Dealing with the fear of cancer recurrence


Today I had my annual check up at St Lukes’ Hospital. I always feel apprehensive when I enter the doors of the hospital, sit in the waiting area and finally sit on that hospital bed, waiting to see the consultant. The sights and smells that assail me as I enter the hospital are very powerful, bringing back all those memories. The shock of that day you hear the words, “you have cancer” never leaves you. Although, my prognosis is good and I am feeling very well, nevertheless the occasion of the annual check up is always a day of uncertainty. 

The consultant did a breast examination and told me everything appears fine, but each time I want to say “are you sure?” – “how can you be sure”?  I joked with him that I was coming up to the magic five years (in remission), but he told me there is no such thing as a magic five years – not exactly what I wanted to hear, but I understand that it is not possible to guarantee that once you have completed cancer treatment that your cancer will never come back. Despite all our best efforts, the fact remains that there is always a chance that there are some cancer cells left in your body that survived, even though they cannot be seen or found with any test available today. These cells can begin to grow over time and cause your cancer to recur. And while you don’t want to ever think about the chance of having a second cancer, having one cancer doesn’t make you immune to having a second or even a third different cancer. Cancer survivors have to learn to live with more uncertainty about recurrence than people who have had other kinds of illness. As I have said before in previous posts, your sense of certainty in life and in your body is hard to recapture after a diagnosis of cancer.

Initially when you finish treatment you feel very vulnerable, you fear that every ache and pain or every cough you get is a sign that your cancer has come back. You worry that the doctors are not tracking your health with the same zeal.  I deal with the fear recurrence by taking positive steps to follow the same recommended nutrition guidelines as those recommended for cancer prevention, in the hope that the same factors that increase cancer risk might also be important in promoting cancer recurrence after treatment. Breast cancer research has supported dietary effects by showing that the risk of recurrence might be increased by obesity and by diets high in fat and low in fruits and vegetables.

I use my fear of recurrence to motivate me in  positive ways – to seek out information and to live my life in as healthy a way as possible.  I will  probably always live with some fears of recurrence but over time, these fears have decreased and only surface when it is time for the annual check ups and mammograms or if I hear of someone I knew during treatment for whom the cancer has come back.  However, if the fear of recurrence is overwhelming to you or seriously interfering with your quality of life, please seek support from a cancer support centre, your GP or another therapist and don’t let fear keep you from moving on with your life after cancer.