Holding Fear in its Proper Place

June 5, 2020

Editor's NoteThis is part of Nancy's Resilience series. Please see other posts in this series.

If I collected a dollar for every fearful thought I’ve had over the years, I’d never lack for funds. Imagine the good in the world I could do.

Fear was once my regular companion. As a young professional, I worried about my career and whether I was making the right choices. I worried about friendships and happiness. I worried, after marrying Brett, about where we should live. Should we stay in New York City or settle for a quieter suburban life? And then I worried about far weightier matters when Brett’s health mysteriously plummeted four years into our marriage. First he began to hiccup and burp, which was funny at first—until he couldn’t stop. These symptoms quickly turned to dramatic weight loss, blackouts, vomiting, and headaches. When Brett was diagnosed with a medulloblastoma brain tumor in 1999, eight months after his symptoms began, the world divided for us into two neat categories: before cancer and after cancer.

What I would have done to return to the simpler fears that consumed me before Brett’s diagnosis. Few things are more terrifying or dreaded than hearing the words that you, or someone you love, has cancer. Brett was far more stoic and soldierly than I was from the very beginning. A huge Bruce Springsteen fan, he fought against his fears by letting the lyrics to “Land of Hope and Dreams” and other classic hits wash over him like a warm balm.

While Brett refused to stoke fears of death throughout his illness, I dove headfirst into this terrifying canyon. Losing him was all I could think of, especially at night when my dreams became vivid and violent. Eventually, I sought professional help. Medullas typically affect children ages five and under, and a good percentage of children go on to live healthy lives afterward. But Brett wasn’t a child, and we had no assurances of his prognosis. Living one day at a time in the face of his cancer was so much harder than I ever anticipated.

And I anticipated a lot. I’d never even heard of anticipatory grief prior to his diagnosis, and now I was living it on a daily basis. I felt vulnerable, targeted, and exposed. There were so many ups and downs, and I found reason to fear them both. When an MRI showed suspicious growth, I feared “the end.” When the news was more optimistic, I feared recurrence. It was no way to live.

Brett lost his battle to brain cancer in 2004. What I remember about this time is the surprising sense of peace I felt knowing that his suffering was over. 

I’ve done a lot of work since Brett’s death to reckon with my fears, especially the irrational ones, like that my own doomsday thinking caused his death. This work was both painful and necessary.

Learning to hold fear in its proper place is something that all cancer patients, caregivers, and survivors share. More than anything, learning to face my fears taught me how to live at a time when I needed to summon every ounce of resilience I could.

It’s a lifelong process, this business of confronting fears. Today, my fears are for my twins, Rebecca and Casey, who were toddlers when Brett died but who have now graduated high school and are headed to college in the fall (we are still waiting to hear if they will be able to attend in-person). I worry about their futures, along with my parents, my in-laws, my business, and more. Heck, it’s easy to find things to worry about if we let ourselves go down the rabbit hole, particularly now when the world is trying to climb its way out of the COVID-19 pandemic, adjusting to how it has and will continue to impact our lives.

Everywhere I turn people are grappling with fears both real and imagined. There are no easy answers but amid such fraught times we have to find ways to continually challenge our fears. Here are three simple things to try.

  • Breathe. There is nothing more restorative and grounding than deep breathing. A cycle of five slow breaths—in and out—can get us out of our heads and into our bodies.
  • Challenge your fear. Identify your fears and then prove them false by writing a rebuttal for each one. For example, “I’ll never climb out from behind this black shadow.” What would someone who loves you say about the positive things in your life? Write them down and let these counterarguments become an arsenal of strength.
  • Will yourself forward one tiny step at a time. Fear can lead to paralysis. Try breaking your fears down into tiny, concrete pieces and coming up with an action item for each piece. Then tackle them one by one. Start with the simplest of things like making a phone call or reading an article. Do one thing at a time. And then do one more.

Few passages are as meaningful and poignant to me as this one by Mary Oliver, the beloved poet who lost her own battle with cancer last year: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Answer this and you will never let fear stop you from living in the precious present.