How do you deal with the stress of having metastatic breast cancer (MBC)? I am always anxious and some days are overwhelming. The unknown of scan results is too much for me!
Let me just say, from one woman with MBC to another, that Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer is a freaking scary diagnosis and it’s no wonder you feel stressed and anxious. Staying calm, optimistic, and feeling safe now and then takes all the courage and resilience we can muster.
It calls on our inner heroines, the parts of us who feel the fear but do what’s needed anyway. I believe what we are called to do is nothing short of heroic.
So when you’re feeling scared or vulnerable or helpless in the face of diagnostic tests and cancer treatment, here are some ideas for things you can do. I have road-tested every one of them in the four years since my own diagnosis, and can tell you they work. Some days they’ll work better than others, and you might need to use a lot of them when “scanxiety” strikes, but I promise they helped me and I hope they help you too.
Invoke your inner heroine
Think of yourself as being the main character in the story of your life, and what a wonderful heroine you are! You have made it this far because of your inner strengths, your wits, and your ability to solve problems. Perhaps you’re like the mythological goddesses or Amazon warriors; maybe you possess the qualities of Amelia Earhart or Joan of Arc, who is reported to have said, “I am not afraid. I was born to do this.”
You can do this too.
Remind yourself of past feats of bravery
We’ve all done some scary things in our lives, whether it was speaking in front of a group or cutting our hair short for the first time or fighting in Afghanistan. Look through your life and write down a few times when you were courageous and put the list somewhere you can refer to when fear strikes. Then straighten your posture, take a deep breath, and keep moving forward.
Do new feats of bravery
As a woman with MBC, you’re already doing brave things every single day, but you can increase how courageous you feel by doing scary things unrelated to cancer. Speak out about a cause you believe in; have a difficult conversation you’ve been avoiding; cut loose from a draining relationship. Doing so will remind you that you have personal power you can use whenever you need it.
Outwit the bad guys
Remember that fear is just chemicals in your body (the “bad guy” hormones like adrenaline and cortisol) triggered by thoughts in your head that result in bodily changes like shortness of breath, faster heart rate, an upset stomach, sweating and/or chills.
If you can change your thoughts, you will change what’s happening to you physically, easing these uncomfortable conditions.
You don’t need to shift all the way to thinking, “I’m not afraid,” though – your body would know you were lying to yourself. But if you can think a different kind of thought – thinking of something you’re grateful for or of being loved, for example – your survival brain will relax, your breathing will deepen, and your pulse will slow. Functional MRI (fMRI) images have shown that it is almost impossible to hold anxious thoughts and gratitude in your head at the same time; they originate in completely different parts of your brain.
Another trick you can use to outwit the bad guys is to go meta with your thinking. When you find yourself spinning into anxiety, imagine floating above your body and seeing yourself suffering from those scary thoughts. Offer yourself compassion for what you’re experiencing and your stress level is likely to drop.
Get the good guys on your side
Fortunately your body also produces four “happy hormones” (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins) that you can trigger by doing a bunch of enjoyable things. They include:
Laughing – watch a funny sitcom or videos on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram; talk to a funny friend
Listening to music that makes you want to sing along or dance
Playing binaural beats through headphones – these are sounds designed to alter your brainwaves so that they are calming instead of frantic; you can find a sample here
Meditating for as little as five minutes – imagine your thoughts as bubbles floating up and away from you. SBC actually has a whole library available with on-demand meditations.
Spending time with a loving pet
Spending time with a loving human
Spending time in nature
Getting enough restful sleep by establishing a calming bedtime routine, going to bed at the same time each night, turning off your phone, and darkening your room as much as possible
Getting a massage
Breathing relaxing fragrances like lavender or whatever scent you love
Getting some exercise – even a short walk will help boost your mood and happy hormones
Taking certain natural supplements – with your doctor’s permission, try tyrosine to increase dopamine, green tea extract to bump dopamine and serotonin, and tryptophan for more serotonin
Taking prescription medications – if all else fails, talk to your doctor about medications to help you sleep or to relieve overwhelming anxiety and depression
Join a band of other heroines
Being in a state of fear can make you feel like you’re alone in your struggle, but in fact there are any number of communities you can join where the women will know exactly what you’re going through.
There is a wonderful virtual community open to you through Surviving Breast Cancer (SBC), from the Thursday Night Thrivers Zoom group (with breakout sessions specifically for the MBC community), to a book club, Zumba classes, art therapy and so much more. There are even special online activities just for us MBC’ers. To stay up to date on all that’s available, just read the weekly SBC newsletter or go to the website.
There are a number of Facebook groups specifically for women with MBC as well as groups for those on different chemotherapies.
Your oncologist’s office may also have information on in-person groups that could offer a local MBC community.
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We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we get to choose how we write ourselves into our stories. Why not choose to be the heroine who sees the truth, acknowledges the hard path ahead, and rises to travel it with grace and courage and a band of supportive women at her side?
Wishing you all the strength in the world, and hope to see you in the SBC community.