I had an unexpected and difficult week with a setback which, while not life threatening at all, has really stopped me cold. I was doing so well – exercising, working, socializing, eating, drinking, basically living my life as myself. And then… I’m happy to say everything is now back on track and on schedule for the next step of my treatment, namely surgery number two. But the experience has made me stop and think again about this challenge I am facing, and how I am facing it.
This past week I felt fear for the first time. Perhaps it is strange that I never really felt frightened earlier than this. Not when I first received my diagnosis. Not when I was having my all-important PET Scan. Not even as I was walking down the hospital corridor towards my big surgery. And yet now, facing a situation which was truly more of an annoying inconvenience than a danger, I was frightened. Why was that?
I think the suddenness of it threw me. The fact that I couldn’t understand what was happening and why, certainly added to my reaction. But even when things were back under control, the fear remained with its underlying sense of panic and inability to sleep or eat. I had just received the wonderful news that my body had done the all-important work of healing itself enough to allow the surgeons to go in again and reconnect the parts of me they had disconnected. Last week I was counting the hours until this test, praying that the result would be good. But now that I had the good result, I couldn’t celebrate. The fear that had crept into me over the previous few days made it impossible to focus on the good. All I could do was see the negative, and the negative scared me blind. I wonder if it is like post-traumatic stress syndrome, that terrible situation where soldiers experience the fear of battle long after it is over? I can now see how soldiers, and anyone facing a potentially life threatening situation, may need to shut down all emotional responses in order to survive the threat when it is happening. I certainly think I did a bit of that myself. I focused on what needed to be done, and kept my equanimity in place while I did it. But then, when weeks of successful recovery allowed me to let down my guard, a seemingly new threat unleashed all the fear I had kept at bay. The fear I experienced over something new and relatively benign, was really the cumulative fear I had been suppressing all these months. I was frightened not only for what was happening to me in the moment, but now, finally, for everything that had happened before, as well.
I suppose that makes sense and is completely understandable. But the real question is, now what? How do I regain that lost sense of safety in order to live today as happily and fully as possible? What do I need to do in order to face tomorrow’s challenges with a renewed sense of purpose and strength? I have three weeks to go until the next surgery and all the possible annoying side effects that it might produce. How do I prepare myself to be as strong, physically and emotionally, as possible? How do I conquer my fear? How does anyone?
I think the best thing for me to do is to revisit all the lessons cancer has taught me so far:
- take one day at a time. Don’t look too far ahead and be patient
- celebrate each triumph, no matter how small it may seem
- believe in the successful outcome, even if the path to get there is long and bumpy. Remember that handling the speed bumps slowly and calmly makes their effects less of a crash
- remember your family and friends – talk to them and let them help you
- let go of the crazy mental catastrophe scenarios you’re so very good at concocting
- eat. sleep. walk.