Dealing with Stress and Anxiety…

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Why do I feel so anxious?  Anxiety often accompanies the diagnosis of cancer, so recognizing that this is a normal feeling might make you feel a little bit better.  Some levels of anxiety are temporary, causing you to be distracted with thoughts, or occasionally awakens you during the night, so you can think non-stop about stuff that you cannot control. Unlike the fear of diabetes, depression, heart disease, or even influenza, which are all bad conditions, there is often that horrific realization that a good many people will eventually die from cancer.  Sure, there is a chance that they might die from those other disease conditions, but this cancer business seems a little too sinister, and it has everybody completely freaked out about it! I don’t know of a single person who felt “okay” about hearing that diagnosis; so take heart…you are not alone!

I went to Wikipedia, to get the definition that they list, and it is pretty accurate: The definition of anxiety is an unpleasant state of inner turmoil, often accompanied by nervous behavior. It is the subjectively unpleasant feelings of dread over anticipated events, such as the feeling of imminent death.  Anxiety is not the same as fear, which is a response to a real or perceived immediate threat; whereas anxiety is the expectation of future threat.    

So why do we fear it?  I think we do because there is a constant onslaught of negative cancer messages in our lives. Not a day goes by where you don’t hear about people wearing pink to “this” particular walk, or a friend is polishing up their bike for “that” particular bike ride.  It feels like a day doesn’t go by when we don’t see someone wearing a shirt for some cancer benefit, or we hear about a friend of a friend passing away suddenly.  There are notices in magazines and newspapers, along with slick advertisements on the television, and they let us know about some new cancer drug that is available, or some latest, greatest cancer hospital in America.  There are bake sales, fundraisers, bowl-a-thons, and God knows what else going on weekly…if not daily.   Even if we tried, we simply cannot get away from how it has touched the lives of the people that we know.

If you poll most people who have cancer, I suspect that they are not actually “afraid” of dying; usually, they are afraid of what their loss will do to their families.  Of course, some people are afraid of pain and disfigurement, but most of us worry about all those issues that plague us during our waking hours.

  • Why didn’t I spend more time teaching my spouse about what it is that I do?  
  • Why didn’t we get that life insurance when I was healthier?  
  • I wish I didn’t have to work when I am so sick.  I just want to heal…but everybody needs my paycheck!  
  • How am I going to find the energy to be a parent to my children right now…I am exhausted!
  • I’m afraid to see my doctor today…I think my cancer is worse!

These thoughts are just the tip of the emotional iceberg when you have cancer. The sad thing about being so ill is that you have a lot of really down “down” times, when your body is just wore out…but your mind might be stuck in a loop of total negativity. I used to call it my “dark well of despair.”  When you do not have control over things going on to you, it can be terrifying…and pretty depressing.  The way to find more peace during those difficult times is to try to find ways to lighten your load, which will help to ease your mind.  This means knowing what you can control, so you CAN focus on fixing the things can be fixed.

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Here are some suggestions for you to get control?

Recognize that your world has shifted off its axis and that you have “permission” to be freaked out!  Never think that you are unworthy of feeling scared, depressed or even down.  You may go through many highs and lows during this trying time, so love yourself enough to be honest with your feelings.  Information is out there, in the form of reading materials, support groups and from amazing sites and people on the Internet.  If you have a mind to look for ideas to help you, then you will definitely find techniques that will make you feel more empowered about what is happening. This knowledge will lead you in the direction of calming your thoughts and mind.

Do not assume that you are going to die!  Having cancer is not always a death sentence! For many people, it truly is a welcomed slap in the face that pushes them towards a healthier lifestyle.   A common thread among people who write and teach about alternative ways to fight cancer, is that most people will actually develop cancer cells in their lifetime. The thing that separates all those who get it from those who do not, is that the people with extremely healthy immune systems will actually clear the cancer out of their body.  That is because the body is designed to be healthy, so their body systems will gobble up and dispose of any cancerous cells.  Something about them is causing their entire body to work the way it was designed to do. Do they exercise, limit their exposure to unhealthy activities, eat a diet that supports their body systems, or is something completely different?  To me, it just means, that the likelihood of getting cancer is somewhat “controllable!” So if it is controllable, maybe we can do some of those things too.  Maybe we can even start to control it today.

