When Cancer Comes Back: Cancer Recurrence

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What about the “why” questions?

“So many people live the rest of their lives without their cancer coming back! Why me?”

For some people, looking for an answer to the “why” question can cause sleepless nights and incredible soul searching. Others find that it doesn’t really matter why something has happened – how best to deal with it is more important. Many people think that if they knew why something has happened – and then they can do or stop doing something – somehow the situation will change. This notion is not usually rational, but it helps to understand the way people think. We all look for reasons for what happens in our lives. It’s hard to accept that cancer can be a random event and that there may be no answer to why a person develops cancer. Many things can influence the development of cancer – these can be genetic, environmental, or related to something a person did. Most people never know why they have a cancer recurrence, either, so trying to find the answer to this question can only lead to frustration, sadness, or anger. This is the kind of question that doesn’t help right now. Rather than look for an answer, most people would rather spend their time and energy trying to feel better and enjoy time with loved ones.

The bottom line in answering the “why” question is that knowing the answer to the question will not change what happens next. Worrying about it can drain people of energy which is better used in coping with the illness. If you find yourself unable to move beyond this question, talk with your cancer care team about a referral to a mental health professional.

“I keep thinking of every unhealthy thing I’ve ever done. Was it something I did that made the cancer come back?”

For some people, the answer to the “why” question might relate to something they did, such as smoking, tanning, or drinking a lot. These people can have a much harder time living with their choices because they feel guilty that they did something that could have caused their cancer. Their job is to forgive themselves. If they can’t let go of the guilt and self-blame, living with the cancer is that much harder. Many times it helps to talk to an oncology social worker or mental health professional to make peace with yourself and these issues.

Last Medical Review: 07/28/2015
Last Revised: 07/28/2015