Making Sense of Cancer Recurrence and How to Manage the Fear of It

At Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, we know that hearing the words “cancer free” is an incredibly pivotal moment for cancer survivors. While this is certainly a victory, it’s not a guarantee that you’ll be cancer free forever. Because of this, it’s understandable that you may feel anxious amidst the excitement. 

A Cancer Survivor’s Big Question: 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, cancer survivors have a genuine fear of cancer recurrence. The study continues by saying that those who have no support system could lead to ongoing fear— even among cancer survivors who have low risk of the cancer returning. 

Practical Tips for Managing Fear of Cancer Recurrence

Of course, turning off those anxious thoughts is often easier said than done. However, there’s good news: there are some practical strategies for managing fear of cancer recurrence— many of which resemble strategies for managing other common fears such as losing your job, being a victim of a random crime, or having an intruder break in while you’re sleeping.

As with these other situations, there are two main ways you can try to manage that fear. The first is to do all that you can to minimize the chances of your fear becoming reality. And the second is to train your brain not to obsess over uncertainties that are out of your control. 

When it comes to cancer, an important part of taking control of your fear of recurrence is to remain diligent about regular post-cancer checkups and screenings. Additionally, it’s wise to heed your oncologist’s instructions regarding diet, exercise, medication, etc. According to an American Cancer Society report on cancer treatment and survivorship:

  • Using tobacco after cancer treatment increases the risk of cancer recurrence
  • Maintaining an exercise regimen after treatment reduces the risks of cancer recurrence and increases overall survival rates
  • Being overweight or obese after treatment can reduce your chance of long-term survival 

The more you strive to prevent recurrence, the easier it will become to relax a little bit. 

Letting go of what’s out of your control, on the other hand, is usually much harder to do. If you do find this to be a struggle, consider talking with someone about it— a therapist, a cancer survivor support group member, a clergy person, or your oncologist. Sometimes, all it takes is a safe place to talk to help you cope with fear of cancer recurrence. The more you can get off your chest, the easier it can be to divert your focus in the direction of moving forward with your life.  

Remember, even the best of intentions doesn’t guarantee that the cancer won’t recur. Still, it’s important to hold onto hope! Work towards directing your thoughts elsewhere, keeping in mind that living in fear of recurrence means you’re robbing yourself of precious cancer-free moments you can and should be enjoying! 

Again, we urge you to avoid struggling with this worry on your own. Seek out someone who can help. For many survivors, it can be incredibly helpful to discuss their concerns and fears with others, especially other cancer survivors.