Even when you make it through the treatment, it is very common to experience fear of cancer recurrence (FCR). This is an acknowledged condition that is very common in people who have been diagnosed with melanoma.
There are many ways to deal with anxiety which we will cover below. But first, let’s unpack what is happening in the body when you’re feeling anxious or stressed.
There are many symptoms that you may feel if you are experiencing anxiety. Sometimes, you may not even be aware that what you are experiencing is an anxiety symptom. Here are just a few:
There are many physical symptoms that you might feel including a racing heart, shallow breathing, dizziness even panic attacks.
When you are experiencing high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, this affects the brain’s ability to encode information and retrieve it from the hippocampus. This part of the brain is super sensitive to high cortisol levels and as a result, long-term stress can cause loss of memory.
Nighttime can be hard for some people experiencing anxiety. When you run on adrenaline for long periods of time, your body may have trouble switching out of “fight or flight” mode. Throughout the day you can stay distracted and busy, but when it’s time to fall asleep you are forced to sit with your feelings, worries and busy thoughts.
When you are feeling anxious it can be hard to control your thoughts. You might be having “worst-case scenario” thoughts and even be dwelling on small things such as conversations you’ve had during the day and wondering if what you’ve said or done was okay.
You may already be feeling fatigued from your treatment, however, when your adrenals are in fight or flight mode all day, you can wind up feeling “wired” which is when you are exhausted, but you can’t switch off your mind and body to relax or fall asleep.
You might feel like you’re not able to stop. It might be work, cleaning or even doing too much for others. This is a way to distract yourself from feelings of panic and worry. The problem with this is that it keeps you in fight or flight mode and increases anxiety making it harder to relax or sleep.
Depending on your level of anxiety, you may need medication to help you get through this difficult time. However, there are also many other things that can help you manage your anxiety as well:
Even if you don’t see yourself as a spiritual person or think that meditation is a little bit “woo-woo”, you can’t deny the science that has proven how beneficial meditation is for the mind and body.
Many studies have shown that meditation strengthens and increases neural connections in the left prefrontal cortex. This means that we are less overcome by the primal stress responses of ‘flight or fight’ from the amygdala.
Meditation for Beginners:
When you’re just starting out, it’s a good idea to use guided meditations. There are many free resources available such as:
You might like to try a couple of the paid apps too which have programs particularly for beginners:
Many people when trying meditation for the first time feel that they are bad at it because their mind keeps wandering. This is totally normal. The thing that matters is that you keep bringing yourself back to the guided meditation or to your breath.
The more we practice bringing ourselves back to the meditation, you’ll find that these periods of being present become longer and longer. You’ll find that you then have more control over your thoughts in your everyday life and you will feel calmer.
If you don’t have access to a guided meditation, simply focus on your breath and observe how you’re feeling without putting a story to it.
An example of an easy breathing exercise that you can do is the box breath technique.
Imagine you are drawing a picture of a box…
As you draw your first line on the box: Inhale for four seconds.
The second line: Hold your breath for four seconds.
The third: Exhale for four seconds.
The fourth: Hold for four seconds.
Yoga teacher, Madeleine Keogh, says, “If you’re experiencing anxiety, it can sometimes be hard to take deep belly breaths and you might even begin to feel dizzy. If this is the case, then imagine you are taking the breath to your heart space and stay with this breath.”
If you haven’t done yoga before, perhaps you’re thinking that you need to be fit and bend yourself into a pretzel. But that’s not necessarily the case!
There are many more gentle practices of yoga that you can do such as Hatha, Yin or Restorative Yoga. You don’t need any experience to try these practices.
The changes in the body and mind can be quite powerful. It will help to slow down the mind, reduce anxiety and help you move your body in a very gentle way.
You might like to try searching for a yoga class in your area for cancer patients. Check with your local Cancer Council, Google, Facebook Events or even MeetUp.
If you feel self-conscious about attending a class, try an online class on YouTube. There are many options, especially for cancer patients.
If meditation or yoga just isn’t your thing, there are other things you can do to stay in the present moment. Some people from our Facebook support group found these activities a great way to switch off:
“You can’t pour from an empty cup, fill yours first.” When you’re already depleted from treatments and the stress of melanoma, then it’s important that you “fill your cup” back up! What do you love doing? What brings you joy? Do more of that!
Here is a list of some things you can do to nurture and look after yourself:
There have been many studies done over the years about the practice of gratitude. Research has shown that it reduces stress and even increases levels of oxytocin in the brain.
Gratitude will help you shift from anxiety and worry to a better mental space.
A good way to practice gratitude is to think of all the things you’re grateful for when you first wake in the morning. Or taking some time out in your day to write them down.
When we sleep our cells start repairing themselves, so it’s very important to get a lot of sleep when you’re healing from cancer.
If you have trouble sleeping, do the next best thing and meditate. This way you are still repairing your cells and switching out of your sympathetic nervous system (our fight or flight mode).
We often use alcohol to help manage our anxiety levels. However, the more we drink, the more stress it causes us when we are not under the influence. It also depletes us of B vitamins and magnesium and compromises our gut health. All of which are essential vitamins we need in our bodies when we are healing.
Caffeine is also not good to have in large amounts if you have anxiety as it causes our hearts to race and negatively affects our adrenals which can bring on that “tired but wired” feeling.
Studies have shown that people who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. You might even have supportive family or friends and yet still feel alone if they don’t fully understand what you are going through.
But you never have to feel alone whilst you are going through this. Here are some steps to take to get proper support.
Visit your local GP and get a referral to a psychologist. By going through your GP, you can ask for a GP Mental Health Plan and you may be eligible for up to 20 sessions per annum with a psychologist.
If you feel like you aren’t connecting with your psychologist or that you’re not gaining any benefits from the sessions, don’t give up on therapy. You just haven’t found the right person to help you yet. Ask around for recommendations and go back to your GP to get another referral.
Call us on 1300 88 44 50 to get more information on resources that are available to you or to be connected to our Melanoma Telehealth Nurse.