Few things are more commonly experienced among cancer survivors than fearing that one day they’ll be told the cancer has returned. As there are more than 15 million cancer survivors in the United States alone, the number of people struggling with this fear is clearly not insignificant. For some people, fear of cancer recurrence resides mainly in the back of their mind and isn’t frequently processed. For others, it is constantly on their minds and may be part of daily living, characterized by regular distressful thoughts. Fear of recurrence may be triggered by having an upcoming doctor appointment; blood work; a routine scan; a new or unexpected ache, pain, or other medical symptom; or simply learning someone else was diagnosed with cancer or had a recurrence.
Being afraid of cancer coming back may not be irrational. After all, cancer often sneaks up without warning in the first place. Also, statistical odds of recurrence vary across cancer types and diagnoses, and there is no way to guarantee any individual will not be affected again. But when the fear of recurrence becomes extremely distressing or overwhelming, affecting daily functioning, it is time to address it.
This fear can show up in a number of troubling ways. It may involve behavioral changes, such as frequent self-“checking” or “diagnosing” of possible symptoms or making more-frequent-than-necessary doctor appointments. Some may not talk about their fear, whereas others may talk about it a lot. Additionally, many people who experience frequent fears of recurrence report regular difficulty sleeping. Sometimes this means they have trouble winding down and falling asleep. For others, it may mean they wake in the middle of the night and start imagining worst-case scenarios or indulging intrusive thoughts. Difficulty sleeping and intrusive thoughts can then lead to increased distress and mood issues.
Help for Fear of Cancer Recurrence
If you experience fear of cancer recurrence, what can you do about it?
When I work with individuals to address fears, I find it’s key to address the inherent aspects of uncertainty. We do not have a crystal ball to see into the future, and it is important to find peace in living with this uncertainty.
One critical component is being able to disclose your fears and the distress you feel because of them. Regardless of whether you have family or friends who you believe would be understanding, there are multiple avenues to find this type of support. One key strategy involves connecting with a community of other cancer survivors. Many survivors find benefit from joining a post-treatment support group. In addition to being safe environments to share concerns, such groups help many people feel less alone in their experience. This in and of itself can be quite powerful. I see it all the time in the post-treatment support groups that I lead. I also see many examples of how group members help others just by sharing their experiences of how they have navigated this fear.
If disclosing fear of recurrence seems more comfortable in a less public setting, there are many other outlets to explore. You may consider finding a therapist who specializes in issues related to oncology or management of fears.
When I work with individuals to address fears, I find it’s key to address the inherent aspects of uncertainty. We do not have a crystal ball to see into the future, and it is important to find peace in living with this uncertainty. Writing in the form of journaling can be an effective way to acknowledge your fears and to consider how you can propel yourself forward in spite of them.
Pay attention to how you are coping in your daily life. How do you typically handle uncertainty, and what has been helpful for you? Do you tend to reach out to others for support and reassurance? Many find comfort in spirituality, especially pertaining to uncertainty.
This may also be a time to focus on other aspects of your identity. Who were you before you had cancer? What is important to you now? How do you choose to spend your time? You have the power to redirect your energies to the passions of your choosing. Perhaps this is a time to refocus attention on other aspects of your lifestyle, like incorporating more exercise, meditation, or dietary changes.
Regardless of how you choose to address your fears, know you are not alone in having these thoughts and learning how to navigate them.
Cancer treatment & survivorship – Facts and figures. (2016-2017). Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/content/dam/cancer-org/research/cancer-facts-and-statistics/cancer-treatment-and-survivorship-facts-and-figures/cancer-treatment-and-survivorship-facts-and-figures-2016-2017.pdf
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