Today is the first day of 2nd and 4th grade for my boys. That bittersweet moment when we simultaneously feel elated that the imbalanced nature of summer schedule will settle into the more predictable school one, and a tug of the heart knowing knowing our children are growing up. After I put them on the bus, I recognized that there was something else tugging at my sleeve for attention- the upcoming date of my cancerversary, otherwise known as the day I was diagnosed.
I was a little unprepared for this anxiety trigger, in part because school starts early this year and the actual anniversary is not for almost two weeks. Yet my body and mind remember the conditions that were present when this whole thing started- my youngest had gotten on the bus for the first day of kindergarten and I went to my annual check up to show my PCP the troubling lump that I had found.
I am also feeling a bit of scanxiety- the anxiety that comes with scans, as I am due to have a baseline bone density test now that my ovaries are gone (another form of collateral damage that cancer and BRCA2 mutation has brought me). Rationally, I know that this is not the sort of test that will generate biopsies, but at this point the remaining trauma of having a life threatening condition means that any medical procedure will have some fear of recurrence attached to it.
It takes time to understand our triggers for feeling anxiety following a life threatening condition. Some can be predicted, of course, but there are many surprises. This happens in part due to the role our amygdala plays in our brain. The amygdala is the primal part of the brain, and it is tasked with cataloging any and all possible danger cues. It’s not the most sophisticated part of our brain, it takes note of everything that was present during a traumatic moment without discerning whether or not those components actually were a part of what happened. So it often will make errors. Yet, because it is the role of the amygdala to keep us safe, it is easily activated when it encounters a reminder of danger. As in this case, my children starting school did not cause cancer, but since that event is connected to finding out I had cancer, my amygdala wants to shout “Danger!” today.
Jon Kabat Zinn’s advice comes to mind “you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”, when I reflect upon how to handle all of these anxious siblings running around inside. If we try to stop the triggers or try to control their impact, our lives would be rendered to the fate of Sisyphus- who endlessly was trying to role that big rock up over the mountain, only to have it role back again. Who wants that? So, instead we need to look for the ways in which we can surf them- letting them be with us, so that not only we can accept what has happened to us, but ultimately heal from it and strengthen our relationship with our body, mind, spirit and self.
– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Creative Transformations offers individual sessions, in person or via Skype, workshops, and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting: www.creative-transformations.com.