Health anxiety after loss due to cancer
I lost both my parents in short succession. My mom passed in 2021 from complications from chemo. Her death was unexpected as her lung tumour was small so she had a good prognosis. However, a previous infection resurfaced during chemo and she passed from sepsis 48 hours later.
My dad passed 8 months later, also from lung cancer. He had been battling cancer for years so his death was expected but he still turned for the worse really quickly, which made his death a shock all the same.
I wasn’t there for either of their passings. I live in Australia and both my parents were in Europe. My mom passed mid-pandemic and I had a flight booked to be there for my dad’s passing but due to his unexpected quick decline I missed it by mere days. I saw him die on FaceTime, it was traumatic.
It’s now been 14 months since my dad’s passing and I’m still not over it. It’s been a rollercoaster full of shock, anger, nightmares, questioning the futility of life, guilt and many many tears.
My newest chapter seems to be health anxiety though; I’m all of a sudden petrified of either myself or my husband dying/developing cancer. I actually went to my GP yesterday after being convinced I was dying for two days. Turns out I have acute bronchitis and not some obscure lung disease/cancer.
I literally convinced myself my blood oxygen was dangerously low as I was short of breath, it was a perfect 99%.
- I thought I felt my fingers tingling and I was lightheaded, focussing on my breathing only made it worse, obviously. I nearly made it to the A&E but luckily didn’t make that much of a fool out of myself and only embarrassed myself in front of my GP - who very kindly enquired about my mental health as soon as we established that I would live.
I’ve been like this for months though, my husband needs to be contactable at all times or I fear something has happened to him, I’m hypervigilant about bodily functions and I envision what my/his death will look like and cry in anticipation of the events when we are both healthy and only in our forties. It’s becoming a real problem.
Has anyone else experienced this? And how did you get over it?
I’m so sorry for the loss of both your parents. It would have been very hard being on the other side of the world. I think it can leave you with some anxiety and complicated grief.
My Mum died suddenly from heart failure 3 years ago. She’d been through multiple health issues including some cancers but the heart issue was unexpected. So it was a shock like it would have been with your Mum. My Dad died 4 years prior to that but had a degenerative disease, so while obviously still hard it was expected. So my situation is a little similar.
It was easier to grieve and process Dad’s death but I’m still really struggling in relation to Mum, so I understand how it continues to impact you. So I don’t have an answer for getting over it yet. But my sense is that you gradually come to terms with and integrate the experience. I’m just not there yet with Mum.
I did speak to someone at Griefline this morning. That was at least helpful to just share feelings with another person. In my case the anniversary of Mum’s death has just passed and I think that’s partly why I’m feeling things so strongly.
I am in my late 40s and I just thought I’d mention something else that seems to be strongly affecting me at the moment. Over the past year I’ve developed very strong anxiety and depression in relation to hormonal changes linked to perimenopause. That may have nothing to do with how emotional and anxious you’ve been feeling, but I just thought I’d mention it in case it’s a complicating factor. The way it’s affecting me it’s like I feel completely raw like I have no filters. So it’s like my grief is extra intense. I’m looking into what I can do treatment wise about that at the moment.
I’m not sure if any of that helps or is relevant, but just wanted to let you know I feel for you and can relate to the persistent grief. I think grief can have ways of continuing to resurface over time, but it does gradually subside while still coming up at times. Some counselling may help a bit. When I was in the city I went to a few meetings of a grief support group and a few counselling sessions there, so depending where you are there may be some support networks you can become part of and maybe meet others going through similar things. Griefline apparently have online support groups too.
Take care and feel free to chat further if you would like to.
P.S. Sorry, I just realised rereading you post that I think you meant how to get over the health anxiety, not the grief. I think I misread it. Dealing with the health anxiety might be something a counsellor or psychologist may have some good strategies for. It could be that a lot of anxiety got created at the times of your parent’s passing by the fact that you couldn’t be with them, and I think sometimes anxiety like that can remain somewhat trapped in our nervous systems after an event. Some somatic forms of therapy that work with the body may potentially help. I’ve done an approach with my psychologist called somatic experiencing in relation to specific trauma issues which has been quite helpful. EMDR can apparently work well with complicated grief for some people. I’d been going to try this with my psychologist but haven’t yet as I’ve been feeling so fragile I got a bit scared of doing it, but it does apparently help to integrate challenging memories that once processed might alleviate the health anxiety too. But I cannot speak directly from my own experience. It might be that your nervous system has got a bit trapped in a hypervigilant state and if that can be released the anxiety will hopefully dissipate too. Gentle things like restorative yoga or Bowen therapy may also help to give the nervous system a bit of a reset.
Dear Eagle Ray,
That would have been really hard not being able to share and process things about your mum with your dad. I think we usually process grief best when we can share with others who knew and were close with the loved one, and if that processing doesn’t happen we are left with feelings that haven’t been worked through so much, as I think it is through human relationship that we process things like grief.
I am wondering if there is anyone else who knew your parents who you can share your thoughts and feelings with? It’s best if it’s someone who will be understanding and sensitive to your grief. I think it’s very important to know there is no single one way to grieve and no correct timeframe. It is unique for every person. I do think as a society we don’t deal with grief particularly well, especially where it’s a bit more complicated because of the circumstances. People are often expected to return to work in a couple of days and carry on as if nothing has happened, when in fact it’s an organic process that doesn’t necessarily fit the constraints of society.
Like you I tend to avoid talking about emotional stuff like grief with others, but I think it’s very important to keep channels of communication open with the right people. That might be communicating on forums like this, finding a grief support group that feels supportive, or sharing with a friend that you feel intuitively is the one who is able to have such conversations.
In terms of coming to terms with the inevitable, I have found consolation in the many reports of people who have near death experiences who come back and report a peacefulness they felt. I was with my dad leading up to and at the time of his death. It was like his body knew what to do and just kind of wound down naturally, and I think somehow we are taken care of in that process by nature itself. It’s like birth and death are natural processes we all go through. I’m not sure if that’s reassuring for you, but it was the first time I’d been with someone just before, during and after their passing. As a result I am much more at peace with death now. It may be that having that separation from your parents at the time of their passing didn’t give you the same opportunity to be with the process. But I think you can kind of retrospectively be with them and feel the love for the person and honour their memory in ways that feel right for you.
You could always try another therapist if you feel the current one isn’t quite aligning with your grief processing needs. It is such a personal thing with therapy as some will be more attuned and present with our situation than others. Other times it’s just that the subject matter is hard, and grief is definitely one of the big challenges we can face. But I think just knowing you will not stay in the same place forever can really help and just being kind and nurturing to yourself as you go through it. Thinking of you and I know how hard it is so happy to chat if it helps.