January sees many of us making New Year’s resolutions - yet how often do we stick with them for 365 days? Maybe they’re unrealistic; or perhaps the circumstances that spawned those good intentions have changed. But one thing that seems constant is this: fear of cancer. Whether you’re dealing with cancer, or simply afraid of it in general, here are some resolutions to help you deal.
"Keep calm and carry on," that British WWII maxim that’s made a splashy comeback over the past decade, is advice we should all heed. Panic does absolutely nothing other than make you feel bad and act irrationally; think of it as over-imbibing and a hangover - all rolled into one.
Why do we panic? When confronted with a scary situation (feeling a lump, hearing the word biopsy), we experience a rush of adrenaline - our body’s "fight or flight" response to a perceived threat. This adrenaline seems to push common sense right out the door; we feel, do, and say things that we normally wouldn’t, given a clearer head.
Resolved: If you experience a potentially panic-inducing situation this year, recognize what’s coming and deal with it before it engulfs you.
Say you get a mammogram callback; "OMG this has never happened before they wouldn’t have to redo it if they didn’t think I have cancer OMG I’m going to die and who’s going to take care of the kids and be there for Mom and I can’t die I have way too much to do"
Keep calm and carry on! Take a deep breath; let it out. Repeat. Millions of women get mammogram callbacks every year; a tiny percentage actually discover they have cancer. Realize that the odds are hugely in your favor. Go get the additional views, and don’t spend time panicking over something that has very little likelihood of happening - any more time than you’d spend time planning what you’re going to do with your Powerball winnings.
Deal with stress
Stress - we all know what THAT is, right? Pressures of work, of parenthood, the relationship (or lack of one); money issues, icy roads, school shootings, high food prices - how many circumstances do we deal with every day that potentially raise our stress level?
See that word "potentially"? It’s key. While some of stress is physical (see fight or flight response, above), much of it is induced by the attitude we take to whatever situation we’re in. We usually can’t change what’s happening around us; what we CAN change is our reaction to it.
You’re in the shower, and notice a lump in your breast, one you don’t remember being there before. “Oh, no, a lump in the breast can be cancer, right? Should I jump right out of the shower and call the doctor? Maybe I should just wait and see if it goes away” But what if it IS cancer, and I wait, and it gets worse""
Stress is built on a foundation of change, fear, and indecision. There’s a change in your breast; you’re afraid it might be cancer; you don’t know what to do. As long as you’re experiencing fear and indecision concurrently, your stress level will build.
Resolved: Consciously change your reaction to this lump from "I’m afraid I have cancer and I don’t know what to do," to "There’s a tiny chance that I have cancer; as a woman responsible about her health, I need to rule out even that tiny chance; and here’s what I’m going to do."
Make a plan: depending on your age, your personality, and your capacity for uncertainty, that may mean calling the doctor ASAP - or it may mean waiting several weeks, to see if the lump disappears on its own. (Our Breast Lump FAQS can help you make this decision.)
Once you recognize and get past panic; understand that the chance of this lump being cancer is very small indeed; and have made a plan, your stress level will drop out of the red zone. Attitude: it can make all the difference in the world.
Fight fear with reason - and action
Fear: we all know what that feels like, right? It might be an immediate reaction to something sudden: the kick-in-the-gut breathlessness as you jump out of the way of a speeding car.
Or fear might be a constant gnawing in the pit of your stomach, a jittery restlessness brought on by something less dramatic, but no less threatening: a fear of breast cancer, for instance.
If you’re reading this right now, chances are you either have breast cancer - or you’re afraid you do. I’d like to focus on those of you who’ve found a lump, or are experiencing other changes in your breast(s) that you fear might signal cancer.
There’s a simple way to deal with your cancer fears: see a doctor. Go through some tests, if necessary. If the tests show cancer, get it treated. If they don’t - get past it.
Sensible, right? But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard and seen this statement in the years I’ve been monitoring the breast cancer community here at HealthCentral:
"I don’t want to call the doctor because I’m afraid."
And there you sit, scared/worried/fearful/miserable - and unable to move forward.
The problem is, doing nothing results in nothing changing. You’ll continue to feel fear for as long as you’re stuck in "I wonder if I have cancer" mode. Way back in your mind, there’s a little voice saying, "If I don’t see a doctor I don’t run the chance of being told I have cancer" - right?
So you can continue to worry indefinitely, to be afraid about an uncertain future. Or you can take a deep breath, pick up the phone, and dial for help. We have a wonderfully competent medical establishment in this country; use it. If you’re uninsured and/or money is tight, read our post on mammograms for underserved women; there’s every chance you can get that worrisome symptom checked for free.
Action trumps fear any day. Scared about cancer? Physically force yourself to do something about it, whether it’s online research around symptoms, a call to the doctor, or simply a long walk to clear your head and ground yourself.
Resolved: That this year, all of us - with cancer, or afraid of getting it - deal with panic, stress, and fear in ways that move us forward, rather than keep us trapped. Yes, it’s a big challenge - but the upside of keeping this resolution is huge: a happy new year. And I think we can all drink (a cup of tea) to that!
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.