A diagnosis of cancer can bring you face to face with many fears. People experience different fears based on
a) the type of cancer,
b) the proposed treatment and
c) their life circumstances.
Fear that is not dealt with can lead to emotional paralysis, which can delay treatment decisions and also negatively affect relationships.
The most common fears are:
• Fear of dying: even if your prognosis is good, death will now be more real than it ever was before. Coming face to face with your mortality can be frightening.
• Fear of disfigurement: a mastectomy and loss of hair may make you feel as if you are no longer complete.
• Fear of being abandoned: you may fear that your husband or family will not support you during your treatment.
• Fear of pain: many types of cancer do not cause pain, but should it occur, it can often be managed effectively.
• Fear of losing your independence: you may fear that you won’t be able to keep your job.
• Fear of the treatment: you may fear the side effects of your treatment.
• Fear of not being able to cope: you may fear that you are not strong enough.
There are a number of steps to effectively deal with fear
Step 1: Name your fear – Recognise and acknowledge your fear – name it. For example: I am afraid of dying / being incapacitated / the treatment / losing my job / losing my husband. Once you have named the fear, it becomes easier to deal with.
Step 2: Get Information – If the fear is related to your cancer or treatment, get information. Don’t be shy to ask your doctor questions and don’t stop asking until you have all the answers. You have a right to as much information as you need. In dealing with fear remember knowledge is power; the more you know the less you fear. I don’t recommend the internet, as the scare stories that you may find there could add to your fears. This is why support groups can be so helpful, as you can chat to other people who have already been where you are going.
Step 3: Voice Your Fear – If your fear is related to an emotional aspect, like dying or not coping, find someone to talk to and voice the fear. I was terrified of dying, but could not talk to my family as I felt it would distress them even further. An acquaintance came to visit and asked “How are you Bev?” I blurted out, “I am scared of dying”. There was a stunned silence and then she took a deep breath and said “Ok, let’s talk about it.” I had an opportunity to really tell someone how I was feeling. She listened and as I spoke I could feel myself becoming calmer.
Try and find the right person to talk to who will be able to advise and help you with your specific fear. Your doctor, oncology nurse, a religious leader, psychologist, friend, colleague and/or a support group are all places to find help. YOU need to reach out to them as no one can guess what you are feeling and it is vitally important that you take the first step towards communication.
For family and friends to understand what you are going through, you need to develop communication skills. Take time to feel comfortable saying the words that need to be said. Sometimes the hardest conversation is with those we care about the most. The words we choose to say can cause misunderstanding and hurt. Cancer should not be used to get sympathy nor to control others, but it can be an opportunity to learn how to express yourself honestly and effectively.
Good communication has two sides: a) telling people how you feel so that they understand you and b) listening as the other person expresses how they are feeling. You may think that others understand you, but perhaps they don’t. Communicating doesn’t always solve problems but it can make them easier to cope with.
To quote James Baldwin,
Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.
Facing up to your fears, admitting them, getting information about them and discussing them lessens the hold that fear has on you.
Written by Bev du Toit.
This is an excerpt from the Cancer Coping Kit, a free audio programme to help people overcome the challenges of a cancer diagnosis. To order your free copy of the Cancer Coping Kit contact Bev du Toit on 073 235 1571. The Cancer Coping Kit is available in English, Afrikaans, isiZulu and seSotho.