Fear of Cancer Recurrence: Five Concrete Ways to Lesson your Anxiety

By Rob Rutledge March 5, 2019

It’s natural to feel anxious when thinking about the possibility of cancer recurrence.  Our ‘nervous’ system is primed to defend our bodies, and our minds continually make plans to guard against potential threats. The problem is if we allow it we can be left feeling overwhelmed, emotional and unable to appreciate the true beauty and joy in our lives right now.

Fortunately, there are scientifically-proven healing techniques which can help rewire your brain to a more positive and peaceful state.

1.Practice being calm every day. Your brain is constantly remodelling itself in a process called neuroplasticity. When you practice a relaxation technique you set down new nerve pathways that allow you to experience peace and happiness more often and more easily. It’s like you’re filling a well of refreshing water that you can go to when you’re thirsty for a sense of peace. Action: Practice meditation, Yoga, tai chi, Qi Gong, body scan or a visualization every day for at least ten minutes. Here is a link to our free guided techniques https://healingandcancer.org/video_category/healing-skills/ .

2. Take in the Good. If you practice the first exercise every day you will reset your baseline stress levels, your stress-o-meter, to a lower level – and you’ll experience more and more moments of being at peace, despite being in the same life situation. The next technique, Taking in the Good, further increases the brain’s capacity to hard-wire your capacity to experience and stay in that peaceful state of mind. The short version goes like this.  When you notice that you’re feeling happy and positive, stay with that feeling for at least 15-20 seconds.  Really relish and appreciate all aspects of the experience (the physical sensations, mental qualities, emotional energy). Then imagine the quality is being imprinted into your brain, and embedded in your heart.  You can also just visualize being in the positive states of mind if they don’t happen spontaneously at some points in the day (Practice 5-10 times a day – and hold each experience for 15-20 seconds). Visit https://www.rickhanson.net/ for this and other excellent teaching and resources.

3. Four-step calming technique. Following techniques 1 and 2 will not prevent you from feeling anxious on occasion. It’s so normal, even natural, for our minds to generate thoughts that scare us. That’s what minds do. But almost always we are not in immediate danger so we have time to decide how we’re going to respond to the distressing thoughts. If the thought leads you to taking appropriate action (“the roads are really icy, I shouldn’t go out tonight”) you can thank your thoughts for the wisdom. However, we mostly scare ourselves with hypothetical scenarios that will never happen. Or we forget how resilient we are to handle any situation that comes up.  The problem is it’s hard to settle ourselves down once we feel scared.

Steps to calming yourself in the fearful moment:

a. Recognize and set aside the fearful thought for now.

b. Become curious of your body. As soon as you notice you’re aware of fear become very curious of the sensations in your body (scanning for tightness, pain, and breathing movements, feelings etc.) By doing this the fearful thought (which is the source of our anxiety) begins to lose its power. By scanning for physical sensation we automatically engage the wiser and calming parts of our brains.

c. Four slow breaths. Really focus all your attention on the sensations of breathing (the abdomen raising and falling, the feeling of the air in our nose or mouth). Exaggerate the long slow smooth outbreath (that’s the phase of breathing that primes the relaxation response).

d. Reassure yourself. By becoming curious of physical sensations and doing the relaxation breath your mind will automatically engage the frontal lobe, the wise and compassionate part of your brain. Instead of letting distressing thoughts drive up the fear, you can begin to reassure yourself.  “I’ll take one step at a time. I’ve been through difficult situations before, I can handle this.”  Talk to yourself with a sense of compassion while generated a sense of strength and confidence.

4. Reframing difficult thoughts.  The four-step calming technique, described above, can get you back into a better state of mind so you can work with the underlying sources of the fear. This next technique of reframing (also known as cognitive therapy) is based on the idea that our thoughts influence how we feel, and really taint how we perceive the world. For example, people who think “I’m useless” often feel depressed.  By changing the thought to “everyone has intrinsic value and beauty, including me” (which is true) a depressed person can feel better. Fear and anxiety often come out a core belief of “This is too much. I can’t handle this” that is somehow projected into the future. Variations on this thought like “My family couldn’t cope if my cancer came back”. (stress often comes from the thought “life shouldn’t be this way”. There are endless variations of how our thinking causes us unhappiness).

