Yesterday I met with a patient who wanted to know how I overcame fear, or if I even felt afraid when I was diagnosed with cancer. I only got to spend a couple of minutes with her. She was there for a minute and the nurse was in a hurry to send the patient on her way. I also don’t like having those type of conversations with others in the room. Patients often share things with me that they don’t tell healthcare providers. I don’t know why.
The only two things I did have time to tell her was to keep a journal. To write down her feelings… all of them. I think it’s easier to deal with fear if we write our thoughts down on paper and then let it go. I also suggested she allow herself to feel the fear but not dwell on it. I wished I had more time to sit with her. I thought about her question quite bit after she left and decided to write a post about how I dealt with fear.
First of all I was shocked to be told I had cancer, although when I was first told I was drugged up from the colonoscopy procedure. I really didn’t have time to process the information and my family was standing next to me when I got the news (some healthcare personnel are insensitive douche bags when it comes to bedside manners and the woman who told me was no exception). My family reacted by crying and I had to comfort them. I told them everything would be ok.
I told anyone and everyone around me that I did not want to hear the word cancer. They could call it the “c-word.” I believed that I could focus on getting well if I didn’t associate that word with my illness. I didn’t want to hear statistics like survival rates. I am not a statistic. My son could be told any gory details if there were any. The doctors had their job to do and I had mine. Mine was to keep my head straight. I learned that negative thoughts created stress and stress lowered the immune system. My immune system was already compromised from the cancer and the treatments. I could do something to control my stress levels. So I left the science to my heath care team and I worked on my mind and spirit.
By nature I am stubborn and a fighter. I grew up with an alcoholic mother and a father who was always working. A friend told me later that my childhood probably toughened me up to fight off the cancer. Maybe she was right. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have my moments. I am human after all. There were times I did cry but I think they were more from gratitude or was it exhaustion? Fighting cancer is definitely the hardest thing I have ever done. And the treatments for cancer will kick the shit out of you. It did me. But that’s where my stubborn side kicks in. I will give out before I give in.
Meditation helped. I sat Zazen when I lived in San Francisco. I understood the benefits of sitting quietly but during the time I was sick guided meditations worked better for me. I was so tired and drugged that anytime I just “sat” for any amount of time I fell asleep. I needed someone’s voice to keep me awake. I think visualizing myself as healthy helped me as well.
I am also curious…some call it “nosey”… I prefer inquisitive. I always want to know why things happen. I researched the Internet and looked for other survivors. I stayed away from chat rooms…they seemed to be full of negative whiners. I found information that made sense to me and changed my lifestyle and diet. I was willing to do whatever it took to stay alive and beat cancer.
I know a woman who was diagnosed with uterine cancer a few months after me. She completely freaked out even though her cancer was “contained.” All she needed was surgery. No chemo. No radiation. Nothing. But as soon as she found out she wanted drugs to stay “happy.” She just couldn’t deal with it. Everybody’s different. If drugs helped her stay sane, then that’s a good choice for her. I was on enough drugs for pain, I didn’t want more. I preferred to work things out in my head. That worked for me. Like John Lennon said… “Whatever gets you through the night. Its alright. Its alright.”
I hope I said enough to comfort the fearful patient yesterday. I hope to see her again and just sit with her and maybe “water her seeds of happiness.” Studying Zen really helps me be a better listener when it comes to the patients I visit, although I have so much more to learn.
While writing this, a thought popped in to my head… I think all fear is caused by uncertainty. Being told we have cancer makes (at least me) think about my mortality. But if you think about it we live with uncertainty all the time. We don’t know what the next day or hour will bring. I thing its the daily living, the chores, the going to work, all the “stuff” that keeps us distracted from the fact that someday we will no longer be here. Cancer has a way of bringing that reality to the fore front. I wouldn’t tell a patient that. Its something that I think is better to discuss here.