Living With Uncertainty: The Fear of Cancer Recurrence

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Emotions after treatment

You have completed cancer treatment and are ready to move on with your life. Completing treatment can be both stressful and exciting. All is well – or is it? Once treatment is over, many cancer survivors find they have issues and concerns they did not expect.

Going back to “normal”

You’ve been seeing your doctor quite often; now, suddenly, you don’t have to visit for many months at a time. When treatment is done, some people feel that they’re no longer fighting their cancer. You might feel alone and lost without the support of your health care team. These people may have become an important part of your life. Not seeing them might make you anxious and sad.

You may also find that going back to your role in the family is not as easy as you thought it would be. Things that you did before your cancer are now being done by others. Maybe they’re not willing to give your tasks back to you. Or maybe you disagree with how others have done things, but are afraid to say anything. After all, you should be grateful for everything they’ve done, shouldn’t you?

For some people, emotions that were put aside during cancer treatment come flooding back all at once, and they feel overwhelmed with sadness, anger, or fear. Maybe you feel emotionally exhausted and tired all the time. Some of it may be the lingering side effects of treatment, but some of it feels as if your body and spirit are tired and need a long rest. It’s been a long time since you could just relax.

All of these feelings make sense. You’ve just been through a difficult time. You’ve had to make some major life decisions. Your body has been assaulted by cancer and its treatment. Your outlook and your whole way of life have changed, at least for a time.

Dealing with the “what ifs?”

You want to believe it’s over and put the cancer behind you, but can you? You may notice that you’re paying a lot of attention to aches and pains in your body. You may feel like a “sitting duck.” The doctor says you have no signs of cancer now, but can you be sure? You may be wondering…

  • Will it come back?
  • What are the chances it will come back?
  • How will I know if it has come back?
  • What will I do if it comes back?
  • When will it come back?

The fear grips you, and you have trouble sleeping, being close with your partner, and even making simple decisions. You are not alone. One of the most common concerns of cancer survivors is the worry about cancer coming back. The fear of recurrence is normal.

It’s important that you understand that there is a chance that after treatment the cancer could come back (recur). Sometimes your healthcare team may not warn you about this. This could be because they are trying to protect you from uncertainty and fear. They want to encourage you – especially when you’re first starting treatment. Sometimes the team may think you know that your cancer can return, but when the focus is on a cure or long-term survival, it seems pessimistic to talk about recurrence. It’s natural for your healthcare team to want to share that moment of victory over the cancer with you without talking about anything bad that could happen in the future. But you need to know that cancer recurrence is a very real possibility – it’s what we will discuss here.


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