Fear of breast cancer recurrence is common among survivors — but it doesn’t have to control your life.
For many breast cancer survivors, the fear of recurrence can be all-encompassing.
You may feel guilt for this — like you should feel more grateful for your health — but it’s completely normal to have both gratitude and fear, says Dr. Gabriela Gutierrez, LMFT, clinical oncology therapist at Loma Linda University Cancer Center.
“Cancer is like an earthquake with many aftershocks,” she says. “Just because the big one is out of the way doesn’t mean the ripples are gone.”
The journey transitions from a physical one to a mental one, and it may be a lifelong battle. In fact, nearly half of patients have some fear of recurrence.
The good news is that you’re not alone and there are ways to cope.
Unfortunately, fear is part of the journey, says Gutierrez. It’s perfectly normal that you’re feeling this way. In fact, fear means that you care about your life — that you do have hope for the life ahead of you.
And it’s possible you’re feeling the emotions you pushed to the side during treatment, says Lauren Chatalian, LMSW, a therapist at CancerCare.
“In the treatment phase, an individual is just thinking about survivorship,” she says. On the other side, thoughts of the ordeal you just went through and facing that again can be overwhelming.
Now might be a good time to reach out to a therapist or social worker, especially if you didn’t talk to one while going through treatment. They can help you further normalize and process these feelings.
You don’t have to go through this alone. Your loved ones are probably also scared and may fear bringing it up.
“Finding ways to bond against fear together can make it more manageable, rather than having individual battles against fear, which can promote isolation,” says Gutierrez.
But it can feel like an isolating experience, especially if you don’t have any other survivors in your life.
Creating connections with people with similar experiences — either in-person or virtually — can help you feel understood. It may also strengthen your relationships with family and friends by alleviating some of the emotional burden they’re carrying from not knowing how to best support you.
If your loved ones are worrying that you’re overreacting, they should understand that “the survivor is sometimes operating from a lens of trauma,” says psycho-oncologist and breast cancer survivor Dr. Renee Exelbert. “And [you] may therefore see other more minor health issues as indicative of a recurrence.”
Share with them just how normal your fear of recurrence is.
It can be tempting to want to bury your head in the sand and never visit another doctor’s office again after a long battle with cancer. But keeping up with your doctor’s appointments, including any medical visits you may have put to the side during treatment, is important.
As you likely already know, early detection is key.
Reach out to your doctor if you’re experiencing any of your original symptoms, or any new symptoms, including pain or physical problems that interfere with your quality of life.
Visiting your doctor after surviving cancer treatment can bring back a flood of memories you may not be prepared for, says Susan Ash-Lee, LCSW, vice president of clinical services at Cancer Support Community.
Writing your questions in advance and bringing a family member or friend with you can be helpful.
Cancer can make you feel like your body is betraying you or like it’s not your own.
“An excellent way to regain a sense of control is through diet and exercise,” says Exelbert. “This allows the individual to be an active agent of change, and in command of choices that can positively impact their health.”
Whether you had a mastectomy or not, your body is different now than it was before cancer, and activities that strengthen the mind-body connection, like yoga, can help you feel more grounded, Ash-Lee says. (Of course, always be sure to clear any physical activity with your doctor before beginning a new exercise program!)
Taking time to be mindful can also help you tune in to your bodily sensations, feeling like your body is your own again.
“Mindfulness is simply paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment,” Ash-Lee says. “Being mindful can improve our concentration, enhance our relationships, and help decrease our stress.”
Sometimes, after treatment, you may be feeling stuck, like you don’t remember what life was like before diagnosis.
“Cancer was able to guide so much of your life during treatment; now that it is out of your body, we don’t want to continue to give it the power to guide you even though it’s gone,” says Gutierrez. “That’s not the life you fought for.”
You get to celebrate now! Facing cancer is one of the hardest things you will ever have to go through — and you survived.
What’s on your bucket list? Now’s the time, if you have the energy, to do all the things you always said you’d do someday.
Take your dream trip, pick up a new hobby, or just schedule time to catch up with the loved ones you didn’t get to see while you were going through treatment.
Take time to appreciate the little things in life.
Theodora Blanchfield lives in Los Angeles with her rescue dog, Lucy. She is working on her MA in Clinical Psychology degree to become a licensed therapist. Her writing covers topics including mental health, grief, and fitness, and she is a certified run coach, yoga teacher, and personal trainer. Work has appeared on Women’s Health, Shape, Daily Beast, Talkspace, and other sites. The seven-time marathoner can usually be found working out or walking on the beach when she’s not working.