It’s that time of year again for me. Testing time. Ye Annual CAT Scanne. Like the Olde Time Ice Cream Shoppe. But with doctors and isotope-laced Crystal Lite instead of ice cream. Um, yeah. See? Testing time makes me crazy.
I know I’m lucky to only do this once a year—many cancer survivors get retested more often (I went from four to two to one a year). But it’s a drag no matter. That feeling of being well and “moving on” is upended as a myth I’ve relied on to feel normal. I start combing over every sniffle, ache, cough, negative thought. I remember that I’ve got this thing, this pet camel, let’s say, to take care of. She needs little food and water most of the time, but is very much not a mirage and I’m always amazed how I can almost forget she exists. So the shock of re-meeting the camel—you again!—makes me a little more edgy, neurotic, and overwhelmed than usual.
I have one survivor friend who basically ropes off the three weeks before her annual scans. She knows she’s going to be a mess, so she gathers support, battens downs the hatches, and is inordinately kind to herself. We could all be so served. To help myself, and you if you happen to be a survivor or love one, I’ve created this list. Mainly for those who have braved cancer, but it might apply to anyone who gets those nerve-wracking words: “We’d like to do some tests.”
Allow Yourself to Feel What You Feel
Well-meaning friends and family will attempt to soothe your pretesting nerves with a chorus of “It’s going to be fine.” Though this is preferable to “Good luck, sucka,” it doesn’t actually address the voices that are terrified, that have, in fact, good reason to be terrified because you’ve had test results before that were not okay. So I say to you: It’s oaky to be scared or angry or indifferent or numb or whatever you might be. Let yourself, without judgment, be exactly where you are. That way you’re not afraid AND in a state of uncomfortable self-denying denial.
Bring a Buddy
After my first unsuspecting round of pre-diagnosis testing, I never went to a test alone. Of course I could and would be fine (yeah, see? I’m tough), but there’s no need. Even if you will be “fine,” that’s not really good enough for this sort of thing. You need to be supported, uplifted, balanced out, assuming your mind is anywhere near as anxiety-prone as mine. Your buddy doesn’t have to do anything but hang out and chat or read magazines in the waiting room with you. But a buffer between you and the misery stew of most waiting rooms will help make this a much smoother experience—and maybe even fun.
Create a Ritual
Whether it’s three weeks before or the day-of, a ritual can help calm the fires and put your experience in a sacred context. You can call on your guides and angels, light a candle, take a scented bath, even pick out a “lucky” outfit. Ritual is a doorway that allows unseen forces to make a regular appearance, to know where to find you in your hours, weeks, days, of need.
Ask People to Pray for You (or Send Good Vibes)
Though the prayer jury is still out after the results of that study a few years ago, many people have had the direct experience of the benefits of prayer. I’m fairly certain that my recovery would have been much less robust and speedy if I hadn’t had a few friends actively including me in their daily roster. I’m not religious at all, but there is something to the energy of having positive thoughts and wishes and blessings sent your way. It’s basically like creating a spiritual cheerleading squad. Each “Please Universe, send my friend divine love and strength and the outcome that will serve her highest good and the highest good of humanity” is a shaken pom-pom, a feisty back flip of joy energy in your direction. Let it in.
Eat Good Food
Many medical tests involve ingesting substances that can, in large enough doses, actually cause the disease they are testing for. It’s always a bit alarming when I see the nurse handle what she’s about to inject into my veins with gloves, a metal canister, and other preventive measures—as if it’s a radioactive substance. Because it is. The advice my natural health practitioners have given me is eat plenty of green things—wheatgrass juice, steamed kale, concentrated green drink mixes with things like blue-green algae, grasses, and veggies. Chlorophyll, they say, tempers radiation. I try and have a green juice before (up till whenever I’m supposed to fast), and a nourishing, warm meal of steamed greens, rice, and a protein after. I also drink lots and lots of water for the twenty-four to forty-eight hours after to give my system a little extra flushing. Oh, and I take probiotics to make sure my gut is in top processing state so nothing lingers too long. And of course, chocolate is in order.
Read Your Favorite Stuff
Read poetry, Bible verses, or bathroom graffiti—anything that helps you touch into that delicious sweetness you may have completely forgotten about. When I was sick, and now before my tests, I dipped into Pema Chodron’s audio and paper books. Her voice and words seem to come from a place where I want to be—deep, calm waters. She is just so sane. And compassionate. And I read Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese. Gives me perspective and makes me feel less alone. Read whatever does it for you, whatever is an antidote to worry and doomsday scenarios. Also Cuteoverload.com is visual oxytocin crack. One word: Puupppppies!
Take Your Thoughts Lightly
One friend whose child went through kidney cancer told me that the most helpful thing he learned from the hellacious process was that he could not derive comfort from his thoughts. That to calm down and be of service to his son, he had to go into a place of no-thoughts because the thinking was leading him down all sorts of dark and twisty alleys. If you have a meditation practice, use it. Find a calm, still place in you (not necessarily a “happy place,” just a softly empty one) and go there when your mind starts convincing you of all sorts of horrible things. Gently keep redirecting yourself back there. Regard the thoughts as wind, a disturbance you can step away from by taking shelter in your centered calm.
When you’re worrying about your tests, notice how you’re breathing. Like right now. Without changing it at all, what’s your breathing like? Is it slow and deep? Fast and shallow? Puffing your belly a little or limited to your upper chest? Once you non-judgmentally notice it, very very gently see if you can take a few slow deep breaths that go all the way down to your belly button. Count the seconds for each inhale and exhale and begin to make your exhales longer than your inhales. I’ve been told by a doctor that this helps reset the nervous system. Try five seconds in, ten seconds out. You can also try the yogic breath of alternate-nostril breathing, a.k.a. anuloma-viloma, which, say yogis, helps to soothe nerves and balance the brain’s hemispheres.
On Testing Day, the Dress Code Is Foxy Casual
Get up. Say a prayer, do your ritual, make your bed. Eat breakfast (if you’re allowed to). And put on your favorite jeans, the ones that make your butt look very nearly like Jessica Biels’s or Brad’s. If you squint. And your favorite shirt. And wear or bring the softest sweater you own (doctors’ offices are notoriously freezing). When I say soft, it has to be something that makes you want to pet yourself. Cashmere is my textile drug of choice. The goal here is: clean, confident, comfortable, and nourished by everything that touches your skin.
Know That’s It’s Going to Be Okay
Yep, I know, I said this phrase was annoying. And it is, but the truth of it is, you actually are going to be OK on the deepest level. Even if the results are exactly what you don’t want. Even if your insurance falls through, even if all the crappiest things happen. Because, and realize these Pollyanna-ish and badly paraphrased words are coming from a skeptic who also believes this: We are swimming in love. We can open ourselves to that love at any minute, and when we die, we will return to that love. In our deepest suffering, we can receive that love. You are loved, you are loved, you are loved. For real. Pass it on.
Originally published on Beliefnet