Mental Health

Making Sense of Cancer Recurrence and How to Manage the Fear of It

How to Manage the Fear of Cancer Coming Back

A pivotal moment for cancer survivors is hearing their oncologist tell them that they’re cancer free. In fact, you yourself may have rung the bell on your last treatment as a celebration! While this is certainly good news, there’s no guarantee you’ll be cancer free forever. Therefore, it only makes sense that you may feel anxious amidst the excitement. 

A Cancer Survivor’s Big Question: What if It Comes Back?

According to a research paper published in the Oncology Journal, “fear of cancer recurrence is prevalent, distressing, and long-lasting, and can negatively impact patients’ quality of life, use of health services, and adherence to follow-up.” In other words, cancer recurrence is a genuine fear among cancer survivors. The study continues by saying that lack of help could lead to ongoing fear— even in cancer survivors who have low risk of the cancer coming back. 

Practical Tips for Managing Fear of Cancer Recurrence

Of course, turning off those anxious thoughts is often easier said than done. The good news, however, is that there are some practical strategies for managing fear of cancer recurrence— many of which resemble strategies for managing other common fears, such as: What if I lose my job? What if I’m the victim of a random crime? What if an intruder breaks in while I’m sleeping? And so on. 

As with these other situations, there are two primary ways you can try to manage that fear. The first, is to do whatever you can to reduce the likelihood that your fear will become reality. And the second, is to train your brain not to obsess over uncertainties that are out of your control. 

In regards to cancer, being diligent about regular post-cancer checkups and screenings is a great way to take control of your fear of recurrence. Additionally, you should follow your oncologist’s instructions about diet, exercise, medication, etc. According to an American Cancer Society report on cancer treatment and survivorship:

  • Maintaining an exercise regimen after treatment reduces the risks of cancer recurrence and increases overall survival rates
  • Being overweight or obese after treatment can reduce your chance of long-term survival 
  • Tobacco use after cancer treatment increases the risk of cancer recurrence

The more you strive to prevent recurrence, the easier it will become to relax a little bit. 

Oftentimes, letting go of what’s out of your control is much harder to do. If you find yourself struggling with this, consider talking with someone about it— someone like a therapist, a cancer survivor support group member, a clergy person, or your oncologist. Sometimes, all it takes is a safe place to talk to help you cope with fear of cancer recurrence. Eventually, your focus will shift, making it easier to move forward with your life. 

It’s important to understand that even the best of intentions doesn’t guarantee that the cancer won’t recur. But that doesn't mean to lose hope! Work toward directing your thoughts elsewhere, keeping in mind that living in fear of recurrence means you’re robbing yourself of precious cancer-free moments you can and should be enjoying! 

Again, don’t struggle with this worry alone. Talk with someone who can help. For many survivors, discussing their concerns and fears with others, especially other cancer survivors can be helpful.