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Life Redefined: Unlearning Fear

Post Published: 06 April 2010
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Category: Column, Life Redefined, Thyroid Cancer in Young Adults Column
This post currently has 25 responses. Leave a comment

(Written by Joanna Isbill, Editor, Life Redefined ‘thyroid cancer in young adults’, Dear Thyroid)

About three months after I had my thyroid removed I was hit with a wall of fear. The fear controlled my thoughts. It rendered me useless. It stripped me of my ability to live. During this time, I wrote many letters addressed to my thyroid cancer that I never submitted to Dear Thyroid. I couldn’t. The fear attached to these letters was too real, and if I shared the letters, I feared it would make the fear more real for me. So I kept them to myself. At the time, it was therapeutic enough to keep them in my journal. But now that I have a handle on the fear, I want you to read them. I want to share them with those of you who have thyroid cancer so you know you are not fighting fear alone. And I want to share them with those of you who do not have thyroid cancer so you can get a taste of the fear that cancer brings. These letters will give you a glimpse of the fear that took hold of my life.

I struggled with a fear of losing myself, my identity. I feared the change that cancer brought into my life. Change is hard to deal with by itself. Couple it with fear and it’s so much more difficult.

Dear thyroid cancer,

Today I hate you. You have wreaked havoc on my life and today I did not know how to function. You have messed up how I think and how I act and I did not feel like myself today. I feel like you will always have a hold on at least part of my life, and I hate that about you. Today I let you win, and I hate that about me.

A fear of dying. I have no fear of death, but I feared the process of dying. I feared the cancer would spread throughout my entire body and eat me alive. Every single pain I felt in my body led to thoughts that the cancer had metastasized. I feared that it would kill me with a slow, agonizing death.

Dear thyroid cancer,

You have introduced a significant amount of fear into my life. Every ache and pain I feel makes me fear that you have taken control over my body. Learning to control this fear and defeat it is not easy, but I refuse to let it control my life.

Dear thyroid cancer,

I hate that you are in my body. And I have absolutely no control over it. I’m scared you’re going to take up residence in my lungs or bones. You are an intruder that I can’t force to leave. I just hope the radiation has smothered you to death.

The fear took over every part of my life. It even invaded my sleep. My dreams were riddled with images of cancer taking over my body.

Dear thyroid cancer,

I am tired of you trying to take over bits and pieces of my life. Will you ever give up?

Dear thyroid cancer,

You can’t even let my dreams be my own. The way you interrupt my sleep is like an invasion of my privacy. But I don’t know how to keep you out.

When I was struggling with all of this, a friend of mine helped me work through it by teaching me a little bit about fear. Did you know when we are born we have only two fears? The fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. Every other fear we have has been learned. In order to get over my all my cancer-related fears I had to unlearn them. I know, that sounds so vague. How do we unlearn our fears? It’s like unlearning a bad habit. It was a process for me and did not happen overnight. I had to train myself to change my thoughts. I had to learn to replace thoughts of fear with something else. At first, and for a long time, this was a very conscious effort. When fear started to take over my thoughts, I had to consciously make the effort to think on something else. I had certain meditations that I would repeat over and over in my head to fight the fear-laden thoughts. Eventually, replacing fearful thoughts with thoughts totally unrelated to cancer became a subconscious effort. Now, when fear threatens to invade my mind I automatically replace it with a meditation. Once this became second nature, keeping fear at bay turned into a much simpler, more natural task.

I know I’ve talked about these fears in the past tense, but they still threaten to creep in and control my life and my thoughts. But now I can face them rather than run from them. Learning how to face my fears rather than hiding from them and letting them take over has been the difference between cancer controlling me and me controlling cancer. I will have to face fear for the rest of my life, but now I know how to fight it and can tackle it before it starts to take over.

I cannot dwell on dying and focus on living at the same time. I made the conscious effort to choose living. It was not an easy choice because the fear was so dominant and controlling. You might not have the same cancer-related fears as I did and do, but all fear needs to be controlled so living life is not such a daunting task.

Fighting fear with you,

Joanna

Are you struggling with cancer/disease-related fear? How do you deal with it?

