- Actress Shannen Doherty has announced the breast cancer she was treated for in 2015 has returned.
- Doherty is one of the millions of people who’s had to deal with the emotional trauma of cancer recurrence.
- Experts say many cancer survivors live with the fear of the disease returning. For some, the fear can be debilitating.
What’s it like when you’re told the cancer you thought you’d beaten has returned?
Actress Shannen Doherty knows all too well.
The 1990s television star recently revealed she’s battling breast cancer again.
“I’m stage 4. So my cancer came back,” she told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
The 48-year-old was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. She documented her progress on social media.
This time, Doherty said she kept the news to herself and went back to work. She then decided to make the announcement ahead of the information becoming public.
“I don’t think I’ve processed it. It’s a bitter pill to swallow in a lot of ways,” she said.
Doherty’s admission likely resonated with a large and growing number of people.
According to the American Cancer Society, there are now nearly 17 million cancer survivors in the United States. That number is expected to top 22 million by 2030.
The rate at which cancers recur can vary widely depending on factors such as the type, the stage at diagnosis, genetics, the person, and available treatments.
“When we talk about risk of recurrence, we look at the role of drug therapy, radiation therapy, and surgery,” said Dr. Jack F. Jacoub, medical oncologist and medical director of MemorialCare Cancer Institute at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in California.
“Then we look at what benefit is gained once you do all of this to reduce your risk,” he told Healthline. “But the risk is never reduced to zero even if you do all of those things. That’s something we explain to patients.”
Experts say the “fear of cancer recurrence” is something many survivors live with.
The anxiety over if and when their disease might return is real. For some, that fear can become debilitating.
“A common term we hear cancer survivors use is ‘scanxiety’ (or scan anxiety),” said Shelley Fuld Nasso, chief executive officer of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship.
“It’s especially pronounced in people with metastatic disease who really live from scan to scan,” she told Healthline.
“Sometimes their family and friends don’t understand the fear they live with. They think, ‘You’re done, everything is great.’ But the survivor always has that nagging thought in the back of their minds,” she added.
Two survivors shared with Healthline the stories of their journey as cancer came back and how they’ve learned to cope.
Liza Bernstein is a 26-year survivor from Los Angeles, California, who has faced three diagnoses of breast cancer.
“When I got the second one, my whole world fell apart because it was literally my biggest fear,” she told Healthline. “You begin to understand that you’re never really cured.”
“You know my pinky is sore, so do I have pinky cancer? My elbow is sore, do I have elbow cancer? Anything that might seem benign to the average person who never had a cancer diagnosis took on huge significance after having had the first one,” she said.
“The traumas of everything you go through, surgeries, toxic treatments, your life disrupted, your brain goes to, ‘I could go back to that or worse,'” she added.
Jersi Baker is a 17-year survivor from Charlotte, North Carolina, living with stage 4 breast cancer. She was diagnosed for a fourth time last fall.
“I got a liver biopsy and it came back positive that I had an attack on my liver,” she told Healthline.
“For 7 years I was NED, no evidence of disease, and I really didn’t worry about it. But once I heard I had liver metastasis, it kind of scared me. But my faith is still strong,” she said.
“It made me start researching more, trying to figure out who do I know who has it, what was their outcome. I asked my oncologist about different treatments other people are on,” she added. “This is my life and my body and I need to know that I’m getting the best treatment for me.”
Both women said they found that becoming an advocate via social media is one of the best ways of coping.
Helping others by sharing information also helps them.
Bernstein is active on Twitter @itsthebunk.
“What has worked for me was finding my way to advocacy using Twitter. I found people who were as hungry for information as I was,” she said. “I still have the fear, but it doesn’t rule me in the way that it used to. It’s not with me every single day all day.”
Baker is also active on Twitter @JersiBaker.
She runs a nonprofit and focuses on getting information to the African American community.
“My tagline that I always post is ‘Live life now’ and I really believe that,” she said.
“If you just stay in your house and sit still, then you’re not really living,” she added. “I’m out here doing a lot in these streets. I’ve got to be able to help my little cousins and their children and their children.”