How To Manage Fear When Cancer Shows Up

For some people, the unknown carries anticipation. A job transition, for example, that could mean new opportunity, new friends, a new community. The excitement of pushing away from the dock and pursuing far-reaching, blustery adventures.

For others, the unknown causes anxiety. Leaving the safety of the familiar shore, swept out into uncharted waters.

Marlys Johnson

A cancer diagnosis, job loss, financial reversals, loss of a loved one – these alarming events can awaken fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear for the future. Fear over losing something or someone of infinite value.

My husband, Gary, and I experienced a season of thirteen years that brimmed with plenty of reason to embrace fear: A job loss and financial reversals, a live-in aging parent, a terminal cancer diagnosis. Somewhere along the journey, though, we began practicing these tips that helped us manage fear (practice being the key word):

1. Choose contentment.

Before cancer, there were the financial setbacks when my husband, Gary, was laid off due to a company buy-out. A wise friend once said, “If you’re not content as a single, you won’t be content married.” Which carries into all areas: If I wasn’t content, for example, selling our home, paring down, and living in a small duplex, then I wouldn’t be content if we ever got to own a home again. Contentment isn’t about what I have; it’s an attitude choice.

2. Develop good self-care.

If we’re taking care of our bodies, souls, and spirits, then we’ll be physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually resilient to  pour into the lives of others around us. When we’re pouring into their lives, we’re not so focused on our own losses and sorrows. And when we’re not so focused on our own stuff, then fear loses its power.

3. Practice gratitude.

When daunting events overwhelm us, gratitude isn’t intuitive. It’s unreasonable. And demanding. But crucial.

It’s easy to be thankful when life is moving along favorably, but what if we looked through different lenses when things start going crazy awry? Back when my mother was slipping further into dementia and Gary was struggling with the manhood issues of prostate cancer, I so desperately wanted to quit my job to have more time for them both. But we were rebuilding from the unemployment years, and my job was the one with healthcare insurance.

Back then there wasn’t much to be grateful for. Or was there?

When I considered the alternative to each of these, then yes, there were still boatloads of thanksgiving blessings:

  • The ability to get out of bed every morning
  • Dependable transportation
  • Safe work environment
  • Excellent healthcare coverage
  • Compassionate co-workers

4. Nurture a positive attitude.

More than one physician said to us, “Expect the best, but be prepared for the worst.” We took this to mean we should plan for a future together, even if that future might be limited:

  • After Gary secured work again, we worked through the arduous process of getting our finances back in order.
  • We established a non-profit and shared our story across the country.
  • We took care of end-of-life matters: Gary completed the Physician’s Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST), and I paid a visit to a funeral home on the recommendation of our hospice team, which felt rather odd at the time.
  • We planned more road trips and had more fun and made more memories than at any other season of our marriage.

5. Carry hope. 

We may not have all the time we want to live, or all the time we want with our spouse, child, parent, sibling, or friend. But while we’re still here, while they’re still here, carry hope. Speak hope. Make plans with hope at the center.

Back when my husband was diagnosed with late-stage disease, the experts indicated he could expect about two years of life – because he was relatively young and in good shape, and because prostate cancer is slow-growing.

Gary lived ten – yes, ten – far-reaching, extraordinary, blessed years with terminal disease.

What if we had given up hope and planned for only two years together? What if that had been our mindset? Your guess is as good as mine, but I don’t think my husband would have lived as long. Or as well.

6. Cultivate faith.

John Oxenham penned these words: “We live as those who are on a journey home … the lights on and the door open and our Father waiting for us. That means in all adversity our worship of God is joyful, our life is hopeful, our future is secure.”

Having a relationship with the God who created us, having hope even in adversity, having the secure future of an eternal home – this doesn’t leave much room for fear.


As a result of getting our affairs in order, of practicing gratitude and contentment and good self-care, of leaning in closer to God, there are magical adventure movies running through my head of the cancer years – a time that should have harbored no magic, no adventure, no hope.

3 thoughts on “How To Manage Fear When Cancer Shows Up

  1. It’s 4am and I cannot sleep because of my fear–breast mammogram and ultrasound a few days ago showed that there was a mass where the tech said was scar tissue the year before (from a lumpectomy 17 years ago.) Tomorrow I will learn when my “ultrasound guided needle biopsy” will be scheduled. The waiting is causing more fear daily and when the biopsy is done, more waiting for the results. So here I am, not able to sleep, desperately looking for something online to put the fear at bay, and I stumble upon this gem of advice from Marlys. Thank you. I needed to see what you had to say…nothing I did not know, but a reminder to keep having gratitude for all that I have, keep thanking God for my many blessings, to keep taking care of my health (I am in the last week of a 4-week challenge of healthy eating and exercise and just got my bike overhauled), keep looking forward to the future.

    After 10 years of separation, my husband and I have been planning to build a new home and renew our vows–I initiated this after realizing I did not want to live alone anymore, and as we get older (I am now 71), we need to take care of each other. As we wait to find a contractor to build this new house I find myself with this upcoming biopsy in the middle of my new “rest of my life plan for happiness.” In just a few days since Friday’s screening, my mind races to the worries of what can happen with this unknown diagnosis and then it races back to “be positive!…it’s all gonna be fine.” There is a tug-of-war in my head with me trying to push out negative thoughts and let the positive ones rule. It’s hard work. This article helps. Thanks Marlys. Mahalo nui loa.

  2. Marlys, these are wonderful words of wisdom to help us deal with uncertainty, no matter how it presents itself. And Lani, I am hoping Marlys’ words help you through this period of uncertainty. The not knowing is the hardest and you will no doubt handle whatever comes your way. I’m sending positive thoughts and prayers your way!

  3. I so agree, Carolyn and Lani – the waiting and not knowing is the hardest. Good for you, Lani, for meanwhile paying attention to healthy eating and exercise, and to looking toward the future (I love your ‘vow renewal’ story!).

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