Family Life

My mom survived breast cancer. Am I next?

On average, an estimated 15.2% of new cancer cases in the United States are women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. That means that 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop breast cancer at some point in their lifetime. 

These statistics are indicative of families, touched eternally by a cancer that is more than just a disease – it is linear. Breast cancer often weaves a thread, mangled in fate and fear, through mothers, daughters, and sisters alike. The survivors among them are the superheroes of nearly every generation of women, powering through all of the anxiety, body disfiguring surgeries or treatments, and impromptu decision-making associated with the onset of such an illness. They take this disease and nip it in the bud, almost passively, acknowledging the unforgiving weight that will forever be weighing down their bodies and minds. 

In some cases, before these women can even think about what comes next, they are sewed up, stripped, and shaved. Left without any sensation in their breast area after a mastectomy, and feeling less and less whole with every visit to the oncologist. It is hard for most women to even feel at home in their bodies anymore. 

In February of 2017, my mother sat in a bleak and claustrophobic doctor’s office for her regular mammogram visit and heard the dreadful words that every woman lives in fear of, “I think we’re going to need to take a second exam. There may be cancer.” 

There was. 

She has told me that she spent most of her life, 38 years to be exact, in terror of what was surely to come. When my mother was 17 years old, the same age that I had been when she was diagnosed, her mother passed away after a long and debilitating battle with breast cancer. Afterward, this disease became a constant threat. So, in some ways, her diagnosis was more of a relief than anything else.

For me, however, it was excruciating. I had a hard time fathoming the enormity of it. Often, I would find myself drenched in hot and burning tears, unable to put into words what I was feeling. I was incoherent and unable to be comforted. I really hated it when people tried to comfort me, too—it felt condescending. I didn’t want to need them.

But, at the same time, I wasn’t even close to being the strong person that I presented to the world. I was falling hard—and fast. Most days, I would go to school or hang out with my friends, but the entire time I felt as if there were a million knives stabbing my chest at any given moment, and I couldn’t help it. Sometimes, I even liked feeling the pain. If my mom had to suffer, then, I thought, so did I. 

Years later I’m able to articulate my thoughts a little more clearly. I was terrified, desperate, and I didn’t know where to turn. So much was happening all the time and I was grieving my old self. That is, the self that hadn’t yet felt such complete and sunken remorse. There was this urgency to do everything right. In a situation like that, there’s no room for mistakes and I was incredibly nervous that I would mess up. Or maybe I was nervous that something would mess me up. Either way, I changed a lot that year. 

Unfortunately, our story is not an uncommon one. 

A woman’s chance of developing breast cancer increases if her mother, sister, or daughter has been diagnosed. In addition, women who carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene are at an increased risk of breast cancer than women who do not carry the gene. 

My mom is thankfully, and gracefully, in remission today. Her fight seemed, on the outside, to be continuous and suffocating. But, she is a survivor, bold and vivacious, in all of her glory. She has the scars and the strength to prove it, too. 

I am well aware that my risk of this disease is high. But, I am also confident that this does not mean that it is a death sentence. Regardless of being only 21 years old, I am diligent in conducting breast exams on myself at least once a month in an attempt to detect any early warning signs of breast cancer. What I search for is any abnormal lumps or changes in the breast tissue/skin. 

The good news is that with advancing technologies the survival rate of people diagnosed with breast cancer is steadily increasing, even though the number of people getting sick remains stagnant. 

Any cancer diagnosis is terrifying, but breast cancer for me feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I won’t be able to stop being overwhelmed by this sharp and unrelenting nervousness until it is completely out of my system. And we all know that there is only one way for that to happen. 

For now, I am trying to focus on what I am able to control. Breast cancer is certainly not one of those things. But, I am in control of my mindset. While it is important for me not to let my guard down, at some point I have to just let go and let it be. I trust that fate will run its course. 

I come from a long legacy of confident and courageous women, all beautiful and bountiful in their own right. So, it would be a disservice if I did not take their wisdom and hold onto it tightly. I mean, I watched while my own mother boldly stared her fears directly in the face. She never skipped a beat, not even for a second. Her resilience against a disease that is otherwise overbearing is nothing short of inspiring and I am so proud of her. Because of her, I am starting to think that maybe I can handle it too, that maybe I can be as brave as her, when and if the day comes. 

I am not alone in my fear, although it may seem like it sometimes. I am one of millions living and feeling these same anxieties at full volume, so I must not let it overcome me. Instead, I have to remind myself to be introspective and to keep moving forward.

