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Finding Comfort in the Midst of Fear

by Deborah Seagull, PhD

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Many survivors worry about can­cer recurrence every day, which isn’t sur­prising. A cancer diagnosis can rupture your sense of security. It seems to make no difference if your can­cer is early or late stage, once you’ve been diag­nosed with the disease, it can be difficult to control your fear.

Before cancer, you may have lived in denial about your mortality. Even though we all know that we will die someday, we don’t usually think about it. We do other things. We live our lives. But a cancer diagnosis snaps you back to reality. Once your sense of security has been com­promised, it can be hard to get back to business as usual. You may find it difficult to enjoy day-to-day ac­tivities and live a fulfilled life because you’re so preoccupied with negative thoughts and fears about the future. All you want is to go back to being the “old you.” The truth is you can never go back to being the person you were before cancer. Your life and identity have forever changed. This can be dif­ficult to accept, and you may be overwhelmed with worry that your negative thoughts and fears will never go away. But there are some things you can do to manage your fear.

The truth is you can never go back to being the person you were before cancer. Your life and identity have forever changed.

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Dr. Deborah Seagull

The first thing you need to realize is that most people with cancer – no matter what stage or type – share this sense of fear. You are not alone. Fear is a natural response to something that is frightening or potentially threaten­ing. Instead of trying to force this feeling away, tell yourself that it’s OK to feel this way. Be understanding of what you have been through and what you are facing. Fear tends to grow when you dwell on it. Taking an honest look at your situation will help you move forward.

Once you have started to accept the reality of your new normal, and the fact that a degree of fear is going to be part of it, you can begin to seek the antidote to fear: comfort. When we are fearful, our natural reaction is to fight or flee, but sometimes we need to suppress our impulse to either put up our dukes or run for the hills. Instead, gently remind your­self that anyone in your situation would feel this way. Then focus on finding what brings you comfort. Perhaps you can share your feelings with a friend, take a walk outside, get a massage, or enjoy a relax­ing bath. It’s easy to resist seeking comfort when you’re anxious or afraid, but it’s crucial that you follow through in caring for yourself.

Since finding comfort is vital to alleviating fear, you may also want to consider reaching out to other survi­vors, perhaps in a cancer support group. Sharing your fears and connecting with others can make you feel less alone.

You can manage your fears on a practical, hands-on level as well. Remind yourself of all the things you’re doing to safeguard your future. Write them down. Your list may include eating well, exercising, keeping your follow-up appointments, and setting goals for the future. It’s quite common to worry that any twinge or ache that you get is cancer related, even if it’s not. Being assertive with your doctor and asking any ques­tions to mitigate unfounded fears may also be helpful.

Taking measures to reduce your fears is an important step in improving your well-being and conquering wor­ries about recurrence. Although you may feel fearful from time to time, rest assured that you can find peace and joy in your life no matter what the future may bring.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Deborah Seagull is a licensed clinical psychologist who consults for the Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia, PA. She has a private practice in Center City Philadelphia where she works intensively with cancer survivors and their families to improve coping and overall well-being.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2015.