6 Ways to Calm Yourself When Cancer Scares You

A lingering cough that won’t go away finally made Roxanne call her oncologist.

Leaning on the kitchen counter with the plates and forks from breakfast piled beside the sink, she hears the nurse say: “With your history, we need to have you come in and check it out.”  Her heart rate quickens and her mind goes blank. Then it dips into the worst possibilities. The shock and fear she felt when first diagnosed three years ago returns full force.

It’s not much fun to talk about the terror of cancer. Many survivors experience fear and terror over and over again, beginning with when they are first diagnosed.

For the past 7 years, I’ve taught a weekly yoga class for cancer survivors. Checking in before we start, people share what motivated them to come. Often it is hope of relief, the sense of wellbeing when we finish, learning to meditate, connecting with their tribe. It’s also “letting go of fearful thoughts,” a scan in the afternoon,” stress, or a “cancerversary” date approaching.

Over the next 2 days, Roxanne’s breath is shallow, hard to catch and control.  Her mind won’t be still and she loses focus.  She tries to go shopping with her mother and teenage daughter for a dress to wear to a wedding but feels impatient and grumpy.  She avoids talking about her fear and anxiety because she thinks it will alarm them. After all, she doesn’t know anything yet.

Protecting others from pain and worry, Roxanne shoulders it alone. Inside she obsesses: Will her life and goals be hijacked by new medical interventions? Will she lose the energy she’s finally recovered? How will her daughter, Lily, react when she finds out?

She knows it might be nothing.  And worse case scenario, a recurrence is not a death sentence.  But she no longer has the illusion that it can’t happen to her.

She cries in the shower where no one can see. She reads a new mystery by her favorite author. Enjoying ice cream, she lies in bed and watches Netflix. An Ativan stops the agony of rumination so she can sleep at night. She has trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

Neuroscience teaches that under (real or perceived) threat of danger, your body goes into fight, flight, or freeze in order to survive.

The fear response Roxanne had is faster than lightning and outside her control. 

Once you are aware of how your nervous system has reacted, here are some ways to soothe and care for yourself:

  1. First recognize that fight/flight or freeze is a normal biological reaction. It is a perfectly understandable and adaptive initial phase of coping. Be as kind and compassionate to yourself as possible. Give yourself credit for making it through each day. You are doing the best you can!
  1. Reach out. When you feel the fear taking over again and your breath getting shallow, call a friend who can handle it, talk to trusted family, or a therapist or support group. Let yourself cry. Let someone comfort and connect with you.
  1. Find ways to feel connected to your body. Run, walk, swim, put on music and dance, do yoga. Feel and move your body. Enjoy your circulation, your ability to stretch and your physical sensations. Even a few minutes of one of these activities can make a huge difference.
  1. Sense your belonging to the earth. Feel the safety of gravity keeping you attached to the floor or ground. Feel the parts of your body that are touching the ground, the soil, natural bodies of water, your chair or the floor.
  1. Observe your breathing without judging it. Enjoy the pulse of life within you as you expand and contract in each moment and with each breath.
  1. Write about your feelings. Express all of it in a journal, telling your unvarnished and uncensored truth.