Health Care Mental Health Love Wellness

I need a coping mechanism for my coping mechanism

Ever since I was young, I have been very nervous. I get anxious about trivial tasks, I am a perfectionist, and I have a problem saying no when someone asks for a favor regardless how busy I might beI always say yes. A lot of this has translated into intense migraines, lip chewing, nail biting, and hair pulling. That last part is what I hate most about my anxiety. It is called trichotillomania.

For people with trichotillomania, hair pulling is a way of dealing with negative or uncomfortable feelings like stress, frustration, or loneliness. It involves recurrent, often irresistible, urges to pull hair from areas of the body despite attempts to stop.

Psychology Today says, “it is an impulse-control disorder and one of several body-focused repetitive behaviors currently classified in the DSM-5 as Obsessive Compulsive and Related disorders.” 

Most people do not even know what trichotillomania looks like.

I have experienced this since the fourth grade, and I want to stop desperately. It distresses me, it’s incessant, and often makes me self-conscious about my appearance which only exacerbates the hair pulling. Some days I don’t even recognize the girl looking back at me in the mirror; she is not who I want to be.

Mine mostly focuses on the eyebrows and eyelashes, and usually occurs without me even really realizing that I am doing it. I could be reading, sitting in class, or watching TV and I am completely unaware….until I realize and curse at myself for it. The worst is when I realize that I have been standing in the bathroom, the door shut, hyper focused on pulling for an hour.

For people with trichotillomania, hair pulling is a way of dealing with negative or uncomfortable feelings like stress, frustration, or loneliness.

My mental health disorder is unpleasant, silent and lonely. Most people do not even know what trichotillomania looks like, or frankly what it is, which makes it difficult for me to talk about candidly or even to explain. 

You see, the thing is that I am the only person I know who lives with this, and I have a hard time putting my anxiety into clear words because of it. It doesn’t even make sense to me! I only found out that I was trich after a series of long and exhausting nights spent with my parents, who sat across from me for hours wondering why I would do this to myself.

It is more than just a habit. It is a disorder and I was alone.

Why can’t I just stop? They would just keep saying that I was beautiful and smart hoping that this would persuade me to stop. I’d sit there red faced, my body hollow from crying so much, wanting it all to just stop, too. They’d beg me to tell them what was the matter. And the truth is, I really did have no idea what or why. I still don’t.

One day I decided that I didn’t want to upset my family anymore because of this. I wanted answers. So, I typed what I did to myself into google I immediately knew this was something serious. It is more than just a habit. It is a disorder and I was alone.

I can’t help it and I can’t “just stop.”

This realization just made me feel more helpless. Sure, there are a lot of people who love me and wanted to help me, but no one understood exactly what this was. They don’t understand what it feels like to be completely out of control. I can’t help it and I can’t “just stop.” It doesn’t work like that, regardless of how much I wish that it did.

What doesn’t help either is that trichotillomania is not a part of popular conversation surrounding mental health. You only know about it if you are directly affected by it, but at that point, shame has surely already kicked in. I used to pray that no one at school would notice, even though I knew that it was hard not too.

If you just take one look at me it becomes obvious that something is wrong. I felt weird, trapped, and very angry. I quickly learned how to color in my eyebrows to make them look full, or to appear to be “normal.” This, of course, was only sustainable for some time. 

Eventually my parents brought me to a therapist, and I hated it at first. I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I think I was either really nervous or in complete denial. But the therapy helped and we talked about things that I could do to ease my triggers. We tried so many things.

Getting it all out of me, and put somewhere else feels better, and I like that it gives my hands something to do.

One suggestion was that I put vaseline on my eyebrows to stop my ability to pull. Another was that I wear a hair tie around my wrist and pull that when I’m nervous. My parents even bought me a prayer bracelet and a worry stone, which is known to reduce anxiety and create some sense of calm.

This helped me the most, but now that I am older I rely on my writing a lot more. I fill journals with streams of my consciousness, all of my thoughts,  my nerves, and my perfectionist tendencies until I feel like I rid myself of it. Getting it all out of me, and put somewhere else feels better, and I like that it gives my hands something to do. It keeps me busy so that I don’t dwell on it.

No, I am not cured and I never will be. I know that this is something I will live with and have to treat for the rest of my life, but I am okay with that. I am glad to be a work in progress.

Of course, it won’t be easy and will require a lot of discipline, attention and self-love to handle, but I am so grateful to finally be confident enough to open up about my trichotillomania. I don’t want to be quiet anymore. 

