Dealing With the Fear of Breast Cancer
Every year when I go for my annual mammogram, I hold my breath. Will this be my year to be diagnosed?
I'm not just being paranoid. You see, my mom has been diagnosed with breast cancer three times. She's had more cancers than breasts! Both my grandmothers had breast cancer. So did a paternal aunt. And my youngger sister had the disease. She died at the age of 47. So, my fear is justified.
From the moment I make the appointment for the yearly test, I am tempted to panic. Entering the diagnostic center is enough to make me sweat. Repeating my family history to the mammographer elevates my anxiety to the point of tears. I get undressed, put on the gown so that it opens in the front, go through the embarrassing motives of exposing first one breast, then the other to the clinician and the cold machine, get redressed, and wait the anxious days until I get the all clear signal – at least for one more year.
I know I am not alone in worrying about the diagnosis of breast cancer. One in eight women will have this illness sometime across the course of her lifetime without a cure is found. Much is being done in the way of research, and there is reason to hope that a cure will come soon. So what should we do in the meanime about our fears and anxieties relating to the next one who gets the dreaded diagnosis?
First, do not let fear stop you from being screened. Mammograms are not fun, but because they can detect cancer in its very early stages, they do have the potential to save lives. Not knowing you have cancer is the greater danger. So, if you are over 40, talk to your doctor about getting mammograms. Have your physician perform manual exams. If you are in a high risk category, ask him or her about other screening methods like MRI, digital mammography, and ultrasound. Information is power, so get informed.
Second, take someone with you for moral support. I was asked to accompany a relative to her biopsy and follow- up appointment. I provided encouragement and support, but also was available to take notes about the doctor's advice. Sometimes, it is simply too much for the patient to take in all this information by herself and when she is feeling so vulnerable, so another set of ears can be very beneficial. A supportive hand to hold is powerful as well.
Third, know you family history well enough to make smart decisions, but do not dwell on it. Daily worry and anxiety causes stress, and that stress taxes the immune system and can set up an inflammatory response. This, in turn, sets the stage for cellular changes that can result in cancer. So, some researchers believe that worrying about getting cancer could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Know what you need to know and do what you need to do to stay healthy, and leave it at that.
Fourth, become an advocate. Support breast cancer research through volunteering in your community or by donating time and money to national organizations trying to cure the disease. Not only can this lead to a cure in the future, but it can help you know that you are doing something proactive for yourself and for others right now. It keeps us from feeling so powerless against the disease.
Finally, see a therapist to sort out your feelings of fear, worry and anxiety. These common human emotions can become paralyzing if not given attention. It is very helpful to talk through your feelings, learn skills to calm anxiety, and find ways to distract yourself with the positive aspects of your life so that fear and worry do not set up camp in your mind, body and spirit. You are not your mother or your grandmother, or even your sister, so learning more about your identity, strengths, boundaries, and life can help you feel your own feelings about the disease and not take on the emotions of others as if they are your own.
Yes, breast cancer is a still a reality for too many women (and some men). There are no guarantees that you will not be the next one diagnosed, or that I will not be given the dreaded news at my next mammogram. But worrying and fretting about it will not change your health for the better. It will only set you up for future problems. Instead, channel all that energy into being proactive, positive, and purposeful with your life. If we all do that, a cure is sure to come!