When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 29, I feared for my life.
No one close to me had been affected by cancer so I thought getting a diagnosis was a death sentence. Six years on, I know this is not true because I’m still alive and still NED, short for no evidence of disease.
But back then, when my doctor broke the news that the lump on my left breast wasn't a fibroademona but cancer, those first few nights terrorized me. I was petrified.
What was I to do? I was in massive shock.
I wished someone had told me the answer all those years ago.
Instead I had to work it out for myself.
So today I want to tell you how I overcame fear, so that you can concentrate on what's important, which is getting your health back.
So let's start from the beginning......
...... when I got the awful diagnosis of breast cancer.
It was a strange feeling because it was the first time I had faced the possibility of death. But sitting in the doctor's office, alone, and feeling numb, my body was fine and physically intact. So how can death be so close?
Unlike in a car accident where we can suffer from major physical trauma and the end is quick, when we've just been diagnosed with cancer there is no bleeding, nor are we in great physical pain. I knew death was looming but don't really know when the exact moment will be.
And I think that's where the cruelty of cancer lies. We are in a great deal of emotional pain, not knowing what the future holds for us.
Telling family would have to be the top worst moments of my life. It was like breaking their hearts into tiny little pieces and not knowing how to fix it.
When I was diagnosed I was super young, in my late 20s and had my whole life ahead of me. When you're that young you feel invincible. Who thinks about cancer at that age? It wasn't a blip in my radar until cancer was right there pressing down on my chest until I couldn't breathe.
What I feared most was dying and never achieving life's big goals and dreams. Never getting married, never starting a family , never holding a sweet newborn baby in my arms, and never growing old with my partner.
Six years on from diagnosis, did I beat cancer? Time tells me that I have.
Was I fearless? DEFINITELY NOT.
I was afraid then, and I'm still afraid now that cancer will come back.
I call the fear of recurrence as Post Cancer Stress Disorder (PCSD). And most women that have gone through breast cancer has it to some degree. Fortunately it decreases in intensity over time but unfortunately the fear stays with us for the rest of our lives.
Similar to war veterans that suffer from PTSD, hearing a loud bang will cause them to immediately drop to the floor.
With breast cancer survivors, every ache and pain....
..........We automatically think it could be a recurrence.
Any lingering fatigue from cancer treatment we feel......
..........We automatically think it could be symptoms that the cancer is creeping back.
So for those who are newly diagnosed, and those who are years out from their treatment, how should we handle fear?
We often hear people talking about fear as something you should:
- fight off,
- conquer it, or
- punch it in the face.
Be fearless and fight cancer! Like we've signed up for extreme sports.
But what if we looked at fear from an evolutionary perspective?
Then we can see what fear truly is.
A normal response to danger.
Receiving a diagnosis of cancer means coming face to face with our mortality. So being afraid and fearful of cancer is totally okay.
We need fear in order to survive.
Remember all those times that your instincts saved your life?
Don't dive into the black water.
Don't catch a ride with that stranger.
Be careful of that steep cliff face etc., etc., you get my point.
Yup, that was fear.
Unfortunately, fear and other manifestations of fear (take anxiety for instance) is also there in our everyday lives, even if we're not in any physical danger.
The stress response that fear triggers causes massive changes in our biochemistry, which we commonly know as the fight or flight response.
Back in the good old days when we were cavemen and threatened by a predator, we were faced with two choices - we could either:
1) Run away from the danger or
2) Stay where we are and fight the lion.
Regardless of which path we choose, the body’s response is always the same. The stress hormone, cortisol and adrenaline is released causing the heart to beat faster, blood vessels constrict to minimise any potential blood loss, fuel is mobilized from the muscles, our senses become heightened and the mind becomes sharp.
The reason our bodies respond in this particular way is to propel us into action. Biology doesn’t want our bodies to stand still, frozen like a statue. If we did, we will get eaten by the lion and perish.
Of course we are no longer cavemen and women and live quite safely without the threat of predators lurking at the front door. However, in modern society, the stress response is triggered by seemingly lame and non-dangerous situations.
That dead-line you're scrambling to meet.
An argument with the spouse
Late for an appointment
Overdue bills to pay
Insert your own stressful life here _______.
So then why do we still feel fear when we're perfectly safe from harm?
Take public speaking for example.
Why are most people afraid of public speaking when we obviously know that we're not going to die?
At the very basic core, I think fear is an emotion that pops up when we don't know what the future will hold - we don't know what the outcome will be.
And the only thing fear tells our mind to do is STOP.
Stop whatever it is we're doing......
......Stop. Stop. Stop.
So I think there's a disconnect between what our mind is telling us, which is to stop.
And what our biology is telling us, which is to keep moving - run or fight.
Often when people are paralysed by fear - this can manifest into all sorts of unwanted physiological effects - headache, nausea, and depression just to name a few. This also why I think so many of us have anxiety.
But we're getting a little off track here, so let's get back to the topic of this post.
How do we handle fear when we've recently been given a cancer diagnosis?
Our bodies DON'T want to stand still. Our bodies DON'T want to be a deer in the headlights.
But our mind says STOP. STOP. STOP.
So how do we keep moving?
Because we do need to keep moving.
We need to be making important medical decisions with a calm and rational mind. Because it's those decisions we make in the first few weeks that will affect the long-term outcome of our cancer treatments.
Ask any woman that's received a breast cancer diagnosis and she'll tell you those first few weeks are emotionally the toughest.
It's when you have to:
- break the news to family and friends.
- choose your cancer team,
- understand the pathology reports,
- make sure nothing is amiss from your diagnosis, and
- it's also the time to create a treatment plan with your doctors.
So how do we not let fear affect us negatively in those critical few weeks?