I had cancer, even though I “thought” I was pretty healthy.  What I learned, was I was not the kind of healthy that keeps a body in optimum fighting condition.  It took me months to get the information that I am going to give you, and I don’t want anyone to have to wait months for anything.  Let this list of helpful tips be the first thing that sparks your interest.  It doesn’t matter if you decide to go in an all natural way of treating your body, or if you decide to go in a more traditional healing manner.  These are good tips that you can use for every treatment.  They are the easiest to control, and I tell them to every single person who informs me that they have cancer:

  1. Stop eating all forms of sugar, and that includes most breads, pasta, white rice, desserts, and soda.  I would also immediately start reducing fruit, especially if I were eating it in ridiculous amounts.
  2. Start juicing fruits and vegetables, with emphasis on dark leafy greens and vegetables. Fruits are okay for juicing, but they should NOT be the focus of your juices.
  3. Stop eating foods that your body has to work hard to digest.  Drinking healthy juices will go right into your digestive system, getting nutrients and enzymes exactly where they need to go, and immediately begin healing your body.  A 6 or 8-ounce porterhouse steak with fries and a sugary dessert are going to take hours and hours to digest.  Not only will it be taxing on your major organs of the body, it will also be zapping your energy stores during the entire duration.  If you are very ill, then stick to mostly juicing and eating other foods in their raw form (salads, nuts, seeds, etc.).
  4. If you are not already doing so, start taking extra vitamins and supplements to build up your immune system.
  5. If you have been dealing with stressful situations in your life, you need to learn how to reduce the stress and let go of emotional disturbances that are bothering you.
  6. Decrease your exposure to chemicals and toxins, which are EVERYWHERE!  This includes your toothpaste, body lotions, shampoos, cleaning sprays, pesticides, backyard bug spray, perfumes, etc.  They are literally filled with chemicals that your liver cannot filter out.  The goal is to be gentle on your internal organs right now, because they need to be loved and cared for, especially while they work hard to take care of you.
  7. Adequate sleep is essential.  We heal while we are sleeping, so make sure that you are getting plenty of restful sleep.
  8. You need a vision of “you” being healthy!  What’s on the other side of your cancer journey? Is it you vacationing with your family in Figi?  Is it you educating others about health and wellness?  Is it you starting to work on helping homeless people in your community?  Is it you quitting your job and deciding to babysit your grandchildren?   Or is it something else? The point is, you need to “see” yourself on the other side of this journey…happy, healthy and whole!  That vision in your head is going to tell your cells and body that you plan to recover from this minor disturbance.  It doesn’t tell your cells and body that you are withering up and fading away.     It says, “I will be here, and I have things that need to be done…so let’s work to get me there!”  

Here are some helpful tips to help you feel more in control of what is happening to you: 

How about keeping a diary to record stuff that is happening in your life?  It can be as elaborate, or as simple, as you want it to be.  A spiral notebook would be great, but an inexpensive one (think those free ones at the drug store) would be just fine too. Jot down how you mentally feel for the day, or pen a quick blurb about what cancer stuff happened (meds, appt’s, etc.).  Here is an example of how I used to record things.  I used to have chemo every other Friday.  I was usually okay until Sunday evening, when I got really sick; and that lasted through the entire next week and into Wednesday or Thursday of the following week…just in time for me to have another treatment! When I started to record things down by date, I learned which days I could “taste” foods again, and I learned that there were days where I literally was out of my “skin” from anxiety that was induced by drugs.  Patterns emerged that began to help me feel like I could control what was happening to me.  Then I could plan events on days that I knew I would feel okay.  My chemo was making me forgetful and unfocused, so walking around with a monthly calendar that identified bad symptom days, or days when I needed to do something for my kids’ school, helped me feel better.  And who knows…you may be one of those creative persons who might have a novel that is just waiting to be penned!

