Monday, July 15, 2024
Where to store your copy of Dale Carnegie's "Stop Worrying?" Immediately next to your bed on the night table. Then, if you awake in the night you will catch of glimpse of it, and knowing it is there if you need it, you can roll over and go back to sleep. Photo: Rita Smith
Opinion/ColumnRita Smith's Blogs

Cancer was hard: surprisingly, worry was harder. This book saved me.

This piece was written in 2005 when I was in treatment for breast cancer; I had not expected to ever repost it, mainly because I remain stubbornly determined to never think about cancer if I can help it.
However, the simple act of donating a “Stop Worrying” gift basket to Healthy Minds’  Silver Dinner provoked so many heartfelt comments from friends and co-workers struggling with anxiety and stress that I felt compelled to update and post this piece, dedicated to sharing Dale Carnegie’s brilliant book “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.”
Mental illnesses, particularly depression, have become virtually epidemic in Canada in 2013. Dale Carnegie predicted this in 1944 – and he laid out clear, concise, practical strategies to overcome stress and worry half a century before the rest of the world was even thinking about it. Written in plain language and with great humour, this book can help you cope with everything from the most trivial irritation to the worst life-shattering event. I hope you will buy it and read it, and use it to enjoy a happier, healthier life.
 The good news is: Dale Carnegie’s principles to reduce stress and worry work, like a charm, virtually 100 per cent of the time. I know, because I’ve been living them night and day for five months now.
The bad news is: the reason I’ve been living them for five months is because in April I was diagnosed with Stage Two breast cancer (malignant and metastizing).  
Monday July 4th I sat in the Oncology Department of Toronto East General Hospital while a very kind nurse slowly injected two enormous, horse-sized syringes of vile-looking red liquid into my IV line.
“Are you very far along in your treatment?” the elderly patient seated to my left inquired. “How long have you been coming in?”
I paused to think about timelines before answering.
“Geez, to be truthful, it’s hard to say,” I responded. “In February I found a lump, in March I had a mammogram, April I had a biopsy, May I had my first surgery, June I had my second surgery and today, here I am in Chemo. It’s been such a blur – I sort of feel like I got hit by the Breast Cancer Bus.”
My nurse howled with laughter. “I’ve heard it described in lots of ways,” she gasped, “but never quite like that!”
Actually, the visual image fits the experience exactly. There I was, standing blithely in the middle of an empty open road – good health and opportunity stretching as far as the eye could see when WUMP! I got hit by a huge, speeding bus with a giant pink ribbon fluttering on its side.
I didn’t so much get run over as plastered on to the front bumper and hauled along for a wild, careening ride. We descended into deep valleys (“the lump has the appearance of a cancerous lesion”) and over high hills (“we hope you can get away with a lumpectomy and radiation”) through muddy swamps (“the cancer has spread to your lymph nodes”) and dusty, bumpy roads (“You will need chemotherapy. The bad news is your hair will fall out, but the good news is you’ll go through instant menopause.”)
One of the cheerful ironies of the whole process has been the fact that I spent so much time running and getting in shape over the winter. I noticed that the words “half-marathoner” were penned in at the top of every one of my medical charts. Finally, unable to contain my curiosity any longer, I made the mistake of asking my oncologist why everyone noted the fact that I had run a half marathon.
“Oh, because you are young and fit and healthy,” she explained enthusiastically, “we can hit you really hard!” She illustrated this by slamming her closed fist into her open hand. “We can give you the MOST toxic chemicals, because you’ll be able to tolerate it. If you were 70 and infirm, the chemo itself might kill you and there’d be much less we could do for you.”
“Wow,” I winced, trying to muster up some enthusiasm. “The most toxic chemicals. That’s great news! I’m so glad. Thank you for telling me that.”
I kept as busy as my surgery and radiation schedule would allow. During the daytime and when teaching classes at night I could stay focused on the positive, but frequently I would awake in the wee small hours in a cold sweat, heart pounding, my mind racing from one catastrophic scenario to the next.
From death or dismemberment in the worst case to mere poverty in the best, it seemed I was watching a fast-moving display of horror footage that reeled out endlessly in the early morning hours. The room would spin and my bed seemed to dip and dive like a roller coaster. It got so bad that soon I would be terrified just to open my eyes and find myself awake in the dark.
“Oh, no!” I would recoil instantly. “It’s 2:00 am and I’m awake! Here it goes again – the Panic Attack Nightmare Terror Episode!”
After several wretched weeks. I realized I was living one of Dale Carnegie’s fundamental truths:
“Most of us have little trouble ‘losing ourselves in action’ while we have our noses to the grindstone and are doing our day’s work. But the hours after work – they are the dangerous ones. Just when we’re free to enjoy our own leisure, and ought to be the happiest – that’s when the blue devils of worry attack us…when we are not busy, our minds tend to become a near-vacuum. Every student of physics knows ‘nature abhors a vacuum.’ The nearest thing to a vacuum that you and I will probably ever see is the inside of an incandescent electric-light bulb. Break that bulb-and nature forces air in to fill the theoretically empty space.
“Nature also rushes in to fill the vacant mind. With what? Usually with emotions. Why? Because emotions of worry, fear, hate, jealousy, and envy are driven by primeval vigor and the dynamic energy of the jungle. Such emotions are so violent that they tend to drive out of our minds all peaceful, happy thoughts and emotions.”
I decided I was not going to let the “primeval vigor” of emotions like worry and fear get the best of me. I hauled my copy of “Stop Worrying” to bed with me every night, along with a yellow highlighter, and committed to open the book and begin reading every single night that my eyes opened before 5am.
For several nights in a row, I woke up like clockwork at 2am but true to my promise, before I had even five seconds to start imagining radical mastectomies and foreclosed mortgages, I would open the book and start reading. My copy now is so highlighted that you can see yellow highlight right through the paper of almost any page you turn to.
I found I particularly love the chapter, “How to Cure Depression in 14 Days.” In fact, I loved it so much I read it every night for 5 nights in a row. I have huge passages of it memorized now, and not only did I never get tired of re-reading it, I found the increasing familiarity of the words so comforting that they started to have the same automatic effect upon me that the panic attacks had earlier: I was developing the habit of cultivating peaceful, happy thoughts, rather than their opposites.
Then, miraculously, I stopped waking up altogether. For almost a month, I slept through every night and woke up mornings ecstatic: “OhmyGod, I slept in until 6:30!” I would think, delighted and grateful.
Almost as quickly as they had come, the “blue devils of worry” were banished by Dale Carnegie’s brilliant book and a consistent commitment to use it.
“I now know with a conviction beyond all doubt, that the biggest problem you and I have to deal with – in fact, almost the ONLY problem we have to deal with – is choosing the right thoughts,” Carnegie wrote. 
“If we can do that, we will be on the highroad to solving all our problems. The great philosopher who ruled the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius, summed it up in eight words – eight words that can determine your destiny: ‘Our life is what our thoughts make it.’”
And the thoughts to which you need to pay closest attention, he might have added, are the ones you have at 2am.
–Rita Smith
You can buy “Stop Worrying” for less than ten bucks – about the price of a beer in a bar!

