Living With Uncertainty: The Fear of Cancer Recurrence

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Can I do anything to prevent recurrence?

It’s important to eat right, exercise, and see your doctor for follow-up visits, but please understand these measures cannot keep cancer from recurring. Many cancer patients blame themselves for missing a doctor visit, not eating right, or postponing a CT scan for a family vacation. But even if you do everything just right, the cancer still might come back.


After completing cancer treatment, many people decide to eat better and exercise in the hope that these changes will improve their quality of life and their chance for survival. Though current research does not prove that nutrition can influence cancer recurrence, it’s still a good idea to eat well and do what you can to be as healthy as possible.

The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer survivors in stable health after treatment follow the same nutrition guidelines as those recommended for cancer prevention. It’s thought that the same factors that increase cancer risk might also help promote cancer recurrence after treatment. For example, breast cancer research has supported dietary effects by suggesting that the risk of recurrence might be higher in women who are obese and don’t eat many fruits and vegetables. Prostate cancer recurrence might be increased by high saturated fat intake.

In general, an adult should eat 2½ cups of vegetables and fruits each day. Limit red meat (beef, pork, lamb) and processed meats (foods such as hot dogs, sausage, and luncheon meats) Select foods made with whole grains rather than refined grains and sugars.

If you are overweight, consider losing weight by cutting calories and increasing your activity. Check with your doctor before starting an exercise program. Be sure to choose activities you enjoy.

Several types of cancer are linked to alcohol intake, so if you drink, limit your intake to 1 drink a day for women and 2 for men. The more you drink, the higher your cancer risk.

Vitamins and supplements

Sometimes people think taking certain vitamins, herbs, or other dietary supplements will give them an extra edge in preventing recurrence. Available research does not support this belief. In fact, some research has shown that supplements containing high levels of single nutrients (greater than the Dietary Reference Intakes) may have unexpected harmful effects on cancer survivors.

Blood test results now can show if your levels of certain vitamins are low. Your doctor might recommend supplements that improve your level of certain vitamins, but the evidence so far does not show that high vitamin levels actually lower cancer risk. It’s best to talk with your doctor before starting any vitamin or other dietary supplement.

To learn more, you may want to read our document called Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?

Physical activity

A few studies have looked at the effect of physical activity on survival of people with cancer. Researchers have not yet been able to find out whether physical activity can prevent cancer recurrence or slow the progression of disease. But studies have shown that regular physical activity can reduce anxiety and depression, improve mood, boost self-esteem, and reduce symptoms of fatigue, nausea, pain, and diarrhea. These benefits can be gained through moderate physical activity on most, if not all days of the week.

Moderate activities are those that make you breathe as hard as you would during a brisk walk. Activities like walking, biking, and swimming are considered moderate, and so are activities like yard work and brisk house cleaning. Adults should try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week (or a combination of these). It’s best if this can be spread throughout the week. And, try to limit the amount of time you spend sitting.

A little bit of physical movement is far better than none. It helps if you start slowly and build up to greater amounts of physical activity. In choosing a level of activity, it’s important to think about your physical abilities and your recent levels of activity. It’s also important to talk to your doctor before changing your type or level of physical activity.

Bottom line

It would be very comforting to have a sure way to keep cancer from coming back after treatment. We want a real weapon to fight back with – something that will give us insurance against the cancer coming back. Both doctors and patients wish for cures. At this time there’s nothing you can do to be sure the cancer will not come back. Even with our current understanding of how it develops and grows, cancer is still a mystery in many ways.

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