Learning to calm anxiety can be a huge challenge for the cancer navigator who is spending time in Cancerland. This debilitating emotion is way beyond simple worry or frustration. It tends to appear when the world is careening out of control, when life feels tenuous, when it feels like a fight for survival itself. When I started having anxiety meltdowns and panic attacks this past fall (because of family reasons, not cancer at that point), I started taking meds plus making regular appointments with a variety of therapists. This weekend, while waiting for the results of yesterday’s CT Scan, I’m struggling big time. (Good morning, Honey. Thanks for making breakfast. Now hold me tight and let me soak your shirt in tears. And no, I don’t have any words to explain my outburst. Sigh… )
I expected it to be difficult waiting to learn if this current treatment is working or not. Based on past timing, I expected the radiologist’s reports to be posted online sometime early next week. But… at the end of the workday on Friday, the test results for the chest CT scan were posted. Whew! No changes, no evidence of disease. And then… nothing… the report for the abdominal CT scan was referred to in that first report, but it has not yet been posted. Oh NO! This sent my anxiety through the roof, imagining horrible reasons for the delay.
Storytelling as a Tool to Calm Anxiety:
Off and on all day today, I’ve been using a tool I learned from my music therapist. The human brain is wired to collect stories, be guided by stories, and organize the world via stories. These stories are the way our brains resolve any uncertainties. When we only get a tiny bit of a story, our brains fill in the gaps to determine what is happening based on past experiences, similar stories, small details we notice, our feelings, and predictions of future outcomes. As you might imagine, those guessed-at-but-now-feeling-true stories will often be very skewed and might not bear any resemblance to what will actually happen.
Using storytelling to calm anxiety can be done in many different formats—music, art, talk therapy, journaling. I initially learned about our brains’ preference for stories through an exercise of listening to a piece of instrumental music and writing down what I imagined was happening. The therapist and I then shared our stories, laughing at the huge differences. We discussed what experiences, details, and feelings led each of us to imagine that particular story. Then we did the exercise again, using the same music but capturing a different story than we chose the first time. As homework, I have been asked to practice this exercise regularly, coming up with at least 3-5 different explanations each time. (This is an entertaining activity to try with family or friends.)
A second exercise is closely related and has the same goal of building flexible thinking. In this assignment, I had to state the terrible thing I was anxious might happen. I had to identify which bits were known facts, then build on those things with a worse scenario, followed by an even worse outcome, until I had come up with 3-5 outlandish stories. This never fails to make me laugh!
With both of those exercises, I’ve been building flexible thinking in my brain, rather than simply clinging to one “catastrophizing” story. So, here’s the scenario for today’s therapy:
The radiologist posted the report for the chest CT scan. He has not yet posted the results of the abdominal CT scan. Why not?
My Anxiety-induced Story: Last night and today, I am fighting against doomsday assumptions. Obviously, he did not post the abdominal scan report because it shows significant tumor growth and additional tumors. The radiologist is concerned for me. He wants my doc to be the first to see the report. My doc will give me the bad news at my appointment on Tuesday.
As I recognize my anxiety and remember that I have no way of knowing what is actually happening, and as hubby reminds me to use my storytelling to calm anxiety, I have come up with the following:
Story 1: The radiologist has worked extra shifts this week and is exhausted. The chest CT report was easy, so he posted that. But he could not keep his eyes open long enough to deal with the abdominal CT report. So, he left it in his to-do folder and went home to bed. He will be ready to handle it when he comes back to work on Monday.
Story 2: The radiologist is shocked when he looks at the abdominal scan and compares it to the images from 4 weeks ago. There is no evidence of any tumors whatsoever. He hesitates to post this as a report, however. He decides to have his co-worker look things over on Monday to verify the miraculous results.
Story 3 (worse version): The very expensive scanner malfunctioned. There is no abdominal CT to report on. I will have to wait another few weeks for an appointment to have the scan redone.
Story 4 (even worse scenario): The radiologist completed the abdominal CT report. However, he was so excited to be leaving for next week’s vacation to the Caribbean that he didn’t notice he pushed the button to delete the scan and the report rather than the button to post it. Nobody notices the error until he returns to work in another 10 days.
Story 5 (an outlandish story): The radiologist was just getting ready to post his report when Russian operatives kidnapped him. They were certain this was top secret information, so they made him save the scan and the report on a thumb drive they handed him. They then smuggled both him and this contraband information out of the hospital and to the airport where a super sonic jet transported them back to Russia. In the meantime, the US government learned about the kidnapping and heist. They insisted that both the doctor and the information be returned to the USA at once. When Putin laughed about it, a nuclear war began. It did not take long for the entire earth’s population to be wiped out… all because the radiologist dawdled on posting my results.
Your Turn: I would love to read more outlandish stories to calm anxiety while I try to not completely freak out this weekend! Please, please post your short “explanation” of why the abdominal CT scan results were not posted online with the first report! I’m certain many of you have even better stories than the ones my anxious brain came up with.
Thanks for taking time to read my silly stories! Please add your version in the comments Since I am an active cancer patient yet again, I decided to add a “health adventures” tab to my website. You can follow my current cancer journey in a couple of ways:
- click HERE to see frequent mini updates plus links to the pages below.
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- Feel free to poke around the site and check out other Big Epic Adventures I have documented in the past—backpacking and other outdoor fun, becoming a certified Nature and Forest Guide, trip reports, and other daily activities.
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(THANK YOU for following with me on this cancer journey! I appreciate every comment, encouragement, prayer, good wishes, and other types of support. I can’t imagine doing this alone…)