Don’t worry about any physical changes that you may have to undergo!  Many of us are going to have changes to deal with.  Some of us will lose bits and pieces of our bodies, and others will lose more.  Some of us will lose some of our hair, and others will lose it all.  Some of us will not be able to walk, or talk, or see the same way that we did before we got sick, and some will be worse.  We are beautiful spirits inside, walking around with “shells” of a body that we put on display for others.  Do not let cancer define you as a weak person who is unable to cope with these changes.  You know you have cancer, so embrace it as part of who you are right now. Instead of looking at the negative ways that it will affect you, start looking at the inner ways that it will enrich you instead.  People will find you absolutely stunning, no matter what you look like!

There may be lots of changes that you will have to deal with.  Some are more emotional than others, but things will be easier if you can be ready for these changes!

  1. Is your hair going to fall out?  Why wait to have it start spilling forth while you are showering?  There is nothing more depressing than watching your hair get stuck to your wet legs and clog up the drain. Perhaps you could have a glorious woman party some evening.  You can invite your bestie, or your sister(s) over, and plan to shave the entire thing down on your own terms.  I had my two beautiful sisters over, and we laughed, drank a little wine and made the situation memorable and fun.  I never regretted losing my hair, because I refused to define myself by my hair.  I know that I am more than hair!
  2. Do you need to get a wig?  Then make sure that you do it before your hair goes, as it is a whole lot easier to envision the right color and texture when you still have your own.  The American Cancer Society has all sorts of wigs to choose from, and there are countless wig magazines and on-line stores to order from as well.  You can order cute little “bangs” to wear under your hats, and you can order any length and color that suits your style.  Do you need to go on some kind of cancer walk or benefit? Why not show up in a Katy Perry purple or pink wig?  I am a brunette, but I had one that was a super funky ash blond…I thought I looked like a million damn bucks in that wig!
  3. Do you need to attend a wedding, graduation, or some other big function? Then put yourself together to the best of your ability and just go!   Everybody will be glad to see you, and you will enjoy having the chance to get out and see examples of “life” all around you.  You will have people asking you questions, and many of them will probably be waiting on you.  Make the best of the situation by “rocking” that party with your new wig, or your bandages, or your pic-line or port.  Having the inner confidence to boldly walk into that wedding reception, with your penciled-in eyebrows, a funky-colored wig, and a pic line dangling from your arm, is about as sexy as it gets!  And I am speaking from experience here!

Learn to say “no,” and be okay about it.  You may be having a hard time managing all the details of your life right now. Do not be shy about not volunteering to do anything!  You have cancer…you have the right to sit back and let others step forward to do extracurricular activities at your kids’ school, at work, at the daycare provider’s, for your parents, for your friends, and for whomever else has the guts to ask you to do something other than “heal!” Know what your limits are, and make sure to rest when you have had enough of something.  You cannot do it all right now, so you should not feel guilty about it.  Kris Carr, author of Crazy, Sexy Cancer has a whole spiel about it in her book (which I highly recommend you read!), where she pulls out her invisible Cancer Card for whatever situation warrants it. It’s like a “Get out of Jail” card for cancer patients.  It’s not really a card…it’s a general philosophy that you use when it is in your best interest.  For example, your (friend/lover/mother/boss) wants you to do something (good/sad/funny/whatever) but you don’t feel up to do.  You pull out that invisible card and tell them you are sorry, but you cannot do that today because your (symptoms suck/anxiety/stomach hurts/bald head is cold/diarrhea is unstoppable) are causing you to not feel like you can manage it.  Who’s gonna argue with you? You have freaking cancer!

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Learn how to express your feelings, especially when you are too tired to do it appropriately.  Sometimes people would talk to me, but I was literally too tired to listen to everything they said.  Then I wouldn’t know what was happening, or I wouldn’t remember the conversation, which just made me feel stupid.  I have this terrible Norwegian/German temper when I am feeling inadequate, so words come out sounding ten times worse than what it should have.  Being honest about my shortcomings made me feel better; because, sometimes that Cancer Card cannot take away something super-horrible that you may have spewed to your (lover/partner/best friend/sister) when they were just trying to make your life easier.  Apologize when necessary, and be sincere about it!

Know who is in your support system People will be climbing out of the woodwork to lend a hand.  Some schools and employers coordinate meal deliveries and fundraisers.  Some friends want to take you to and from appointments. Maybe you have a sibling who is offering to clean your bathroom or house once or twice a month for you. LET THEM! Unless you have a strong aversion to the loving people in your life knowing that you are “human” during this challenging time…who cares if someone sees you in a vulnerable way; or that your laundry room has laundry from one end to the other! Yeah, yeah…I get it; it’s hard to let any Tom, Dick and Stanley know what is going on in your personal sphere; but you can let in those amazing people who are your true “besties!”

For the others that want to help, I find that giving them something that they can do for you will make them feel like they are helping.  Maybe they pick your kid up from Cub Scouts every Thursday. Maybe they could bake a batch of cookies for your family, especially since you probably do not feel like baking.  How about assigning someone to pick up milk and bread on those “really bad” days, or perhaps someone could run simple errands (dry-cleaner, pet food, library, etc.). Start making a list of things that would be good for you and your family.

Necessary ideas might be:  Pick up/drop off kids somewhere; a hot meal for your family on treatment day, or another day when things are bad; take books back to the library before fines are due; laundry; household cleaning.

Nice ideas might be:  Make a batch of cookies or bars for your family to enjoy; gift cards for the family to go out and do or eat something; offers to babysit or run errands.

These are a few ideas that might work for you, but personalize them for your family.  Then when someone asks, you can be ready with an idea.  And if you still don’t feel comfortable assigning people jobs, then tell your “bestie,” mother or sister.  “They” can be the coordinator of such activities!

Simplify your life. This means restructuring your priorities, and maybe the priorities of other people in your family! Do your kids have to have organized play dates to the ice skating rink every Friday; or can they forego that for a few months? Do you need to repaint your bathroom because you are supposed to be hosting a family event this year…because you should pull that Cancer Card out and absolutely say no!  Get off of committees and fundraising obligations, and do not worry about what people think of you.  Do not feel like you have to acknowledge every single gift that people give you, but feel free to keep a list.  If you get around to sending a nice thank you some time…fine.  If not, the world will still go on.

Instead of mopping your floors every Friday and washing everybody’s bedding on Sundays (like you might do when you normally feel good), perhaps you relax your standards and do it once a month, or see if someone else can do it for you. It just comes down to priorities; so evaluate what activities are most important, and be okay with getting rid of the ones that aren’t. You need to conserve your precious energy for things that are in your best interest right now, and not to be wasting it on things that will not amount to anything in the long run.  As an added benefit, you will have more time to spend with family, friends or just being by yourself.

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Improve lifestyle habits.  Everybody can benefit from paying attention to your levels of physical activity and healthy eating, even if you are undergoing treatments and feel exhausted. I do not expect you to run a marathon, but you could walk for a while outside.  Anything that gets you out in the sun for a while (think vitamin D), so you can see the beauty of life around you will do you wonders.  If you can manage walking a couple of times a week, that would be good.  It is very important to get your oxygen moving throughout your body.  Cancer lives in spaces that are anaerobic, which means having no oxygen.  Deep breaths of fresh air, and finding ways to increase your movement will be good for you.  Now would be a good time to try some kind of meditation or yoga class; both which calm the restless mind and focuses your attention on breathing.

This is also the time to be stepping up all your healthy eating options (juicing, plenty of fresh salads, plenty of water) and cutting down the stuff that weakens your body (overloading it with chemicals and toxins, eating foods that are too difficult to digest), which could possibly reduce your chances of healing. Stop any bad habits, if you can, like smoking, drinking alcohol, doing recreational drugs, staying up late and not getting enough sleep.  Also, make sure you are not dwelling on all the negatives going on in your life right now, and make sure to stop any other obsessive habit/activity that prevents you from resting and recuperating.

