The topic of anxiety comes up frequently amongst Melanoma patients. What we do to overcome the waves of fear. How we share or explain these sometimes irrational and often complex emotional responses to others.
Coping with a skin cancer diagnosis
I have frequently thought back on my diagnosis and those moments immediately afterwards that some see as the most pivotal. I have tried to think about my coping methods and how I got through those first few months and analyzed at what point my anxiety was at its greatest.
I have read and re-read blog posts that I have written at various points over the last 4 years since diagnosis. I can remember specific instances when I felt like I was struggling to cope. Moments I felt completely alone and isolated. Instances where the wall in front was insurmountable.
I can recall very few occasions where either the therapeutic nature of blogging, or the immediate network I am fortunate to have around me didn’t dissipate those most overwhelming of fears. There were however, the natural points where reaching out to others wasn’t an option.
When anxiety is all consuming
Waking in the middle of the night almost unable to breathe because anxiety had literally taken my breath away. Driving to a work meeting somewhere and needing to pull over to the side of the road because the words from a song resonated so greatly that I couldn’t see straight through tears.
My anxiety immediately after diagnosis was of not being able to see my children grow. Having moments taken from me. My fear of causing them pain and suffering because of my disease impacting their lives.
Living with skin cancer
Four years later, and whilst I have had my fair share of surgeries, I remain healthy. Melanoma however is and always will be in my life. It exists – perhaps dormant in my cells waiting to strike. This isn’t a disease with a current cure and there isn’t a certainty or guarantee that I will be one of those lucky ones that never progresses.
I organise the UK Melanoma Patient Conference and we interview patients to hear their stories. One of these patients had a Melanoma that at stage 1b remained dormant for 5 years – she passed the magical “all clear” mark…only for it to return. She is now fighting for her life and it’s yet another reminder to me of my own mortality and the fact that Melanoma is so incredibly hard to predict & prepare for. Whilst now I can go weeks without feeling unsettled or anxious, that knowledge never goes away.
At first my anxiety was almost overwhelming – I want to say I coped or didn’t allow it to take over, but in reality I simply went into autopilot, desperate to provide that strong face for others and as a result the anxiety I experienced manifested itself most frequently at night.
Time is a healer
After a while, both time and knowledge provided control. Then my anxiety was exposed with overwhelming emotional reactions to death and the loss of other patients that I had become close to. I felt the need to condense my entire parenting in the few short years I felt I had available to me. I became stricter than I had ever been before – fixated upon ensuring my children had absorbed my quests for their morality so they would grow even without my influence to be the people I knew they could be.
I would swing between a need to “live every moment” and a more rational requisite to plan, prepare and financially absolve my husband of stress for the future of our family. One day wanting to book flights for exciting adventures and the next spending hours analysing savings funds or options for pensions. Becoming increasingly snippety if the need of the moment wasn’t instantaneously vanquished.
Time is a healer they say…well yes…in parts I suppose it is.
Now I can go outdoors in the sunshine with my children without needing to cover them in blankets first. I can accept that no amount of excessive mothering is going to change the fact my children are going to grow up to be nice people. I now appreciate that no matter how I attempt to influence things fate, luck, or even bad luck has a greater impact upon my future than anything else. I also sadly can’t change my genetics, or indeed my children’s – despite vast amounts of research.
Treatment options improving
The options of treatments are improving. Every month I live without progression is a step closer to long-term survival. I have immersed myself into this world of Melanoma, and whilst that is sometimes painful, it means I know what trials are happening where and I know who to talk to if the moment ever arises that I need a consultation. I have control in the form of connections and knowledge.
So am I anxiety free?
Not quite….sometimes I wake up in the middle of night, having obviously snapped out of a dream or nightmare of some kind. My heart is pounding so loudly I can hear the thumping in my ears and it takes hours…or longer to re-centre myself.
My anxiety has morphed slightly. I play through scenarios relating to “progressing” in my head. My need to control every element of the disease means I need to feel like I can visualize what will happen when I progress and how I will handle it, how we will tell the children; will I continue to work.
I feel a sense of guilt that I haven’t yet progressed when others who were seemingly less high risk than I have. I still fear the unknown. The anxiety is still there, but now it’s less of a shooting pain or constant toothache and instead more like an aching joint – sometimes it’s annoying, sometimes it hurts, but mostly I am just used to it and don’t really feel it on a day-to-day basis.