Medlineplus.gov defines “anxiety” as of fear, dread, or uneasiness. It is a safe bet, that anyone reading “Paul’s Heart” has experienced anxiety at least once in their life, if not more. My hope is that any level of anxiety has been limited to small concerns in life, perhaps a trip to the dentist, taking a final exam, or even going on a first date. Others however, have faced much more extreme degrees of anxiety due to an illness, a job situation, some sort of legal case, or some other sort of emergency. How a person handles anxiety, can often have an impact on the result.
I will not claim to never have suffered from anxiety issues, quite the contrary, I have even hit the level of full blown anxiety attacks, which is an entirely different situation as it is something triggered by an occurrence as opposed to the anxiety caused by anticipation.
To my recollection, I have always handled the anxiety from a pending situation, with a thoughtful and calm direction. I cannot explain why or how I even got to be that way. I do not recall anyone setting that example or “talking me down” from being stressed out. But my earliest memory of dealing with a stressful enough event, occurred back in 1986, at work. I was working in retail, and my manager was getting ready to open our store in the mall. It was a Saturday, two weeks before Christmas. Now, if you have never worked in a mall store, there is a chain gate that secures each store. Most, will raise and lower with the simple push of a button.
Well, that morning, the gate would not open. As “Jimmy” began to panic, because this was something neither of us had experienced before, I told him that there had to be some sort of other method to raise the gate to open for business. “Jimmy” had already made it up in his mind that he was going to face some sort of reprimand, that sales were going to be lost, he would be doomed because of this malfunction.
And that is when I recognized my anxiety mantra. “Jimmy, you can’t change anything by worrying. You can certainly make it worse though.” And with that, we located a chain and pully system, that we began to pull by hand, raising the gate ever so slowly. Calm, rational thinking. It got roughly two feet off the ground, then jammed. “Jimmy” went from relieved back to panic. Again, I tried to encourage him that his worrying would not help, and that clearly, this was not his fault. I told him, we were united in what happened, and it was beyond our control. We would deal with whatever we had to and get through it.
That happened before my diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 1988. Oddly enough, I had the similar approach when I was diagnosed. I was recently engaged (to my first wife), to be married six months later. I had two thoughts. One, I did not want to die, so I would go through whatever treatment was necessary. Two, my fiance may want to rethink our future as it would likely not end up the way she had always dreamed her life would be.
But there is a point in time, after the treatments are done, and you get told that you are “in remission,” that a little voice rents a room inside your head, that constantly haunts you, “what if the cancer is back?” This can be triggered by a symptom that has appeared that is similar to when you were diagnosed, especially a swollen lymph node. We get swollen lymph nodes all of our lives. That is their job as they handle the bad things going on in our body. It is just that one time, that one time, that one lymph node had cancer. So it is very easy to forget how common a swollen lymph node is, when it is replaced with that one time, when you had cancer. This can happen with other symptoms as well.
Another time though that anxiety takes over your mind, is approaching follow ups, and any testing that is done, especially scans. Hence, the nickname “scanxiety”. This anxiousness is at its worst the very first appointment after completion of treatment, because after all we have been through, we do not want to go through it again. So as we wait for blood test results, we wait for a doctor to call us back, and then topped with our subliminal thinking that we might just have symptoms again, that are not really there, we worry.
My approach has always been, I cannot change the results of any testing. If the results are good, hurray for me. If they are bad, I will deal with them. I am not ready to give up yet, even now, so I am prepared mentally to do what I must to get through any bad situation. To stay that focused, I cannot let anxiety rent a room in my head.
There is a huge difference between my manager struggling to get a store gate open, and me facing something that could potentially kill me and the anxieties. Of course, the store was an isolated incident. But my health was something that was going to be faced my entire life. So admittedly, it was not always this easy to control this anxiety in the beginning. But I took it one day at a time, then by the week, then by the month, by the quarter, then by the year. Soon, five years, 10 years, 20 years, and now, I am at year 32. It did get easier to deal with the anxiety and fear of my cancer coming back.
And as I faced late developing side effects from the treatments that have caused some severe situations with my health, I have adopted the same strategy to deal with the anxieties, of waiting for results and corrective surgeries. I know how I would feel if everything turned out good. I know that if something was found, I would have to face it and deal with it. I would find the best hands to care for me and get it done. But I would do it. Anything in between those two extremes, I can handle.
This calm demeanor of mine has come in handy in the regular world as well as unfortunately I have faced several crisis requiring quick and calm thought processes from witnessing and assisting with car crashes, a fire evacuation, and multiple family medical emergencies.
I go through life the same, no matter what I am faced with. I prepare for the worst, knowing every possibility, and I hope for the best.
Now, I mentioned back in the beginning, that I have actually suffered a panic attack, a few actually. These were different that provoked by a diagnostic event, but rather a developing issue. All three times, I believed I was in the middle of a cardiac event, having a heart attack. With my cardiac history, I am surprised this is the one thing I have not dealt with yet. But as the anxiety rose, so did the psychological effects of becoming paralyzed by fear, uncontrollable and rapid breathing, and pending doom. It would take hours, and at least two of those events led to the emergency room. So, just to be clear, there are different levels of anxiety.
And finally, it is understandable and normal that the anxieties overcome us. I was one of the lucky ones in the beginning, having gone eighteen years before my body started falling apart from my treatments. And because I am more familiar with testing procedures, and yes, being able to read my reports now (I really do deserve an honorary doctorate), I am still able to maintain my composure when it comes to dealing with anxieties. But there are so many that I know, that have had their Hodgkin’s relapse, not only once, but several times. Some have gone on to have second, third and fourth cancers. Yes, the anxieties we face are normal and understandable.
I also try to keep it in perspective. And my therapist accused me of this thinking a long time ago. And if you have followed my blog long enough, you will agree with my therapist, I really do not place the level of seriousness of the things I have gone through that I should. I look at my fellow survivors, and feel that what they are going through is worse than I have faced. Many are gone now. I have survived cancer over three decades, deal with a multitude of health complications from that cancer, but I deal with what I do, because I have to. And I have a lot I want to get done yet.