If you have finished treatment, you may want to celebrate (and you should), but you may also be feeling many things: exhausted, overwhelmed, happy, numb, scared. These are all VALID! You have full permission to feel everything you are feeling right now.
Anxiety and fear around cancer returning is normal, especially for the first year or so after completing treatments. Emotions are fluid, and the intensity of this fear usually decreases with time, however, some people struggle with ongoing and intense anxiety following treatment. This can lead to a feeling of being disconnected from family, friends, and even one’s treatment team.
Intense ongoing anxiety can even impact our physical health. Our bodies are connected, meaning that what goes on in our heads impacts us physically and vice versa. Intense anxiety around cancer recurrence may impact sleep, eating patterns, gut problems, blood sugar imbalances, and mental concentration. Overall, it can negatively impact one’s quality of life.
Fortunately, there are several things you can do to be prepared for and deal with chronic stress and anxiety related to fear of cancer recurrence.
1. Prioritize your follow-ups
Try not to ghost your treatment team. Follow ups are scheduled for a reason. Your healthcare team wants to make sure you are healthy and the only way they can do that is by monitoring certain labs and completing scans. It may be tempting to skip appointments due to inconvenience or fear of what might come up, but going to your appointments can actually help you reduce anxiety and give you peace of mind since you know how your body is doing. Be open and talk to your healthcare provider about any concerns you may have.
When dealing with negative emotions, it is important to give the emotion space and time. Try writing down specifically what you are worried about and allow yourself to feel whatever it is you are feeling. Pushed down emotions have an ugly way of turning up at the worst times or manifesting as physical symptoms like an upset stomach.
Journaling is a technique that gets your thoughts out in one place. Try making a list of triggers that may spark feelings of stress and anxiety. Events such as an anniversary of a diagnosis or sensations like a pain, lump, or the taste of a certain food may also bring up painful memories or spark overwhelming feelings of anxiety. Use your journal to reflect on these fears and make a plan for how you will soothe yourself using different coping mechanisms.
3. Have a Toolbox AKA Practice Self Care
When coming up with what coping mechanisms to use, it can be difficult to know where to start. Try to reflect on past experiences when you felt overwhelmed. What did you do to calm down and cope with what was happening? How can you use that tool to soothe yourself when intense fear about cancer recurrence creeps up?
More than bubble baths . . .
Okay, self-care kind of gets a bad rep at times. Yes bubble baths and face masks are great, but they are not the end-all, be-all of self care. One of the most underrated ways we can take care of ourselves is by prioritizing general well-being. Having a balanced diet, regular movement, adequate sleep, and hydration are all huge for keeping your body healthy so that it can stay strong in times of stress and anxiety.
You may need to say “no” more . . .
Boundaries are healthy and sometimes it is especially important to set them when you are emotionally being stretched a little thin to avoid burn-out. This can look like setting boundaries with your work to not contact you outside of business hours or saying no to social invites that you know would leave you feeling drained because you need to rest instead. This can also mean saying “no” to yourself and taking a few things off of your plate to conserve energy. Take one thing at a time and avoid multitasking.
Prayer and/or meditation can help you focus on something outside of yourself and something bigger than you. When done consistently, this can help you improve your outlook on life. Don’t be afraid to try alternative therapies like acupuncture, massages, and music therapy, which can help you feel more relaxed and release tension that you may carry in your body as a result of prolonged mental stress.
Making time for hobbies
Another form of self care is leaning into an activity that gives you joy. This can look different for everyone. Carve out some time daily to do something just for you. This can be:
- Going on a nature walk
- Doodling or drawing
- Reading a chapter of a good book
- Watching your comfort TV show
- Playing a video game
- Trying out a new recipe (or making an old favorite)
Particularly difficult days
Have a plan for the days when you know you are going to experience triggers. This can look like taking some extra self care on these days. Although it usually is not good to completely ignore emotions, some people benefit from having a distraction when they need to go in for scans. This allows them to get their minds off of things and enjoy life a little more. Find what works for you and ask others what works for them to get ideas of how to give yourself extra love on the especially hard days.
Caution about self care . . .
There is a dark side to “self-care”. Sometimes our self-care behaviors can feel like a chore and just another box we have to check off. That is why it is so important to focus on things that are realistic for you. Nope, sorry influencers. Most people do not have time to sit and journal for two hours, spend 2 hours in the gym, and then do a 10 step skincare routine.
We are bombarded with tons of expectations regarding what self-care should look like, but you have to do what works for you, which may look different depending on so many factors for example, what season of life you are in, time availability, and finances – just to name a few.
If you are trying something out and it leaves you feeling more stressed, and it is just another box to check off, then we are kind of missing the point. It may help to cut back and try the behavior in a smaller dose. For example, if a two hour walk is taking up time you would have used to cook dinner and get ready for bed, maybe try for a quick 30 minute one instead.
4. Don’t Go Through it Alone
Family & Friends
Use your support circles and identify who in your life is a safe place for YOU to share your concerns, fears, and experiences. Your friends and family love you and want to support you. Do not be afraid to ask for help when you need it. This can look like asking members of your household to help with tasks or just be there to spend time with you if you don’t want to be alone.
Having access to people who are also struggling with fear of cancer recurrence can help you realize that you are not alone in this journey. You can receive and share ideas of what works and how to cope with fear of recurrence and other worries you might have.
Remember that needing extra assistance is OK! You are not broken or in need of fixing. Reaching out for help can actually be one of the strongest things someone does. If the anxiety you are experiencing is mostly around the fear of cancer recurrence, look for a therapist or counselor who has experience working with cancer survivors. This way, they can give you the proper tools that you need for what you are going through. Counseling is a long process, and results do not happen overnight. If the anxiety is truly taking over your life and counseling alone is not helping, you may need to talk to your doctor about anti-anxiety medication.
Know that for most people the fear does go down over time. It may not even go away completely, but as the appointments become less frequent, the fear may become more tolerable. Remember that this is normal, but it should not cloud your entire life. Use these tools and remember that you are worth it.
If you do not know where to start, pick 1-3 things from here to work on. You deserve to give yourself compassion and time to take care of yourself so that you can be your healthiest self during and after cancer treatment.
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- Coping with fear of recurrence. Cancer.Net. https://www.cancer.net/survivorship/life-after-cancer/coping-with-fear-recurrence. Published November 19, 2021. Accessed March 10, 2023.
- ‘Is My Cancer Coming Back?’ How to Cope With the Fear of a Recurrence. Fox Chase Cancer Center – Philadelphia PA. https://www.foxchase.org/blog/2018-03-23-how-to-cope-with-the-fear-of-a-cancer-recurrence. Updated January 18, 2021. Accessed March 10, 2023.
This blog is not intended as medical nutrition therapy, medical advice, or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation or recommendations from your medical professional.