When you first hear the words, “you have cancer,” it’s likely you remember little else from that moment. Cancer breeds fear, sparking our anxiety and turning it into flame. Dr. Ann Partridge, cancer specialist at Dana-Farber, described it this way: “When patients receive a diagnosis of cancer, it is that word – cancer – that rebounds across the room, suffocating all attempts at nuance. The glass may be 99 percent full, but they grab onto the 1 percent “risk.” Dr. Donna Greenberg, director of psychiatric oncology at Massachusetts General, explained: “The word cancer still carries with it the specter of death and suffering. It’s like a monster is coming into your house.” (“Fear Itself,” by Stephen Smith, Boston Globe, March 10, 2008)
Fear. It’s the shadow that trails after you from diagnosis through treatment. And it lingers, even after recovery begins. There’s something called “scan anxiety,” which is the psychic distress experienced during ongoing tests and checkups. “In the back of your mind,” colon cancer survivor Judith Rothman said, “it’s always there that the other shoe is going to drop, and that becomes more active in the days before that CAT scan until I hear what happened…I always think the worst.” (“The Routine Fear for Cancer Patients, by Stacey Burling, The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 11, 2009)
In his list poem, “Fear,” Raymond Carver begins with more irrational fears and zeros into the “real” fear that dogs him:
Fear of seeing a police car pull into the drive.
Fear of falling asleep at night.
Fear of not falling asleep.
Fear of the past rising up.
Fear of the present taking flight.
Fear of the telephone that rings in the dead of night.
Fear of electrical storms.
Fear of the cleaning woman who has a spot on her cheek!
. . .
Fear of death.
Fear of living too long.
Fear of death.
I’ve said that.
(From “Fear,” by Raymond Carver, in All of Us, 2000)
It’s a bit of a catch-22. On the one hand, Scott Siegel, a health psychologist, tells us that if you’re not worried after a cancer diagnosis, “it probably means you don’t understand the stakes.” On the other, “there may be no correlation between how much you worry about your cancer and how dangerous it actually is.” Yet in recent studies conducted at Tel Aviv University, researchers found that fear and stress may actually affect the recurrence of cancer. “Psychological fear may be no less important than real physiological tissue damage in suppressing immune competence,” said Professor Ben-Eliyahu, a scientist in the emerging field of Psychoneuroimmunology.
Fear is natural, yet it can be debilitating. How do we learn to live with the fear cancer induces? Can we learn to name it and let it go? What helps us accept what we cannot control? In her poem, “I Give You Back,” Joy Harjo describes how she releases her fear:
Oh, you have choked me, but I gave you the leash.
You have gutted me but I gave you the knife.
You have devoured me, but I laid myself across the fire.
I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won’t hold you in my hands.
You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice
my belly, or in my heart my heart
my heart my heart.
But come here, fear
I am alive and you are so afraid
(From: She Had Some Horses, 1983)
We all experience fear from time to time. It’s the body’s and the mind’s reaction to a perceived threat. It kick starts our metabolism, useful in times of real fear, but not as useful if fear becomes a way of life. Not only can prolonged fear suppress the immune system, it hinders our ability to be fully present to the here and now of our lives. The challenge, especially when fear seems to move in with us like a roommate we can’t get rid of, is to keep it from diminishing our ability to live fully and enjoy the life we have.
I often turn to a favorite poem by William Stafford when my fears sneak up on me in the dark of a worrisome night. Entitled, “For My Young Friends Who are Afraid,” Stafford reminds us that we have a choice of how we think of fear:
There is a country to cross you will
find in the corner of your eye, in
the quick slip of your foot–air far
down, a snap that might have caught.
And maybe for you, for me, a high, passing
voice that finds its way by being
afraid. That country is there, for us,
carried as it is crossed. What you fear
will not go away: it will take you into
yourself and bless you and keep you.
That’s the world, and we all live there.
(From Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems, 2014)
What you fear will not go away… Look fear in the face this week. How does it visit you? What do you do to hold it at bay? Name the fears that lodge themselves deep in your gut. Try writing a list poem like Carver’s. Or, once you have named your fears, then how have you let them go, releasing fear as Harjo described? Or, do Stafford’s words have meaning for you? Have you been able to turn fear into deeper self-awareness and benefit from it? Write about fear.