Following two suspicious mammograms and an inconclusive ultrasound, I recently had a biopsy. Thankfully, it was negative, but the prolonged period of testing and then waiting for results was a very uneasy time. I had never before had to confront the real possibility of having a serious illness. I felt afraid of my body...that I had a hole inside me, where I had disassociated myself from my tumor. I am shocked at how much I cried.
Because so many people are in similar situations, I asked psychologist Neil Fiore, PhD (www. neilfiore.com), how to cope with the stress of being tested for cancer or another major disease. Thirty years ago, Neil was told that he had testicular cancer and had only one year to live. He strongly believes that his attitude about his body, which he wrote about in his book The Road Back to Health: Coping with the Emotional Aspects of Cancer, saved his life.
Here are some strategies that he recommends for the waiting period—and postdiagnosis, too…
Keep telling yourself that whatever the problem, most of you is healthy, powerful and ready to fight disease.
Find out in advance what steps you should take if the test is positive. Treatment decisions do not have to be made all at once, but knowing what may be immediately ahead of you makes the process more manageable and less frightening. As Neil explained, "The worrying mind needs to be heard, but it also needs a plan."
Use deep breathing and isometric exercises to destress. Curl your toes, scrunch your face, tense your other muscles. Hold for a few seconds as you also hold your breath-and then let go of muscle tension as you exhale.
Rate your stress level from zero (none) to 10. When you assign a number-say, a level of three to an unpleasant phone call-it tells your body that you don't need a full dose of stress hormones. Your body will quickly adjust the level of your stress response to the situation.
Express your emotions. Releasing your emotions helps your immune system and has been shown to increase the number of white blood cells that fight infection and cancer.
Trying to deny your feelings in order to act cheerful may lower your immune response.
Write your feelings down in a journal, scream them in your car, sing the blues, dance them out...but get them out of your gut. Being honest and open with yourself will make it easier to cope with whatever fate throws your way.
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