Cancer Tips Health

Managing anxiety after a health issue

Sorry for the length of this post but I have a confession. I’ve been managing some post-surgery anxiety. It shouldn’t surprise me because one of the many things you learn as a cancer survivor is that just because treatment ends, your cancer journey doesn’t necessarily end. It takes many detours, climbs, downhills, jumps and more. Similar to life in general. And while all of this isn’t always fun and easy, I’ve always told myself it’s not that bad when you recognize you’re alive to experience it.

As many of my regular readers know, I am a 21-year bone cancer survivor (and melanoma survivor). I was fortunate to undergo a limb salvage surgery that removed most of my left femur and upper tibia, replacing it with a titanium rod and other parts. I have been very lucky to live a fairly normal life with this bone replacement, being able to hike, bike, rock climb and much more. I always knew that someday these pieces would need to be replaced due to wear and tear (as I once told my surgeon, I didn’t survive cancer to sit on the couch watching life pass me by).
In August, I had that unexpected surgery to replace the parts in my knee that hold my upper and lower leg together. Thankfully, surgery went great and I healed beautifully. My surgeon was incredibly pleased with my recovery. Me too. I’m grateful my body was strong enough to recover quickly from a another major surgery. 

But I wasn’t expecting my mind and emotions to take so much longer to recover. As a cancer survivor, there is always the tingling of anxiety and fear in the back of your mind…..of recurrence, injury, new diagnoses, side effects and more. I think we all understand those are normal emotions post-treatment. Some people manage these emotions better than others, just like with any injury or traumatic experience. I thankfully have been one of those people who tries to and often succeeds in managing my emotions with an optimistic, lesson learned outlook. 

So it kind of has thrown me for a loop to struggle so much after surgery to mentally and emotionally move past the experience to feel normal again. I know deep down that I want to be active, build the muscle strength back in my leg (and rest of my body), and simply get back to my every day life that was put on pause during surgery and recovery. I tell myself that my leg will be fine, it’s no more modification and awareness than it’s been the past 20 years. And yet…..there’s been this hurdle that I seem to pause in front of. I rode hunters/jumpers for many years and I can visualize that moment of heading to a tall fence, the momentum of the horse’s stride readying to leap off the ground over the fence…..and he suddenly stops, leaving me completely unprepared for the refusal to jump the fence, sometimes barely hanging on. Yeah, that’s been me. 

But now that I’ve finally wrapped my head around the awareness of what’s been going on inside my often overly active brain, I can face the inaction and delve into what’s causing the anxiety and create a plan to move forward. 

Try a little at a time. Start small. As I shared, I was nervous when I was finally cleared for exercise. But I needed, both physically and mentally, to get back to an active lifestyle. I recognized that I didn’t need to jump back into 25-30 mile bike rides or multiple exercise classes in one week. I like exercising because I love being outdoors on my bike or in the woods on a hike, or dancing in Zumba with friends. I love the feeling of a strong body during and after a workout, a reminder that my amazing body has brought me this far. I needed to focus on those loves rather than a big workout. My first bike ride was only five miles. After I finished, my knee felt good. The next day was a beautiful fall day so I decided to try a short hike at the local nature center trails. I was thrilled to get three miles before my knee got achy. The weather unfortunately changed before I could get much biking or hiking in, but I set up my bike trainer indoors to keep me riding during winter. I first started with short bike rides, like 10-20 minutes. Within a few days, my knee felt great so I stretched my rides and now I’m up to 45-60 minutes per ride (I find good shows to watch to convince myself to bike for the duration!). 

Find a partner. I have the fortune of being able to usually motivate myself to exercise because I try to participate in activities that I enjoy. But with this unexpected anxiety, I found reasons to not work out. I knew I needed some back up. I’m grateful for a supportive circle of friends and family in my life. My girlfriend started calling me on the weekends to go on walks together. And my “Zumba girlfriends” welcomed me back with hugs. Having friends with me was a good distraction from any anxiety or zeroing in on phantom aches in my leg. 

Journal your thoughts. I’ve always enjoyed writing my emotions and experiences in a journal (it’s a joke that I have an addiction to awesome journals). It helps me let go of anything that’s ‘stuck’ in my head. I often will write down concerns, set the journal aside for a day or two, then come back to read my entry. It’s amazing the different perspective I can take after stepping away from the situation for a bit. The act of writing everything down is like a release to me – putting it on paper releases it from my mind and emotional reserve. It’s almost like taking a deep breath in and exhaling awa the anxiety. 

