The fear of recurrence is one of the biggest fears faced by a breast cancer survivor, actually any cancer survivor. Every ache and pain brings with it that nagging thought that the cancer has returned or spread. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t have those thoughts and fears.
I remember last year when my left shoulder became sore. I was so afraid cancer had spread to my bones. I even read an article, which left me nervous, about a man whose cancer returned to his left shoulder blade. I was convinced I was experiencing the same recurrence as him. When fear rules our thoughts:
A headache becomes a brain tumor
An abnormal menstrual cycle becomes cervical cancer
Achy bones become bone cancer
Fear of recurrence can overtake every waking moment and even interrupt your sleep. When you’re awake, you’re wondering what that ache means. When you’re asleep, you dream about your own funeral (yes, I actually dreamed that).
What can cancer survivors do to combat those dreaded thoughts?
- Call your doctor – Your primary care physician, radiation oncologist, or medical oncologist can exam you and order the necessary tests to find out what, if anything, is going on. They can also comfort you by explaining the risk of recurrence. I can’t remember what my chances were, but I remember training myself to look at the numbers differently: 15% chance of recurrence became 85% chance of no recurrence. I liked 85% better than 15%.
- Seek a trained mental health specialist – If the thoughts and fears are tormenting you, then a psychologist or psychiatrist may be able to assuage those thoughts. Don’t let anyone deter you from seeking the help you need. Some well-meaning family and friends may tell you the fear is all in your head and try to discourage you from seeking counseling. Do what you need to do to get peace.
- Seek out a trained spiritual leader – Your pastor, priest, rabbi, imam, or guide can offer spiritual comfort and help you make sense of the fear you’re experiencing. I found comfort from the bible, my pastor, his wife (who just happens to be my best friend), and many other spiritual friends.
- Talk to other survivors – No one will understand your journey as well as other survivors. Find out if there are support groups in your area. If there are, attend the sessions. If there aren’t any, consider starting one. This is one of the reasons I started the closed Facebook group, Breast Cancer Conquerors. I wanted a Christian-based support group to which survivors could turn for encouragement and hope.
- Relax and Think Positively – I know this is difficult, but relaxing has its benefits. Going back to the pain in my shoulder – I eventually realized the pain came from practicing layups with my daughter and husband. I was worrying my husband and myself with thoughts of recurrence. I had to relax and think positively.
While fear is natural and normal, you don’t have to live with paralyzing fear. You can live VICTORIOUSLY as a cancer survivor but don’t be afraid to reach out for the help you need.
If you’re a cancer survivor, comment below with tips that can help other survivors handle fear of recurrence.