Is this something you’re not ready to discuss publicly? That’s OK! If you don’t want to publish a comment but still want to talk about it, please feel free to email me at joanna@dearthyroid.org or send me a message on Facebook. I’d love to chat with you about this topic.

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25 Responses to “Life Redefined: Unlearning Fear

  1. cancer symptoms says:

    The monumental passing of the Health Care Reform Bill has Americans cheering and jeering across the nation. I think we can all agree that heath care did need an overhaul — rising health care costs and lack of coverage by so many was getting out of hand. For some people with cancer, health care costs and insurance can be matters of life and death. I don’t know how many times I have heard patients say “I can’t afford this treatment, even though my doctor says it will work” or “I can’t get insurance coverage because I was treated for leukemia 5 years ago, but it’s in remission”.

  2. Johanna, I love your column and your tips for fighting fear. I did not know that we only have two fears when we are born, but that does make a lot of sense. You are inspiring! Love, Sarah

  3. Robyn says:

    This is a great letter.

    Fear is an irrational emotion. Therefore, we can’t always control it (but it sure can control us!).

    I actually had some “therapy” — sport psychology — around fears that developed after a big crash from a horse. It was months of really breaking it all down into tiny chunks, owning the feeling, realizing I was OK, and gradually building from there.

    I imagine it’s similar for you. Day by day, piece by piece, acknowledging the fear, and then deciding to disregard it and live.

    I am glad you are doing well!

  4. Megan says:

    Thank you for sharing this Joanna. I can totally relate. I wish you well!

  5. Heide says:

    Thank you for sharing your issues on fear, and how to deal with them. I also use meditation to help with fear and pain. I am sorry for all you have been through, just the word cancer is one that seems to strike fear in us all. Your willingness to share is a estimate to your strength. Wishing you continued recovery and good health!

  6. I completely agree, Robyn–fear is very irrational and so very debilitating. I think it’s crucial to get help to work past it.

  7. Megan, I hope you have a handle on your own fears! Well wishes to you, too!

  8. Yes, Heide, cancer is a word that invokes fear in most people, which made it harder for me to deal with it in my own life. When people get scared when I say I have cancer it just makes my own fear worse.

    Glad to hear meditation works for you…thanks for sharing!

  9. Dear Thyroid says:

    Joanna –

    I love your article so much! Thank you for writing it.

    Though, I can’t imagine and would never profess to, what it feels like to have cancer, I understand and relate to paralyzing fear.

    Very proud of you for writing about how you’ve found a way to overcome your fear. I wonder… Specifically, how did you come up with a mantra and trust it?

    Bravo.

    xo

  10. Christine says:

    Joanna ~

    So very happy to see how you have found a way to overcome your fear.

    You stated “I cannot dwell on dying and focus on living at the same time. I made the conscious effort to choose living.” I applaud you! I howl your name!! I will shout from the sidelines GO! GO! GO!

    You CHOOSE living! To take that deep breath when it feels you might not, to square your shoulders when they begin to droop, to raise your head high and almost thumb your nose at the Fear and the Cancer, as if to say – NOT TODAY! NOT NOW! I CHOOSE TO LIVE! *this crowd of one goes wild for you!*

    According to the Merriam-Webster Online Thesaurus, some antonyms of fear are: aplomb, assurance, boldness, confidence, selfassurance, self-confidence, courage, dauntlessness, fearlessness, and fortitude.
    Just in the reading of these words, you sit up straighter, you hold your head higher, you BELIEVE and SEE within the situation and yourself, something different, doable, achievable! Fear has no place then when EMPOWERED by the POSSIBLE to BOLDLY face what is ahead with CONFIDENCE and SELFASSURANCE!!

    I know fear, I know cancer, I know anxiety, it is a part of my life, has been a part of my life, some days it does get the best of me, but most days – these days, I win, I overcome the fear – it does not overcome me!

    Live your best life BOLDLY, FEARLESSLY, FABULOUSLY! 😉

  11. HD inOregon says:

    Joanna,
    Great letter! Very powerful!

