Living With Uncertainty: The Fear of Cancer Recurrence

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Learning to live with uncertainty

Worrying about the cancer coming back (recurring) is normal, especially during the first year after treatment. This is one of the most common fears people have after cancer treatment. And even many years after treatment, this fear may still be in the back of your mind. As time goes by, many people say that their fear of cancer returning decreases and they find themselves thinking less often about cancer. But even years after treatment, some events can make you worry about your health. These may include:

  • Follow-up visits or certain medical tests
  • Anniversary events (like the date you were diagnosed, had surgery, or ended treatment)
  • Birthdays
  • Illness of a family member
  • Learning that someone you know has had a recurrence
  • Symptoms much like the ones you had when you first found you had cancer
  • New symptoms you don’t understand
  • The death of someone who had cancer

Here are some ideas that have helped others deal with uncertainty and fear and feel more hopeful:

  • Be informed. Learn what you can do for your health now and about the services available to you. This can give you a greater sense of control.
  • Check with your doctor for a list of common signs of recurrence of your type of cancer. Call your doctor if you have questions about any changes you notice.
  • Be aware that you do not have control over some aspects of your cancer. It helps to accept this rather than fight it.
  • Be aware of your fears, but don’t judge them. Practice letting them go. It’s normal for these thoughts to enter your mind, but you don’t have to keep them there. Some people picture them floating away, or being vaporized. Others turn them over to a higher power to handle. However you do it, letting them go can free you from wasting time and energy on needless worry.
  • Express feelings of fear or uncertainty with a trusted friend or counselor. Being open and dealing with emotions helps many people feel less worried. People have found that when they express strong feelings, like fear, they are more able to let go of these feelings. Thinking and talking about your feelings can be hard. If you find cancer is taking over your life, it often helps to find a way to express your feelings.
  • Take in the present moment rather than thinking of an uncertain future or a difficult past. If you can find a way to feel peaceful inside yourself, even for a few minutes a day, you can start to recall that peace when other things are happening – when life is busy and confusing.
  • Work toward having a positive attitude, which can help you feel better about life now. Just remember you don’t have to act “positive” all the time. Don’t beat yourself up or let others make you feel guilty when you’re feeling sad, angry, anxious, or distressed.
  • Use your energy to focus on wellness and what you can do now to stay as healthy as possible. Try to make healthy diet changes. If you are a smoker, this is a good time to quit.
  • Find ways to help yourself relax.
  • Be as physically active as you can.
  • Control what you can. Some people say that putting their lives back in order makes them feel less fearful. Being involved in your health care, getting back to your normal life, and making changes in your lifestyle are among the things you can control. Even setting a daily schedule can give you more power. And while no one can control every thought, some say they’ve resolved not to dwell on the fearful ones.

Get support

Emotional support can be a powerful tool for both survivors and families. Talking with others who are in situations like yours can help ease loneliness. You can also get useful ideas from others that might help you.

There are many kinds of support programs, including individual or group counseling and support groups. Some groups are formal and focus on learning about cancer or dealing with feelings. Others are informal and social. Some groups are made up of only people with cancer or only caregivers, while some include spouses, family members, or friends. Other groups focus on certain types of cancer or stages of disease. The length of time groups meet can range from a set number of weeks to an ongoing program. Some programs have closed membership and others are open to new, drop-in members.

It’s very important that you get information about any support group you are considering. Ask the group leader or facilitator what types of patients are in the group and if anyone in the group is dealing with fears about recurrence or survival.

Online support groups may be another option for support. The Cancer Survivors Network, an online support community supported by your American Cancer Society is just one example. You can visit this community at http://csn.cancer.org/. There are many other good communities on the Internet that you can join as well, although you’ll want to check them out before joining. See the “To learn more” section for some online support group information.

Some people feel better having a person-to-person connection with a counselor who can give one-on-one attention and encouragement. Your doctor may be able to recommend a counselor who works with cancer survivors.

Religion can be a great source of strength for some people. Some find new faith during a cancer experience. Others find that cancer informs their existing faith or their faith provides newfound strength. Still others find themselves questioning their faith. If you are a religious person, a minister, rabbi, other leader of your faith, or a trained pastoral counselor can help you identify your spiritual needs and find spiritual support. Some members of the clergy are specially trained to help minister to people with cancer and their families.

Spirituality is important to many people, even those who don’t practice a formal religion. Many people are comforted by recognizing that they are part of something greater than themselves, which helps them find meaning in life. Spiritual practices can help foster connection to others, to the present moment, and to the sacred or significant. Meditation, practicing gratitude, helping others, and spending time in nature are just a few of the many ways that people address spiritual needs.

Support in any form allows you to express your feelings and develop coping skills. Studies have found that people who take part in a support group have an improved quality of life, including better sleep and appetite. Contact your American Cancer Society to find out about available sources of support in your area.

When treatment ends

When treatment ends, people begin a new chapter in their lives, one that can bring hope, happiness – and fear. The fear of recurrence is common among cancer survivors and can sometimes be quite intense. No two people are alike. Each person has his or her own way of coping and learning to manage these emotions will take time and practice.

Keep in mind that you are a cancer survivor and remember the good news: You are one of more than 13 million Americans alive today who has had cancer, and the survival rate is improving all the time.


Last Medical Review: 06/19/2013
Last Revised: 06/19/2013