Love Wellness

These are 4 simple strategies to overcome phone anxiety

For the past few years, phone call anxiety has plagued my life. Every time I thought about phoning someone, I’d get knots in my stomach. It got so bad that calling people made me feel dizzy, nauseous, or sweaty. Yeah, it was bad.

Phone call anxiety seems to be fairly common nowadays. This is especially the case for millennials, who are used to using social media and text to communicate about lighter topics. Phone calls are thus reserved for urgent matters – which means we associate phone calls with anxiety. While email means that we don’t have to call people as often as older generations did, phone calls are sometimes unavoidable. 

[bctt tweet=” While email means that we don’t have to call people as often as older generations did, phone calls are sometimes unavoidable.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Knowing this, I decided things needed to change. So far, I’ve made a lot of progress. This is because I’ve been working on certain mental health and anxiety techniques for a few months, and I’ve finally found a method and mindset that’s working for me.

Of course, my own methods won’t work for everyone. I’m not telling people with phone call anxiety that it’s easy to overcome it: your struggles are totally valid and you’re not weak for struggling with it.

But for those of you who are trying to tackle their phone call anxiety, I want to share a few steps I took. I really hope they’ll help you, too.

1. I tried to understand my anxiety

A GIF from Toy Story 3. Woody, the toy cowboy, is holding a phone and looking very anxious.

Understanding the root of your anxiety is a great way to tackle it. It’s a good reminder that you’re not silly or weak for feeling the way you feel. Social anxiety of all kinds is totally understandable, and talking to people – on the phone or in person – can be draining.

My fear wasn’t totally unjustified: as mentioned, I’m a millennial and I’m not used to making phone calls unless it’s a scary, urgent situation. Additionally, texting allows you to edit your words, and voice notes can be canceled if you make a mistake, while phone calls mean your errors are out there forever.

I used to feel ashamed of my anxiety because it felt so foolish, which made me feel even more incapable and anxious. Understanding the reasons why I felt anxious meant I went a little easier on myself.

2. I visualized my phone calls

A GIF of Jake the Dog from the series, 'Adventure Time'. He's saying, 'Let's use our imaginations, man!'

Often, anxiety has a compounding effect. We’ll feel anxious, then our anxiety will make us more anxious, and then we get anxious about the overwhelming layers of anxiety we have to wade through.

Our fear of anxiety is often half the problem. In my case, I’d assume that the phone call would make me nervous and that I’d mess up. To combat this problem, I soothingly told myself it would be perfectly fine. I convinced myself it would be okay. I visualized the phone call going really well. I imagined how accomplished I’d feel when the phone call was over.

In my experience, visualization is a very difficult skill to master, but it’s really useful in times like these.

3. I tried to make as many pleasant phone calls as possible

A GIF from Scary Movie. It includes many frames of multiple characters on the phone. They're all saying 'whassuuuuup'

The old saying to ‘face your fears’ is often used to dismiss anxiety disorder, but in essence, it can be helpful. Exposure therapy can be effective when it comes to anxiety. The more we expose ourselves to our fears in a controlled environment, the better we can handle it. An anxiety-inducing won’t seem daunting if you do it often.

Phone calls are no exception. For me, I tried to make as many pleasant phone calls as often. That meant calling my mom to chat, calling my roommate when I was out of town, and voice noting people when I got the chance. This gave me an opportunity to show myself that phone calls weren’t as scary as I thought they were.

[bctt tweet=”Exposure therapy can be effective when it comes to anxiety. Phone calls are no exception.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Of course, this exposure should be as relaxing as possible. There’s nothing like facing a scary task only to have your deepest fear come true – you want to do it in a safe, relaxed environment. 

4. I celebrated my victories

A GIF of a young kid on a TV show. Celebratory confetti is raining down on him.

Whenever I made a phone call, I celebrated a lot. I bragged about it to my roommate, I wrote it down in my journal, I told my friends. Celebrating your triumph over anxiety is a good way to encourage yourself to try again. More importantly, it cements your victory in your mind. Whenever you feel anxious about making a phone call, you can look back and remind yourself of all the times you managed to call someone.

[bctt tweet=” Celebrating your triumph over anxiety is a good way to encourage yourself to try again.” username=”wearethetempest”]

If you’re struggling with anxiety, I want you to know that I believe in you. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel anxious, but that there is hope for you. If you mess up a few times, that’s okay. It’s a skill, and by definition, skills take time to acquire.

While my anxiety isn’t 100% cured, I’ve made immense progress. I can finally make appointments, book tickets, and call people to ask for information. The anxiety that remains is manageable.

I feel like a huge obstacle has been lifted from my life, making the world much more accessible to me.