How Being a Cancer Survivor Helps Me Cope With Coronavirus Fears
Advice from someone who knows that panicky feeling all too well
When you’re diagnosed with cancer, one of the worst things about it, aside from the obvious countless physical ramifications, is the emotional upheaval it causes. The raw feelings of vulnerability. The absolute terror of knowing that your body has betrayed you. The desire to close yourself off, make yourself as small as possible and hide inside an impenetrable antiseptic bubble of safety.
For years following my breast-cancer diagnosis, each sniffle, ache and pain elicited a fear so deep I felt I’d drown in my worry. A toothache surely meant referred pain from my jaw — oh, no, the cancer had spread there! (Even though there was absolutely no scientific sense to this.) A backache? Surely it spread to my bones (even though back pain is one of the most common complaints of an overwhelming percentage of the human race). Abdominal pain, fatigue, insomnia, forgetfulness, a cut that wouldn’t heal, an ingrown toenail — I was sure the cancer had returned, and this time with a vengeance.
How Cancer Can Alter Your Emotions
I constructed all sorts of stories, convincing myself of impending doom, arguing with my spouse that he didn’t understand, couldn’t understand, how cancer had altered my emotions, rendering them raw and real (at least to me). The sky was falling and there was nothing I, or anyone who cared about me, could do about it.
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Only the sky (thankfully) did not fall.
Years passed. Good years; important years, when my breath steadied. My mind grew more resilient as my body grew stronger. I learned to trust it again. And although I might have had a few extra medical tests — a bone scan for a backache that wouldn’t quit; a pelvic ultrasound when my periods became irregular; a brain scan when I had one too many migraines — I later looked back on these episodes and realized they were perfectly normal aspects of simply growing older.
For years following my diagnosis, each sniffle, ache and pain elicited a fear so deep I felt I’d drown in my worry.
So, this morning, when my son’s fiancé (since the coronavirus outbreak, they’re our New York City refugees) announced, rather dramatically, that he vomited last night, my breath quickened, the alarms sounded, transporting me back to my cancer-PTSD. Oh no, I thought, it’s COVID-19.
Managing My Anxiety
Over 30 years have passed since my cancer diagnosis. With time, and with each clean bill of health, I’ve slowly learned ways to manage my anxiety. Each passing year helps me gain distance from the day of my diagnosis when it became almost an automatic reflex to worry about falling to the enemy, convinced it could strike, would strike, inevitably and powerfully.
Today, when something bothers me physically, instead of boarding that runaway train, I stop and ask myself first, “What else could it be?” I’ll usually come up with enough quick and obvious explanations: It could be a garden-variety backache. It could be a cavity. It could be a simple cold or allergies. It could be that tough workout I did the day before.
It could be... life.
And then I let the train pass, my ears attune to the fading cadence of its warning whistle, and I catch my breath.
The Mental Strain of the COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 panic is wearing on all of us. Will we catch it? And if we do, will it kill us? By now, I can be fairly confident in saying that many feel as I did in the midst of facing down cancer — convinced that every sniffle, sneeze, headache and sore muscle was the pathway to something dire and dangerous.
My son’s fiancé is fine, at least we think he is (although I did recently read that gastrointestinal symptoms, though uncommon, have been reported with COVID-19). He feels OK and has no other symptoms all these hours later. We think the vomiting was, instead, due to the chicken meatballs he made last night. (He was the only one who ate them.)
The coronavirus crisis, too, shall pass, along with our anxiety, sadness and worry. Just as we need to stop all the panic buying, we need to try to stop the panic worry, convincing us that we will be next.
This doesn’t mean giving into passivity, but instead, being aware of the symptoms while having faith in our bodies. Then, grabbing our panic by the shoulders, staying six feet apart from it, and after giving it a firm but gentle shake, reminding it to stay away.