Understanding and Managing the Fear of Cancer Recurrence

The day your oncologist determined you were cancer-free was probably one of the best days of your life. You might have even run the bell on your last 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 coming back is an issue for survivors. Without professional help, the study states, this fear will not necessarily get better over time – even in cancer survivors whose actual risk of cancer recurrence is low.

This means your concern about the cancer returning is normal. But at the same time, it can’t take over your thoughts on a daily basis. How can you make that possible?

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, and lifestyle changes, 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.

The harder part is learning not to obsess about the things you simply cannot control. Helpful tools for learning to cope with the fear of cancer recurrence include:

  • Participating in a cancer survivor support group
  • Discussing your concerns with your oncology team
  • Seeking professional help from a therapist

Even when cancer survivors do everything right, cancer sometimes recurs. Worrying will not prevent cancer from returning! 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. When you live in fear of recurrence, you’re robbing yourself of precious cancer-free moments you can and should be enjoying!