Catastrophizing about what could be a catastrophe
April 21, 2016 12:47 PM   Subscribe

The next week is going to be a rough one for me. My father is going in for cancer tests this week. He'll be seeing a oncologist on Friday before getting a biopsy for what could possibly be lung cancer on Tuesday. He clearly hasn't been diagnosed with anything yet (so who knows, it could be nothing, I guess), but I have been a wreck since Monday. I cannot stop imagining the worst case scenario. I am so afraid of my father being seriously ill and dying and these thoughts are just consuming me. I am completely petrified. How can I cope with this uncertainty? And if the news is bad, can I even survive?

I cried on my way to work today, while thinking about the possibility of my father's death. I'm sitting here crying as I write this.

My father is the biggest support in my life and the person I am closest to, so the thought of losing him so early is devastating. I was never very close to my mother and she's dealt with untreated (her choice) mental illness for most of my life. She never could properly support me, but my father always did. I'm 27 and I feel like a child right now. I have all of these silly thoughts "who will care about me?," "who will support me?," "who will love me?" and I could go on. I thought that I would at least be married and have a support system in place by the time my parents died, but I don't. I just thought that there would be more time, but there might not be. I'm scared of the process of the disease and the process of death.

I've probably read too much about lung cancer in the past few days and, honestly, nothing I've read about it makes me feel hopeful. Lung cancer is not forgiving. His primary care doctor told him "not to worry" (of course) and that the mass they found in his lung is localized and doesn't appear to have spread anywhere as per the CT scan. I probably sound so selfish for being so worried, but I can't stop worrying.

Anyway, how can I survive the next week or two and cope with the uncertainty? If the news is bad, how do I deal with it? I am at such a loss right now.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm so sorry you are experiencing this. Can you ask a friend to stay over? Having a friend there to sit and talk with can be a huge comfort.
posted by M. at 1:01 PM on April 21, 2016

Know that whatever happens you will get through it. Parts might suck a lot, but you will get through it.

Anticipating is one of the hardest parts -- once things start happening, you can start responding and dealing with it on a day at a time basis, and you'll see that you can get through it. Try to hold the anticipating in check, because you can't make this better by planning or researching yet. All you'll do is tire yourself out. Instead, take care of yourself, be in the moment, drink water, eat food. Force yourself to do other non-researchy things, keep your mind occupied - exercise, get outside, read a book, get away from the internet. It might help to think about this as a way to control what you can: even if this terrible thing happens, at least I can ____ (whatever self-care thing).
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:03 PM on April 21, 2016 [8 favorites]

I'm a cancer survivor and let me tell you, the uncertainty is by far the worst part. Waiting is terrible, terrible, terrible. Once you know what's going on, it somehow gets easier to deal with. So hang tight. I know this is so hard. But yes: you're going to be able to deal with whatever comes. I promise.
posted by something something at 1:05 PM on April 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

Lung cancer is not forgiving.

This depends. Stop reading the internet about it. People are living with lung cancer longer than ever before. My mom was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer... I think ten years ago now and has been doing fine thanks to miracle drugs. I mean it will probably be the thing that kills her, but not right now. People's prognoses are really all over the map nowadays. This is NOT to downplay your concerns, they are real and worth having, but it's easy to let the anxiety monster convince you that possibility is the same as probability and honestly you don't know. And in some ways this is worse, because there are a lot of tests in the future assuming this is something that is "best case" so it's worth figuring out how to help yourself.

Different people find different ways to manage. What worked for me was getting a little perspective on the rest of my life, my mom's role in it and talking to my mom about this and drawing some decent boundaries with her about what I would and would not talk to her about (my sister is the primary kid who deals with actual specific medical stuff, I sort of can't deal with it). So finding a role with your dad to be supportive and to "step up" and be there for him the way he's been there for you might be helpful.

