Nearly five years after my cancer diagnosis, I often reflect on how I recovered and what made me healthier and stronger as I healed.Â Helping others to heal is what I do professionally, and I find this work immensely satisfying.Â Â Â Â Â
Healing is a complicated process, but sometimes there are small but helpful things you can implement quickly and easily.Â HereÂ’s a tip that might help you get through your healing process if youÂ’ve been ill or injured, or even if you are perfectly healthy: Recognize and avoid or limit the damage from what I call Â“emotional ambushes.Â”Â An emotional ambush is when your mood suddenly plummets due to something that youÂ’ve read or heard.Â In an emotional ambush situation, this new information is not related to you or your diagnosis or prognosis, but it affects you almost as strongly as if it were directly related to you.Â
An example occurred across America when Elizabeth Edwards announced that she had Stage IV breast cancer.Â One oncologist told me it was as if a bomb had gone off in her clinic.Â Another oncologist told me that she had to tell her scheduling person to book her breast cancer patients for an extra 20 minutes each for a month following this news.Â Â
When I was giving a talk a few weeks after the announcement a woman and her husband came up to me afterward.Â She told me that she had gone through breast cancer treatment about a year ago and had been doing well until she heard that EdwardsÂ’s cancer had spread or metastasized.Â Since that time, she had been quite anxious and unable to sleepÂ—worrying that the same thing would happen to her.Â I told her that this news ambushed many cancer survivors.Â Though it was sad, and we certainly should have empathy for the entire EdwardsÂ’ family, I asked her to consider whether she personally knew Elizabeth Edwards or had any strong ties to her.Â She said she didnÂ’t.Â Then, I asked if her doctor had imparted any news recently that changed her own prognosis.Â Again, she said no.Â
In an emotional ambush situation, the first thing you have to do is recognize that whatever information that you just took in does not directly affect you and you simply canÂ’t take it on as a personal concern.Â If youÂ’ve had cancer, you have plenty to worry about already.Â The same is true if youÂ’ve had to face any other injury or illness, or even if youÂ’re perfectly healthyÂ—everyone is at risk for emotional ambushes.Â
I try to avoid emotional ambushes, but I canÂ’t always do it.Â So, what I do is to pay attention to how information affects my mood, and when IÂ’m suddenly feeling worried or anxious about my own cancer history, I ask myself whether this new information has any bearing on my diagnosis or prognosis.Â When the answer is no, then I remind myself that I can feel less anxious and be more nurturing to my patients, children, husband, and others if I donÂ’t focus on the ambush.Â I literally push it out of my mind and concentrate on other things.Â It takes some practice, but itÂ’s very effective and many of my patients have told me that it works for them, too.Â Try it out and see if it works for you.
Have you experienced Â“emotional ambushes?Â”Â How have you handled them?Â Are you able to focus on the positive aspects of your life rather than your health problems?
Julie K. Silver, M.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. She is also the Chief Editor of Books for Harvard Health Publications.
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