Facing cancer fears in the new year

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

JANUARY 29, 2020

Cancer patient discussing fears with her support group

Maybe because it is the start of a new year, I have had many conversations recently about fear: fear about a new diagnosis, fear about a new recurrence, fear of surgery, fear of chemotherapy, fear that a changed body will repulse a partner, and, most of all, fear that cancer means death.

Moving from one year to the next, especially from one decade to the next, stimulates many thoughts and questions. Many of us think back to the start of 2010, remembering our lives and our likely pre-cancer health. It is probably impossible not to at least wonder what this year and this decade will bring, and it is difficult not to focus on the health worries.

People who have been diagnosed with metastatic or Stage IV cancer usually understand that the disease is not likely to be curable. Those with earlier stage cancer can honestly hope that it will not return after treatment, and that the largest challenge will be living with the threat and the fear. The catch is that none of us ever has a promise that the cancer will not return; being anxious about every cough or ache and pain is not neurotic, but is a reality-based concern that there could be a big problem. Having cancer is likely to turn all of us into hypochondriacs, hyper alert to every physical symptom and reluctant to trust our bodies and believe in our good health.

Learning to live with this real threat without being consumed by anxiety and sadness is often the most difficult challenge before us. I am certain that the goal is to live as though the cancer will never return. Living as if is easier said than done, harder some days than others. Beyond having appropriate treatment, there is nothing that we can do about the possibilities. It is out of our control.

Most certainly, however, if we permit our fears to dominate our days, the cancer wins. Whether or not it returns, we have wasted our time and our lives if we live them in sorrow and fear. The fact is that, if the cancer does return, we will most certainly have to deal with it then — but we do not have to deal with it today. We must somehow cultivate Scarlett's attitude in Gone with the Wind; she promised herself that she would survive each day and leave the worry to tomorrow.

Use the "Two Week Rule"

So, how do we begin to do this? One useful and practical tool is the "Two Week Rule." Most oncologists will tell you that it is not necessary to call about a symptom unless it persists for two weeks or longer. Most don't. Obviously, this does not apply to potential emergencies — don't wait five minutes to call about chest pain or sudden double vision or something else that you know may be an emergency. This rule does apply to lower back pain or hip pain or a lingering cough. Note: When you first noticed the problem, make a note in your calendar two weeks hence, and then try to ignore it until then. Chances are, when the marked date comes around, the symptom will be gone.

Identify Your Specific Fear

It can also help to really think about what you are afraid of. When I meet with people who have advanced cancer, this is a common dialogue. If you think more about your fear, it is possible to identify the specifics. Rather than just thinking: I am afraid of dying, try to tease out what is the real worry. Are you afraid of pain? Of being a burden to your family? Of being alone? Of leaving your children? Although there may not be comforting answers or solutions to your fears, it almost always helps to think specifically about them and then try to imagine what might help.

If, for example, you are most fearful of pain, you can talk to your doctor about it. There are many medications that can be used to control pain for people who are very ill with cancer. The trade-off may be alertness — pain medications make you sleepy. If, however, you are willing to be sleepy or asleep, it is likely that your doctor can virtually promise you that you will never suffer.

If you are most afraid of leaving your children (and I am very aware that there are no words of comfort for this grief), it will help to consider concretely what would happen to them. Yes, of course, they would be terribly sad, but think about who would continue to care for them, who else loves them, how you can prepare any legal or financial documents that will protect them.

As time passes, most of us find that the fear diminishes. It is always lurking somewhere, ready to jump out of dark corners, but it attacks less frequently. Even those who are living with metastatic cancer find ways to cherish and celebrate their days and not be always afraid. There is a wonderful saying: Courage is like a muscle. You have to use it to strengthen it. Or, another: Perhaps courage is fear that has said its prayers.

Fear is human. We will sometimes feel it like a wild animal on our backs, claws digging in. At those moments, I remember the words of Audre Lorde: "When I dare to be powerful — to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid."

How have you managed fear? Join the BIDMC Cancer Community and share your story.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
View All Articles