Before cancer, I was lucky enough to say that I never had a full-fledged panic attack. I know many people deal with extreme anxiety and panic attacks regularly and I have a newfound respect for those people. I have always been a worrier and I always thought that worry and stress were synonymous with anxiety. After experiencing true cancer induced anxiety, I can say I didn’t have a clue. True anxiety is so different from the normal stress and worry that everyone experiences.
My first anxiety attack happened in the hospital after my first surgery. I wasn’t ready to see my surgery site and had asked that the nurses and my husband give me time to look away before they unwrapped my bandages to check for swelling or infection. During this particular instance, my pain had worsened and I was experiencing extreme discomfort. In a rush to check me, the nurse ripped off my bandages while I was looking down, despite my cries for her to wait. Her actions triggered an intense physical reaction. The panic and anxiety set in. My heart began to race, nausea took over, I began to sweat and my blood pressure spiked. All of these symptoms were magnified by the morphine I was on for the pain. The fear of experiencing these unfamiliar physical side effects made it even harder to calm down. Luckily this was one of only a few such instances, and I am now able to recognize the onset of my anxiety and resulting physical symptoms much faster.
After I was home from the hospital, I experienced a similar panic attack when taking my first shower and witnessing the full trauma my body endured. Again the fear washed over me, my stomach threatened to revolt and my heart began to race. Luckily this time, my husband could see what was happening and was able to help me calm. With a cool washcloth, deep breathing and a comforting voice, I made it through my second panic attack.
During my recovery and chemotherapy I experienced a few additional anxious moments, but I was able to keep most of my anxiety at bay with introspection, supportive discussions with my husband and writing about my fears. Over the past week though, as I prepare for my second surgery, the now familiar signs of my anxiety have resurfaced. They wait until I am lying in bed trying to go to sleep, and then they pounce. All my distractions and excitement from the day fade away and I am left with nothing but my own thoughts. The familiar racing heart and chest pressure return and my frustration about experiencing this anxiety yet again leaves me discouraged and my emotions heightened.
Luckily, I know exactly what is causing my anxiety. Many people struggle for years to determine the root of their anxiety. Cancer, and everything related to my treatment gives me a very logical explanation for my anxiety. Without this anxiety and fear it wouldn’t all feel as real, so in a way I am grateful for the physical manifestation of my feelings. As Mac keeps telling me, something would be wrong with me, if I wasn’t feeling some sort of emotions. That being said, I have still had to find coping tools for these instances, because I know the anxiety won’t just disappear. In my case medication has been extremely helpful. I know not everyone supports the use of anxiety medication and some may feel it is overused, but for me, it has been a lifesaver. Medication combined with therapy can be a powerful resource. Meditation and other relaxation tools have also been beneficial for me. Playing guided relaxation music helps me sleep at night and rest during my recovery periods. I am planning to rely on those tools again during this surgery. Writing has also helped me. Getting the fears and anxious thoughts out of my head and on to “paper” makes them more concrete and less daunting.
I feel it is extremely important to bring light to the anxiety and mental health challenges that many people, including cancer patients/survivors experience. Mental health as a whole seems to be a neglected area in my mind. I have a friend that constantly asks me how I am taking care of my mental health and I have appreciated that beyond belief. She holds me accountable for that aspect of my care and ensures I am getting the support I need.
Hopefully my experience with anxiety and some of my suggestions will help you through your anxiety journey. I would love to hear what strategies work for you and how you find relief from the anxiety challenges you face.
I am heading into surgery again tomorrow for my second mastectomy and the beginning of my reconstructive surgery process. Hopefully all will go smoothly and I will have more updates and insight to share in the following weeks.
As part of my continuing contribution to the Medicope website, I have a new video up on YouTube about life after cancer. I hope you’ll check it out. Thank you for your continued support. It means so much to me!