I can't tell from your question if your folks are together? Or if you live with them? This might determine some of the useful actions you could be taking. A thing that was helpful for me was "You're actually not going to change the outcome by worrying, you're just living with the worry" May or may not be helpful for you, was for me, it gave me permission to do other things even though this was so serious.

Cancer support groups for family members can also be useful since it lets you focus on yourself when a lot of the focus otherwise is (quite reasonably) on the person with cancer. Finding a friend where you can talk about your own feelings here might give you a little space for you.
posted by jessamyn at 1:11 PM on April 21, 2016 [11 favorites]

My dad was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer last June. You have to deal with this your own way, so I don't have what I'd call advice, but I will share some experience:

He'll be seeing a oncologist on Friday before getting a biopsy for what could possibly be lung cancer on Tuesday.... His primary care doctor told him "not to worry" (of course) and that the mass they found in his lung is localized and doesn't appear to have spread anywhere as per the CT scan.

Lung cancer is a possibility, but even if it is cancer, there are types of lung cancer that, if caught early enough, can simply be removed. Cut it out, done.

I've probably read too much about lung cancer in the past few days and, honestly, nothing I've read about it makes me feel hopeful.

Don't do this. Seriously -- stop reading about it. First, all you're going to find online is worst case scenarios. Do not believe anything you read that has a number attached (X years, Y%, etc.). Wait until you have actual information from an actual doctor about your actual father's diagnosis. There are a lot of new treatments that work well for a lot of patients. My dad just started one that was only approved this past fall. Don't worry about what you don't yet know, because it might not be as bad as the information you're finding online.

I'm 27 and I feel like a child right now. I have all of these silly thoughts "who will care about me?," "who will support me?," "who will love me?" and I could go on. I thought that I would at least be married and have a support system in place by the time my parents died, but I don't. I just thought that there would be more time, but there might not be.

That's the weird thing about dealing with aging parents as an adult. It sure does make you feel like that little kid again who needs care. And I hear you about the support system. At the same time that I'm going through this with my family, I am also going through a divorce. I'm detaching myself, legally, from the support system I always thought I'd have. And you're right -- it's scary.

But! The answer is YOU. You take care of you. The thing you have to do is care for yourself. Figure out what self-care looks like for you. It might be exercise, it might be hot baths -- whatever. Find the thing that lets you be good to and take care of yourself, and keep doing that thing.

Anyway, how can I survive the next week or two and cope with the uncertainty? If the news is bad, how do I deal with it? I am at such a loss right now.

I know, first-hand, how hard this is. But here's the thing: We have this incredible built-in survival mechanism. You will survive it. What you do is you get through each day and move on to the next. Pretty soon you'll find yourself marveling that you're able to do so, and every day it's going to get a little bit easier and you'll get a little bit stronger.

It's been a rough road with my dad, and I definitely wish this is something we weren't having to go through. I'm patting myself on the back every damn day, though, because I'm finding that I'm stronger than I knew I was. I'm getting through it. You'll get through it.

But definitely stop reading about lung cancer. And definitely wait for concrete information. And tell yourself that there's no use worrying about or putting energy into something that hasn't happened yet.

Be good to yourself. Best to you and your family.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:12 PM on April 21, 2016 [9 favorites]

If I were you I would make an appointment with a therapist today. Not because anything bad is necessarily going to happen, but because it won't hurt to have a support system completely devoted to helping you already on deck just in case you need it. It's totally not at all the same, but when my parents divorced in my mid-thirties I called a therapist immediately because I knew I couldn't handle it on my own, and I'm so glad I did--stuff like divorce, trauma, parental mortality has a unique way of making you feel like a scared little kid all over again. Hugs.
posted by stellaluna at 1:30 PM on April 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

My deepest condolences for your current predicament.

Acknowledge the situation is completely awful and unfair - no one will contest that ever. What you are going through is one of the hardest things we ever have to face in life - our own parents' mortality. And this is so fresh, completely understandable that you are having such a hard time processing the whole situation. You don't have to be perfect here. You are allowed your grief.

See what you can do to get some time off work, or at least go home early on days when you can't keep it together. Frankly if you're a wreck you won't be getting a lot done anyway. Talk to your supervisor about your situation and see what can be worked out. See if you can work from home, if that's possible with your job.

Have close friends keep you company in the evenings during this hard time, just so you won't be alone. These people ARE part of your support network. If I've ever learned anything in life, it's that real friends want to be there for you in your time of need. If you don't have anyone close to you who can relate to your situation, I would strongly recommend a grief counsellor if you have any ability to get coverage from your healthcare plan. It is important to talk to someone who will be truly understanding and helpful, and will help you process your feelings.

Keep busy. Keep active. Keep productive with physical tasks. Anxiety and stress make you physically feel like crap, but staying mobile will help release the built-up tension. Reorganize a closet, do yard work, paint a room, etc. If there is something you can help out with at your parents' house along those lines, do it. Work furiously and tire yourself out, burn through some of that immediate overwhelming grief.

This is particularly hard, but --- Make plans for what to do if the news is bad. All the contingency plans for things you're worried about in your own life. Then instead of becoming immobilized by the fear and despair should the news turn out to be bad, you will be prepared to operate on autopilot to execute the plans you've already set out for yourself.

But you have to remember, nothing's been confirmed yet. And even if something is found, there's a whole spectrum of what could happen, what his options are, what the timelines might be. Know that you still have time with him.

Be strong, you can get through this.
posted by lizbunny at 1:34 PM on April 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is a really sucky time, isn't it? I'm sorry you're having to deal with this. If it's any consolation, no matter how old you are it's still awful to witness the decline and death of a parent.

This may seem counterintuitive, but if you're the type who likes to be in control of yourself and your life, this strategy will work: Stop letting your thoughts and worries run away with you. Be systematic about it instead. Just as if it were a work or school project, list out the possibilities and develop a contingency plan for each one. What you'll do for your father, for yourself, what you'll do or tell yourself to cope with it, and so forth. Oh, and don't forget the possibility that it will turn out to be no big whoop.

Once you've laid out what could happen, and what you'll do in each case, you're done. Live your life, be supportive of your dad (and don't forget your mom; she's probably really unsettled by this as well and could use some support and company) secure in the knowledge that you have plans in place for whatever happens.
posted by DrGail at 1:35 PM on April 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm 27 and I feel like a child right now.

You're not a child. You can handle this and anything that comes. You don't need to be taught life-lessons anymore. You have 27 years of lessons to draw on.

A parent's most important job is to grow and release strong, independent adults into the world. Your father's work is for naught if he can't at some point rely on you to draw on the lessons he already taught you by word or by deed.

How can I cope with this uncertainty? And if the news is bad, can I even survive?

You cope by becoming a source of support for your father. It's your turn. You're up.
posted by headnsouth at 1:35 PM on April 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm sorry this is happening, but I also know you will get through it. Sometimes it will feel like you can't, but whatever happens, you will handle it because you don't have a choice. It's hard - there's no way around that - and you get to cry as much as you need to.
I lost three members of my immediate family before I turned 37, so I know how hard it is (I was 21 when my dad died). One mistake I made with people with cancer was focusing so much on complete cure being the only acceptable option that I didn't appreciate the time I had with those people. Your dad is still alive. You still have time with him. That is a precious, precious thing. I know right now you feel like the world is falling apart, but whatever comes in the future is in the future, and you don't have control over that.
What you do have control over is taking care of yourself and being there for your dad. Therapy is probably a good idea - you will need support, and one problem with being so young is that people you know will say stupid frustrating things because they don't get it. But I guarantee you will get through this, whatever happens. And you still don't know what's going to happen. Your dad may be around for a long time yet.
posted by FencingGal at 1:46 PM on April 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was 22 when my dad was diagnosed with cancer, and I freaked out far worse than he did. That was, gosh, almost fourteen years ago. He's currently healthier than I am - ten mile bike rides and hiking all over Spain and such, it's ridiculous.

