The bad news and the good news, in that order
As a cancer thriver myself, the bad news is that these thoughts, “Will my cancer come back?” will always there. Whether I’m thinking about cancer or not, these thoughts are easily triggered. More on this in just a bit. Now the good news is, just because I think these thoughts does not make them happen. Ever tried thinking and willing really hard about winning the Powerball? Did you get rich just from thinking it?! If you did, we need to talk.
The thing is, the thoughts of cancer coming back will be a part of your life. It’s what you do with those thoughts that matter. One cancer patient gave this metaphor, paraphrased: “Cancer used to take up a lot of room in my house (aka life). It was in every room. Everywhere I looked, it was there. Over time, as life continues, it takes up less and less space, until it only occupies one room.
Sure, the fear of cancer coming back grows bigger around doctor appointments or when I have symptoms I don’t recognize. But the truth is, that fear is never gone. However, it doesn’t have to take over my life.”
Couldn’t have said it better. This wise woman has already given examples of common triggers to the fear of cancer recurrence. Let’s look at others.
Know your triggers
Your Cancerversary – it’s the anniversary of an important moment in your cancer journey, be it the day of your mastectomy or your last day of treatment. While it’s a cause for celebration to have that behind you, it’s common for your mind to wander to the possibility of recurrence
The news of someone else’s diagnosis – it doesn’t even have to be you. It can be a dear friend, a family member, a co-worker, a neighbor or even someone you don’t have a relationship with, a celebrity, a friend of a friend’s. Someone else’s diagnosis or recurrence is enough to have you question your own
Someone you know passed away from cancer
Follow-up care – you’re scheduled for your follow-up examination, mammogram, MRI or blood test. While everything came back normal previous years, could this be the year that they found cancer?
Your body feels “off”– you feel fatigue, a lump or pain. Or, you have a lingering headache or cough. Your body is going through something. Whereas before you’d attribute it to muscle tension, sleep deprivation or dehydration, you now think cancer metastasis or brain tumor
A history of cancer recurrence – as can be imagined, if this is not your first rodeo, then it makes sense to wonder, “If it happened once and it happened twice, will it happen a third?”
Future medical procedures – whether it’s your reconstruction surgery or something unrelated to cancer, if you’re going under the knife again, it’s hard to not associate that with the last time you’ve received significant medical treatment
Advances in cancer care – it can even be a good thing. Fred Hutch received a grant to advance cancer research. The immunotherapy clinic at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance is lengthening survival rates for certain types of cancers. Even the mentioning of these wonderful advances can trigger the thought, “I don’t ever want to have to go through that again!”
Everything else – when visiting a friend at the hospital, the smell reminds you of your daily radiation visits. A woman is wearing breast cancer pink. A song that frequented your mind during treatment comes through the radio. You’re eating food that made you want to throw up during chemo. The truth is, sometimes it doesn’t take much.
“Will my cancer come back?”
The short answer is: we don’t know. Your oncologist might have given you percentages for how likely your type of cancer will recur or a new bout of cancer will develop. Let’s just say the number is 25%. That still leaves 75% of you not receiving a diagnosis of cancer ever again in your lifetime. How about living in that 75%? Better yet, since we really don’t know, why not go all out and just live in the 100%?
If you need help living fully in the face of these triggers, I’ll be here.
Ada Pang is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond psychotherapy practice in WA. She helps unhappy couples find safety and connection in their relationship. She also helps cancer thrivers and their caregivers integrate cancer into their life stories. She recently gave a talk through Cancer Lifeline about Living with the Fear of Cancer Recurrence. Helping people live full and meaningful lives in the face of adversity is her bread and butter. Well, more like sushi and wasabi.