|Ask Jai - Helping cancer survivors deal with anxiety|
My sister recently finished a really grueling cancer treatment for a very deadly cancer. The good news is that, against the odds, she is cancer-free. Unfortunately, though, she still suffers from terrible anxiety and trouble sleeping. Is this something that you dealt with? How do I help her get through the aftermath of cancer treatment?
Your sister isn’t alone in experiencing difficulties grappling with the anxiety caused by the traumatic cancer journey she’s experienced. The worry about mutant cells being left behind after surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation treatments weighs heavily on one’s mind. My late husband, Randy, used to say it was like living with the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head. He would look for the littlest signs, such as weight loss or stomach pains, to signal the sword was dropping. The uncertainty made living a normal life a challenge.
Living with cancer and its aftermath takes good strategies and mental discipline. A counselor who specializes in helping people living with life threatening illnesses would be a tremendous asset to your sister. The counselor could teach her to recognize when she’s letting the “what ifs” paralyze and rob her of living life right now. We found our counselor by asking our oncologist.
Bedtime is good example of when feeling a loss of control can distort both the survivor and caregiver’s everyday routine. When the sun goes down and the day’s distractions day subside, your mind can wander and negative thoughts pour in.
Our counselor helped us raise our self-awareness and recognize when fear was taking control. She helped me to identify the moment I was falling down that rabbit hole of what-ifs and try to pull myself out of it. Too often, I would try to strategize for what might happen, but there were too many variables for me to really be prepared, so it was wasted energy. Instead, I had to learn to control my thoughts and not allow myself to go down the “worry path.” As I lay in bed and my brain began to wander, I would try to pull my focus back to the positive and name 10 things for which I was thankful. This exercise was a wonderful way for me to get to sleep and feel good about my life in a time of great uncertainty.
I had to accept that my knowledge was limited but still trust that I would make the best decision I could if life threw me another curve ball. Cancer taught me a lot about myself and about what it really means to not have control over certain events. Randy said it so eloquently, “We cannot control the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”
In addition, your sister’s general practitioner might recommend an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication to help her feel better, especially during particularly difficult times. For example, many people experience a phenomenon commonly referred to as “scanxiety”—when cancer survivors and loved ones feel irritable and on-edge before scans such as a CT or MRI, until the results are known. Even people who have been cancer free for 10 years experience these worrisome feelings.
This is a very difficult and stressful time. Talking with a counselor or using antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication doesn’t make one weak or less of a person. Rather, it shows the strength and courage to ask for and accept help during this time of aberrant stress.
With help, self awareness, and coping skills, your sister can enjoy life beyond cancer and truly appreciate the time for which she fought so courageously and won.