A man being chased by a lion

The Fear

Today we’re going to talk about fear.  Anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer, anyone who knows a loved one or friend who has been diagnosed, or even anyone who thinks about what cancer might do knows fear.  It’s just what happens whenever cancer is around, even if it’s not a terminal diagnosis.  So, what we can do to overcome this potentially paralyzing obstacle?

The fear of the unknown

First, I think it’s important to know what fear is and why it makes us afraid.  The fear of cancer is no different than any other fear in this department – it’s the dread of what I like to call the “what ifs.” When something as serious as cancer bursts its way into the house that is your life and breaks up your lovely get-together, your brain immediately kicks into high gear. Like the cops at a high school house party, cancer doesn’t need a warrant and it doesn’t call ahead.  You have no time to prepare, and, suddenly, it’s what your entire life is about. Logical thought exits, stage left, and in walks the “what ifs.”  The  “What if… I die, I get sick, chemo doesn’t work, I lose all my hair, my wife leaves me for a guy she just met off the internet and moves to Arkansas and gets remarried?” questions. It’s human nature, it happens, and if you’ve dealt with cancer you’ve had thoughts like these. Err, maybe not that last one, that happened to a friend. OK, ok, the friend is me. But I’m not bitter.

So, why do “what ifs” scare us so much? It’s that age-old chestnut – the fear of the unknown. Human beings have been afraid of the unknown since before we even knew that knowing about the unknown was a thing we could know. Couldn’t know. Couldn’t not know?  I don’t know. Whatever, since a very long time ago, sheesh! It’s a primal anxiety, right up there with shame, death, and abandonment, which, by the way, all share a component that includes fear of the unknown.  Coincidence?  I think not. It’s universal, but it can be tamed.

First, you have to understand that no one, unless they are certifiably insane, isn’t afraid. Fear is part of a healthy psyche, and it helps us to survive. For instance, if you see a hungry lion and you have a pocket full of beef jerky, then you should be afraid. Which makes you run away.  So you don’t become human jerky. See? Fear is a normal and useful part of being a person.

Brave and afraid

Second, anyone who tells you being brave means not being afraid has never faced real fear.  Period.  If you don’t have fear, then you can’t be brave – think about it. If you aren’t scared, then moving forward is as easy as going to the grocery store – what’s to stop you?  No. No way.  Courage – real, grit fueled, gut-scraping courage comes from standing on that cliff, knowing precisely what you are up against and exactly how terrifying it is going to be, and still deciding to leap. That’s what being brave is, and every single one of us has the capacity for true bravery inside. Some have it locked away a bit more tightly than others, but it’s there, I assure you.

Last, know that fear is not a constant. Fear is a spike. A blip. An obstacle. Think of fear like a hill. When you are at the bottom looking up, it seems like an impossible height and it stops you in your tracks.  Once you push to the top and reach the downslope, though, it becomes almost effortless in an instant. It’s the same in real life. Fear is most terrifying at that moment right before you reach the event, but once you get past whatever that thing you’re fearing is – chemo, radiation, end of life planning – the fear fades fast. In most instances, actually, it turns out to be totally anticlimactic and you wonder what you were so worried about in the first place. That’s how fear works. So, remember, fear is a peak, not the road itself.

Now that we know what fear is and why fear makes us afraid, it’s a little bit easier to conquer it, don’t you think?  It’s like suddenly knowing what’s inside of a chicken McNugget.  (It’s skunk tails and bathroom grout.)  It makes it much easier to not eat it on your diet. Of course, just knowing why fear is what it is doesn’t erase it completely, nor should it.  We are humans and it’s difficult to fight our nature. To help there are some exercises we can try.

Tips on facing your fears

One of the best tools to face your fears is to make them real. I know, that seems counterintuitive, kind of like poking a hole in your condom just to see if it really does make a baby, but it works, you’ll see. The fear thing, that is, not the baby thing. Definitely DON’T try that at home.  Now, by making your fears real, I mean play them out to their logical conclusion in your head, or on paper if you are so inclined. For instance, let’s say you get a cancer diagnosis and you are afraid of being able to afford your treatments. So, you play it out.  The worst happens so you sell your car/house/stuff. Ok, so then what? You have no car/house/stuff now, but you’re alive.  You can always get more stuff/cars/houses. It doesn’t seem like much, I know, but what you’ve done, in essence, is removed the fear of the unknown. Fear takes place almost entirely inside your head, and what you are doing is giving your brain a cheat sheet, a sneak peak, at what’s to come. That means the part of your fear that comes from the unknown has essentially been removed, and you won’t be blindsided by what’s to come. It’s a simple but extremely powerful tool for dealing with fear.

That brings us to our second tool, which is a cousin to the one above. Planning. A good plan is to fear what talking about getting married is to a first date – a total killer. Having a plan in place for some or all of the eventualities of your illness will not only help put your mind at ease, but it will give you perspective on what’s to come. If you stick your head in the sand like an ostrich or that weird guy at the company beach picnic than you might as well invite fear on up for a booty call, cause it’s coming.

People always say to me, “so much has happened to you, how do you deal with it all?” Well, fear is inevitable, but being paralyzed by it isn’t. I had no choice but to develop these tools and I promise, with practice, you’ll be as good at using them as I am. Do I never get afraid? No, of course not, but after that initial shock I make the fear work for me, just like you can. Talk soon.

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