaiming your power. Once you acknowledge this fact, you have lessened fear’s control over your life. Too often, we spend energy we don’t have trying to avoid the unavoidable. Want some tried and true ideas about navigating your way through tough situations without letting the emotions and uncomfortable (and unhelpful) thoughts take over your life? Try these out and find the ones that work for you.
Prepare for the fear—Once you’ve taken the courageous step and admitted to yourself that fear will show up during this crisis, you can begin to plan for it. Ask yourself:
- When is fear most likely to show up? During the night when everything is quiet and dark? Before a visit to the clinic? When I am alone? Talking to a doctor? Think back on other times when your anxiety has peaked and see if you can find a pattern.
- What will be the triggers I can already foresee that will bring terror, anxiety or panic to my doorstep? Will it be thinking about my loved ones? Wondering about the future? Seeing an insurance bill in the mail? Hearing the doctor talk about a new treatment plan? Talking to other cancer patients or people who have faced medical crises can give you some ideas about potential situations that may cause your fear to appear or grow.
- What will help me deal with it when it shows up? Once you’ve identified the likely times and reasons for fear’s appearance, decide what will best assist you in calming your anxiety or reducing your fear. For most people, the answer to this question involves the five senses in some way. Having beautiful flowers near you, inhaling the comforting smell of a favorite essential oil, listening to relaxing music, looking at pictures of family, friends, or beautiful scenery, or praying in the presence of spiritual icons or images can bring you back to a sense of love or safety when your emotions feel out of control. Figure out what works for you and make sure that you have access to those items whenever you anticipate fear may make an appearance.
Get moving—Withdrawal or paralysis are our primitive brain’s survival responses to situations that feel dangerous. I know that when the surgeon told me that our son had cancer, I had an intense desire to pull into a tight ball and shut out the world. Unfortunately, despite the initial comfort of withdrawal, inertia can allow our thoughts to take over, driving us further into anxiety or panic, rather than letting it subside.
One of the best antidotes to the paralysis of fear is to make the shift to productive action, such as consulting with experts or getting more information about a decision. For some people, a more immediate (and manageable) step is physical movement– going for a walk or changing locations to a place that is not associated with the fear (if possible). If physical action is not an option, “move” your brain from focusing on the anxious or fearful thoughts by picking up a book, changing the conversation, turning on a favorite movie, or meditating.
Create space and time for emotions and tears. It’s counter intuitive but true. As children, we were often taught by the adults around us not to express emotions that were uncomfortable to them. However, when unaddressed, emotions gain even more power in our lives and sap our energy as we try to keep the feelings suppressed. Uninterrupted time to just let the tears flow or the angry words erupt from deep within you can clear the mind and bring a feeling of calm, if only temporarily.
It is important to be thoughtful about when and where you let decide to “let go.” Make sure that it is a safe location—either by yourself or with someone who will provide a compassionate presence. Some people allow themselves to feel and express the built up emotions during time alone in their car, while taking a shower, walking their dog, during intense exercise, or in their bedrooms. For me, the 8 am spin class, held in a darkened room with loud music all around me, was the perfect place to let tears mingle with sweat.
Regardless of what you choose to do, create a ritual to bring your release time to a conclusion. It can be as simple and natural as washing your face, taking in and releasing a deep breath, saying a prayer, or treating yourself to a moment of self-compassion by hugging yourself or placing your hand on your heart.
Take back control. Whatever you do, remember, as scary as your crisis feels, you have a measure of control over how much time you spend dwelling on the anxiety provoking situations. If you are not actively problem solving, you are likely spending precious time in a state that does no one, especially you, any good! If it seems impossible to stop the thoughts, try setting a timer and writing down everything that is rattling around in your brain. When the timer goes off, put the paper away and do something active. Promise yourself another session of worry later in the day, if you need it, but try to stretch out the time between those sessions until you get a bit more of your day back for productive action.
Crises can bring huge challenges but you can fight back against the fear and anxiety. Remember the immortal words of Christopher Robin to Winnie the Pooh:
“You are braver than you believe,
stronger than you seem,
and smarter than you think,”
Looking for more ideas? If you want to explore other ways to handle the fear and anxiety of your crisis, as well as discover some practical ideas about how to stay whole while going through each stage of a life-changing crisis, consider checking out my new book: The Gift of Crisis: Finding your best self in the worst of times. It’s just out and available on Amazon!
Dr. Susan Mecca
Dr. Susan Mecca, author of “The Gift of Crisis: Finding your best self in the worst of times,” provides hope, inspiration, and practical strategies for people who are going through a life crisis. She draws from thirty years of working with people in crisis and from her personal experience as caregiver for her husband and son–both of whom had cancer. Susan’s belief is that we can choose how we will approach the crises in our lives, stay whole and find the potential for personal growth and transformation during the most difficult challenges in our lives. To learn more, visit drsusanmecca.com.
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One Response to “ Coping with Cancer Part II: Handling the Hard and Scary Stuff ”
Jo Waller Says:
Lot of wisdom packed in here.