Understanding the Fear Your Cancer Will Come Back

March 6, 2012 Cobie Whitten

One of the most troubling aspects of ending cancer treatment is worrying that the cancer will come back; indeed some studies suggest that up to 90% of cancer patients report fear of recurrence. Certain events may trigger or exacerbate the fear:

  • Doctor visits
  • Medical tests
  • Media reports about cancer
  • Anniversary dates of the diagnosis, ending treatment, etc.
  • Hearing that a friend or loved one has been diagnosed

With time, the fear usually lessens. But it can be quite debilitating and disruptive. You may focus excessively on your body and/or ambiguous symptoms and leap to catastrophic conclusions. You may feel you cannot plan for the future, experience despair and feel emotionally paralyzed.

Life after cancer has been described as living with the sword of Damocles over your head. [Greek legend describes that Damocles was a courtier to King Dionysius. Damocles was in awe of the King's great fortune in life, so the King invited him to exchange places with him for a day. During a lavish banquet, Damocles discovered that a sword hung over his head suspended by a single hair. Only then did he understand the constant and anxious dread that a King truly feels. His fear was so great that he could no longer enjoy the riches around him.]

My doctoral dissertation focused on fear of recurrence. A major finding was that the stage of disease/prognosis was not related to anxiety about recurrence. Some women with early stage disease and an excellent prognosis were more fearful than those with later stage disease. Your fear may not align with data or statistics on recurrence likelihood, but that does not mean the fear is not real and upsetting.

Feeling fear that your cancer will come back is completely normal. In our next post I'll share with you five strategies for coping with the fear of recurrence.

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