A panicked woman is sweating and delirious

Fear Rigidity

I don’t know anyone with a cancer diagnosis that doesn’t experience fear, crippling doubt, and ample amounts of anxiety.

Fear comes along with the blood cancer

I was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in 2011. I’ve only had two chemo breaks since then. The tension, the anxiety, and the fear became a thing I had to battle alongside the cancer. I think my fellow blood cancer patients can relate. 

When I was diagnosed, I first felt the fear of uncomfortable and complicated tests, fear of awful test results, and then fear of not having access to the best treatments. It doesn’t end there, though. There’s more.

Navigating work and blood cancer means stress about finances. Being sick and being productive are a tightrope to balance. The dread of financial downfall is very real. Fear has layers.

Having blood cancer means having anxiety over declining abilities and a deteriorating quality of life. There’s the tension of living in constant pain. That can lead to the fear of being a burden on others and how that would affect your closest relationships. 

I’m sure that you could add to that list with concerns of your own, depending on your situation. All very real concerns. All totally valid.

Physical symptoms when dealing with stress

I was listening to a public radio station and a neuromuscular therapist was being interviewed. He coined a phrase I had never heard before, fear rigidity. I strained to listen, I missed his name though.

The neuromuscular therapist talked about patients in his clinic who have had to endure more than their fair share of stress. He described the stress response and the two fear hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. When these are released they quicken the heart rate, make breathing shallow, and causes a queasiness in the stomach. That stress response can lead to dry mouth, dilated pupils, tunnel vision, and a reduction in our ability to hear properly! It’s a fight or flight response.

Sttress induces painful neuropathy

This therapist deals with muscular and neuropathy issues. He described how a chronically stressed nervous system tightens muscles, making them rigid. That bad posture results in trapped nerves. Nerve entrapment leads to painful neuropathy. Fear has side effects! 

None of these symptoms are helpful when it comes to cancer. Actually, all of this can lead to problems beyond cancer! The question is, how do we fight cancer and fight fear?

Naturally, the neuromuscular therapist on the radio recommended neuromuscular therapy with a qualified physiotherapist. With help of a physiotherapist the muscles untie, the joints relax, and the nerves align properly.

The services of a neuromuscular therapist can be somewhat expensive, is not always covered by insurance, and might not be available in all areas. Sure enough, when I checked my insurance I did not have benefits that covered this type of therapy. The medications I needed for neuropathy were cheaper by far. I wasn’t giving up though.

Ways to overcome the stress response

Through my local cancer agency, I found free classes in what they called mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness can pave the way for overriding that stress response. What they taught me is that we need to slow down on purpose. That’s basically what mindfulness is, not reacting to anxiety by hurrying up, but by intentionally slowing down.

When we recognize that we are going through a stress response, that is our first opportunity to correct it. When we feel that racing heartbeat, that shallow breathing, and an upset stomach then we do something about it. Mindfulness requires us to notice when we are rushing and intentionally slow down. It’s very purposeful. It’s not always easy.

Recognize the stress symptoms and respond

Since anxiety tightens the muscles and affects posture, we can stretch when we get a chance. When the joints are aching, we can take a moment to adjust our posture. When the breathing gets shallow, we can try to take longer, deeper breaths. We can carry a water bottle for when our mouth is dry and our stomach queasy. We can be mindful of our situation and respond. It’s a good first step.

I’m not giving up my gabapentin prescription just yet, though. I still have a lot to learn about how to de-stress. I do my best to notice when things are getting to me. I watch for the shallow breathing, the fast heart rate, and the racing thoughts, and then I slow down on purpose to counteract the stress. It’s a balancing act. 

What about you? Have you ever thought of fear as another side effect of blood-cancer? Let me know in the comments below. Thanks so much for reading.

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