Eeeeeww…Co-operate with the Inevitable. The chapter in which Dale describes how he jumped out of a barn window, caught his ring finger on a nail, and ripped his finger off. No amount of worrying was going to make that finger grow back, he eventually surmised. Some things, you simply must accept. This page is sticky-noted as “Lost finger.” 

Expect Ingratitude: “Then, if ever you actually receive some, it will come as a delightful surprise.” Dale doesn’t put up with any of our guff or arguments, either. “It’s in the Bible. If you don’t believe me, look it up in Saint Luke.” 

I love the juxtaposition of these two pages: highlighted in yellow, some of the wisest words Abraham Lincoln ever uttered. On the opposite page, Dale’s recounting of “Fool Things I Have Done.” Apparently, whether you are brilliant or whether you are foolish, you are not immune to stress and worry. The challenge is in how you handle it. 

Thematically, this aged and yellowed “Dilbert” cartoon should actually be tucked into my copy of “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” However, since it made me laugh every time I looked at it – and it still does, 10 years later – I used it as a bookmark in “Stop Worrying.” It was good for my stress levels. My copy of “Stop Worrying” became something of a repository for every slip of paper I found that made me happy. Not only did the text of the book itself help me build a positive attitude, but so did everything I stuffed inside it. 

OK, so I may be the only presenter you know who has to be able to quickly locate the crucial passage on “WORMS”  during an important talk. Carnegie’s observation that the New York City library had 22 books on “Worry” but 189 books on “Worms” is still one of my favourite passages. 

It must have been a really bad day when I could only find an ORANGE highlighter. That colour is GROSS! And I used it to highlight one of the most important passages of the book, too: “I’m not here to tell you things you don’t already know…I am here to kick you in the shins and make you do something about applying them.”