“Trust yourself. You’ve survived a lot, and you’ll survive whatever is coming.” ~Robert Tew
“I have bad news. I am sorry. You have cancer.”
Sitting in the cold, clinical doctor’s office on a snowy, cloudy January day in Chicago, I was six months postpartum with my daughter, and I felt like I had woken up in a nightmare.
My husband had gone to work that day when I was supposed to have my stitches removed after the laparoscopic surgery to remove a large cyst, so I was alone with my daughter.
When Dr. Foley entered the room, I took one look at his face and knew something was wrong.
“Are you sure,” I asked? My daughter was munching away on her Sophie Giraffe in her stroller next to me.
“Yes, I am sure. I am so sorry.”
I started to cry. The first thing I said was “I knew I didn’t deserve a good life.”
“What did you say?”
“Nothing, it doesn’t matter now.”
He told me it was stage 1 ovarian cancer. That I would be okay. He told me I might need chemo and to have my ovaries removed, and I may not be able to have any more children. He then referred me to a gynecological specialist. I waited to see her for three weeks.
My mom flew out to help me. My husband accompanied me to my appointment with the gynecologic oncologist. The office was bleak. The women in the sitting room showed me my future.
When it was my turn for the appointment, the nurse came in with the doctor. They were pleasant and made chit chat. I could not tolerate their light-heartedness for very long as they asked me about my daughter and being a new parent. Finally, I said, “Can you tell me about my cancer please?!”
They looked at me astonished and said, “You don’t have cancer! Didn’t Doctor Foley tell you? He called us and said, ‘I have a disaster here!’ We told him it was not a disaster. What you have is a borderline mucinous cyst, which is common for women your age.”
I don’t think I have ever experienced more relief or gratitude than I felt then, not even after my children were born. What could be more profound than feeling like you were handed a death sentence and then be given a “get out of jail free card?”
I went home and felt like I had been given a second chance at life. I opened the windows, I cleaned the house, I smiled again. However, that sweetness lasted only a short time before I began to ruminate and worry again.
The relief never lasted because there was always another disaster around the corner.
For the years following, I stayed diligent. I saw cancer everywhere. I felt lumps, I felt bumps, I saw weird looking dots on my body, rashes, twitches that would have me flying into a panic. I avoided school outings because I thought a mom had cancer (turns out she has alopecia!) To this day I still get high blood pressure in the doctor’s office even if I am just going in to have a splinter removed.
I was living a traumatized person’s reality. On the surface, I was functioning, but underneath I was filled with pain and weariness. This diagnosis was one more trauma to now pile onto a lifetime of traumatic experiences.
Before I got pregnant, I had made two visits to the emergency room because I thought I was experiencing a heart attack. I routinely felt like I could not swallow and that I was choking even when I had nothing in my mouth. I often felt like I could not breathe or get enough air.
I had lots of visits to the doctor’s office, a heart ultrasound, tests for asthma, bloodwork, etc. They told me it was anxiety, but I could not believe that my mind would cause such strong symptoms.
Recently, I spent some time doing a form of EMDR on myself, going into the feeling of terror that I feel with health anxiety. It brought up an old memory of me driving with my dad at about ten years old.
He was drunk driving with my sister and me on the highway.
I remember yelling at him, “Dad if you don’t stop driving this way I am going to drive!” I remember that moment like it was yesterday. I remembered that feeling of complete helplessness and being out of control.
“Aha,” I thought to myself. That’s the first time I felt that feeling.”
Of course, it makes sense I have health anxiety and that I obsess and try to avoid or control it.
We all have formulated parts of ourselves that at one time served an important purpose—to keep us safe. My protector identity understands how overwhelmed I was and has worked my whole life to keep that feeling at bay. Health anxiety can be a manifestation of trauma.
Healing took time and intention. It also happened not in a therapy chair but in a dance studio. It was in this space where I first slowed down and was able to feel safe in my body.
I started salsa dancing and just doing the warm-up of a dancer. Moving each part of the body with intention and curiosity, helped me get acquainted with my body’s unique inner sensations so they felt more familiar and less scary.
