How do you overcome fear of death when you have faced major medical problems?
December 19, 2009 7:44 AM   Subscribe

I had a large non-cancerous tumor removed a few years ago. The tumor and the two surgeries required to remove it left me unable to work for a year and $50,000 in debt.

My problem is that anytime I have any pain in any part of my body, I now fear the worst. If I have pain in my abdomen, I am afraid I have stomach cancer, or liver cancer. If I have a headache, I am afraid it is a blood clot that will lead to a stroke. I have become a complete hypochondriac in the worst way. I fear cancer, I fear death, I fear the absolute worst case when I have even minor physical problems. Basically, what I am asking is how to stop fearing the worst, when the worst has actually happened to me. Does anyone who has suffered through a major medical trauma have any advice on how to stop the fear that it will happen again...that my carefully reconstructed life will be ripped apart again...that the next time I won't survive.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Your doctors successfully treated a physical health issue for you in the past. It's time to seek out another doctor to help you with your mental health issue.
posted by deadmessenger at 8:13 AM on December 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

I have suffered through arguably two major medical traumas recently. I had typed up a long explanation of what they were, but I don't want to co-opt the discussion here.

Soon after the first trauma, I visited my primary care doc to talk about follow-up evaluations that could be done to ensure I survived any future surgeries (we thought I had a bleeding disorder). He recommended in very strong terms that I seek counseling with a grief counselor, particularly one experienced in womens' and fertility issues. He recommended a particular person, and I visited.

I still have problems coming to grips with all of it: occasional fear, rage, and an almost compulsive need to talk about it, and to make sure people understand that I have been 'cursed' and that my life is assuredly 'worse' than theirs. But, I have stopped seeing doom in every corner. I can find purpose in my life again. I have days when I resent others who haven't had my troubles. But with the grief counseling and therapy, I know what to expect and I have some techniques to manage it.

Short answer: There are therapists who focus on specifically this kind of things, and I encourage you to meet with one. Even when the physical aspects of medical problems are gone, anxiety can last for a long time. And it sounds to me like you are having fears and anxieties, and you need help being released from them.
posted by bunnycup at 8:26 AM on December 19, 2009

(Hit post too soon). My other non-therapy or in-addition-to-therapy suggestion is to write about it. Blogging about and/or journaling about my problems has helped me with perspective, and helped me figure out the kinds of things that might be triggering my fear.

A non-medical example: My office is 4 blocks from the WTC, and I was in my office on 9-11, witnessing, experiencing, etc. For YEARS afterwards I had little conscious, intellectually-realized fear, but whenever I was upset or scared my dreams and subconscious actions manifested with fear of planes, bombs, being underground, etc. Everyday anxieties were expressed, by my mind, as fear of death to terrorists. That resurfaced a bit in the last year or so, with my family's medical troubles. Understanding that X subject might be causing me to experience anxiety, which I expressed by fearing Z, was very helpful for me.
posted by bunnycup at 8:29 AM on December 19, 2009

I reccomend "Feeling Good" by David D. Burns MD to help you with this fear issue.

I think, consciously or unconsciously, you may be thinking "I MUST not have any more major setbacks in my health" and then think about this; why not? What universal law prevents you from not being able to suffer health setbacks? Sure, its a damn shame that you are having these problems. It is this "musturbation" that is at the core of a lot of our anxieties.

Albert Ellis also wrote a lot of books on the subject. Read the books, do the exercises, and you will find yourself pleasantly surprised with the emotional relief.
posted by verapamil at 11:32 AM on December 19, 2009

i have this to a lesser degree. after my second go-round with cancer, for a while, a mild case of gas caused a reaction of "OH MY GOD IT'S MORE CANCER".

i found that time helps. therapy helps, but some of it is just being able to teach myself "okay, see, the worst didn't happen this time again either."
posted by rmd1023 at 1:14 PM on December 19, 2009

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