If you work, find ways to reduce stress there.  It would be a good idea to sit down with someone from your Human Resources Department, or perhaps a coworker or manager. Keep them apprised of what is going on in your life, and let them know how you plan to manage problem areas that might arise (feeling sick/exhausted, reducing hours, etc.). When you are troubled by something not working out well, communicate your needs so you can get them resolved. Find out what your sick time and vacation benefits may be, and let them know if you plan to use them for treatments or recover.  Some employers have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which may offer you some help in other parts of your life.  It is advisable that you inquire if you have one, just in case you need to use it.

Chemobrain and memory problems.  Depending on what your treatment plan may be, you may have issues with memory. This could be related to your chemo drugs, any meds you take for pain, anxiety, or it can be a result of simply freaking out about things!  I urge you to make notes on a calendar, and to leave notes about things that you don’t want to forget (notes on my bathroom mirror or coffee pot worked best for me).  Run plans and concerns past your spouse, partner, kids, or whomever it would be helpful to know about a specific detail.

Contact your kids’ school and extracurricular club/sports coordinators.  A quick call to your child’s teacher or guidance counselor will be a great relief to you. You can let them now what is happening, and they can alert you to problems that they may be seeing at school.  If you need assistance for your kids, such as meeting with a professional to sort out any emotional disturbances, please take advantage of it.  Most insurance policies have mental health benefits, with therapists and other professional staff who are trained to work with families. The American Cancer Society has a phone number that you can call, or that your kids can call, so they can talk to someone about what is going on at home.  It’s a great service!

Have a sense of humor. If you are moping around the house, despondent about everything that is going wrong in your life, you are not using your energy to heal yourself.  Find ways to bring humor in your everyday life, and encourage your family to work on making the household a stress-free and negative-free home.  Pull out all the funny movies that you have in the house and re-watch them, or check some out from the library.  Make a point to find some hilarious cards at the drugstore and send them to your best friends, sisters or your mother.  Connect with other survivors who you enjoy, and find ways to laugh and be normal.  Laughter is a very positive way to improve the energy around you, and it helps to boost your immune system as well.

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Take a break from the computer.  This is not the time to go on-line and view other people’s horrible cancer stories, or watch YouTube videos that only trigger those tears and fears. One time I was visiting my parents for the weekend, and I got on the computer to check my e-mail. One thing led to another, and then I was looking at websites about cancer, and then they were linking me into other sites and other stories.  Long story, short, I got myself into a site that was literally filled with death stories that were all related to my cancer.  It was horrible!  I couldn’t sleep that night, and I got into a funk that I couldn’t get out of for over a week.  Vow to only look at websites that offer positive messages, and that affirm how you can turn this challenge into a life-changing wonderful event!

Finally:  These are a few things that I thought were helpful for me.  I do not claim to know all that there is to know about you or your cancer story.  I encourage you to find whatever solutions that would work for you, and to share your story with others.  I posted a few links below, and I hope you find them useful.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anxiety

http://www.cancer.org/treatment/supportprogramsservices/app/resource-detail.aspx?resourceId=36440

http://www.cancer.org/treatment/childrenandcancer/helpingchildrenwhenafamilymemberhascancer/

http://www.oprah.com/own-super-soul-sunday/Kris-Carrs-7-Crazy-Sexy-Tips

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/living-with-cancer-kris-carr/

http://emedicinehealth.com/stress_management_when_you_have_cancer-health/article_em.htm

http://www.cancerfightingstrategies.com/stress-and-cancer.html#sthash.H5IMgiWO.dpbs

http://www.cancercenter.com/treatments/laughter-therapy/

http://www.laughteronlineuniversity.com/laughter-helps-cancer-prevention-recovery/

http://blog.dana-farber.org/insight/2013/03/five-ways-to-support-families-dealing-with-childhood-cancer/

http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/002605-pdf.pdf

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