Reframing is a 3-step skill that starts with observing our thoughts. Here’s an example 

Step 1: Mindfulness. When you hear your thought “I can’t handle this” you can usually press the pause button – because you are almost always safe in that moment. Recognize your thoughts don’t always define the reality.

Step 2: Question the thought. How does this thought make me feel. How does my body react when I feel that way. Is it helpful to think like this? Is this thought 100% true? How am I exaggerating?

Step 3: Reframing with wisdom and compassion. You can use perspective gained from steps 1 and 2 to see a bigger perspective.

a. Start with acknowledging the difficulty. Talk to yourself as if you are comforting a friend who is going through a tough time.  In a kind voice “Yah, I can see you’re hurting. This is a tough time for you”

b. See a bigger perspective. “It’s not helpful to think like this. It’s normal to go through tough times. I’ve been through tough stuff before and got through it.  … I’m safe in this moment. …. I feel bad now but I’ll likely feel better tomorrow.

c. Encourage yourself. Let’s take this one step at a time. I can do it.  I can make good decisions and draw on my inner strength when I need to. I can reach out for help from others.

The power of reframing is that it allows us to become aware of our underlying beliefs. You can dig down to the source of your fears – and shed light on what’s driving your anxiety. The deeper psychological work can liberate a zest for life you’ve never experienced before. But it takes courage to look at our fears directly – but your fears will lose their power over you if you do the work (I highly recommend seeing a therapist with this skill).  

Reframing is a powerful skill that many people who attend our retreats feel was the most important thing they took away.  Learn more by watching this lecture: https://youtu.be/Iulw3hqaUr4

5. Finding meaning.  It’s hard to find purpose when difficulty arises. Hard to ‘do’ something positive when we feel so bad. So here are a few suggestions to explore when your journey feels meaningless.

a. Show your vulnerability. We live in a disconnected society where people often feel isolated. The cultural norm is to keep our problems to ourselves, share the happy experiences only or put on a brave face. I suggest we all break this façade.  Choose the family and friends who can hear you tell them “I feel shitty right now. I’m going through a tough time.  I’m worried about what might happen. I’m anxious…”  You might preface your disclosure with “I just need you to hear me out. I’m not looking for advice”

Telling your truth to another person accomplishes many things. You won’t feel as isolated. Putting it into words creates a sense of looking down on your thoughts and feelings (they don’t define you). You will feel more connected to the other person (this releases oxytocin, an anti-inflammatory hormone). It opens up an opportunity for them to share how they are truly feeling.

So let’s change our society, one conversation at a time. Our vulnerability is our strength.

b. Find a way to give back. Can we find ways to have something positive come out of difficulty. Perhaps it’s volunteering or making a donation. (www.healingandcancer.org hint, hint) Look for ways to perform random acts of kindness to strangers. Pay it forward.  Compliment the next person you see or talk to. You can advocate in big ways or just be shining your positive spirit in the world in little ways

c. Hug!  (Offer a back massage – to someone you know!)

d. Call someone (friend or family member) whom you haven’t spoken to in a while. Like hugging it will be healing for both of you. The concept is to let the difficult stuff motivate you to do something good (instead of waiting till you feel better).

It’s best not to judge yourself for feeling anxious – it’s is part of our humanness especially while on the cancer journey. Fighting against feelings of fearfulness just sets up an additional layer of suffering. Instead, accept that you will likely feel bad a proportion of the time. The paradox is you’ll ultimately feel better through acceptance. However, the five ways to lessen anxiety can really increase your general happiness levels, settle you down during the most difficult moments, and allow you to work towards experiencing more and more light and love in your life.


Leanne Smith says

my dear Rob, I wish I'd read this 2 weeks ago while stressing about Sam's quarterly tests. You have been a life line for our family, and I cant begin to Express the amount of anxiety that filled our hearts and home leading up to his scans and tests. Although every thing came out fine, we we didn't even realize how wound up we all were in anticipation of the results. We need to learn how to not live in fear. For what it's worth, Sam is back in taekwondo, and hockey, and doing great. Have a look at his scan from February 21, no recurrence! peace and love, the Smith family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *