Julie Larson, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in New York City who is serving as speaker for Part Two of our triple-negative breast cancer webinar series, Managing Fears of Recurrence, which takes place Thursday, April 24 at noon ET. In this blog post, Julie writes about the fear of recurrence and its impact on those diagnosed with cancer. Share your thoughts and feelings about how recurrence has affected you — Julie and LBBC want to hear all about it!
As a therapist, I’ve noticed something. The urgency to sit with me doesn’t happen when people are losing their hair, but when it’s growing back. I have found survivors need space not when loved ones are constantly around, but when their loved ones are suddenly silent and focused on other things.
It is in these moments, after treatment ends, someone walks into my office, sits down and unleashes their worry and fear. Worry, about overwhelming emotions or not being emotional at all. Fear, of using the arm that had lymph nodes removed or concern about the time between now and the next doctors visit. I listen as people share these feelings that nibble away at their mind causing them to be scared about over doing it or not doing enough. And underneath it all they feel sick, with fear, that cancer could return. And isn’t this the time when feeling sick, about anything, is supposed to be over!
If the experience of being diagnosed with cancer is characterized by many feelings of loss, the fear of recurrence might be one of the harshest things you acquire. Saying this new fear might live with you always sounds brutal and unfair. But I’ve watched how this fear changes for people over time. Here are three things I’ve noticed, from my chair, as I sit with cancer survivors…
1) Worry is often an unanswered question. If you take a moment and listen to what you are thinking, do you find questions lurking in the shadows of your mind? Get specific. While some of those questions might not have an easy answer, maybe you can respond to other nagging thoughts. If you’re like many of the people who sit in my office, you probably know some of the answers but have a hard time “holding onto” or trusting that information . Write down the facts you know about your circumstances today. Numbers from recent blood work, scan results, evidence that your children are coping well, the healthy breakfast you chose this morning… Whatever it may be that helps you grab onto some truths about your healthy life right now.
2) Challenging worry requires a lot of energy and focus initially. People become better able to ground themselves and stay present with practice and time. Those wayward thoughts are like a puppy on a leash. Constantly pulling you off course, tangling you in knots as you work hard to simply walk forward, erratic and in need of seemingly endless attention. These fears are new to you. And much like the puppy learning how to walk alongside its master, you have to teach yourself how to respond to these new overwhelming feelings. Understanding your worry and learning how to respond in healthy ways doesn’t happen overnight. By doing some work to look at your fear more closely and ask yourself some questions like: “What helps you to feel safe?”; “Who can tolerate and listen well when I share some of these feelings?”; “What can I do with the energy of anger or the depth of sadness?” As you come up with personal ways of responding you are flexing new muscles that will grow overtime and make it easier to feel stronger.
3) Don’t forget your body! It doesn’t surprise me really that, as I watch people share all of these concerns, they are usually on my couch in a tightly wrapped ball. Their shoulders are up, their legs are crossed, they may be using their hands to gesture but the movement is intense, their hands might be clenched or holding their body. In fact, how is your body as you read this post right now?! Does anything beneficial happen if you make a conscious decision to connect with your body? Worries can be so top heavy or “head heavy” as I like to say. Take a slow, deep breath, walk outside, look up, feel the ground. Find a personal way of connecting to your body that helps bring you back to earth out of your spinning head. This one simple action could be the first step to feeling differently in that moment.
This is a big one folks! A big hairy truth of survivorship and everyone has unique and deeply personal ways of responding. I’m so interested in what you think or have found in your journey. If you feel comfortable, share.
Let’s keep talking,
Check out our triple-negative breast cancer resources on lbbc.org: