Everyone who goes through cancer experiences fear. In this post, I will explain how I dealt with the fear of debilitating side effects from treatment. (A reminder: these events occurred in March 2017.)
After deciding that I would receive treatment at the Abramson Cancer Center at Penn Medicine, I felt good about the plan. I liked the doctors very much. We had agreed on holding off on considering the surgical option. I accepted that my medical treatment would consist of radiation and chemotherapy. I planned to supplement the medical treatment with a holistic plan including a Ketogenic diet, supplements, meditation, exercise, Yoga and maintaining a positive attitude. Sounds good, right? Well, as good as it was to have made important decisions about next steps, there were some real fears to address.
Even if the treatment destroys the cancer, what lingering effects should I expect from the radiation and chemo? The truth is that these medical treatments are toxic and damaging to the body. My research and what I learned from the doctors was sobering. It was time for me to do some fear management.
What approach should I take to managing the fear? I had learned of an approach from Tim Ferris, the highly successful author and podcaster (probably best known for his first book, The Four-Hour Work week). Ferris provides advice to assist with making difficult decisions and acting on those decisions. He recommends bringing to life the worst-case consequences of a course of action. The idea is to define and really understand the potential negative outcomes of some decision or action, and then determine how you might cope with such outcomes. I thought this approach would be effective in managing my fears regarding the side effects of treatment. I used my journal to collect my thoughts and process my fears. Here is what I wrote in my journal on March 3, 2017:
“With cancer, the worst case is often thought of as being death. Not necessary to go there yet, although I do realize that this is a possible outcome. But it is way to soon to even think about that. For me, the near term worst-case scenarios are surgery becoming necessary to contain the cancer. And, assuming the surgery accomplishes the goal of containment, the big issue is losing my voice. So this is what I choose to process as the worst cast outcome (at least for now). This is a fear for me: not being able to speak, at least not with my normal voice. OK, let’s bring this to life. Let’s define the reality of that outcome as best we can. We will tame the fear by doing so. Later, we may even do a multi-day exercise to experience not being able to talk.
What things will I not be able to do?
Speak on the phone. No more conference calls.
Sing, hum, etc. No more Karaoke!
Pray out loud
Say “Happy Birthday” with spoken words
“Argue” in immediate response
Say off the cuff things
Cheer at sporting events
Ask questions of speakers, lecturers, and presenters
Wake Cameron with a gentle voice
Say “I love you” to Deb
Have real conversations with Deb
Continue my work in South Africa
Speak at funerals, weddings, and other special events
Record video or audio for posterity
What are the work-around and compensatory options?
Write papers, books, and blogs
Write down prayers, have others say them
Write Happy Birthday (Play a recording of my voice)
Stop all blurting out and mindless comments
Write down questions
Record “I Love You”
Type or write with Deb
No more international work
Record things now!
This exercise was very helpful for me. By specifically identifying the consequences of my worst fears coming to pass, I was able to view the worst-case scenario as something I could deal with. The outcomes were not desirable or desired, but given the compensatory options, they were not worthy of debilitating fear. I faced my fears directly, processed them, and minimized their effect on my attitude and on my peace of mind.
I would repeat this fear management exercise again before actually starting treatment. While my worst fear initially dealt with the surgical option. I soon began to think about the potential long-term side effects of the radiation and chemotherapy. I learned that many survivors of throat cancers had experienced permanent degradation of their speaking voices. I also learned that many lost their ability to produce saliva and suffered from severe dry mouth. Many also lost their ability to taste food, while others lost the ability to swallow a variety of foods.
There was no getting away from the likelihood of long-term effects from the medical treatment I planned to undergo. The radiation treatment in particular was likely to cause some form of lasting damage. It would have been easy for me to become preoccupied with the potential long-term effects. But doing so would affect my well-being, my attitude and, possibly, even my health during and after treatment. And so I applied the fear management exercise and it did the trick for me. I was able to accept the potential for long-term, lingering side effects by being very specific and focusing my mind on what it would be like if the worst possible scenario played out. This became even more important and valuable when, just before treatment began, I questioned the wisdom of going forward with the conventional medical treatment. More on that in my next post.