Fear is a common response to a cancer diagnosis and treatment, and can continue into survivorship, but it does not have to control your life. Angela Buttimer, MS, NCC, RYT, LPC, a facilitator at Thomas F. Chapman Family Cancer Wellness at Piedmont, explains why we feel fear and how to live beyond it.
"There is a prolific fear of cancer in our society," says Buttimer. "Many people with a cancer diagnosis feel fear because they don't know what to expect regarding their treatment. Many also have a fear of death. People get a cancer diagnosis and may think, 'Is this the end?' Even if the cancer is stage I and easier to treat, there still may be that fear of death."
She recommends the following strategies to move beyond feelings of fear.
1. Acknowledge your fear
It may sound counterintuitive, but Buttimer does not believe in "slapping on a happy face."
The key to managing your fear is acknowledging that it exists.
"It's important to acknowledge the fear and be able to say, 'I'm scared,'" she says. "Recognizing the emotion, even if it is 'negative,' helps us relax."
2. Understand the health consequences of chronic fear
While it is important to be sincere about your feelings, there are benefits to thinking positively.
"When we are chronically fearful or worried, the amygdala, which is the fear center of the brain, literally overtakes the cerebral cortex, which is in charge of decision-making," she explains. "If we are too engaged in fear, we cannot make good decisions about our healthcare."
Too much stress can also reduce your body's healing mechanisms and increase inflammation.
3. Recognize the positives in your life
"It's important to nurture ourselves by focusing on the positives without denying the fear of cancer," she says. "There is good research that says if we stay calm and sincerely positive, we tend to fair much better through any kind of bad news."
Buttimer encourages those with cancer (and their caregivers) to recognize what is right and positive in their lives.
"I love the saying, 'There is more right with you than there is wrong with you,'" she says. "When you get a cancer diagnosis, it can seem so big. We forget there are other parts of us that are right. Focusing on the positives as well as the negatives helps us combat the negatives."
4. Utilize mindfulness tools
You can use these proven mindfulness tools to remain calm and centered in the midst of diagnosis and treatment:
Regular exercise ("Research indicates people who exercise regularly are better able to manage bad news. There is a neurophysiology component – we can build stress resilience in our brain and nervous system.")
5. Find a support system
Connecting with other cancer patients as well as with Cancer Wellness facilitators and counselors can help you realize you are not alone in your journey.
"The outside world is so fearful of cancer," says Buttimer. "People with cancer feel like they can't even mention it. People have told me they have to take care of family and friends because they are so upset about that person's diagnosis. At Cancer Wellness, you are free to discuss everything about your diagnosis, from your emotions to the details of your treatments."
6. Know the power of your thoughts
We all have the ability to practice self-efficacy, which is the belief that you can succeed in a situation.
"If you have self-efficacy, you have the power to influence how you are going to feel and manage as you face fear," she says. "Self-efficacy is linked to better immune system functioning and increased stress resilience."
7. Live in the present moment
"I encourage people to stay in the present moment. We can manage this moment," says Buttimer. "If you get too far ahead of yourself, you can become overwhelmed with fear. Present moment awareness is the key in not getting overwhelmed."