Anxiety may be the No. 1 complaint of women who call the SHARE Helpline. And it is the unspoken concern underlying almost all calls. The great thing about the SHARE Helpline is that the hundred or so volunteers who answer the phone have all coped firsthand with the anxiety of a cancer diagnosis, and each of us has developed a strategy for dealing with it. Here's a sampling of what the women who work on the helpline recommend:
Christine Benjamin, SHARE's Breast Cancer Program director, suggests setting aside a few minutes every morning to write down your anxieties. "Having a specified time each day to deal with your anxiety can help you control it the rest of the time," she says. "By acknowledging the anxiety when it appears, you can take control of it by telling it that you are aware of its presence and will address it in the morning when you are writing your 'morning pages.' "
Agnes Solomon, a 25-year survivor of breast cancer who co-facilitates one of SHARE's support groups, has gathered ideas from reading, personal experience and support-group discussions. She suggests that rather than "sitting at home, isolated from the world, lost in dark thoughts," you should take part in "physical activity, spend time with people you trust, and distract yourself with movies, television, music, books, and creative pursuits." She also advocates meditation and guided relaxation. Particularly helpful for her personally is deep breathing: "The secret to success is to make the exhalations longer than the inhalations." If all those fail and you're still feeling painful levels of anxiety, consider counseling or medication, she advises.
Judy recommends walking outdoors every day, even during treatment, to build strength and literally ground yourself to Mother Earth. "Send your fears to her. Be in the moment, and remember you are safe in this moment." She also suggests Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a form of healing meditation developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, which is taught at many medical centers. If there's no program near you, reading Kabat-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living can help.
Anne, who had breast cancer over 10 years ago, also recommends meditation—and another book by Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are.
Kathy, a six-year survivor of Stage I breast cancer and a three-year survivor of uterine cancer, says information was an important ally against anxiety. "I had no idea how much the statistics for survival had improved due to advances in science," she says. "The data is comforting, and the SHARE website has many links to information."
Bernadette, an eight-year breast-cancer survivor whose mother also had breast cancer, points out that it's normal to be anxious: "Everything is new—diagnosis, finding your surgeon, discussing surgery options, facing the results of the surgery, initial recovery, devising a plan of action with your oncologist, following through with the action, and ongoing checkups." Her advice: "Take one step at a time, and don't borrow trouble." When you feel overwhelmed, "call SHARE even if you just want to hear the voice of a survivor or you need to vent. Chances are you will feel better after sharing your fears."
As for me, I tried many of the strategies recommended by other volunteers, including calling SHARE, and they all helped. In addition, another technique was stunningly effective for me—hypnotism. I was skeptical when a psychologist suggested it, but I allowed her to do it. I was fully alert as she took me on a guided-imagery tour of my body, using imaginary white light to zap diseased cells. It seemed silly as she was doing it, but I walked out of her office brimming with optimism. And the effect lasted for several weeks. Over the course of chemotherapy, she hypnotized me three more times, always with the same good result.
And one other thing helped me: time. The more minutes, days and weeks I survived, the more confidence I gained that I could tolerate whatever cancer threw at me.
Still feeling anxious? Call the SHARE Helpline at 844-ASK-SHARE (844-275-7427) and let us brainstorm more strategies with you.
What are your strategies for dealing with anxiety?