I also tend to have a more obsessive type brain, and finding a way to channel my anxiety into healthy challenges that I can control has been crucial in getting less reactive to health scares. That means dancing more as well as starting a business.
My brain needs things to latch onto, and both of these give me what health anxiety was giving me (a place to channel overall anxiety) but in a way that feels healthier and within my control.
Finally, working on my nervous system and getting into a parasympathetic state has been incredibly healing. When you are trained to be hypervigilant, relaxing feels scary! I have found doing practices like restorative or yin yoga help me feel deeper into my body within my window of tolerance.
Slowly, with time and consistency, my life and outlook for my future started to change. The change was so profound that people saw me and asked what I was doing differently. I started to fully investigate the power of the body to influence the mind. It was at thirty-six years old I started to feel joy for the first time that I could remember.
I saw recently on Facebook an acquaintance from high school, his wife, young and beautiful with two small children, died of colon cancer. I felt so much sadness and anger at the unfairness of this. I felt compassion. I see it as growth that I did not start researching statistics or going into a health fear spiral.
Five years ago, I asked my sister what she felt when she heard the tragic news, and she told me she feels compassion.
I said to her, “Is that what normal people feel?” I saw every tragedy as a warning to get more vigilant, more hardened in my body and my mind, and as a chance to numb out to not feel the range of human emotions.
Some days, I do feel anxiety at the uncertainty of the world, and health anxiety can still pop up for me. Part of the healing process is changing the way we relate to something that we cannot change and finding healthy tools to help us a cope.
If you struggle with health anxiety, like I did—obsessing over every ache, pain, or even minor discomfort, worrying about the potential for a serious diagnosis that could irreparably change your life—it might interfere with your ability to function from day to day.
Maybe you spend hours googling your symptoms and diagnosing yourself, and regularly find yourself in doctor’s offices for the relief of hearing you’re okay—which is likely short-lived. On the flip side, your health anxiety may prevent you from taking good care of yourself, if you skip necessary medical appointments to avoid confirming your worst fears.
The irony is you might end up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Excessive worry can create physical symptoms, like changes in heart rate and blood pressure, tightening in your chest, and difficulty breathing, which can further convince you that you have a terrible disease—and potentially cause health issues down the line.
Maybe you’ve experienced trauma that made you feel helpless, like me, and that’s why you fear the unknown and being out of control. Maybe you lost someone you love to a serious illness, and you’re afraid it could also happen to you, if you’re not diligent. Or maybe you have a health condition, and you’re afraid of it advancing into something even more dangerous. Whatever the cause, it is possible to heal.
The first step is recognizing the stories you’re creating in your head and how worry is interfering with your ability to enjoy the people and things you love.
The next step is accepting that you need help—and then finding the courage to seek it.
Perhaps, like me, you’ll find it beneficial to try EMDR to help you work through old traumas; and you may want to adopt a practice that calms your nervous system and gets you out of your head and into your body, like yoga or tai chi.
Or you might need the guidance of a therapist who can help you learn to challenge your fear-based thoughts and beliefs, reduce the coping behaviors that only increase your anxiety, and sit with the discomfort of uncertainty when it arises instead of creating even more anxiety.
In the end, that’s what it all comes down to: learning to accept that “bad” things may happen in life, but we can’t prevent them by staying hypervigilant and avoiding all activities that could potentially put us at risk. We may feel safer when we do these things, but we’re really just living half-alive in our attempts to protect our lives.
I do not know the outcome of much of life. What will happen to me, my children, the people I love, the world? In moments of joy, I often feel a twinge of grief. I can now hold both at the same time. I understand sadness and grief in a new way, not something to be afraid of, to numb out or push away, but simply a feeling to let move through me so I can fully experience the range of human life.
About Brenna Mavis Anderson
Brenna Mavis Anderson is a Trauma-Informed Embodiment coach. She has been trained through the Tantric Institute of Integrated Sexuality. However, her real training has been in life and in her deep hunger to heal and transform the disempowerment in herself into a voice to help others. She uses a unique combination of guided visualizations, self-inquiry, exercise, nervous system, and fascia work to help clients process, heal, and grow.
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