Anyway, the best thing to do is to just focus on what you can actually do, and distract yourself from stuff you can't control. Whether this means meditation or listening to every Metallica song ever recorded or volunteering at a soup kitchen honestly depends on what works best for you. I focused on doing an amazing job at work.
posted by SMPA at 1:49 PM on April 21, 2016

I'm so sorry to hear all this is happening for you right now.

I'm going to share what I was taught by a therapist. She taught me to pause, and then ask myself: can I change anything by going over & over it in my head?.

It's really a really tough question to ask myself when things pile on top and I feel the weight of the universe on top of me. But this question makes me focus on the right-here right-now and makes me able to continue through the worst of times.
posted by kariebookish at 1:52 PM on April 21, 2016

You'll get through this, no matter how his results turn out. Keep in touch with your dad and keep in touch with your friends. If the results are bad, the next steps will be laid out for you. You'll support your dad, you'll do things to make his path more comfortable. Understand that this sort of stress brings out the best and worst in everyone, so go easy on yourself if you feel like you occasionally screw things up.

As others have said, uncertainty is he scariest part of it. Treat yourself to something nice. Allow yourself to freak out a bit.

I hope things turn out well with your dad's tests.
posted by bonobothegreat at 1:55 PM on April 21, 2016

Also: cancer isn't like it once was. My dad and uncle had the exact same kind that killed their dad, and neither was noticeably "sick" beyond what you'd expect anyone to be after surgery. Their hair thinned out a little, but not nearly what I expected. I also have two friends who are multiple years post treatment for stage 4 brain cancer, which neither had any strong expectations of surviving.

Anyway, it used to be basically a death sentence, but it quite often isn't anymore.
posted by SMPA at 1:57 PM on April 21, 2016

Also, remember that those five year survival studies are based on medication and treatments that are AT LEAST five years out of date. So in an area like this where there are great advances in treatment happening all the time, the people who are getting the best current medical care haven't been getting it for long enough to be part of those statistics. One more reason to stop reading about it.
posted by metahawk at 2:07 PM on April 21, 2016

I have been where you are and I completely understand the fear, the feeling like a child (you are his child and that will never change), and the bursting into tears at the possibilities.

So much good advice above, but I will echo seeing a therapist. I think that's the single most important thing I did when I lost my mom and later when my dad was diagnosed with cancer. I'm not sure how I would have coped without that support. All the best to you and your dad.
posted by cecic at 2:08 PM on April 21, 2016

So, look. This fucking sucks. Fuck cancer. Also, there's the added worry of it being someone you love, and not you, and the unknowable-ness that gets piled on simply because of that. This has to be the worst feeling, and I am so sorry you're going through this.

But I'll say this, as someone who has done the "IS IT CANCER?" dance a few times via my cervix.

Needing a test isn't cancer. Needing a biopsy isn't cancer. Digging up WebMD stuff about this will make you crazy, and thinking about it in an obsessive kind of way, ditto. Every time I get a cervical biopsy (because, yes, it has been multiple times), I just try to not think about it. I take care of myself. I'm a little self-indulgent. I spend the time watching movies and hanging out with people I love and doing my hobbies and just enjoying things and not taking anything too seriously. I think this is probably harder to do if you're not the person having the biopsy. But I'd suggest all the same things to you. Don't go asking for stress by trying to frontload coping mechanisms and How Does Cancer Work and What Will We Do etc. Just give yourself a vacation from thinking that way. Give yourself a mental vacation from giving too much of a fuck about anything in particular.

When your dad finds out what's up, you'll deal with it. Until then, worrying yourself sick about your parents' eventual mortality is a waste of your life.
posted by Sara C. at 2:22 PM on April 21, 2016

My mantra is "will worrying about this right now do anyone any good?"

