Published: June 18, 2010
Updated: Dec. 2, 2010
Marie says she probably struggled with anxiety for most of her life, never being fully aware of it or knowing what to call it.
Then she was diagnosed with cancer, and her anxiety went into overdrive. She felt frozen by fear one minute, overloaded on adrenaline the next.
“I felt so traumatized and fearful,” she says. “I couldn’t find a place within myself to rest and draw from my own inner reserves. It was like I was holding a huge piece of kryptonite, and I couldn’t move away from it.”
While under the care of Duke oncologist Andrew Berchuck, MD, Marie discovered a class on mindfulness-based stress reduction at Duke Integrative Medicine. “That was one of the first doors to open,” she says.
Marie later began working with psychiatrist Margaret Maytan, MD, at Duke Cancer Institute. Medication helped her clear her mind and opened her up to other therapies.
She began practicing yoga, qigong, and meditation. She discovered the therapeutic value of making huge, colorful drawings with oil crayons. After meeting with a nutritionist, Marie adopted a “vegan plus fish” diet and her energy soared. She began taking four-mile walks in the woods near her Hillsborough home.
Marie’s anxiety abated, and remarkably, she feels less anxious than before she was diagnosed. “Now I know that I had generalized anxiety before. Cancer has transformed my ability to know what stress feels like and to be active about what I need to do to help curtail it.”
Maytan says that anxiety is part of the journey for every cancer patient. However, its severity and the ability of the patient to cope vary widely.
“Some people become extremely anxious even when their prognosis is excellent and their treatment not so demanding. Others facing a terminal diagnosis may cope well, without the need for professional assistance.”
What are the clues to how well a patient is coping? “When a patient is not sleeping, having episodes of panic, feeling out of control, or having a hard time functioning because of anxiety, think about a referral to a psychiatrist,” says Maytan. “There’s no need for a cancer patient’s days to be filled with disabling anxiety.”