I was recently corresponding with a friend of mine in the U.K. who is in the throes of war with mesothelioma.
She’s had surgery, undergone numerous chemotherapy treatments and experienced tremendous success with clinical trials. Despite her successful treatments, she emailed me about some of the emotions she’s experienced regarding her health.
I was taken aback with her anxiety and fear about her health because her recent tests were promising. But like so many other cancer patients, my friend is afraid of what the doctor might reveal each time she has an appointment.
Every scan brings fear of tumor regrowth. Though necessary, the tests can be nerve wracking even for the most composed person.
I know that medical issues can cause stress and anxiety for most anyone, but it’s different with mesothelioma. These aren’t just health issues such as slightly elevated blood pressure or a little holiday weight gain. Mesothelioma patients deal with medical tests that render life and death consequences.
That debilitating anxiety doubles as mesothelioma Sword of Damocles — an allusion often used to express impending doom.
Explaining the Sword of Damocles
The story of the Sword of Damocles comes from Ancient Greece.
Around 45 B.C., Greek philosopher Cicero told the tale of King Dionysius II and his courtier Damocles in “Tusculan Disputations.” The parable teaches us about the anxiety associated with anticipation or impending doom.
As the story goes, Damocles showers Dionysius with compliments and is envious of his life of privilege. Damocles does not account for the countless assassination attempts Dionysius continually faces or the tremendous anxiety the king endures on a daily basis. As a way of introducing Damocles to the pressure and stress of leadership, Dionysius invites his admirer to partake of his luxurious lifestyle.
During an elaborate dinner, servants pamper Damocles, and he relishes the attention until he notices a sword suspended by a single horse hair above his head. Dionysius hung the sword there to show Damocles just how stressful being a wealthy and powerful leader could be.
The dangling sword paralyzes Damocles with fear, and he can no longer enjoy the dinner. He leaves the table understanding the uneasiness and panic the king regularly endures.
The moral of the story: Fear and anxiety often clouds happiness and security.
Mesothelioma & Damocles Syndrome
Just as Damocles struggled with his fear, many cancer patients who experience successful treatment struggle to enjoy progress for fear of cancer regrowth.
When this type of fear becomes debilitating and subtracts from a survivor’s quality of life, it is known as “Damocles Syndrome.” As innovative cancer treatments increase survival rates for cancer patients, many struggle with the fear that improved health is just “too good to be true.”
The term originated in the 1980s from research with childhood cancer survivors.
According to 2011 article on Harvard Health Blog, some cancer patients going through a period of improved health experience distress, not unlike the stress experienced during treatment. The worry can stop people in their tracks, making them too afraid to make major life decisions.
Psychosocial Effects of Survivorship
While survivors feel intense gratitude for their treatment progress and extended life, they experience a number of adverse psychosocial concerns including:
- Fears about the cancer growing or coming back
- Depression and feeling sad
- Trouble with decision-making
- Uncertain of the future
- Feelings of vulnerability
It’s normal to experience these feelings in association with cancer treatment success. Considering that many people are experiencing tremendous success with cancer treatments, such as Keytruda, perhaps it is time to include survivorship pointers in your comprehensive treatment approach.
When Distress Becomes Debilitating
Most of us in the mesothelioma community are familiar with the emotional turmoil associated with the disease.
Negative feelings, including sadness, isolation, and depression, are often unavoidable when facing serious illnesses such as cancer. Major changes in family dynamics, financial worries, changes in physical ability and social function can negatively impact the patient’s psychological state.
If these emotions become overwhelming, it might be time to discuss it with your oncology team. It isn’t uncommon to experience these feelings and discussing them with your doctor is a step toward maintaining good psychological health.
Along with your oncology and support team, you can make plans to address the negative feelings and take action to overcome the psychological barriers to your quality of life.
Don’t let fear paralyze you like Damocles. Let it fuel your motivation to expand your support system.
Although my friend hasn’t experienced the symptoms of Damocles Syndrome, she talks freely about her emotions with other people.
Her fears about worsening health are normal, and so are her psychological responses to the fears.
Balancing her fears with hope is her method of coping with mesothelioma. However, it is imperative to monitor those fears and understand that if and when they become overwhelming, there is help available.