“I'm afraid the pathology of the tumor they removed in surgery turns out to be rather aggressive,” my oncologist said. “I would recommend that we do chemo.”
My brain went to fuzz immediately. A series of panicked thoughts and feelings quickly followed:
Disbelief. “But my breast cancer is early stage. Surely chemo isn't necessary!”
Denial. “Who needs chemo anyway? Isn't the cure worse than the disease?”
Anger. “Why do I have to have [insert expletive] chemo?! The docs said I probably wouldn't have to when I was first diagnosed! Why can't they do their job properly?”
And then I was hit by something even bigger: fear.
Before I became a cancer patient, everything I knew of cancer I had learned in the movies. So when fear hit, it came in the form of a movie montage. Every scary cancer scene I'd ever watched -- from Love Story in the 1970s to 2014's The Fault in Our Stars -- started to swirl through my mind's eye. I started to marinate in fear.
As my husband drove me home from the breast care center, I didn't say much. I couldn't stop the chemo scenes from running through my mind. When we got home, I went to the bathroom, just to be alone. I cried. I cried and cried.
After a while, there was a soft knock on the door. “Honey? You OK?”
I opened the door. I let my husband hug me. Then I cried some more. I cried because I knew I wouldn't be strong enough to keep my terror from my then 9-year-old daughter. I cried because it all felt unfair. I cried because I was afraid of chemo. I cried because I didn't want to be bald. I cried because, even though I wasn't really sure what chemo mouth sores were, I had read about them in a magazine in the waiting room, and they sounded awful. I cried because I'd heard people say that some types of chemo increase your risk of cancer later on. I cried because I didn't know if I'd be able to continue working during chemo. I cried because I was afraid I'd be not only sick, but broke. I cried because I never planned on having cancer. And if I had to have cancer, I certainly didn't plan on having chemo! I cried until I fell asleep.
When I woke up the next morning, I felt a little better. I think that allowing myself to wallow in fear helped. Even the bravest people feel afraid. It's normal to be afraid.
So after that first day, I resolved that “job No. 1” in this chemo journey would be managing my fear. Here are a couple of strategies that worked for me:
- I put my “big picture” fears into a box. In the months that followed, I took it out from time to time and would have another good cry. That's normal. But most days, I tried to focus on what was happening in the here and now. I tried not to think about what might happen in 1 year, 2 years, or 10 years. I focused on just what was in front of me. One fear at a time. One day at a time.
- I learned to focus on my breath when I was really nervous about something. Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat. Think of nothing else. Breathe in. Breathe out. It really helped.
- I tried to find at least one thing each day that made me grateful, even at my sickest. It could be the smallest thing, like the chemo nurse giving me a high five or my daughter saying something funny. I know it sounds like a Hallmark card. But it helped me to remember why I was fighting cancer. That helped to keep my fear at bay.
Fear broke through once in a while, but it didn't paralyze me. And that allowed me to save my energy to fight cancer with everything I had.