Fear of Recurrence & Progression
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: December 2018. | Last updated: July 2023
Once a person has had a diagnosis of breast cancer or any type of cancer, there is a chance of it returning after treatment, called a recurrence. Having breast cancer also increases a person’s chances of developing certain other types of cancer, which is referred to as second cancer. The fear and anxiety of cancer returning are one of the most persistent and distracting aspects that people who have had cancer have to face.
For many people, the fear and anxiety are more pronounced during certain times, like anniversaries of the day you were diagnosed, the days before a check-up or scan, or when a new symptom occurs in the body (which may or may not be related to breast cancer or any other cancer). It can be helpful to recognize these feelings and know that they are normal and understandable.
Anxiety is a normal emotion, and it can be useful in spurring action or taking precautions against potential risks. However, when anxiety persists, it can interfere with someone’s daily life and may even affect a person’s physical health.1
Anxiety is a response to a stressor, and anxiety has both psychological and physical symptoms. Psychologically, anxiety may bring up persistent worrying, a restless feeling, irritability, or difficulty concentrating. Physically, anxiety can increase heart rate, increase the rate of breathing (and breathing may become shallower), tense muscles, and shift blood flow from the abdominal organs to the brain. Anxiety may also cause lightheadedness, nausea, diarrhea, and frequent urination.1,2
Strategies for coping with the fear of relapse or recurrence
Emotions are our bodies way of processing information, and fear is a natural reaction to a situation like having had cancer. Some strategies for dealing with the fear of breast cancer recurrence include:
- Recognize the fear. Acknowledge what you’re feeling and give it some space. While it may be tempting to push uncomfortable emotions like fear away, ignoring them can make them persist or get even worse. Find a way to talk about what you’re feeling.
- Get support by talking with a friend, a support group, a counselor, or even writing about it in your journal. Shining light on your fear can help keep it from being overwhelming and finding others who understand and also cope with the same fear can provide you with camaraderie and helpful suggestions on how they handle it.
- Keep up with recommended follow-up appointments with your doctor. These follow-up appointments may be every few months just after treatment is completed, and with time, the follow-up appointments may become less frequent. Talk with your doctor about your recommended appointment schedule, as well as what signs or symptoms to bring to their attention.
- Take excellent care of yourself. Making healthy choices on diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management, as well as avoiding tobacco use, can help improve your overall well-being and strengthen your immune system.
- Change your focus. Experts say our brains can’t focus on fear and gratitude at the same time, so shifting your attention to all that you are grateful for can help ease your fear.
- Try mind-body techniques for stress relief. Many of the complementary therapies like meditation, massage, acupuncture, Tai Chi, or Qigong can help reduce stress and anxiety. Regular exercise can also help relieve stress (check with your doctor if you have an exercise restriction).3