Mesothelioma Survivor Discusses Phantom Emotions and How He Coped

Stories from Survivors

While I was undergoing a course of targeted radiation therapy for mesothelioma at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, I was asked to participate in a study for a drug being developed to help with loss of appetite. I agreed and began taking the medication. 

It worked great. Really great. Then really too great – I’d never been so hungry in my life! I let them know and quit taking it. When I went in for my check-up I jokingly told them my wife might have been in danger of being eaten if I had continued. They laughed and said it needed to be toned down some, as I was not the only one to report excessive appetite. 

The sensation of hunger I was experiencing was artificial, caused by a drug designed to help people have a desire to eat. The appetite felt very real, but it did not accurately reflect the reality of my body’s needs. Years later, I realized that I was experiencing something similar, but potentially far more dangerous, involving my emotions.

Fighting Phantom Emotions

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I worked from home for about a year. I learned to control my environment to a large degree in order to help manage my stress, energy levels and rest cycles. When I returned to work in 2021, I began to have episodes of intense anger. That is not something I am normally prone to. I had to ask myself, “Wait a minute, why do I feel like this?” 

I was, for the most part, glad to be able to go back to work. I was happy to be back with my co-workers and I certainly didn’t hold any grudge against my employer. They were always very supportive of my needs as I went through mesothelioma treatment. There was no rational reason for these waves of anger I was feeling. Sometimes they were so intense I would have to just sit and close my eyes and will myself to be still and let them pass. 

It was fortunate, in a way, that they were so intense, because I was able to recognize them as irrational. The natural inclination was to try to attach the anger to something tangible. I found it strange to have an emotion, especially an intense emotion, that had no cause or focal point. All I could do was remind myself that it wasn’t real, in the normal sense, and refuse to let it attach itself to any circumstance, person, etc. 

If I had allowed myself to project it onto someone or something, to take root so to speak, I have no doubt it could have been disastrous. I realized that just the change in my daily routine, and the additional stress created by commuting to work, directly interacting with other people and so forth, was causing my body to react in a most unpleasant way. 

These episodes of anger diminished in frequency and intensity over time, and after a month stopped completely as I acclimated to my new circumstances. This experience taught me how important it is to recognize stress and its potential effects on our emotions.

Like the effects of that appetite-enhancing drug, these “phantom emotions” can have a very real effect on our well-being. I learned to recognize them for what they are, not to let them take root, and to reduce stress to manage them.

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