My mother had a sore neck, probably from Pilates class, she figured. So Mom went to her doctor, who ordered an X-ray. Upon reviewing the X-ray, her doctor ordered a CT scan for a week later. My mother asked her doctor why he was ordering more tests. Did he see evidence of osteoporosis? Arthritis? A slipped disc?
Without even making eye contact with her, Mom’s doctor said, “Could be metastatic cancer.” Then he promptly left the room.
Let me explain what was happening in my mother’s nervous system in that moment when my mother’s doctor said the words “metastatic cancer” without offering any comfort. Mom was married to my father, a radiologist who read X-rays for a living, so Mom’s thinking rational forebrain knew that if the radiologist saw anything even mildly suspicious, he might order follow up testing and it wasn’t necessarily the end of the world. But Mom’s rational forebrain was not in charge in the moment when her doctor said the words “metastatic cancer.” Instead, the amygdala in Mom’s primal brain flashed back to my father, who had died of metastatic cancer only a few years earlier. All her amygdala heard was, “METASTATIC CANCER! A CERTAIN DEATH SENTENCE!”
When Mom’s amygdala heard the word “cancer,” her amygdala automatically signaled “danger,” and the red alert fired off, flipping on Mom’s “fight-or-flight” stress response. Mom’s hypothalamus then released hormones that communicated with her pituitary gland, which communicated with her adrenal gland, and then BOOM. Her body was instantly filled with high levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. Her whole body was now in what Walter Cannon at Harvard called the “stress response.” It was ready to outrun the threat, even though in reality, there was no threat to outrun. The only thing Mom could do was wait a week until her CT scan was scheduled. Read More→