Living with Anxiety after Surviving Cancer: 4 Keys to a Happier Life by Phil Stover, CEO of Mission Cancer + Blood
Cancer is terrifying. I will never forget coming out of surgery to hear my surgeon use the words “aggressive” and “invasive.” Those words still haunt me. It is something I would not wish for anyone.
My annual cancer screen / thyroid (or in my case, lack of thyroid) follow-up exam was this month. In years past, the demons in my head would start torturing me months in advance of my appointment. Running through every what-if, preparing for the worst news, and assuming this body of mine would again betray me.
The weekend before my appointment, my wife cautiously asked, “How are you doing with your appointment coming up?” She knew my struggle. Before, I would never consider scheduling anything in the weeks or days after my visit, out of fear that I would get terrible news.
This year, my response caught her off-guard, I said, “You know? I am good.” We went back to talking about the kids and our plans for the weekend. So different than previous years. I had somehow figured out how to keep living. Without even pausing to think about it, we kept planning, kept scheduling, kept on living.
So, what changed?
I am writing this blog, in the hopes that someone can learn from my experience. The anxiety that comes with surviving is real. It can be debilitating, and I want to help those in similar situations by sharing how I have approached my fears. The changes I made were intentional. I was tired of being a hostage to my fear and was determined to steal back the joy that a cancer diagnosis had stolen from me.
Other than my love for my family, my career, and a glass of wine, most everything about who I am and how I handle stress has changed for me in the past few years. The changes have been across the board, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Here are a few things that have helped me conquer my anxiety.
The key to making a change that sticks is having the discipline to stick with the change. The best thing you can do is build a habit around the change you are working on. Whether it is exercise or changing your diet, if you do not build a good habit, then creating real change that lasts will be a struggle. As the foundation to your success, I highly recommend the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. It is a phenomenal read that will help you improve in every area of your life. It helped me reshape my flawed approach to diet, exercise, and wellness.
Learning how to build habits is the foundation to long-lasting change.
Diet & Exercise
Back in my 30’s, running was my therapy. Slowly my knees and feet stopped cooperating and I lost my way with respect to exercise. I gave up on finding anything that compared to running and began gaining weight. I tried gym memberships, Farrells memberships, and a lot of other things but nothing really stuck.
In 2019, I got fed up and set a goal for myself to do some minimal exercise every day. I tracked my activities on my watch and my goal for 2019 was to walk one mile, run 10 minutes, or bike for 20 minutes every day. My doctor joked with me, saying it seemed like you set a pretty low bar.” What he didn’t understand, is that is exactly what I needed. A low bar, I needed success and so I could start to set a pattern.
Along came 2020 and COVID. I managed to keep up with my minimal goals but working from home, constant eating, and increased alcohol consumption at night led to more weight gain. I knew I had to regain control of my health.
With the guidance of one of our physicians, I started by adopting a Keto diet and have since transitioned to a Mediterranean diet. I love the Keto diet. It is not for everyone, but for me it worked as the rules are black and white. Long term it is hard to sustain so after 9 months, I started to transition back into a Mediterranean / Low Carb High Fat diet.
Through the inspiration of a friend that was also finding therapy in exercise, I bought a road bike. I fell in love with cycling, which in turn led me to fall in love with pushing myself with all sorts of different types of exercises. I use my time cycling indoors to either get lost in a show, watch the news, or even catch-up on work emails. Outdoors, I listen to books or the podcasts I follow. For me, it all began with a commitment to develop a habit. If I had gone from nothing and tried to do what I started last summer, I would have failed. Start with a small goal and a habit and build on it. Then feel yourself get stronger. Every day, commit to something, anything, as long as you keep moving. If it starts with a 10-minute walk around the block, great. Just keep looking to build on it and use Atomic Habits, the book I mentioned earlier, to help you turn your goal into a routine.
When I think of affirmations, my immediate reference is Al Franken’s character Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live – “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me.” So, to say I was skeptical about using daily affirmations as a tool to battle anxiety would be a massive understatement! Affirmations always seemed a little silly to me and something I never thought I would do.
The truth is that science supports affirmations as a way to change behavior and as a way to challenge negative and unhelpful thoughts. MRI evidence has documented neural pathways increase with the use of repetitive affirmations, specifically pathways in the part of your brain associated with positive valuations and self-related information processing.
They can be used to motivate yourself, encourage positive changes, or reduce anxiety. Far from being soft, affirmations require discipline and a repetitive and regular practice. I tied my daily affirmations to positive statements; including who I want to be, how I want to live, and my goals as a husband, dad, brother, son, and friend (not to mention as a CEO).
Here are some examples of daily affirmations, including a few of my own:
I am committed to a perpetual transformation of self, always tearing down what fails and building up new again.
- I will be today, who I know I am, strong, healthy, optimistic, a guide.
- I will focus on the present. Not the past, not the future but the present.
- My days will be active in every way.
- My history of cancer is NOT my future, and my future is not my history.
- My future is one of health and taking joy in the normal act of living.
- My brain will focus on the positive and the possible.
- Those things that are out of my control will not be my focus.
- When climbing mountains, I will focus on the next step.
- My frustrations, fears, and annoyances are NOT who I am, and I will not give them that strength. They are simply there, I will let them breathe, then let them leave.
With the help of Atomic Habits, I built a routine into my morning that including reading my daily affirmations. It continues to help me sharpen my focus as I head into each day, focusing on the present, the positive, and the known. It annoys me now to think about how much time I wasted ruminating on the unknown and what “might” be.
With every breath, the old moment is lost; a new moment arrives. We exhale and we let go of the old moment. It is lost to us. In doing so, we let go of the person we used to be. We inhale and breathe in the moment that is becoming. In doing so, we welcome the person we are becoming. We repeat the process. This is meditation. This is renewal. This is life.
–Lama Surya Das
Another topic filed under ’things I never thought I would do’ is meditation. To this day if you say the word meditation I think of incense and hippies. Then a friend gave me a book called 10% Happier by Dan Harris. Dan is an ABC news journalist who melted down on national television in front of the whole world. You can still find the video on YouTube. That negative experience propelled him to learn more about how flawed his approach was to handling anxiety.
He admits being another typical guy who would have never thought about himself believing in meditation. It is an excellent book that I highly recommended! It just might change your life, like it did mine.
There is even more science behind meditation. It works to not only master your anxiety, but it gives you the power to change who you are as a parent, as a significant other, as a friend, or in your role at work.
In a Forbes article, Alice G. Walton, Senior Contributor (healthcare) explains this, “Skeptics, of course, may ask what good are a few brain changes if the psychological effects aren’t simultaneously being illustrated? Luckily, there’s good evidence for those as well, with studies reporting that meditation helps relieve our subjective levels of anxiety and depression, and improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being.” Walton, Alice G., “7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change the Brain” www.forbes.com (February 9, 2015).
I have come to realize in the past five years since my thyroidectomy, that I approached these annual follow-ups almost expecting my body to fail me. Meditation helped me identify the toxic thoughts spinning around my head and taught me how to deal with them. Give it a try!
What is your foundation? Lean into it!
A cancer diagnosis forces us to fight for our lives. Surviving cancer forces us to relearn how to live our life and requires the same fighting spirit. Everything looks different through the prism of surviving. For me, my faith is my cornerstone and I leaned into it throughout my cancer journey. I do not know if I ever really understood trust or gratitude prior to my cancer journey, I do now. Through the fight, my faith gave me a tremendous amount of peace and helped me keep focused on the things I could control. As a survivor, it gave me the insight that I had let things slipped and needed to retake control of my happiness and my life.
For you it might be something different. It may be exercise, or something artistic or musical. It could be your family or your career. Whatever it is that gives you strength and peace, lean into it and rely on it.
For all our patients, please know that the team at Mission Cancer + Blood is truly dedicated to your care and the CEO knows what it is like to walk your path. I wish you nothing but the best on your journey and thanks for reading.