About six weeks ago I was toweling off after a shower and felt a small hard lump on the upper part of my hamstring, about the size of a small grape. As I felt around it I noticed that its position didn't shift: it felt like it was attached to the thigh bone. I got scared - the only cancer in my family appeared in my maternal great grandmother, and it was bone cancer.
After a minute (or what might have been less) of panic, I decided that maintaining a sense of equanimity (i.e. keeping my cool) during the process of discovering exactly what this thing was would be a challenge, as well as a process to which it would be worth paying particular attention: I so often talk and write about how it is what we believe about what is happening to us, rather than the event itself, that determines our experience of it. Here was the perfect test.
The subsequent six weeks certainly had their ups and downs, and for stretches of 5 or 10 minutes I would be gripped by fear, but the vast majority of the time I simply wasn't thinking about the situation. Last week I underwent surgery to remove The Lump and was told right after the operation that the mass was benign. Yesterday I had a follow-up visit with the surgeon who told me it wasn't even a tumor - it was an "organizng fat necrosis" (apparently there'd been some injury to the area - which I couldn't remember having - and it killed some fat cells, around which my body then created a capsule filled with fluid). Phew!
I want to share with you some of the observations I made, and the tools I employed, during this traumatic episode in the desire to give you tools to handle fearful situations of your own, should you need to. Looking back, I can see that my fairly calm way of dealing with the fear resulted from a number of steps:
1) Awareness - I needed to realize that sometimes I was in the grip of fear (particularaly after the first doctor I consulted, my general practitioner, said after looking at it: "I'm worried"). Awareness might seem to be an obvious first step, but often fear presents itself in disguises: as anger, as anxiety, as depression. It's very important to discern exactly what it is you're feeling, and then to identify the "sponsoring" event and subsequent thought / belief that is giving rise to the fear. Be careful about how much "learning" you might be tempted to do (e.g. looking up disease symptoms on the internet). I was tempted many times, but only researched The Lump only once.
2) Asking for help - There's no need to handle fear alone. People who truly love you will generally flock to your side if you ask them, and it can be comforting to share your fear with those who will soothe you, especially your mate. Two cautions: first, keep the sharing to a select group of people, unless you want the whole world to know what you're undergoing, and second, the more you tell the story of what's led to your fear the more you're underlining the scary version, and the harder it is to shift your thinking in a different direction (either to something else entirely, or to a less fearful version of the story). I chose to share the discovery of the lump only with my brother and the friend mentioned below, and over the next several weeks added about a half dozen other people to the list. I didn't tell the vast majority of my family and friends anything until I had a definitive outcome, not wanting to upset them needlessly and wanting to avoid the over-repetition that could more deeply engrave The Lump's story into the story of Jim's life.
3) Do whatever you can to influence the outward circumstances - Almost immediately I decided to call a good friend who had family connections to a leading cancer surgeon, "just in case". That was the surgeon who operated on my leg to remove The Lump. Thee was no other practical step to be taken. By asking yourself "is there anything more I can do to improve this situation?" you may come to realize that the most valuable thing you can invest in is shifting your thinking about what's happening.
4) Practice examining alternative scenarios - As I've previously posted, we are evolutionarily primed to lean towards a negative, fear-based interpretation of our experiences. However, even in the direst circumstances there can be positive outcomes, from miraculous healings to learning how to "love what is" (if it can't be immediately changed), to seeing positive benefits from a seemingly negative event. For example, my thoughts about The Lump ranged from "it could be benign" to "well, if it's cancer I will get a chance to practice what I preach and learn to be at peace no matter what" to "people may come to see me as heroic".
5) What's the worst case scenario? - Envisioning the most negative outcome and walking through that outcome in your imagination can help demonstrate to you that, no matter what, you'll be able to handle it.
6) Ask yourself: "Is this useful? - As simple as this sounds, it can sometimes be effective in helping you shift away from fear-laden thoughts. On rare occasions it IS useful to continue to fret about something, but most often it is a terrible waste of time and energy. Merely examining a situation from this perspective may loosen fear's grip on you.
7) Shift or Distract- Although it may be hard to do, you CAN choose NOT to think about the situation that is engendering the fear. Try intentionally shifting your focus to another (preferably positive) situation - thinking perhaps about your child's recent school play, or a wonderful vacation you took with your spouse, or the love you have for your dog. Relatedly, immerse yourself in an activity that will hold your attention and concentration: a game of tennis, a gripping novel, a funny movie or TV episode, a game of Scrabble (you can play against the "house" on any smartphone).