    When I woke up at night with throat pain from radiation treatment (because my medication wore off, and the new pain pill had not kicked in yet), I started to listen to inspirational audio tapes (from Dr.Weil or from other authors, some were quite specific about dealing with radiation and/or chemo treatments). I found these tapes very helpful. The forced my mind to “wish” and to “visualize” how the cancer cells would leave my body. Quite therapeutic.

    But, fear was also a companion. No matter how positive and upbeat I wanted to be, there was always that nagging deamon in the back of my brain, reminding me that thing could go very wrong here. I was never able to entirely stop these thoughts, they creep in. (I had a throat cancer plus thyroid cancer).

    Same with aches and pains, or bruises, or insect bite bumps that swell up, — ones you had cancer, — those things always will make you wonder? Is it benign or sinister again?

    Joanna, I hope you conquered your fear most of the time.
    Good luck!

    HD in Oregon

  12. Jenn says:

    Joanna –
    Hoorah for you! The fear is debilitating. It can control our lives if we let it. I applaud your determination to overcome the fear and to develop methods that work for you.
    You are an inspiration to those of us still struggling with the fear. Thank you for sharing.
    Jenn

  13. Thank you, Katie. Fear is absolutely something that EVERYONE has to deal with at some point.

    Fab question. I have two meditations that I repeat over and over in my head any time fear threatens to enter my mind. Both of these meditations are from the bible, which I’ll refrain from discussing further here. BUT, you hit on an important point–trust. I 100% trust in the truth of my meditations. You have to replace fear with something you trust in to be able to overcome the fear. I learned that meditating on something wishy washy is fruitless. Thinking about rainbows and butterflies does not chase away the fear. Whatever you choose to think on, it’s got to be something you believe in.

  14. Lolly says:

    Joanne,

    Great letter it must be so hard can’t imagine what you must have or are still going through and learing to concur your fears and start living again.

    thank you for Sharing it maybe others who are going through similar will take comfort from this.

    Lolly

  15. Christine, what an amazing show of support. Thank you. You rock. It warms my heart to know that you are overcoming fear. How do you do it? What works for you?

  16. HD, I love that you refer to fear as a demon. I could not agree with you more. And you are so right that every ache and pain and bump and bruise we have triggers thoughts of cancer. I’m so glad you found something that helps you fight the fear. Hope it’s no longer a debilitating struggle for you.

  17. Thank YOU for sharing, Jenn. Fear is crippling and controlling. I truly truly hope that you are able to overcome your fears. Please let me know if I can help you in ANY way.

  18. Thank you, Lolly. There is comfort in knowing that none of us have to walk this road alone.

  19. Christine says:

    How do I overcome fear…. one day, one moment at a time. Often, time and better understanding of what the fear is really about, where it is coming from, helps me to overcome it.
    Like we’ve talked about here recently, it’s about playing a new “record” in your head, the conversation that you have with yourself, has to include assurances, for me, that I CAN do this, I CAN overcome this, I WILL be better in the next moments.
    Where my health is concerned I came to a realization that the time I was lost in the fear, it created it’s own stresses which in turn was making me sicker. It was detrimental to my overall health. It took time, it still takes time to get to that “safe” place, that breathable place.
    I’ve often thought about meditation, maybe it’s time to give it more serious thought.

  20. Thank you for sharing what works for you, Christine. You make a fabulous point that being caught up in fear adds stress to our bodies and keeps us from reaching our optimal level of wellness.

  21. Liz says:

    Bravo sister!! Good for you for choosing to live. I think, in the end, everyone has to choose this for themselves — cancer or not, disease or not — maybe it’s part of the human condition… having to purposefully make a point to live. Good for you for making that choice for yourself. 🙂 I’m trying to do the same.

  22. Selena says:

    So true! You can’t focus on living if you are dwelling on dying. A very thoughtful and informative post. Thank you for sharing your letters.

  23. Robyn says:

    loved this! i don’t have cancer but i do struggle with chronic diseases, and this post makes a lot of sense to me. as a side note, i also love that you offered to help people who didn’t want to comment publicly but who wanted someone to chat with. that’s very giving of you!

  24. phylor says:

    Thank you for sharing your letters. A friend had thyroid cancer, and she does fear the what ifs. She has decided that the cancer isn’t going to win. I will share your thoughts on fear with her.

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