If you’re a breast cancer survivor like me (or any cancer survivor) then you wrestle with fear of your cancer recurring. You might think about it all the time. Or perhaps you pretend it’s not there. If you’re lucky, you’re managing it reasonably well… at least for now.
No matter how long you’ve been dealing with it, fear of recurrence is ever-present. Yet you probably never (or rarely) admit it to anyone. It’s time to talk about it and deal with it.
Here’s what breast cancer survivors should know about recurrence (and how to start dealing with it effectively).
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3 Things Breast Cancer Survivors Should Know About Fear of Recurrence
#1: It’s With You For Life
Fear of recurrence never goes away. Sometimes, it rears back up after you think that you’ve left it behind. Something will trigger your fear, such as:
- feeling off for a few weeks, without knowing why;
- having to get a precautionary MRI;
- a friend or family member is diagnosed with cancer; or
- your blood work on a routine annual exam comes back with abnormalities.
No matter how small your risk for recurrence, there will be times when you’ll worry that your cancer has (or could) come back.
#2: It’s Rational (and Okay) to Fear Recurrence, Yet Can Get Overwhelming
I want to make clear that it’s rational to worry that your cancer could (or might have) come back. It’s not abnormal or strange to have these feelings. Everyone has them.
So, whatever you do, don’t try to hide them or pretend they don’t exist. Because that will only make it worse. Fear tends to metastasize when ignored. That’s when it takes over and can ruin your ability to be happy and mentally well.
Sometimes, your fear can get overwhelming. You’re not weird or abnormal for it. Human beings tend to get overwhelmed by fear. And let me tell you: there’s nothing wrong with admitting that you’ve become overwhelmed by fear of recurrence.
Whenever your fear gets overwhelming, it’s a sign that you need to do something about it. Ignoring it or pretending it’s not there will only make it worse. Although overwhelm is a distinctly human trait, the good news is that you can do something about it.
Acknowledge the feeling and identify how you feel. And then get help. Although you might need professional help, that’s not necessarily the case. Get started by talking to your doctor, a family member, or friend. You might even consider joining a support group.
#3: You Can Reduce – Even Get “Comfortable” – With Your Fear
Just because your fear is rational and ever-present doesn’t mean you can’t diminish it. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t live a happy, healthy life either.
The thing about fear is that, although some fears never go away, they can be managed. When you manage them properly, they don’t get in your way of living a fulfilling life.
What you need is the right mindset. One that gets comfortable with your fear by accepting it’s existence and allowing it to remain so that it can protect you.
What Breast Cancer Survivors Need to Know MOST About Fear
When I went through treatment, I watched many woman with horror. What bothered me was how all-consuming cancer was for them. It’s all they could think and talk about.
I didn’t want that to happen to me.
After treatment was over, I noticed that some women still couldn’t let go. What got in their way was fear. Initially, they couldn’t get past their fear of dying, disfigurement from a mastectomy or lumpectomy, and/or the pain caused by treatment. After treatment was over, they transferred all that fear into one singular fear: risk of recurrence.
This fear overwhelmed them and took over.
If that’s you, then I want to tell you something: it’s time to let it go. Life is messy and hard. And there’s always something to fear. You could get hit by a car tomorrow. Or you might have to deal with the death of a loved one.
I know this sounds harsh, but it’s a part of life. Don’t let this overtake you. Let it go and learn to LIVE your life.
Because lady: you’re here right now.
[Related Reading: How to Find Joy in the Journey (and Learn to Dance in the Rain)].
How to Manage (Even Diminish) Fear of Recurrence: 5 Tips
What do breast cancer survivors need to know about how to live with fear of recurrence? You need to know how to reduce that fear to a point where you’re comfortable with it (or at least not sidelined by it). Just because you had cancer doesn’t mean that you must live with overwhelming fear that it might come back for the rest of your life.
Here are 5 tips to help you reduce and manage your fear:
Tip #1: Know Your Triggers
Tips 1 and 2 are about educating yourself. First, you need to understand what triggers your fear. When does your fear become most noticeable. Is it…
- every time you celebrate your cancer “anniversary”;
- during times when you celebrate (and you worry it could the the last);
- when you go to your annual check-up’s; or
- whenever you walk into a hospital.
Start paying attention to what triggers you – and to how your body and mind react to them. Do you start sweating? Does your heart start racing? Do you remember the moment you were diagnosed. How does your fear manifest within you?
This knowledge will help you determine how best to deal with your fear.
Tip #2: Educate Yourself
Understand your real risk of recurrence, why it happens, and the symptoms. I’m often surprised how many women don’t inform themselves, yet are terrified of things that aren’t real. Most of this is because they’ve stayed so uninformed.