About 1% of the time, that answer is actually yes: you should do laundry in case you need to pack and go in a hurry, sit down and make a list of your urgent upcoming work tasks in case you need to take a few days off. You can use a few cycles of that worry to prepare an actual plan for the various forms of bad news, like who you can call if you need to not be alone. But you don't have to plot out the next 6 months for every possible scenario, that's neither realistic nor productive, and it doesn't do anyone any good.

But what if- Stop. Whatever it is, it'll get here eventually. And you can deal with it then.

When you start to anxiety-spiral, you need a phrase you can use to disrupt it. "I can't fix this" is one I use, also "I can't fix this with my mind" since that's really what I'm trying to do, or "I can't fix it with this" when I'm panic-googling as if that's going to give me an oncology specialization, or trying to apply an entire package of cookies to the problem.

You can't fix this. You will have to find some faith in the people who can.

Also, our brains are completely useless when they're unpleasantly surprised. They spin out and manufacture extra trouble and obsess and generally freak out, but this is not a permanent state. It will acclimate and it will settle down. You will be better able to get a hold of yourself and calm down. Do not push your resources too hard right now, so that it has the energy to do so. Drink water, sleep if you can but rest your body if you can't. Bathe, eat nutritious food. Do indulge in comfort media that is familiar and soothing.

You can't fix this. Focus on managing the aspects of it you can manage, because that's all you can realistically do.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:46 PM on April 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

Freud had a theory that much of modern people's angst was a refusal to confront our eventual demise - the inability to confront death leads to deep defense mechanisms and ultimately, neuroses.

Other psychological theories deal with this as well, for example DBT's idea of "radical acceptance":

I prefer DBT over Freud and it's applicable to your question of surviving the next week: Acknowledge to yourself that this situation really really sucks - you don't like it and it feels terrible. Anyone who says otherwise is full of it.

But, also remind yourself that the universe moves how it moves - things are as they are, and your feelings (though real and important) do not necessarily require action, but rather acknowledgment (both from others, as well as yourself).

There are meditation analogies which use the metaphor of leaves floating down the river: when a leaf floats into your view, do not shy away from it but embrace it, experience it, honor it. But also know that the river keeps moving, and the leaf will too, and calm will again return.

(Apologies if these ideas aren't helpful, they have been for me at times.)
posted by soylent00FF00 at 5:46 PM on April 21, 2016

"If the news is bad, how do I deal with it?"

You'll figure it out. Because nobody can just dissolve into a puddle of tears and never come up again, not in this world. You will eventually have to get out of bed and figure out how to deal with it (I'm sure doctors will tell you how), because your dad will need you and you can't just absent yourself from life, even when it sucks.

I'm sorry for the situation you're now in. I hope the news isn't bad.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:48 PM on April 21, 2016

I very much hope this isn't cancer. I hope he is fine and it was all a false alarm.

If it's not:

When my father died I was about ten years older than you are now. My father was my primary parent, the smartest person I've ever known, my professional mentor, and my best friend. My sister said, at one point, "how can we go on when the protagonist of our story is gone?"

All this to say, I feel you on the absolute impossibility of a life without him.

It's so complicated to describe how my life has been without him, so I won't dump that on you. But if the news is bad, please do memail me.

I very much hope you will have good news.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 9:19 PM on April 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

What you do is you get through each day and move on to the next.
posted by mudpuppie on April 21

This, a hundred times.

Logging in as my sockpuppet to say, I was exactly in your position earlier this year. My father did actually get diagnosed with Stage 3 small cell lung cancer.The time before we knew the exact diagnosis was harder than immediately after. I'll never forget that half-hour in the waiting room before we went in to talk to the doctor. In the days beforehand I spent hours on the internet researching lung cancer, wondering what I was going to do, whether I should move home, if my dad would suffer. It was hell. (So yeah, Googling is a totally bad idea.)