After years of contemplating I think I've finally figured out why some people can move forward so easily while others are held back.
"We need to be one per cent more curious than we are afraid."
Think about it:
- Curiosity makes us look around dark corners and uncover a hidden gem.
- Curiosity makes us jump off an aeroplane and feel the exhilaration at plunging free fall.
- Curiosity makes us hike a torturous climb to the top of a mountain just to feel the breeze at the peak.
Basically curiosity will allow you to move forward and propel you to do things in spite of not knowing how the ending will be, in spite of you being afraid. It's ok to be afraid.
We don't need to be fear-less, but we can be brave when fighting cancer.
So how did I come to this realization about curiosity?
How did I know it was my antidote to fear?
Well I traced back to my footsteps 6 years ago. These four things that I'll mention were the things that got me through those first few weeks and .........
...............it all boiled down to my curiosity.
It helped that my background is a researcher, always questioning the hypothesis (or the status quo). But you definitely don't need a degree to be curious!
1 | What Am I Afraid of? ........ Really.
Sometimes our emotions can be irrational. Fear likes to hide in the shadows of the unknown.
So get specific about what you’re afraid of.
Obviously you’re scared of death, but what part of that is frightening?
Are you afraid of what happens to you during treatment? or the dying process?
For me personally, I was so scared of leaving loved ones behind! But when I talked about it out loud, I realised that if I died, it wasn't the end of the world.
Everyone will eventually move on with their lives. It was SAD, yes.
But scary? ..........Not really.
Start getting deep with yourself and explore the root of these emotions.
Most importantly share those fears with people close to you, say them out loud and discuss possible scenarios if things take a turn for the worst.
How will that actually eventuate in real life? Perhaps it wasn’t as scary as previously imagined.
2| If Cancer Was a Puzzle, There Must Be a Solution.
I truly believe that we need to be our own advocate and make medical decisions together with our doctors. Our doctors are our educators, our medical partner and facilitator.
However, the reins are still mine and yours to take.
Just because a person wears a white coat and have a medical degree doesn't mean they are faultless. I have great respect for the medical profession, but most women including myself were given only one option for treatment.
From my experience there's always more than one way to do something.
You see, the doctor usually gives you the option that he thinks is BEST for you - which usually means making assumptions about you.
It's your job to figure out what these assumptions are and whether they are true or not.
Whilst alot of women will come in for a consult, distraught and expect to be told what to do, I gained more respect from the doctors when I was able to be calm and come in prepared for the consult.
My oncologist half jokingly said that he had to prepare himself before our consults, because I always asked the tough questions!
However, in order to effectively do this, it's important to not let fear paralyze our minds.
We need a lot of brainpower to solve this cancer puzzle. Otherwise, in the end, we will be left with odd pieces that don't mean anything.
We want to be our own advocate and not regret the medical decisions we've made along the way.
3| Why Can't I Be the Exception?
The internet can be a scary place when searching for information on your exact type of cancer. Words like “aggressive” and “fast growing” kept popping up in my searches. I even went further and looked at survival statistics on triple negative breast cancer patients. Let's just say the odds weren't in my favour.
One night as I was googling away in front of the computer, I managed to come across a breast cancer forum. Each person that logged in could write specific details about their cancer journey under their user profile. They had dates of diagnosis, details about their treatment such as the names of chemotherapy drugs and how many radiation treatments they had. It just so happened that a woman that was active in the forum was a triple negative breast cancer survivor for 15 years and to this day still NED!
So I asked myself, why not me?
Why can't I be the one that survive this?
Simply knowing there were long term survivors made me forget about the statistics. I realized that everywhere in nature, there were huge variations in everything! Even two people with the same subtype of cancer that received the same treatment can have vastly different outcomes.
This is because they have different genetics and more importantly they lived in two separate environments.
Technology isn't here yet to enable us to change our genetics.
But we can alter our lifestyle.
So I came to the realisation, there must be something that I'm doing to contribute to the cancer growing.
Despite my oncologist telling me that I've done nothing wrong, I honestly don't believe in bad luck. Bad luck just means we are helpless to help ourselves.
I really needed to know what those factors are that contributed to my cancer, and more importantly how to avoid them so as to avoid a recurrence later on! Which leads me to my last question.
4 | Was This a Wake Up Call To Take Care of Me?
This was the one question I was really excited about to find the answer. Looking back, even though I was in the medical field, I really had no idea what health looked like. Over the previous years my body had deteriorated so badly. I felt lethargic, my skin was covered in pimples, I had bad migraines and I was constantly sick with a cold.
Now that I was diagnosed with cancer, I had a great reason to ditch the bad lifestyle habits.
I truly believe cancer is a symptom when your body breaks down.
I never took care of myself, I was always stressed out. Cancer was my internal warning system telling me to wake up and start taking care of myself.
So before I started my treatments I raided the bookstore and stumbled upon a book called Anticancer A New Way of Life by Dr David-Servan Schreibber.
I questioned all my beliefs about food, exercise and how it contributed to health. I evaluated my whole lifestyle and started making changes.
Often women and in particular mothers are so good at taking care of others that they often neglect to take care of themselves. Remember those safety procedures in a flight emergency? It’s critical you put your own oxygen mask on before you help others.
Don’t you think it’s time to start putting yourself ahead of everyone else - because if not now then when?
So there you have it. The four things I was curious about that helped me move forward after a breast cancer diagnosis. I promise you that curiosity will be your new best friend, IF you'll let it guide you in your cancer journey. I will end this post with a quote from Albert Einstein.
"I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious"
Now I would like to hear from you in the comments section below. How did you react to your breast cancer diagnosis? Do you have an antidote to fear that you would like to share with us?
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