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Life after Cancer

Coping with the Fear of Recurrence

by Fran Zandstra, RN, MBA, OCN

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In the midst of cancer treatment, for most, the goal is to cure the cancer. This means finishing the prescribed treatment plan, whether it’s surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or some combination of the three. You count the months and days until you reach that milestone. When the day finally arrives, you are elated and ready to put the experience behind you. Your doctor and healthcare team congratulate you with a pat on the back, a warm hug, and a fond farewell. This is the day you and your loved ones have been looking forward to – treatment is over. Let the celebration begin!

Then it hits you – what now? Cancer survivors often say that life has new meaning or that they look at things differently after cancer. When treatment ends, you may expect life to return to the way it was before you were diagnosed. However, it can take time to recover both physically and emotionally. You may not be able to do some things you once did easily. And you may have emotions that surprise you, such as feelings of fear or anxiety. One of the most common emotions after treatment is the fear that cancer will recur.

While you can’t control whether cancer recurs, you can control how much you let the fear of recurrence affect your life.

Author of Article photo

Fran Zandstra

Researchers have studied the relationship between emotions and cancer extensively. While there is no evidence that emotions can cause or prevent cancer, research does show that taking an active role in your care can improve both your physical and mental sense of well-being. It’s important to remember that while you can’t control whether cancer recurs, you can control how much you let the fear of recurrence affect your life.

A first step in coping with fear is to try not to feel guilty for being afraid or ignore your feelings in hopes that they’ll go away. Instead, here are more productive ways to cope with the fear of cancer recurrence.

♦ Talk about your feelings.
Talking often reduces fears and anxieties. Talk with your healthcare team or friends, or join a support group. Connecting with others who are experiencing similar feelings can be a great comfort. Ask your healthcare team about support groups offered by your hospital or other organizations in your community.

♦ Write down your thoughts and feelings in a journal.
Research has shown that journaling may help people experience a greater sense of physical and emotional well-being. Because journal writing helps you to focus on your innermost thoughts, it fosters coming to terms with illness and regaining a sense of control in your life.

♦ Exercise regularly, and try other complementary therapies.
Reputable centers all across the country offer classes in exercise and complementary therapies, such as yoga, music therapy, tai chi, guided imagery, reflexology, and massage. Prayer and meditation can also be helpful.

♦ Stay informed about your ongoing healthcare needs.
Ask your doctor for a treatment summary. This should include a schedule of recommended follow-up visits, medical tests, cancer screenings, symptoms to report, and, specifically, who will be providing your care. Keep a schedule of your appointments.

Don’t feel you need to do everything at once. Try those things that bring you joy or help you feel peaceful. Life after cancer is a journey. Be gentle and have patience with yourself as you heal physically and emotionally. For most cancer survivors, fear of recurrence recedes with time.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Fran Zandstra is the executive director of the Cancer Survivorship Program at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2012.