I was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer last year at age 33. Before being diagnosed, I had a healthy fear of cancer (though at the time I most likely would not have admitted it). I had seen many friends and family members battle it. And I watched cancer take one of the people I had loved most in my life, my grandfather. But when my doctor told me I had cancer, he said that this particular type of cancer had a high cure rate. I'm a former college athlete and a child of the 90s who proudly sported No Fear tee shirts and dared to jump my BMX bike over as many curbs as I could find in suburban Chicago. I laughed in the face of fear! So I decided at that moment that I was not going to be scared. I focused on that high cure rate and having a positive mental attitude. I didn't feel sick, so I wasn't going to act sick.
But the thing is, the fear was there. I buried it rather effectively for a while under all the love and support I was getting from my friends and family. Focusing on a positive outcome was key. But it didn't kill the fear. It just buried it. And buried fear is always going to surface at some point. Mine did during a matinee showing of Iron Man 3. (Yes, I'm a nerd.) As I was sitting there in a beautifully restored vintage theater, geeking out over cool special effects, sandwiched between my girlfriend and my good friend, my mind started to wander. I thought about how lucky I was to be sitting there with people whom I loved and who loved and supported me. I thought about how cool the theater was. How much I loved going to the movies in general. And then the thoughts changed: What if this was one of the last movies I saw? What was my future? How long will I be with these people who I love?
The fear started creeping in. I tried to push it back down, but failed. I could feel my heart rate rise and I started to sweat. At that moment, my girlfriend Tori reached out and grabbed my hand. She later said she could sense that something was wrong. It stopped the panic that had been growing inside of me, but I still couldn't push that fear back down. I spent the rest of the movie and the drive home barely keeping an anxiety attack at bay. After dropping my friend off, Tori and I pulled into our garage, I put the car in park, and I lost it. The fear broke through all of the walls I had put up. It overcame me and flooded all of my senses. Physically I began to shake and sobs erupted from my chest. I couldn't fight it anymore. The fear was there and it was real and I had lost control of myself to it. "I'm so scared," I said to Tori. "I don't want this. I don't want to be sick. I don't want to die. I don't want to lose any of this." Now I was rolling. Sobbing and shaking and verbally vomiting out all of the things I was terrified of. Tori reached over, and she just held me and let me cry it out. And then she told me she loved me and that we were going to fight this and everything would be okay.
Eventually I cried myself out. Tori took me inside, handed me a glass of wine, and made me dinner. I spent the rest of the night warily aware of my fear. It was my own personal Dupree. It was crashed out on my couch and I couldn't get rid of it. And that's when it hit me -- it was there and I couldn't get rid of it. Cancer was a problem I couldn't fix. All I could do was have faith in my doctors and try to do the right things. But there was no way for me to fix this problem and move on. No matter how much I wanted it, I had no control. And cancer is scary. That's it. It is what it is. Once I had that realization -- that I couldn't control it and I was scared and that was it, my feelings of anxiety started to ebb. And I realized, it's not about having no fear. It's about facing your fear and not succumbing to it.
Fear is an emotion. When faced with a situation you can't control, you can't make it go away any more than you can make it appear. It's like willing yourself to fall into or out of love (insert my checkered dating past here). I thought I was concentrating on positivity, being grateful, and love; but really I was putting all of my energy into suppressing the fear. And I didn't have an unlimited supply of energy. Eventually that energy ran out. Once I acknowledged the existence of my fear and the fact that I couldn't control it, and chose to let that desire for control go, my fear lost all of its power. It was still there, but it no longer mattered as much.
In the end it really came down to acceptance. Accepting what I couldn't change, taking the situation for what it was and maybe even trying to learn something from it, and freeing myself to put my energy into things I actually could control: being positive, being grateful for the good in my life, and appreciating the love that was all around me.