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When my oncologist suggested chemotherapy I panicked. The word chemotherapy played like a movie in my mind fast-forwarding then stopping on scenes of frailty, vomiting, total loss of appetite, and incapacitation. As I began treatments I still had visions of potential pain and suffering even though doctors and breast cancer survivors assured me that the chemo I was being prescribed wasn’t what I imagined. Side effects, they explained, were often minimal, and co-therapies alleviated even severe reactions in most patients. But no amount of anecdotal evidence or statistical data could stop the melodrama in my mind from replaying.
Intellectually I knew the worry was not productive so I challenged myself to adopt a new way of thinking or at least to find new things to think about. I tried to change my own mind at first and did not succeed so I crowdsourced an accountability partner.
The theory behind accountability partnerships fuses the ideas of personal responsibility and crowdsourcing by suggesting that when making difficult transitions people are more successful when they adopt new habits with group support. I didn’t need convincing, I was already familiar with group success; I exercised more consistently with a workout partner, and completed my dissertation with support from a weekly writing group. By the time I read that cancer patients benefitted from similar “buddy systems” not only through decreased psychological stress but also alleviation of mild physical symptoms, I was ready to campaign for an accountability partner of my own.
First I evaluated the change I desired
I wanted to change the horror show that played in my mind at the thought of chemo. I didn’t blame myself for being scared; my reaction was perfectly reasonable. Adverse side effects are a legitimate concern when considering any medication, especially one as toxic as chemotherapy. I needed to change the way I processed my anxiety, not dismiss it. When crowdsourcing for a partner I kept in mind that I needed someone who also had reasonable concerns about something going on in their life. Together my partner and I had to be committed to remembering that pleasantries deserved focused attention, even in the face of fear.
My partner and I agreed on mutually beneficial solutions
My accountability partner and I had different problems. She was a small business owner being forced to close an established shop and begin again in a new location. She was worried about her livelihood; I was worried about my life. Our partnership worked because we both had good reasons for our concerns, neither of us were at fault for our predicaments, and most importantly we both wanted to help calm our minds by finding time during the day to focus on the good in life. She chose to state why she was grateful, I chose to recall my best moments. We texted each other every day.
The task was challenging yet easy to sustain
I was so overwhelmed with worry that I wasn’t sure that texting my best moment each day would calm my fears; I wasn’t even sure I could find things to text about. What I was sure of was that I could send a text every night about something that I qualified as not the worst thing that happened and that’s where I began. Texting was our only rule. We didn’t cheerlead or recommend. We kept the rhythm of nightly texts for 30 days. There were no discussions of cancer treatments or business plans, at least not in the context of our partnership. If we missed a day we resumed the day after but overall we missed very few days.
As time went on it became easier for me to recognize things I enjoyed each day because I knew I had to report at least one. This created a sort of cognitive dissonance with the worry story playing in my mind. Fear was still a part of how I faced chemo and it’s known side effects, those that I developed and those I did not. What my accountability partner did for me was helped me balance my terror of treatment with a keen awareness that there was more to life with cancer than fear.