Fear is a tricky thing. We are confronted daily with things that instill fear inside us. There are, however, many layers to fear and our responses to it. So what constitutes fear? True, numbing, terror versus flights of fanciful scares?
"You need to see this"
I remember, vividly, watching the news on the morning of September 11th. Having just graduated college and living at home, my mother came into my room waking me by turning on the television and said “you need to see this” before walking out. Alone, I watched the second plane hit the tower. As the first tower began to collapse, my body reacted physically to the fear I was feeling. This was my first brush with real fear, true terror. I had never felt anything like it before.
"You have cancer"
Unfortunately, it was only the first. My second brush with terror was hearing the words “you have cancer” at age 31. We had caught it early, but even at stage 1, the moment of diagnosis instilled a fear in me I didn’t realize could exist. There is a physical reaction the body has to true fear. Smarter people than me can explain it on a biochemical, cellular level, but for me, I call it the free fall.
Fear and what it does to your physical and mental state
The free fall is the feeling of terror so real that you mentally leave your body. Your limbs become limp, your chest constricts, and your stomach feels as though it’s falling out of your body. Yet as physical as this is, you feel it remotely, like you’ve left your body and are watching yourself shut down from a distance. In equal measure, you exist more physically than ever before yet also are hyper-aware of your mental state and the unreal-ness of your existence. To be blunt, it’s a mind f...er, trip.
The pain of living with a terminal disease
Enter a stage IV cancer diagnosis. A terminal disease. And you’re told it won’t kill you right away, but you’ll live with it hanging over your head and clouding your life until it does. You’ll experience pain, like pain no one should ever have to endure, yet you’ll be happy to endure it as long as possible because it means you’re alive. The fear, the free fall, you live with it every day. It’s become your constant companion because you know, you KNOW, that at any moment the other shoe can drop.
Cancer is the worst gift you can't return
I will never claim cancer is a gift. It’s not a gift unless it’s the worst possible gift you can never return. It’s not a journey. It’s not a fight. Cancer can be prettied up with a number of words or analogies, but the truth is that it’s awful, unfair, and terrifying. It’s pain and heartbreak. It’s the end game. And therein lies the source of true fear, the ending and what happens next, if anything.
Is this true life or a dream?
We all have different belief systems in place for this topic, but the truth is none of us know until it happens. I once woke up from a dream so real, so tangible, that I almost felt as that was my true life and this one the dream. For me, maybe it’s a little like that. I consider myself a spiritual if not a religious person. Many claim not to fear the end because of their religious beliefs and I’m not anyone to negate that. But I do know fear and I understand physically the root of that fear. I think deep down we all do.
So what, now? You’re living with a terminal illness and scared to insanity every day. How do you function?
You just do.
I choose how I spend my days
I made a deal with myself that if I was living the last days of my life, then I was going to live them. I don’t want to waste the time I have left feeling sorry for myself or weeping in a corner (though I do have those days). I want to get up every day and get dressed, go to work, cook dinner for my family. On days I don’t feel up to all of that, I want to binge-watch Dateline all day and stay on top of my pain meds. Either way, I choose how I spend my day. Fear be damned. It’s always there, an undercurrent in my skin, but so is my life. The life I choose to live in whatever way and however long I can.
Facing our fear
Fear can be crippling. Cancer can be crippling. Yet, the spirit that lives in us all can overpower a lot of things. It may not cure us, but it can cure the melancholy that comes with these things. We can face that fear, flip it off, and go about our days in the best way we can. It’s making that choice, daily, hourly sometimes, that can have the most effect on our lives, physically and mentally.
Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to share that on Saturday, September 12th, 2020, April Doyle passed away. We know that April’s advocacy efforts continue to reach many. She will be deeply missed.
Caregivers: Do you practice self-care?