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What Do I Do About Fear of Cancer Recurrence, Doc?

And it's not just that fear is uncomfortable in the moment. Fear can worm its way deeply into your life, eroding your peace of mind, skewing your choices, and stealing your hopes and dreams.
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An image of a bright sun background
An image of a bright sun background

It's Monday, and on Thursday you're having a scan to see whether there's evidence of new cancer. You feel fine, but the fear won't leave you alone. You're not sleeping, you're snapping at loved ones, and you can't seem to focus at work. You wonder how you're going to make it through the week.

Upcoming medical appointments, new symptoms, and sights and smells reminiscent of cancer treatment are common triggers of fear in cancer survivors. You're not alone, but that doesn't make it any easier.

And it's not just that fear is uncomfortable in the moment. Fear can worm its way deeply into your life, eroding your peace of mind, skewing your choices, and stealing your hopes and dreams.

With practice, you'll have the power to say, "No, fear, I'm not letting you take over my day."

You may have tried to distract yourself. You watch a good movie, or play computer games. It works for a while. But fear sneaks back in when you're done.

Is there a better solution?

This old Native American story holds a clue. It was told to me like this:

A boy in the tribe had reached his teenage years, the time for his vision quest. He'd be sent on a journey alone into the wilderness, to learn his strength as he fended for himself against whatever challenges came his way.

The boy was proud to be preparing for this journey. He'd watched his older friends come back transformed into men, ready to take on positions of tribal leadership. At the same time he was terribly afraid. What if he was attacked by a wild animal? What if he broke a leg far from home and starved to death?

Unable to contain his fear, he went to talk to the wisest elder of his tribe. "I want so much to go on this journey," he said, "but there are two wolves fighting inside my head. One is the proud wolf who knows I will succeed. The other wolf says something terrible will happen to me and I shouldn't go. They fight so much that I can't sleep. Which wolf will win?"

The old man looked the boy in the eye and said, "The one you feed."

Fear thrives on attention. The more we feed it with our attention, the stronger it grows. Only by starving it of attention will it stop hijacking our hopes.

But fear is persistent. In the absence of something to replace it, it seems to have a gravitational pull on our attention. Random distractions aren't powerful enough to replace fear for more than a short time. But there's something that is.

Gratitude has the power to replace fear, both in the moment and, with practice, over the long term. Here's why:

You can't feel both fear and gratitude in the same moment - it's one or the other. They actually create opposite physical responses. Fear causes production of stress hormones, while gratitude dials back stress hormones and produces "feel good" hormones like oxytocin. If you master the ability to generate and sustain gratitude, you have a powerful tool at your disposal to calm yourself (and your body) should fear arise.

While most of us can easily generate gratitude when things are calm, it can be harder to do once fear has set in. The more practiced you are at turning up the volume on gratitude, the better it works. Adopting a short but regular gratitude practice - say, writing down five things you're grateful for before bed each night -- makes it far easier to summon and sustain gratitude when you find yourself in an anxious moment.

You deserve to enjoy every day, not have your time and energy stolen by worry about cancer. With practice, you'll have the power to say "No, fear, I'm not letting you take over my day." Start with a daily dose of gratitude -- your mind and your body will thank you!

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Dr. Shani Fox helps cancer survivors get back in charge of their health and rebuild their confidence so they can make the most of their new chance at life. She encourages survivors not to settle for a "new normal", but to create a "new extraordinary".

Dr. Shani is the creator of the leading-edge "Back in Charge!" medical model for survivor care and the author of The Cancer Survivor's Fear First Aid Kit. Her messages about your innate power to create wellness and happiness make her a popular national speaker, radio guest and blogger for cancer survivor communities.

Dr. Shani's "7 Common Myths Cancer Survivors Fall For...and How to Avoid Them" busts misconceptions that may stand between you and the health and happiness you deserve after cancer. Download your free copy today at www.7cancermyths.com .