After learning the diagnosis and needing about half an hour to absorb it, I actually felt a weird sense of euphoria, which is CRAZY, but I think it was my hormones just... getting me through it?! Whatever it was, it was so weird. In the days that followed, I didn't find myself trying to be strong for my dad. I was just strong for my dad. It just happened. Not that I wasn't shocked and grieving (after that bizarre initial cheerfulness went away), but I just got on with it - there was a lot of medical admin to do in the first few days and my dad, sick with pneumonia brought about by his tumour, couldn't handle it himself.

Not knowing is very hard. You're suffering a hell of a lot right now. Knowing the truth, even if it's bad, CAN take some of the weight off. For us, just knowing what had to be done and having a plan was very important to focus on and took our minds off the horrible unknowables down the line. It's not that I don't stress about the future. But most of the time, I'm too busy with practicalities to do so. I really only have headspace for tomorrow and day after at the most. I often go to sleep on the thought, "He's not going to die tomorrow."

Fuck cancer - it is hateful and horrible but it has not been as we expected. My dad isn't noticeably sick at the moment, since his pneumonia was cured and his tumour started to shrink. Yes he has experienced side effects to chemotherapy and radiotherapy but not the ones we expected. (None of that Googling really helped.) Life isn't exactly easy, but it's not unbearable. Just tough the way most people's lives are tough.

You will also be able to deal with it, because... you'll have to. You won't have a choice. Life becomes strangely clear and linear when things like this happen to you and people you love.

I'm sorry if some of this is garbled. I'm IN it, at the moment, I'm not looking back on it, so I can't tell you how it turned out for me in the end and what I learned from it or did right or wrong... Just that, when you're in it, you get through it because you have to. JUST MAKE SURE YOU TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF, TOO. You need to, for your dad.

Good luck. Please memail me if you need to talk.
posted by sockandawe at 2:08 AM on April 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

So, I was your age when I lost my dad to lung cancer. It was kind of the worst-case scenario version that you're spinning your wheels about now: sudden, worst possible diagnosis, brief unsuccessful treatment (that was horrible for all concerned), and very shortly afterwards, he died. I too had expected to be settled in my adult life before having to deal with my parents' mortality, but instead I was in the middle of an ugly, dragged out divorce. Hooray.

It remains the worst thing that ever happened to me. (And that's nothing compared to how much it sucked for HIM!)

But lo, observe! I am alive even now, and posting on metafilter instead of doing some dumb work task. It is very very hard to see how life will go on when you are in the midst of shock and worry, but luckily, that's the sort of thing that gets taken care of with or without our help.

I say this to show you, hopefully, that even if the worst should come to pass (and there's no reason to expect it will, but I'm just saying, EVEN IF), one day you too will be alive and in your 30s and posting on Metafilter, trying to offer some comfort and reassurance to someone who's experiencing this for the first time.

I also wanted to say that whatever the outcome--false alarm, minor illness, surgery, chemo, remission, whatever--you will not always feel this way that you feel. You'll have wonderful happy peaceful moments where you two are eating a good meal and laughing about something. You'll have moments where you feel competent and capable in a completely new way. You'll have moments much worse than this one, too, but then they'll pass. You'll worry about taking time off work but never really regret it. (I hope your work is understanding! It helps so much.) You'll feel guilty for attending to your daily life and work and what have you, but then remind yourself that losing your job and going bankrupt would have helped no one.

But whatever you are feeling and whatever is happening at the moment, know that that future moment--the one where you're metafilter-procrastinating and feel a sudden pang of empathy for a poster who is facing a parent's illness--it's out there and you'll get there eventually.

Best to you, OP! And to your dad.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:18 AM on April 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

I am also very sorry that you are going through this difficult time. I am currently at home with my father as he undergoes care for a terminal lung disease. First of all everything you are feeling is totally normal. Two books have helped me (and sorry I am not trying to push Buddhism but they are both generic to that tradition.) A Year To Live by Michael Levine and No Death No Fear by Thich Nhat Hanh have brought me some solace. Best of luck to you and your father.
posted by ejourdan at 10:06 PM on April 22, 2016

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