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Cancer Survivorship

Understanding and Managing the Fear of Cancer Recurrence

Fear of Cancer Returning

The day your oncologist determined you were cancer-free was probably one of the best days of your life. You might have even rung the bell on your last cancer treatment as a celebration! While learning you’re cancer-free is definitely great news, no one can say with certainty that you will remain cancer-free forever. As a cancer survivor, you’re probably excited for the future but also a little anxious about it at the same time.

The Question on All Cancer Survivors’ Minds: 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, fear of cancer recurrence is an issue for survivors. Without professional help, the study continues, this fear will not necessarily get better over time – even in cancer survivors whose actual risk of cancer recurrence is low.

Tips for Managing Fear of Cancer Recurrence

What should you do if you’re not able to turn off the “What if my cancer returns?” thoughts in your brain? Strategies for managing the fear of cancer recurrence are very similar to strategies for managing other common fears, such as: What if an intruder breaks in while I’m sleeping? What if I get fired from my job? What if I’m the victim of a random crime? And on and on. You need to take whatever steps you can to reduce the likelihood that your fear will become reality. You also need to train your brain not to obsess over uncertainties you cannot control.

By being diligent about regular post-cancer checkups and screenings and following your oncologist’s instructions about diet, exercise, medication, etc., you can take control of your fear of recurrence. According to an American Cancer Society report on cancer treatment and survivorship:

  • Post-treatment physical activity reduces the risks of cancer recurrence and increases overall survival rates.
  • Remaining overweight or obese after treatment reduces long-term survival rates.
  • Smoking after cancer treatment increases the risk of cancer recurrence.

When you do everything in your power to prevent recurrence, you can relax a bit.

What is tougher is learning not to obsess about the things you simply cannot control. Seeking professional help from a therapist, participating in a cancer survivor support group, and discussing your fears with your oncology healthcare team are all helpful tools to help you cope with the fear of cancer recurrence and eventually train your brain to not fixate on future uncertainties you can’t control.

The bottom line is, even when cancer survivors do everything right, cancer sometimes recurs. You can make yourself sick with worry thinking about cancer recurrence or you can learn to redirect your thoughts about this fear and avoid dwelling on the topic. Worrying will not prevent cancer recurrence! When you live in fear of recurrence, you’re robbing yourself of precious cancer-free moments you can and should be enjoying!

If you discover that you’re “stuck” in worrying mode, you might want to consider seeking professional help from a therapist who can teach you strategies for redirecting your thoughts. If you are religious, talking to a clergy person can be comforting. Many survivors also find that discussing their concerns and fears with other cancer survivors in a survivorship support group is helpful.