Living with the Fear of Cancer Recurrence

In my last post, I talked about the complex feelings of cancer diagnosis and treatment. I wanted a separate post to specifically target the fear around cancer recurrence.

Whether you’re still going through cancer treatment or it has been years since you were treated, the fear of cancer coming back is very real. You’re attuned to every ache and pain in your body and instead of thinking that these discomforts stem from sore muscles or the beginning of a cold, you think cancer. Perhaps you secure message your doctor’s office for reassurance or you talk yourself down from feeling anxious. Nonetheless, the thought of cancer is ever looming.

Anxiety about cancer recurrence is normal

While most cancer patients who initially reported depression at the time of diagnosis experienced little to no depressive symptoms 10-years post treatment, the anxiety stemming from cancer is still there. After all, to have a cancer history is to face realities that cannot be fully changed or influenced. Sure, you might decide to eat healthier, stay physically active, manage stress better and maintain supportive relationships around you. While these are all good lifestyle habits to have and nurture, nothing you do can guarantee a cancer-free future.

What to do with healthy anxiety

First of all, if you feel something unusual during a breast exam (and the best time to do a breast exam is at day seven of your menstrual cycle), please do contact your oncology clinic. Similarly, if your body is exhibiting symptoms you don’t recognize or common symptoms are lingering, it is wise to seek medical advice. It is important to listen to your body and care for it; otherwise to ignore these symptoms is to deny that something is wrong. Burying your head in the sand only increases the likelihood of you getting your ass kicked.

What is constant anxiety

There is a difference between caring for your body and smothering it. You know your anxiety is in the driver’s seat when you’re constantly thinking about cancer, Googling every body discomfort known to man, and seeing your providers above and beyond normal follow-up appointments. You might be very rigid about the lifestyle choices you make. For example, you can’t miss a day at the gym, there is little to no flexibility in your dietary choices (unrelated to allergies), or you get easily agitated when you perceive that others are critical of how you’re managing your cancer. In other words, your world evolves around your cancer.

What to do with constant anxiety

Your body responds with anxiety when there’s a perceived threat. After all, cancer was and still is a huge threat to your existence. Doesn’t it make sense that you be constantly watchful of it? Knowing that, it’s important to realize that fear is your friend, not your foe. It is there to protect you; to preserve you. The key here is to befriend your body and to acknowledge your fear while putting it in the passenger seat.

Anxiety management techniques

What to do with your thoughts

Just because you think something does not mean it’s happening or that it’s true. Try it: think of a pot of gold. Think super, uber hard. What happened? Did you get rich from conjuring up images of gold? If you did, please come to my office and have those same thoughts. Okay, so you know I’m being facetious here. What I mean is that when your mind thinks something, that’s all it’s doing: a string of words came and went. You can entertain these words and attach a lot of meaning to them, or you can let them come and let them go.

Put simply, thoughts are either helpful or unhelpful. Helpful thoughts can be, "How do I make the most of what I have?" or "These things are meaningful to me and I'm going to do them!" When these thoughts come, listen to them and act accordingly. These thoughts are serving you. 

On the other hand, with thoughts like, "I can't enjoy my life because of my cancer!" or "Cancer is just going to come back; I know it!" acknowledge them and let them go. Like the pot of gold, just because you think it does not mean anything. In learning to have a different relationship with your thoughts, you’re essentially saying, “I hear you thoughts and I won’t be minding you so much. Here, why don’t you sit in the back? I’m still the one driving.”

What to do with your feelings

Similarly, when feelings of anxiety come, let them be there. Don’t push them away; they will only come back stronger. Acknowledge them; sit with them; talk to someone about them. While these feelings are scary, you can make space for them. What do they feel like? Does your heart pound? Do you get sweaty palms? Is your stomach churning? Know that these sensations will pass. As you ride through the waves of these feelings and body sensations, you can still be in the driver's seat, making the most out of life. 

Staying present

The fear of cancer recurrence has you looking into the future. It is thus hard to focus on the present and what’s going on right now. What have you been missing out on? Is it the changing colors of the leaves? Conversations with your loved ones where you’re only half listening? Finished a meal and you don't remember what you ate? When you find your mind focused repeatedly on your worries, acknowledge your mind, and come back to the present moment. Right now is the only moment you can do something about. Don’t miss out.

Need more?

Often times it helps to have someone come alongside you as you learn how to put cancer in the passenger seat. At the very least, because you’ll still have follow-up diagnostic tests and exams, you know the thoughts of cancer recurring are not going away. However, it doesn’t have to dictate your life. Let me know how I can help!


Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond psychotherapy practice in WA. She helps distressed couples and breast cancer patients. That could also mean couples distressed by a partner’s cancer diagnosis, or couples wishing to use their marriage as a resource during their cancer journey. When she’s not thinking about work, she loves spending time with her hubby, eating good food and more recently, watching Harry Potter.