Managing fear of recurrence


I have written about managing the fear of recurrence here before and of how it is most potent when it is time for my annual follow up with the hospital.  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 time of uncertainty. 

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.

So the fear of recurrence is a common one among breast cancer survivors and this was brought home to me again today when I read a question on Ask-the-Expert Online Conference.

The question:

Soon it will be 3 years since my diagnosis. I don’t fit in anywhere anymore. I look older, feel older, and act older, and I’m so tired all the time. I cope with life by building a wall around myself and pretending that I didn’t have cancer, but deep down, I just know it will be back. Doctor visits make my heart race; I just want to run out of there. Is this normal or do I need professional help?

The answer given by Dr Mitch Golant:

First, congratulations on being almost a 3-year survivor. What you’re describing is profoundly similar to most women: when treatment ends, it’s as if they’ve fallen off the edge of a cliff. You are describing a couple of symptoms that would be worthwhile to explore. Let me elaborate. The anxiety you’re describing at the thought of visiting the doctor, while extremely common especially around anniversaries, gives you a clue that the treatment and the side effects of treatment being experienced is a traumatic event. And that’s pretty common. Look — the diagnosis of cancer is stressful, the treatments are stressful, the side effects of treatment are stressful, the fear of recurrence is stressful, all of which has an impact emotionally. Expressing emotions, particularly fear, anger, or sadness can be very helpful in reducing that anxiety — or better, coping with it.

Personally 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.

You can view similar questions and answers at the Ask-the-Expert Online Conference

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