How to Cope with Fear of Cancer Recurrence or Progression
- Acknowledge Your Fear. It seems easy enough to acknowledge that you are afraid, yet it’s not that simple. After hearing stories or reading yet another obituary hailing someone’s courageous journey with cancer, it may not feel right to worry yourself. After all, you are cancer free or the cancer you have is stable. This reluctance to speak of fears is reinforced by society in another way. How often is it said that one must have a positive attitude to beat cancer?
- Give yourself permission to feel your feelings. Remember that feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are. Allowing yourself to admit your fears is not the opposite of having a positive attitude. Instead, it validates the feelings the majority of cancer survivors experience at some time during their journey.
- Educate Yourself. Knowledge is power, and in terms recurrence that statement can be very true. Begin by understanding your risk of recurrence or progression. Clearly, none of us are numbers, and statistics are numbers, not people, but talking to your doctor about the risk of your cancer coming back or spreading can help you put your worry into perspective. You should understand how and why some cancers recur, and the symptoms to expect if your own cancer were to return, grow and spread. Finally, ask your oncologist what to do so as to lower your risk of recurrence. Sometimes focusing on these actions alone can help you move past some of your fears.
- Name Your Fears. Once you grasp your risk of recurrence, as well as measures to lower your risk, step back and look at your fears. It is amazing how much easier some things are to cope with when we give them a clear name. Name your fear. Are you afraid that the cancer will come back? What are the chances it will? Then name your secondary fears. Are you afraid of death? Are you afraid of what will happen to your children if you don’t survive your cancer? Are you afraid of pain or being alone? Naming your fears not only helps by objectifying them but by evaluating your secondary fears you are in a better position to take measures to reduce these fears. For example, do you have an updated will describing what you wish to see happen with your children if you do not survive your cancer?
- Talking to a friend or loved one. Sharing your feelings is a fabulous step in coping with your fear of recurrence. Not only does this lessen the loneliness that accompanies your fears, but it serves to validate your fears. Not all friends will be comfortable with the required degree of honesty this entails. Indeed, you may wish to think carefully about who in your life would best serve this role. This is a difficult step, and you don’t let your efforts downplayed by one who insists that you must be positive. Alternatively, some people may be more comfortable sharing their fears as part of a cancer support group. In a cancer support group setting, you will not only have a chance to hear from others with similar feelings but you will also benefit from hearing what others have done in an attempt to cope with those fears.
- Be Aware of What Triggers Your Fears. Many situations can trigger the fear of recurrence or progression of cancer; i.e., a TV commercial, learning of one who recently received a cancer diagnosis or passed away from cancer, an upcoming appointment or a new symptom. After all, those who have survived cancer know that any new symptom is suspect. Yet even positive dates and times meant to be a celebration can trigger fears of recurrence. Whether it is your 3-month “cancerversary,” one-year, five-year, or if you have lived with cancer for decades, remembering the date of your diagnosis also reminds of your mortality. As you celebrate on the outside, you may feel some cancer survivor guilt, knowing others have not made it this far, and a reminder that for you too, cancer could come back. On the flip side of the excitement that comes from knowing you have made it to a certain birthday, wedding, or graduation comes the unvoiced question: Could it be the last? Simply being aware that triggers will occur, and knowing how to cope with those fears ahead of time, is a big step in keeping these moments from impairing your quality of life. The looming uncertainty can often be the hardest feeling to handle.
Coping Methods for Moving Past Your Fears. There are many ways of lessening the fear of recurrence.
- One excellent method is distraction or focusing on something else so as to take your mind off your fears. Distraction can take the form of exercise or perhaps nurturing a creative outlet you enjoy. Journaling your cancer journey may help some people, but deserves a special caution. Writing your thoughts can actually have the opposite effect if you ruminate on your fears. For this reason, some people benefit by keeping a gratitude journal. Feeling an attitude of gratitude is tough while simultaneously keeping a mindset of fear. A type of distraction with double benefits is an activity that serves to distract you from your fears while also lowering your risk of recurrence. For some people this is exercise. Ask your oncologist to brainstorm any “double benefit” activities with you If you find it tough to think of any for yourself. Practice the very effective distraction method of supporting and advocating for others with cancer. Check out organizations that actively support people with your type of cancer. You can become involved in many ways, such as chat rooms, working one-on-one with people you are “matched” with according to type and stage of cancer or by becoming a cancer advocate.
Beyond an active, healthy lifestyle, the following mind-body therapies can help you cope with the fear of cancer recurrence or progression
- Meditation. It’s simple to learn how to practice mindfulness-based meditation to cope with the fear of recurrence, and studies suggest this practice may provide lasting improvement in alleviating these fears.
- Massage therapy. Not only can massage therapy provide distraction from your fearful thoughts but can ease the muscle tension created by those thoughts. Plus, it’s an awesome way to pamper yourself as a survivor.
- Qigong. Qigong combines breathing techniques with meditation, and can have benefits for cancer survivors that go beyond helping with the fear of recurrence. Studies suggest it may help with cancer-related fatigue, chemobrain (pesky symptom from chemo that makes your house key harder to find) and even benefit your immune system. It may be hard to pronounce and seem foreign, but many simple youtube.com videos exist that westerners can follow to get the gist.
- Stress relief breathing. Easy-to-learn breathing techniques work rapidly to alleviate worry and stress associated with the fear of recurrence.
- Acupuncture. Happily, you need not understand how acupuncture works to experience its benefits as a cancer survivor. Not only can it help you cope with cancer-related fears related, but it may help with pain, sleep, and even the annoying side effect of treatment-related peripheral neuropathy.
- Keeping Your Fears From Controlling You. If you are still plagued by the fear of recurrence after trying some of these coping methods, or if your fears are lessening your quality of life, it is time talk to a professional. If so, don’t feel like a failure. It’s hard to cope with these raw, new feelings. Perhaps this is why a few studies found improved quality of life, and even possibly survival, in those with cancer who sought out counselling. The importance looking at fears in relation to your quality of life cannot be overstated. After all, whether or not your cancer ever recurs or progresses, you want to live as fully as possible today. Cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as “talk therapy,” may help you further understand your fears and shed light on issues you may not have considered. A 2019 study found that a metacognitive intervention called “ConquerFear” could be used in a sustainable way in oncology to manage this common fear.