Game Face Has Cracked

Posted on: September 22nd, 2014 by

Last week, I had a moment at my oncologist’s office.

Well, several moments, actually, where my game face cracked, and my panic revealed its ugly self to Dr. B and his staff.

I went to the appointment with confidence I could pull it off, you know, the game face. As planned, I brought my toolbox and strategies to help me relax: a stress ball, music, something to read, something to draw, and deep breathing exercises.

I was all prepared, confident I could pull off the confidence game. After all, I’ve been NED for quite some time now. I reasoned that I should be “over it” by now, given the clean bills of health my oncologist has given me over the years. Besides, I feel so comfortable with my doctor, I sometimes feel we are friends.

The nurse took my blood pressure, and that’s when my plan for serenity went awry. I felt just a little nervous, but my blood pressure revealed otherwise. It skyrocketed, so much so that the alarmed nurse said, “Your blood pressure shouldn’t stay that way. This is a real problem.” I admitted to her, just as I told the social worker last year, that my being here was anxiety-provoking for me.

In that moment, my fragility revealed itself. The facade of relaxation, the facade of good spirits, the facade of my game face faded away. And there I was, waiting in the examination room with my mind racing about a possible new medical problem — high blood pressure. And I became even more nervous and agitated about my oncology appointment.

It was one of those I-want-to-call-911 and run away moments.

Enter my oncologist, and with a dramatic gesture, he grabbed the blood pressure cuff and said, “So, your blood pressure is high? Let’s see.” As he took my blood pressure I tried hard to relax. “Much better, much better,” he said soothingly, as he revealed it was now within the normal range.

“I have anxiety coming here,” I shamefully admitted as he examined me. “It’s OK, you’re OK, you’re OK,” he tried to reassure me. We chit-chatted a bit, and he encouraged me to continue searching for agents to get my book out. He asked about my teaching and my daughter. Over the years, he has gotten to know me well.

Through my shaking hands, I showed him pictures of Ari and gave him a hug for helping to save my life and realize my dream of motherhood. He reassured me, “You are just fine. And you’re a great mother, a great mother.” Then the appointment was over.

Appointment Aftermath

For days after the appointment, I was embarrassed and couldn’t calm down — even though the exam went well. After some soul-searching, I realized why I was so upset.

In the world of oncology, I am a success story thus far. And I feel pressured to act the part.

I hate being vulnerable, so I aim to be stoic at doctor appointments.

And I aim to please: I know that oncologists witness so much suffering that I feel obligated to cheer mine up, to show him a success story.

And part of my happy-at-the-doctor’s facade is because of hubris. Damn pride. I don’t want to admit there are any chinks in my armor.

My game face is nothing but a sham to cover up the fact that I’m human. And I’m a bad con artist, unsuccessfully trying to trick medical professionals into thinking I’m calm and confident and, dare I say it, relatively happy.

smiley face

I must purge myself of the deeply ingrained illusion that showing emotions makes me weak. Easier said than done. But I’m beginning to realize, perhaps for the first time, that this kind of pride can be destructive. And that perhaps showing emotions and being strong are not mutually exclusive.

Over the years, putting overly high expectations of myself has plagued me.

Covering up my emotions isn’t working for me anymore.

After all, if emotions must be revealed, where better than in an oncologist’s office, a place rife with emotions — day in and day out?

And writing this post has reminded me how hard I am on myself. I beat myself up when things don’t go perfectly at the doctor’s, in my opinion, whatever “perfect” looks like.

My goal this year is to be easier on myself. There is no better time to start than now.

How do you fare at doctor’s appointments?

What relaxation tools do you use, if necessary?

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18 Responses to Game Face Has Cracked

  1. Robin B. had this to say about that:

    Thus far I have been pretty good for my appointments. I am sort of like it will be what it will be. There is not a darn thing I can do to change the outcome so I try to keep that in the back of mind and then move forward.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Robin,

      I like your attitude of “it will be what it will be.” It’s a good coping mechanism. I think I’m going to try it. Thanks.

  2. Nancy's Point had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,
    I think I’ve always tried pretty hard to be upbeat at appointments too. I remember losing it twice during appointments and I felt embarrassed for doing so. I totally lost it when I learned I needed chemo and again when we scheduled my port surgery. Later on I realized, WTF? Oncologists are used to dealing with this stuff day in and day out. We aren’t. Being upset, afraid and/or crying is okay. Being real is always okay, or should be, especially at oncology appointments. Thanks for the post. Important topic. Oh, and I’m glad you have such an empathetic oncologist too.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      You totally get it. I can understand why you lost it during those two occasions. They are very scary. I’m so glad your book on helping people prepare for chemotherapy is out.

