Late last year, three innocuous little words landed in my lap on an otherwise uneventful Friday. It’s fair to say that I never saw them coming. People my age rarely do! There I was, an average 37 year-old woman going about her day, when suddenly…BOOM!
You. Have. Cancer.
Up until that point I had never thought for a second I would hear the words “You have Cancer” in a lifetime, let alone in my thirties. All at once, I felt everything change. It was as if the mere utterance of those three little words had somehow altered the course and clarity of my entire life.
As I faced the barrage of diagnostic tests and scans that followed, and was pitched through a dark maelstrom of shock, disbelief and sorrow, I found it hard to grapple with the seismic shift that had taken place in my life. It just felt as if everything I had once held as stable and safe was suddenly ripped out from underneath me. My health, my wellbeing, my future – had vanished.
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That was six months ago. Since then, I have faced major breast surgery, and am currently on a course of treatment so relentless it has placed Cancer at the forefront of everyday. Try as I might, I struggle to see the world as I used to, and grieve for those days before Cancer when I was happy, and my mortality didn’t feature so prominently in all that I did. These days I see everything through a new lens and it is one often clouded in fear and anxiety.
While my courses of chemotherapy treatment have thrown a lot of nasty physical side effects for me to cope with, for me, the emotional challenges associated with each treatment phase have been just as tough. Beyond that, I suffer with regular anxiety about what the future will hold, and have found this extremely debilitating. I would love to feel positive and upbeat about my prognosis, but the reality is, I am prone to catastrophism and getting bogged down in bad stats.
So what to do? How can I change what’s going on inside my brain, in order to reclaim some degree of inner peace? I’ve come to realise how closely our thoughts and feelings are associated with our wellbeing and I’m desperate to do whatever I can to affect a positive change on my brain’s wiring.
We are what we think, so it’s time to redesign my brain.
Over the last few months, I’ve embarked on a little ‘Quest for Zen’ of sorts. Having had enough of feeling powerless against the weight of my fears, of spending angst-ridden nights awake in a panic-induced haze of insomnia, it’s time to take back a bit of control!
But what exactly, is going on up there inside my head?
Well, our brain is a powerful organ programmed to control our body’s response to changes in its environment. During times of stress, the brain responds by leaping to action to ensure our survival. It does this by co-ordinating the release of ‘stress’ chemicals like Adrenaline and Cortisol, both of which prepare the body for immediate action – to ‘fight’ or ‘take flight’. These hormones cause our hearts to race, our blood pressure to rise and make us breathe more quickly…which is fantastic when the threat is something immediate, like a vicious dog attack. But, when the stress is caused by a threat that is not urgent, such as the anxiety I feel about my Cancer prognosis, the body’s heightened state of arousal is not required, and instead leads to unwanted panic.
To break the cycle of panic, I have adopted a few little techniques that I now use when anxiety sets in.
1. Professional Support – I see a psychologist weekly to discuss how I’m tracking. This was someone recommended to me by my oncologist. She has lots of experience dealing with Cancer patients, and has made a real difference for me emotionally. It’s great to have someone to validate my feelings of grief and fear and remind me that they’re quite normal.
2. Mindfulness & Meditation – taking time out of my day to sit quietly, close my eyes and try to focus my mind in the moment. If I’m particularly anxious, I embrace myself with my arms, or I hold one hand out in front of me in a ‘stop’ sign. Signals like this can help the brain to feel that you are prepared for the danger. Mostly I focus on breathing deeply and evenly, on resting and refocusing my thoughts in the present. As many of my fears are about the future, I find Mindfulness Meditation really helpful for regaining perspective.
3. Exercise – It’s not always easy to get moving, especially during cancer treatment, but every time I get out for a walk I feel instantly refreshed. I used to run a lot before my diagnosis, and while that seems impossible right now, I hope to regain my fitness when active treatment finishes. For now, a light walk with friends, or a brisk walk in the fresh air listening to music always helps resettle my mind.
4. Knitting – Recently I taught myself to knit, with a lot of help from my Mum and several Youtube clips! Like Meditation, the rhythmic, repetitive action of knitting also helps to keep me feeling calm in the face of cancer-induced anxiety. Plus I’m building up quite a repertoire of stitches, and have already completed two projects! It’s been really lovely learning a new skill too. That’s something I haven’t actively sought out in a long time!
5. Blogging – Right from the outset, from my post-mastectomy hospital bed, I began writing. I have always found it hard to express my inner feelings, but writing brings a great deal of clarity. I blog to express myself, to chronicle each challenge, and work through my fears. It helps me immensely, and has the added bonus of keeping my friends and family posted, and building connections with other cancer patients worldwide.
So there you have it. By no means a fail-safe route to anxiety-free days, but at least a few tried and tested ways I’ve used to get my brain under control, reduce feelings of impending doom and break the relentless cycle of negativity. Having Cancer is an incredibly difficult thing to adjust to. It’s scary, intense and very overwhelming at times. I find it so helpful to know that I have different ways to alleviate some of that fear and reclaim my life.
Kate Harcourt Turner is a 37 year-old Mandarin teacher living a great life in Melbourne, Australia. She has three beautiful kids, and a pretty rad husband too. Late last year she unwittingly became a Breast Cancer patient, and has been blogging about her experiences ever since, at www.cancercans.com, aiming to spread awareness and connect with others.