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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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Blood-Cancer.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

  • Cherie Rineker moderator
    5 months ago

    Yeap, that is all we can do if we want to make the best of it. In my book I say ” writing is the best therapy money never could have bought me” It is true, both reading and writing, with the long hours I spent on the couch have become my saving grace. Happy to see you handling your challenges so well XO Cherie

  • Daniel Malito moderator author
    5 months ago

    @cherierineker We do make the best it, as best we can. Reading, writing, and trying to distract myself are basically how I spend mst of my time. Thanks for reading, keep on keepin’ on, DPM

  • Ann Harper moderator
    6 months ago

    The initial shock is the worst. After dealing with that and rolling it around in my head for a while (this could take a week or more) I finally try and put what’s happening into perspective. What is the worst thing that can come of it? What will happen if I do nothing? What’s the best possible outcome? When I’m done – I go with what my gut tells me, and usually it works out just fine. So to get back to fear, of course this is something we all have in common. It could be the fear of the unknown or the fear of the known, but sometimes we have to be tough and face our fears head on!

  • Daniel Malito moderator author
    6 months ago

    @annharper You said it all very succinctly. That’s what we do – get up every day and face our fears head on even though we know it’s going to be rough. Even if the worst outcome is scary as Hell. Thanks for reading, keep on keepin’ on, DPM

  • Ann Harper moderator
    6 months ago

    It is scary, but we have no choice! Thsnk you for your posts. They are always well written and thought provoking.

  • Cherie Rineker moderator
    6 months ago

    What an excellent article Daniel, thank you for describing it as well as you do. I have had to face my fears, or demons as I sometimes call them, whether it was as a flight attendant having to prepare the cabin for an emergency landing, a 17 year old who ran away from home and had to live on the streets, a woman who left her first husband and had to go at it alone in a strange country, or cancer. The feeling was the same in all cases. The fear of the unknown. Like you I have done the two things. Do the worst case scenario and found a way to make piece with it, and prepare for the worst in the best way I can, so if it happens me and my family won’t be paralysed with what to do next. These two things and turning worst case scenarios into a thing of humor or positivity “If I die young I won’t have to worry about whether I will outlive my retirement or not, or, at least I won’t have to worry about getting alzheimer’s, wrinkles, being left by myself, etc, all allow me not to feel too bad about the worst case scenario, which is dying before my daughter is done with highschool. I have found peace, and it these ways of looking at it, have made it possible for me to enjoy the life that I have in front of me right now :>)

  • Ann Harper moderator
    6 months ago

    That’s amazing. What a wonderful attitude. Good luck to you. I will say a prayer all goes well for you. Think positively – it helps!

  • Daniel Malito moderator author
    6 months ago

    @cherierineker It sounds like you have had more than your share of challenges in this life, just like me and many of us here. Maybe a life worth writing about yourself? Just saying. 🙂 Still, though, you manage to get up everyday and face life. It’s what we do, right? Outgunned, outmanned, that’s where we live. Thanks so much for reading, keep on keepin’ on, DPM

  • Ann Harper moderator
    6 months ago

    I think you have a wonderful attitude. Knowing the worst that could happen encourages us to try and enjoy today and what we have right now. Good luck to you.

  • VinnieCent moderator
    7 months ago

    This was amazing @danielpmalito I loved how light you made of this. Fear is OK, and being reminded of that is so important for people of allll ages and diagnoses. I’m thankful not just for you saying the words, but for the energy with which you shared them! Truly a blessing 🙂

  • Daniel Malito moderator author
    6 months ago

    @vinniecent Thanks! I’m glad you found something in the article to resonate with. Fear is OK, it’s a normal part of life and being human, and as long as we realize that it makes it a tiny bit easier to swallow. Thanks for reading, keep on keepin’ on, DPM

  • Bob McEachern
    7 months ago

    Daniel, great piece, as always. These days, when the fear creeps in, I try to focus on a quote from Doctor Who, and I remind my kids of it, too (in my best Scottish accent):
    “Let me tell you about scared. Your heart is beating so hard, you can feel it through your hands. There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain, it’s like rocket fuel. Right now, you could run faster and you can fight harder, you could jump higher than ever in your life. And you’re so alert, it’s like you can slow down time. What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a super power. It’s your super power. There is danger is this room, and guess what? It’s you! You feel it?”
    It’s about the kind of in-the-moment fear that we sometimes get, not the kind of all-day-and-night fear that you’re talking about. But it’s a good reminder to me to not let fear overwhelm me, and to find ways to use it.
    Keep up the good work.
    Bob

  • Daniel Malito moderator author
    6 months ago

    @bobtalisker Thanks so much for reading! I am also a whovian, although my favorite quote is “Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.” That doesn’t really apply here. 🙂 We are always battling not to let fear overwhelm, and sometimes we lose, but most times we win! Keep on keepin’ on, DPM

  • Ann Harper moderator
    6 months ago

    I love that quote. I won’t remember all of it, but I will remember that fear is a super power. Thanks for sharing.

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