Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mind Games

I am one of the lucky people. I got to beat cancer. Or did I?

Survivors like me are besieged by mind games.

If mind games were an Olympic sport, I'd certainly sport the gold medal. When I go for my "routine" physicals, my panic can spike astronomically. My ears are programmed to hear the word "cancer," so when the news mentions "cancer," my curiosity (OK, panic) is peaked. If I overhear (OK, eavesdrop on) a conversation about someone who has cancer, I can't help but take notice.

My body has betrayed me before, so couldn't it happen again? I no longer trust my body, which in its previous life, was fit and ingested healthy foods. Now, any ache or pain that assails me frightens me because I am afraid it's cancer knocking at my door. 

Perception is a tricky thing, and doctors, society at large, and cancer survivors perceive battling cancer differently.

Many doctors see it this way: First comes diagnosis, then comes treatment, then come followups.

Society often sees it this way: First comes diagnosis, followed by treatment, and then life resumes back to normal and the former patient is "over it."

Cancer survivors often see it this way: First come diagnosis and treatment to end cancer. Then normal life as we know ends. Let the mind games begin.

 Here are just some episodes that caused me to hit the panic button prematurely:

Just this weekend my back was really hurting. So I did the only thing I knew to do: had a friend watch my daughter. Then I wept and slept. Then the pain went away, and so did my fears and pity party. These episodes are common for cancer survivors. We are lucky enough to survive cancer, but our very survival -- the one thing we fought so hard for -- is threatened by those mind games.

I went to my oncologist and he ordered a blood test, and I felt tormented about why he ordered a blood test.

Any ache or pain will set my fears off.

The longer I'm stuck in the examination room, the deeper the fear. Sometimes I want to scream, but instead I try to keep my mind occupied with useful matters.

A routine lab result showed an elevated liver enzyme. I called my doctors sobbing, only to be reassured it was nothing.

I had a broken foot, which prompted fears of all sorts.

Of course, having had cancer gives me another perspective: one of appreciating and living life to the fullest. I can slow down time to enjoy the taste of a Honeycrisp apple (my favorite apple) and gaze at my daughter, savoring all of the wonderful things and opportunities life has offered me.

Do you struggle with mind games as a result of a current or past illness? It can be cancer, but many illnesses and conditions can provoke the panic I describe above. Please share your story.

This posting is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Calling the Shots: Coaching Your Way Through the Medical System. To obtain these excerpts regularly, please subscribe to this blog by clicking the orange subscribe button. I am a professional writer and have published numerous academic and magazine articles, as well as an essay on my breast cancer experience in the anthology Voices of Breast Cancer by LaChance Publishing. I can be contacted at bethlgainer@gmail.com and gainercallingtheshots@gmail.com. Photobucket


  1. Hello Beth
    Of late I have come to realise just how 'Mind Games' become part of this journey. Although I 'set sail' on a journey of HOPE many years ago with my Breast Ca diagnosis, it has been the recurrence which has dramatically changed the 'Mind Set.' Living with pain, and of recent times fatigue with no known cause, I suspect the worst and go off on a tangent looking for the cause.
    It has become very easy to forget to live in, and enjoy, the present.
    Thanks to the Blogging Community, which is my Group Therapy, I am offered hope and encouragement.
    You have provided lovely sentiments upon which I will reflect.

  2. Hi Chez,

    Thank you for your very thoughtful comment. I am so glad the blogging community is providing the therapy you need. There is plenty of hope and encouragement. I've known quite a few women who had recurrences and are doing great.

    You said it best: 'Mind Games' become part of this journey.

    That's the component that so many people in the medical world and in the media don't tell us. Society doesn't understand this either.

    It's a life sentence. Of course, it's always important to try to stay in the now and enjoy each day to its fullest. We may have bad days, but we need to pull ourselves up and make the best of our situations.

  3. Beth, Great post. You got those three viewpoints exactly right! Doctors do see it like you described. Society also as you said and we, the cancer patients, are never "over it." It's not really possible to just get back to life as it was. I guess that's why the blogging community is such a refuge for us in so many ways. So far my mind games haven't been too bad, but I know they will be sneaking up on me.

  4. Nancy,

    Thanks for your comment and kind words. I totally agree that blogging is a great therapy, a "refuge," as you put it for us who have been affected by such a disease.

    Just hang in there and take one day at a time. And know, that if you find yourself having those mind games, it is totally normal for what you've been through.

  5. I am sure so many people can relate to your insightful post. As a survivor myself, I find that the mind games that we play with ourselves could be about anything- not just cancer, as you said.

    Noticing when the hamsters start spinning in your head, acknowledging their annoying presence, but refusing to "feed them" may be one approach. You and I are blessed in that we can express ourselves through words and images. Creativity is the antithesis to cancer.

    Enjoy your thanksgiving holiday!

  6. Hi Nanci,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read my posting and to leave a comment! I think you put it so well when you point out that we can choose to feed those hamsters running in our head!

    Sometimes mind games get the best of us, but they can also bring out the best in us.

    Have a great holiday, as well.