The best way to educate yourself is to talk to your doctor. Ask questions and get curious about what symptoms to be on the lookout for and what to do if you become concerned that something is amiss.
Knowledge is power, so use it to your advantage.
Tip #3: Stay Connected
It’s much easier to get over fear of recurrence by living your life. But here’s the thing about living: you must stay connected to other people.
Living your life means getting out with people you love, confiding in them, and listening to their problems openly. This will get you out of your own bubble and into the world. That’s part of how you conquer fear.
And if you need to talk about your fear, find someone you trust that you can talk with. Either a trusted friend or family member, a support group, or a professional. And if whomever you choose to confide in doesn’t help you, then find someone who can.
Tip #4: Prioritize Wellness
Part of living your life means ensuring your own mental, emotional, and physical well-being. And that includes doing what you can to be healthy.
Taking Care of Your Physical Health
I’m not going to tell you that you have to eat perfectly, exercise every day, and completely give up alcohol. But the truth is: you’ll lower your chances for recurrence by taking good care of yourself.
Some foods help fight off cancer, alcohol is (unfortunately) not a breast cancer survivor’s best friend, and exercise reduces your risk of recurrence (the ten year survival rate is higher for those patients who exercise regularly post-cancer than those who don’t).
Taking Care of Yourself Mentally and Emotionally
You don’t just need to take care of your physical well-being, but also your mental and emotional well-being. Effective stress management can help you live a happier, healthier life (and it might even help improve your chances for long-term survival). And fear of recurrence causes stress in addition to the regular day-to-day stress caused by life.
It’s important that you find ways to manage and diminish your stress levels. There are numerous ways to do that, and each one has it’s own benefits. What matters is what ultimately works for you (because they’re not all one-size fits all). Here are some healthy coping behaviors that might help you deal with your stress:
- Practice daily gratitude
- Meditate regularly
- Regular massage therapy
- Join a support group
[Recommended: to learn how to incorporate some of these practices into your life, read 20 Easy Ways to Reduce Stress Naturally and Quickly (and Keep It Low)].
Tip #5: Have a Plan (and Follow It)
Your last tip is to develop a plan based on what triggers your fear, how your fear manifests within you, what you know about your risk of recurrence and what can be done to reduce your risk (and your stress). Some of this will vary, based on your particular fear.
However, there are several steps that I recommend you follow:
- Step 1: Acknowledge the fear. Remember, fear is more likely to take control if you try to ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist. Be honest with yourself about it’s existence.
- Step 2: Name your fear. Be specific about exactly what you fear and what’s causing it to be triggered.
- Step 3: Be curious. Based on what you fear and where it’s coming from, get curious about how you might deal with these triggers differently that could help reduce your fear.
- Step 4: Create your plan of action. Based on what you’ve found, create an appropriate plan of action to help you deal with your fear and then follow through whenever you need it.
[Recommended: for several more fear-busting and confidence-building tools, read 5 Effective Tools to Stop Living in Fear and Worry].
Case Study on Dealing With Fear of Recurrence
Throughout my cancer battle, I was worried about dying. Most of it related to dying too young – because of my boys. They were only 2 and 6 at the time of my diagnosis and I didn’t want them growing up without me.
Once I learned I was cancer-free, I (naively) believed that was it. I’d go about my merry way and never worry about it again. That is, until I felt a small lump in my breast a few months later (which terrified me).
To give you a bit of history, the type of cancer I had was triple negative breast cancer. The good news is that triple negative breast cancer often responds better to chemotherapy and the risk of recurrence goes down as time goes on. The bad news is that it’s more aggressive (and therefore more likely to spread) and has a high recurrence rate for the first 5 years post-treatment. Plus, there aren’t any drugs available to help reduce risk of recurrence.
Luckily, the lump turned out to be nothing. But once the Pandora’s box of fear was opened, it didn’t go away. I needed a better way to handle it.
My Plan of Action
I realized that my trigger was health-related. Anytime I felt off and couldn’t explain it, I’d immediately worry about recurrence. So, I learned more about symptoms of recurrence and what I could do to reduce my risk.
And then I put together my plan of action:
- Exercise regularly (at least 4 times per week).
- Keep stress levels low through mindful meditation.
- Eat healthy foods (and limit sugar and alcohol consumption).
- Stay alert for health changes and give myself 2 weeks of feeling unwell for unexplained reasons before calling my doctor (but then call the doctor no matter how dumb I might feel).
- Call my oncologist any time something alarming comes to light.
Putting this plan in place made gave me some measure of control. And that has helped to greatly reduce my fear of recurrence.
And now it’s your turn. Put your plan together and take control of that fear. Although you’ll have to live with it for the rest of your life, you can reduce and control it. You can even live happily.