Share your concerns with your doctor. My post-surgery check ups with my surgeon went great. My leg healed very well. But a few weeks ago, shortly after a check up, I kept feeling an ongoing ache that I was sure didn’t feel ‘normal.’ I couldn’t stop thinking about the ache and was babying my leg, skipping workouts. I finally decided to see my surgeon for another check up, just in case something was amiss. He was a bit surprised to see me back so soon, but still did a full exam and even went so far to take some measurement comparisons from last year’s X-rays and now. Everything looked perfect. So I finally confessed my nerves and fear of hurting my leg again. He assured me I was not becoming a hypochondriac (my big fear). He said it wasn’t uncommon for cancer survivors who had undergone another major surgery, as I recently had, to be hyper-sensitive to their body’s aches. This wasn’t a bad thing, since this awareness helped me catch the cracks in my knee parts before anything devastating happened. But everything looked fine physically so it was okay for me to start getting back into ‘normal.’ He in fact highly encouraged it. Just having the extra exam done and listening to his reassurance almost immediately eased my anxiety. I swear that ongoing ache eased within a day of seeing him!

Cut yourself some slack. Putting pressure on yourself to jump back into the normal activity right after surgery is a lot of unnecessary anxiety. Ask yourself what else is possible? Check in with yourself to acknowledge your feelings, which can help release the tension and limitations, moving you into new possibilities. But also don’t sit on the couch for too long. It does get easy to make excuses and no one wants butt impressions in their couch cushions. 

Do you have tips for overcoming anxiety and fear after an injury or illness? How do you stay motivated to be active? 

12 thoughts on “Managing anxiety after a health issue

  1. It’s natural to have anxiety after surgery, especially if you are a cancer survivor. My mom had many surgeries during her cancer treatment and every time we worried about what would happen or happen next. Being kind to yourself during this time can really help ease some of that anxiety.

  2. You are a very brave soul. And I can understand the fact that fighting with anxiety can be really difficult. I agree with the points listed out by you. I tried journaling but it didn’t work out for me but after reading your post, I am sure that I will start journaling again.

    1. Journaling isn’t for everyone and even I have moments when I simply stare at the pages rather than write. I hope it works for you if you try again, or you find something else that eases your soul. xo

  3. Thank you for sharing this story of survival. You’re truly inspirational! I’ve had some experience with anxiety myself, and I’ve found all these tips to be helpful… especially cutting yourself some slack. (The hardest one for me.) I miss doing Zumba with friends, too! We’ve been moving a lot, which is part of why I’ve been experiencing anxiety. This inspired me to look up a Zumba class in the area. Here’s to new friends! xx

    1. Thank you for your anxiety honesty. I hold myself accountable for lots too (we’re often hardest on ourselves right?), but then feel so much better when I simply take a deep breath and tell myself to relax. 🙂 I LOVE Zumba! I hope you find a class near you. It is such a mental and physical release and energy boost for me. xoxo

  4. Thanks for sharing your story Heather. I know Barb has the same anxiety about there lymphoma, especially when it come time for her periodic check. Merry Christmas to you!

  5. I sincerely commend you for your strength as a survivor and for sharing your story. Talking about your past as a hunter/jumper equestrian was a really brilliant example for anxiety I think because I also rude hunter/jumper and had that same fear before a fence. Then one day, it finally happened. My horse balked at a tire fence and I continued, flew over the fence, and landed on my back. After my initial fear had passed (that I had the same fate as Christopher Reeves), I stood up, was a little shaky, but okay. And after that, because I had experienced it, the anxiety decreased in the future. Avoidance often feels “safer” when dealing with anxiety, but can cause it to worsen over time. By confronting it head-on (the fear of recurrence, or whatever it may be), acknowledging it, and moving forward as you are doing, can help diminish the anxiety long-term.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience! Great point about avoiding versus confronting. Funny enough, I use my riding experience as a foundation for many pep talks to myself – I fell off several horses (I kind of liked the spirited, frisky ones!) but the philosophy of get up, dust off and get back in the saddle has played a role in many life situations. 🙂

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