The end of cancer treatment is often a time to rejoice. Most likely you’re relieved to be finished with the demands of treatment. You may be ready to put the experience behind you and have life return to the way it used to be. Yet at the same time, you may feel sad and worried. It can take time to recover. And it’s very common to be thinking about whether the cancer will come back and what happens now.
Fear about cancer coming back is the most common emotional challenge people face after cancer.
You will have many different feelings during this time. Part of coping with life after treatment is learning to deal with the fear of recurrence.
Cancer recurrence is defined as when cancer comes back after treatment and after a period of time when cancer was not found in your body. The cancer may come back in the same place it first started or may appear somewhere else in the body. Typically doctors call it a recurrence if there have been no signs of cancer for a year or more.
Common Questions About Recurrence
- After your treatment, you may have a number of questions about the possible recurrence of your cancer, such as:
- Will there ever be a time when I’ll be sure my cancer won’t come back?
- What should I look for if I am worried about a recurrence?
- What future health problems am I at risk for after my cancer treatment?
- Find the answers to these and other frequently asked questions about fear of recurrence.
Adjust to a “New Normal”
Those who have gone through cancer treatment describe the first few months as a time of change. It’s not so much “getting back to normal” as it is finding out what’s normal for you now. People often say that life has new meaning or that they look at things differently. Your new normal may include:
- Making changes in the way you eat and the things you do
- New or different sources of financial, social, or emotional support
- Permanent scars on your body
- Emotional scars from going through so much
You may see yourself in a different way, or find that others think of you differently now. Whatever your new normal may be, give yourself time to adapt to the changes. Take it one day at a time.
Dealing with Uncertainty
It’s normal to worry about the cancer recurring, especially during the first year after treatment. But, although many people say their fear of cancer returning decreases over time, things like follow-up visits, anniversary events, or the illness of a family member can make you worry about your health. Follow these tips for dealing with uncertainty.
Know the Signs of Recurrence
- Check with your doctor for a list of common signs of recurrence of your type of cancer.
- Tell your doctor right away if you experience any of the following major symptoms, which could mean serious problems:
- The cancer symptoms you had before return
- Pain that’s new or unusual
- Unexplained weight loss
- Unusual bruising or bleeding
- Allergic reactions, such as a rash, swelling, itching, or wheezing
- Fevers or chills
- Headaches that occur often
- Having trouble breathing
- Blood in your stool or urine
- Any unexplained lumps, bumps, or swelling
- Trouble swallowing, or any sour stomach symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or loss of appetite
- A stubborn cough
- Any of the common signs of recurrence of your type of cancer that your doctor told you about
- Keep in mind that there are medical problems and illnesses that aren’t related to your previous cancer. Talk to your doctor to determine the cause of your symptoms.
Look for Support
- Talk to a social worker or member of your cancer care team about how you’re feeling emotionally.
- Ask your doctor for a psychotherapy referral if you’re experiencing overwhelming fear of recurrence.
- Look into peer groups for support. You can get useful ideas from others that might help you.
- Find a peer group and other resources through the American Cancer Society Cancer Survivors Network.
Practice Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques
When you’re feeling afraid, pause for a moment to think about the situation.
- Stop and take a deep breath.
- Ask yourself, what’s really going on here?
- Remind yourself that your thoughts are “just thoughts.” Thoughts come and go. We all have thoughts, but having a thought doesn’t mean that it’s true or that it will last forever.
- Take another deep breath and move on with your day.
- Do something nice for yourself. Go for a walk, take a bath, paint your nails, call a friend, go to a movie, or play with a child or a pet. Do whatever feels good to you.
Deep Conscious Breathing
- Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit or lie down.
- Relax your face, jaw, neck, and shoulders. Gently place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly button.
- As you breathe in, allow the breath to expand your belly, chest, and lungs. As you breathe out, gently press your hands against your chest and belly to let out more air.
- Focus on steady breathing.
- Take your time.
Learn More About Fear of Recurrence
The National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society have additional resources to help you, including Living with Uncertainty: The Fear of Cancer Recurrence, and a new normal.