      You are right about being afraid and crying being OK. I am going to work hard on letting my guard down a bit more.

      My oncologist is a gem. I’m very lucky to have him.

  3. karen sutherland had this to say about that:

    dear Beth,

    well, my dear, that appointment was not a walk in the park, was it. I think so many of us can relate to the anxiety, and the acute anxiety for you to be able to live up to your cancer success story. your oncologist is obviously a dear and glorious physician who cares for you deeply and I am glad he was so supportive and kind – and didn’t jump the gun in going into unnecessary dire conclusions. but I bet the thing you are most thankful for is learning more about yourself, the whys and wherefores of it all, and realizing you can have the freedom to show emotions and still maintain your inner strength. I think in writing about this experience you will surely help others who deal with the same things.

    I think the thing that helps me most when I have cancer appointments is the chance to have a moment when I can actually see that someone besides me is experiencing anxiety, and say hello, smile, and let them know they are not alone. it sometimes leads to a chat, and we are able to render a little TLC for one another. it seems to help just being able to get outside of myself a bit.

    much love,

    Karen xoxo

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Karen,

      As always, thank you for your comment. I always value what you have to say. I think your initiating chatting with others to help give them TLC is a wonderful idea. It always feels good to help others, and this act of kindness helps take us out of our inner world of struggles. I’m going to try initiating a conversation in the waiting room.

      Yes, learning about myself has been key. I am beginning to understand that I’m a human and not a machine. And that being human with real emotions is a valuable thing.

      Yes, my oncologist is wonderful. He totally gets me and is in tune with his patients.

  4. eileen@womaninthehat had this to say about that:

    Beth, I think your reaction was so normal for that situation, I’m betting your oncologist and his staff are quite used to it as the norm. Be delighted with yourself for being utterly and wonderfully human.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thank you, Eileen! I’m going to embrace “being utterly and wonderfully human.” So well-put. Thank you for your kind words and thoughts.

  5. Gwendolyn Jiles had this to say about that:

    Beth, thank you, those oncology appointment send my anxiety level way up. Gwen

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      It’s true that I’m not alone. Anxiety is the name of the game at these oncology appointments for so many people, it seems.

      Just hang on and get through them. That’s the most any of us can do.

  6. Lisa Plotnick had this to say about that:

    Beth, I think you handled quite well after the unnecessary and inconsiderate comment by the nurse. I don’t have any advice — just that she could use some sensitivity training, especially given the specialty in which she works.

    On the other hand, Dr. B. sounds like a dream! He recognized your uneasiness and made you feel more comfortable. I’m sure he has to do this often after the nurse frightens his patients for whom I can tell he holds a lot of respect.


    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Lisa, thank you for your kind words. Come to think of it, you are right about the nurse’s comments. It didn’t even dawn on me that she was inconsiderate and insensitive until I read your comment.

      Dr. B is terrific. He has worked hard to de-stress me over the years. Some appointments go more smoothly than others. Oh well….

  7. Cancer Curmudgeon had this to say about that:

    I wonder if the fear or anxiety will ever leave? At times I think the longer I go without incident, then my luck is running out–rather than thinking it better to be 3 years or 5, or more, “out” from diagnosis. Just my twisted mind I guess.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Cancer Curmudgeon,

      You and I share that twisted mind because you echo my thought process exactly. I keep thinking that one of these days my luck will run out.

      I guess it eventually does for all of us in some form or another.

      As far as when our catastrophic thoughts will ever end, unfortunately, I think these appointments will always be unsettling. It never does end, at least for me.

      Thank you for your comment.

  8. lopsided blogger had this to say about that:

    I’m sorry you had that experience but happy you learned from it and have decided to be easier on yourself. That’s a good one for us mothers to remember.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thanks, Lopsided Blogger. You are right; we mothers often are hard on ourselves, aren’t we? I’m really going to try to lighten up. We’ll see if I am successful. :)

  9. Kathi had this to say about that:

    Oh, Beth…you know, I was actually relatively calm this year getting my mammogram a few weeks ago — until I got the report which said, once again, that I have dense tissue. And had to start this ridiculously convoluted process to get one of my docs to refer me for further imaging. And still haven’t gotten the referral.

    I don’t know how we put one foot in front of the other some days. I’m just glad you were able to walk out of that appointment with normal blood pressure and some compassion from your doctor. xoxo

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      I’m sorry you are having such trouble getting that referral. It’s truly ridiculous. Keep pestering them until you get the referral. My experience has been that persistence pays off.

      Thank you for your kind words. Hang in there, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that you’ll be able to get the referral for further screening.

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