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Fighting the Cancer Fear Factor

Listening to the message of fear from a cancer survivor's perspective.

Soon I will celebrate 18 years of being cancer–free, after my ovarian cancer diagnosis at age 33. But even though the cancer is long-gone, the fear it brought with it lingers. Less than three months prior to my diagnosis, my mom died of advanced pancreatic cancer. As I began my battle, memories of her suffering were vivid and frightening.

Recently I had a dry, hacking cough that lasted more than five weeks. Instead of seeing it for the winter cold it was, I worked myself into a state of panic, convinced it was lung cancer.

When I eventually calmed down and let logic prevail, I was left with this question: Why, after all these years, do I continue to go there? I don’t have an answer to that question. All I have is the simple truth. I go there.

Finding the Purpose

Buddhists (and many enlightened psychotherapists) recommend befriending our fears. I haven’t been able to reach that level of peace with it, but I have made a place for it in my life. I may not have put it behind me, but I also do not allow it to lead me. Rather, I have learned to walk alongside it. Sometimes I even find value in it.

No, fear is not my friend. It’s more like that irritating coworker in the next cubicle, the self-centered in-law, or that pushy client—niggling and not going away. And just as we sometimes have to tolerate people we don’t care for, I have learned to tolerate my fear. In fact, it’s even possible to learn from fear, just as we can learn from that coworker, client, or relative.

Listening to the Message

Years ago I had the opportunity to interview one of my heroes, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen who is a best-selling author and a true pioneer in the area of mind-body-spirit medicine. I asked her how she helped cancer survivors cope with their fear.

Her advice was simple, but profound: There is no need to turn away from fear, she explained. If we listen carefully, it carries an important message. Fear is, she said, the deep desire to live.

How wonderful is that?

Facing one’s fears can be exhilarating. My friend Sam was previously afraid of heights but he is now an avid rock and ice climber. He told me he still gets freaked out sometimes, but when he gets to the top of the mountain and is surrounded by such breathtaking beauty, he not only feels a rush, he also feels at peace. He has transformed his fear into something positive and powerful.

We can do that with our cancer fears. In that freak-out moment, we can take a deep breath, pause, and recognize that our fear comes from an intense yearning to be healthy and happy. This provides us with such a ripe opportunity to not only make healthy choices, but also to be grateful. It is in these moments after that long, deep breath that I say, “Thank you, fear, for that reminder.”

Creative Expressions

There are some practical ways to positively embrace one’s fear of getting cancer. As a writer, I have found journaling to be very helpful. But if writing is not for you, try other creative outlets such as painting or drawing or even listening to soothing music as you think about your fears. Meditation is also invaluable to many individuals, and studies confirm its calming influence. Some people find solace in physical activity and eating foods that promote good health.

You’ll notice that all of those practices preserve space for fear. That has been the key to dealing with fear for me—making it a healthy part of my life, not controlling it or allowing it to control me.

To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, if you can do something about your fearful situation, there is no need to worry—and if you can’t do anything, there is also no need to worry.

While my fear may not be my friend, I have stopped trying to conquer it. I need only to recognize it and listen to its messages of love and gratitude.