Fear When Being Diagnosed with Cancer
Hearing “you have cancer” is a stop-you-in-your-tracks moment; ask any cancer patient and they likely recall it with an oxymoronic “hazy clarity”. You may remember exactly where you were, what you were doing, or something randomly notable about the surroundings. You’ll likely forget a large chunk of the details that were thrown your way.
That clarity gets fuzzier once comprehension of diagnosis takes shape. You are about to dive into biology that will leave you scrambling to remember high school basics, and almost certainly have you pulling up Doctor Google. Medical jargon is difficult to comprehend with a clear head and a doctorate. When it’s your body, your diagnosis, your FUTURE, lengthy Latin-based phrases are confusing and intimidating.
Every cancer patient will face that fear, and there is no “right” or “wrong” way. Some behaviors can have a negative impact on your physical or mental well-being – this is usually NOT the best time to adopt a “go out with a bang” mentality – but generally, how a person deals with a diagnosis is unique to that person. Some level of anxiety following cancer diagnoses is common.
As there is no one good way to handle fear, focusing on eliminating some of the negatives can help with processing what just happened. Yes, you have a serious disease, one that kills around 600,000 people in the United States every year. That is scary stuff. But almost 1.7 million people are diagnosed with cancer every year; chances are, you will be joining the group of 15+ million survivors.
Skin cancer rates seem fearful as well, until you look into them. Over 90% of melanoma patients live 5 years or longer; similar statistics exist for early-stage melanomas. So if you are one of the 73,000+ people diagnosed with local melanoma (that has not spread to lymph nodes), you have less than a 2% chance of dying from melanoma in the next 5 years. Not exactly the Fountain of Youth, but a whole lot less scary for a huge part of the melanoma population.
If you are one of the 3 million people diagnosed this year with a non-melanoma skin cancer, you have an even better reason to put those fears to rest – a scant .001% of you die from your cancer. Sometimes, understanding the numbers behind the diagnosis makes the horror stories and internet searches seem a little less daunting.
About those fears
Still, statistics can only do so much to alleviate fear. A cancer patient will have plenty of fears to conquer.
- Fear of the unknown.
- Fear of needles. (Get used to ’em.)
- Fear of mortality.
- Fear of the doctor’s office.
- Fear of the future.
- Fear of recurrence.
- Fear of what will happen to my family if, God forbid, well…
The biggest things to understand about that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach is that it is normal, and that most people in your shoes are feeling it, too. You are not alone. So, even if you fear EVERYTHING else, don’t fear going through this solo. There is another person, another patient, a group of “another’s”, willing to help you navigate through this journey. You will find that there are many out there who share similar fears, and that, for most, connecting with those people makes fears somewhat easier to process, to deal with, and to accept.
I could never tell another patient what to be or not be fearful of; it is a deeply personal part of their diagnosis. I can share my fears so that others may empathize; so that others may see that “Hey, this guy is saying how I feel!”
I feared never watching my daughter in a dance recital. I feared never playing football on the beach with my son. I feared the awful stress a widowed wife would encounter, and how it would negatively affect her and our children. I feared financial toxicity of treatments would persist long after I was gone. I feared being overly mourned by family and friends, to the detriment of their own happiness. I even feared being forgotten or replaced – if you want to have the most uncomfortable conversation of your life, ask your spouse about “family planning” in case one of you was to die young.
These and plenty of others, they are OK. It’s extremely, extremely human to have wild emotional swings after you get diagnosed. Do NOT let that stop you from confronting your fears, talking about them, sharing them with someone you love or trust or who “gets it”. They will not just go away.