Recovery Road

Living and Thriving as a Young Person with Cancer

What Is Fear

Lessons learned by confronting an unexpected fear.





I read that fear is an emotional response induced by a perceived threat, which causes a change in brain and organ function, as well as in behavior. Fear can lead us to hide, to run away, or to freeze in our shoes. Fear may arise from a confrontation or from avoiding a threat, or it may come in the form of a discovery.

When I was younger, fear came in the form of a scary movie, like The Shining or Nightmare on Elm Street. A little bit later, the fright was whether or not I would get picked in the neighborhood basketball game, and a little bit after that it was which girl I should ask to the school dance. After that, dread was dealt in the form of finding a job after college, and then consternation came about keeping that same job.

The day I found out what true fear genuinely feels like came later, at age 30. It didn’t come in the form of a movie, or a girl. It came in the form of being diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. It rushed into my life like a tsunami, reaping havoc and filling my mind with doubt and anxiety, my intellect with worry and unknown. I was quite literally in fear of losing my life.

My first reaction was utter shock. I didn’t know what was to come, but hearing words like cancer took the air out of me, as if I were punched in the gut by a heavyweight boxer. I knew that the fear I was experiencing was rational, and was certainly modulated by the process of cognition and learning. All the negative connotations with such an illness, and such a severe stage as well. Fear felt natural. It felt real. Ironically, it made me feel alive.

Clearly fear has a place in our lives, but I wasn’t about to let it control me. No way would I allow it to dictate how I chose to live. Not a chance. It’s easy to ignore our fears, but courage won’t make it to the playing field unless you have a fear to face down. By owning my feelings I took the first step toward gaining control over the situation as best as I could.

Instead of ignoring the situation I found myself in, or denying its seriousness, I decided to address it head on. As the days and weeks passed after hearing that dreadful diagnosis, I let that fear keep simmering. I acknowledged it, and began to keep a journal. At first my diary served as a concession to panic, and slowly evolved into a way I would conquer it. I often look back on my journal during those early days, and it now serves me to give me strength and encouragement, and also to see the big picture. It enabled me me to track my progress as I worked towards conquering my fear.

After accepting and admitting my fear, I tried to chase negative thoughts from my mind to picture what it would be like to win this battle, with a big wide smile on my face. I set that as my big goal, but also focused on smaller concrete goals to help me get there. I made it a point to meditate every day when I woke up, thinking about peaceful settings such as the wind blowing through a forest, of healthy, green leaves on sturdy, deep rooted trees. I imagined that I was laying on the forest floor, watching the limbs sway back and forth as I breathed in healing air, and breathed out unneeded thoughts or feelings.

Although it was paramount to commit to one outcome, and overcoming my fear, I found it necessary to let myself be afraid at times. I realized there was no way to eliminate fear from my life entirely, and that this valid emotion was one that would build character, and teach me what I had within me, and how to act with courage.

Sometimes through the darkest skies the brightest stars reveal themselves and shine. Although I never asked to be in this situation, being confronted by the darkest of fears, and accepting, confronting, and overcoming that fear enabled me to learn, grow, and be even more mortal. Feeling fear is human, but I assure you conquering it will make you feel empowered, courageous, and proud.

Alex Niles is a writer who was diagnosed with Stage IV gastric cancer in 2013, at the age of 30.

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