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Fear in Perspective

By Melanie McCulley, MS, BCC

Support Services Program Manager

Fear is a topic women often discuss with me in my support services role at To Life! It’s normal and reasonable to feel fear when receiving a cancer diagnosis and with all that comes during and after. The impact on one’s body, mind, spirit, daily life, family, friends, career, relationship, finances, peace and security, and sense of self and control is very real. But fear has a purpose.                                                                                              

From an evolutionary standpoint, fear promotes survival. It can make us careful when needed and compel us to protect our self and fight for our life. Fear signals the rabbit to run from the fox and a person not to walk into oncoming traffic. Where breast cancer is concerned, fear can motivate individuals to go for regular exams and screenings, commit to self-care and  positive lifestyle changes to reduce breast cancer risk and recurrence, and take appropriate action if diagnosed with breast cancer.

Fear is an adaptive response built into us by nature. It exists for our benefit, if kept in perspective and balance. But cancer is no small thing and the vigilance that is helpful in one capacity, can become hypervigilance and overtake a person’s thoughts, creating an ostensibly endless loop of worry that drains energy, dims joy, and reduces quality of life. 

There is a Cherokee parable that illustrates this, and is paraphrased here:

A grandfather tells his grandson there is a battle, between two wolves, going on inside every person. One wolf is fear, anger, sorrow, guilt, and resentment. The other wolf is faith, joy, peace, hope, and love. The grandson considers this and asks his grandfather which wolf will win. Grandfather simply replies, “The wolf we feed.”

Keeping fear in perspective, and not losing one’s self in it, is a part of the healing process and of moving forward during treatment and beyond. This can be easier said than done, however. Our logical selves know that expecting the worst doesn’t provide more control, make us more accurate at predicting what the future holds, or inoculate us from bad things happening, but fear isn’t all based in logic. It can run amok and emotionally paralyze individuals and undermine their peace of mind. 

Expecting the best doesn’t inoculate a person, or guarantee they won’t experience pain, loss or cancer recurrence either, but it does mean a person is more likely to experience more good days, more joy, and more serenity. In the wise words of one cancer survivor, “Don’t waste precious time fearing  what hasn’t happened and may never happen. Always remember: It’s nothing until it’s something.” 

This doesn’t mean feelings of fear are being discounted or that it’s as simple as flipping a switch and suddenly the fear is gone. It’s a process-- a practice--and the first step is being aware that fear is consuming more time and energy than you want it to, and that you may be disproportionately focusing on what can go wrong rather than on what can go right.

The brain triggers the body to release chemicals consistent with thoughts, so the regular use of affirmations, as well as choosing words with care and intention, can be helpful. While not an exhaustive list, other techniques/actions that may aid in keeping fear in perspective, include: mindfulness, yoga, Qi Gong, breathwork, bodywork, walks in nature, journaling/expressive writing, volunteering, pursuing a new interest, reading an inspiring book, time with friends and family, doing something every day that elicits joy, challenging and replacing or reframing fear-based thoughts, sitting with the fear and letting it move through you without fighting it or giving it power, and behaving as though all is well which sends a message to the unconscious mind that a fear response is unwarranted. To Life! also provides complimentary support services and wellness programs that can be helpful, and our website includes a wealth of resources. Please also reach out to your medical team and to a counselor as needed.

As much as women speak to me about the fear they feel, what I observe is the courage they display.

It can be difficult to see one’s own courage when experiencing fear, but that is the very definition of courage: feeling the fear and doing it anyway.  Courage exists in relation to fear. Without fear, there is no need for courage. As Nelson Mandela said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”