How to overcome cancer self exam anxiety? Self examining our breasts, skin, testicles, poo – it is all talked about and it makes sense, but why do we find it difficult to follow the advice?
Whether you have been treated for cancer or not, given all the cancer awareness campaigns you may assume we all know what to do, and we all do what we can to catch possible and actual signs of cancer early.
1. The Fear Factor
The fear of what we might find and what it might lead to, the fear of chaos, uncertainty and total change can be a potent motivation to delay self exams again and again. All the while we keep carrying a nagging fear.
Sometimes we decide that we are just too busy or too occupied with life, too overwhelmed and engaged in matters, duties, tasks, commitments, that we just cannot shoulder another thing, especially ‘a thing’ that may threaten our physically, mental and emotional survival. There are so many distractions from a cancer self exam.
While it is rational to assume better to know and to catch things early, there is often an irrational yet very real block from taking matters into our own hands, so to speak – that is cancer self exam anxiety.
By the time I found a lump in my breast the cancer had already spread to my lymph nodes. What might have happened, if I had checked myself more regularly? Who knows. There is no point in dwelling on it. I have to live with that regret.
I was never great at self examining. I was great at giving into my fear. I have to live as best as I can with the consequence of my actions.
2. If you have already had cancer
And it is not uncommon to assume that people who have already been treated for cancer, will be particularly vigilant. Yes, there may be heightened fear and sensitivity to any symptoms of discomfort and changes in wellbeing.
But proactively touching our body and checking for lumps or other changes, that can be very frightening.
And what does not help is that often we are not old what to expect most treatment, or we are told what to expect in terms of “normal” pain, even years after surgery or radiotherapy.
Yet how to differentiate “normal” from “abnormal”?
It can be a regular worry and frequent question what to do, when to reach out for help or not. Then it is tempting to rather not go there.
Before my local recurrence of breast cancer I had been told about the red flag symptoms of secondary breast cancer in my breasts and other parts of my body. You can find a very helpful diagram and other related information via abcdiagnosis.co.uk here.
I have been and continue to be very vigilant to any changes. Self exams remain difficult. In fact, they have become more difficult. And it is tiring, being on constant alert. Cancer does not stop after treatment. One lump or lumpy area will set off the the whole trauma again.
One lump or body change between our present and the future that we may never have.
The psychological reality of a cancer self exam should not be under estimated and should not become a taboo.
3. Five steps to help you cope with cancer self exam anxiety
Acknowledge your fear. Whether you have been treated for cancer or not, do not despair, if you have this anxiety. Does it not make sense to be fearful?
You are responsible. Whatever you decide, you are responsible for the consequences. You are in charge.
Reduce your fear by planning ahead. What is the worst that can happen? And what will you do?
Get into the right frame of mind for your self exam. Choose a time of day or of the week, when you are more calm, less stressed and do not need to rush around. Prepare for that day and for that moment.
4. Ultimately, what’s the trade off between knowing and not knowing?
The incentive that works well for me is that self examining can help me reduce the fear and guilt I would have otherwise.
Cancer self exam anxiety is real. It can stand between you and change. But doing it and doing it regularly can offer you important choices and time to manage any change that may come your way.
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