Anxiety and Cancer (how compassionate awareness helps)

“Hi Amy!” I had no idea how insensitively cheerful my greeting was. Amy looked a little puzzled, like she was trying to figure something out.

“Maybe you didn’t hear?” She looked down at her hors d’oeuvres plate and then back up.

“My mom died two weeks ago.”

The cracker I’d been chewing lost all flavor and stuck to the back of my throat. My mind deciphered the words, but there was no emotional translation. I simply could not comprehend that her mom, the grandma who never missed a soccer game, was gone.

The mental image of Amy’s mom, seated on the bench beside her camcorder, was so vivid it seemed I might pull her from my memory into the present moment, alive and well–just in time for senior convocation, for this year’s graduation, for the guys’ next tournament…

“I’m so sorry,” I stammered. “I didn’t know. I’m so very sorry.”

Amy teared up.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Cancer.” She replied.

I froze.

My earliest cancer memory goes way back to age seven. I was huddled in the back seat of our family car, terrified that the bump I’d just noticed on my chest was breast cancer. The hum of the motor and steady drizzle of the Pacific Northwest night had long since lulled my sisters to sleep, but I was wide awake, paralyzed with fear.

When I could take the anxiety no longer, I reached out and whispered my fear to mom. What sweet relief to hear her confident assurance that I had nothing to worry about. I was OK–everything was OK.

How on earth did a 7 year-old girl in the 70’s even know about breast cancer? We’re talking before pink ribbons, cancer awareness month, and National Mammography Day.

Perhaps I’d been puzzled as to why my mom didn’t call grandpa’s wife “mom.” Maybe someone had explained that mom’s mother had died from a rare form of breast cancer long before I was born. It’s possible that I had peppered my parents with questions in a conversation long forgotten by all of us.

Whatever the cause, mom’s assurance didn’t last forever and fear-of-cancer became my own personal monster, jumping out of the closet whenever I heard about the next victim–or had a health scare (like getting called back for another round of testing after a mammogram).

Then there were (and still are, as you’ll see) those weird coincidences–like the time I happened to take a plane trip after having undergone a test on my one ovary (born that way), and found this article in the flight magazine, just waiting to pounce when I opened it:

“Ovarian Cancer–the Silent Killer.” (The timing was so bizarre, I actually laughed).

I’d like to say that now I find comfort when I whisper my fears to God, but it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes the defenses block the way to my heart.

There’s this huge chasm between my head belief that my life is a chapter in a big story with a good ending, and my heart experience of repeated fear that I’m not going to like the next plot twist.

I’m not 100% sure about the roots of my cancer fear, but I know that it is real and that I come by it honestly:

*I’m not alone. Many people live with fear of cancer that ranges from some anxiety to full blown carcinophobia.

*I’m American and death and dying are not subjects we process well. We generally tend towards denial and avoidance, approaches that tend to fertilize anxiety.

*I’m a Christian and I grew up hoping Jesus would come before any of my loved ones (or I) died and we’d all just have this seamless transition into heaven without any premature good-byes. I still hope, but not as a defense against death.

Becoming aware of how I’ve defended myself against the reality of death has been both liberating (nothing like accepting what you can’t change) and painful (yes, there’s no healthy bypass around the sadness of loss).

So here I am, getting used to the idea that death is part of life. Facing it, instead of putting up my defenses.

Amy’s news, however, reminded me that I have a ways to go. My next question was more about me than her:

“What kind of cancer?”

The cancer monster grabbed me by the throat when she replied,


Two days prior to this I had done a little “symptoms surfing” on my phone before turning off for the night (great prelude to a good night’s sleep, I know.)

Of course, I just had to skip the most probable causes and go straight to the worst possible case scenario–esophageal cancer.

Maintaining the appearance of calm, I stood there, looking at Amy, while this yelling match heated up in my head:

Voice #1 (the loudest): Oh my goodness! You probably have esophogeal cancer too–ask about the symptoms, you simply must get all the details right now.

Voice #2 (second loudest): Shame on you. Worrying about yourself when this woman has lost her mother. How self-centered can you get?!

Voice #3 (the quietest): That is so sad. I wonder how she and her family are doing? I wonder if there’s anything I could do to make it easier?

Before the cacophany of voices deafened my sensibilities, HOORAY! I remembered to push pause and opt for being fully present, engaging the moment from the Inside Out.

There was another voice waiting to be heard, but first I picked up the screaming anxiety baby and swaddled it.

My Voice: (surprisingly authoritative):

Look here, I know this is really scary for you. You’re not alone. I hear you and we will process this, but right now, we’re going to listen to Amy and be there for her.”

Wouldn’t you know it? Things started to quiet down inside. I focused my attention fully on Amy and asked how she was doing. She shared how her dad was managing and how her son had helped to care for his grandma at the end. It was a normal conversation.

The monster disappeared and my anxiety was gone. I felt sad, but I did not feel anxious.

It feels like a miracle and I think it’ll be easier next time.

Compassion for all,


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