Managing Fear of Cancer Recurrence
Updated: Apr 12
If you talk about life post-treatment with the cancer community, the fear of cancer returning will be high up on the list of concerns,
Cancer charity Maggie's reports that between a third and two-thirds of people who have experienced cancer will have anxious thoughts about their cancer returning.
Fear of Cancer Recurrence (or FCR) is a completely normal emotion to experience, especially when you have been through something as life-changing as cancer.
Fear of recurrence can see once unremarkable aches and pains magnified and trigger intrusive thoughts running to the conclusion that cancer may have returned. Once you are in this thought cycle, you might find that all your senses are heightened looking for 'signs’ of cancer.
Part of your original cancer diagnosis conversation with your oncologist or care team will include the general statistics, odds and likely hood of recurrence for your cancer. The truth is, nobody knows with certainty what will happen, and this leaves anyone who has been through a cancer diagnosis living with some level of concern about cancer recurrence.
What can you do to help manage your own fears of cancer recurrence?
Knowing that you will be monitored by your care team after treatment ends can certainly help to reduce your fears, but if you find that fear of recurrence persists, what can you put in place to manage your own health anxiety and lessen the fear?
1. Know What Triggers your Fears
For most people, worries about cancer returning are often prompted or intensified by certain situations or triggers, these may include :
The anniversary of your diagnosis or surgery
Scans or follow up examinations - aka ‘scanxiety’
Media focus on a cancer awareness campaign
Physical symptoms that cause concern
Knowing your triggers means you can prepare for the surge in emotions, and not be caught unawares.
Here are some ideas to help you manage your triggers :
Make a plan for coping in advance. For example, if you are anxious before a scan, plan activities beforehand that will distract you.
Think about how you might reward yourself after a scan or check-up.
Temporarily remove yourself from groups or social platforms if they are triggering additional worries and are causing more harm than good.
Avoid Googling your symptoms to stop you spiralling down the internet rabbit hole when you may be at your most vulnerable. If you are concerned, contact your GP or care team instead.
Keep reminding yourself that this feeling will pass and normal aches and pains are part of everyday life.
It is important to note that if you are experiencing physical symptoms of concern, please discuss this with your care team or GP.
2. Communicate your fears
Many people find it difficult to talk to friends and family about their emotions after cancer treatment ends. There is an expectation that they should have returned to ‘normal’ after treatment so many do not want to worry or burden their loved ones with further worries about cancer.
Be open and honest with your loved ones and let them know that just because treatment has finished, you still need their emotional support and encouragement.
It is well documented that it can be comforting and validating to talk to others who have had similar experiences, this is the reason why the Life after Cancer peer-support group exists.
We know that those attending our cancer support group take comfort from discussing their fears and worries with others who ‘get it’. It can be therapeutic to share concerns out loud that you might have been ruminating over and we can feel less isolated when we know we are not the only one having this thought.
3. Prioritise your Wellness
The Global Wellness Institute refers to wellness as "the act of practising healthy habits on a daily basis to attain better physical and mental health outcomes."
It might sound complicated, but wellness is simply being in good health. This is something that we are all able to approach with simple, daily actions.
Complementary therapies such as acupuncture, massage and mindful activities can help reduce anxiety and make you feel more relaxed. When you are in a more relaxed state you feel more able to cope with worries and stresses.
Maintaining a balanced diet and taking part in regular physical activity can help enhance overall well-being as well as give you some control over your life. You do not need to do anything extreme, just live healthily in the ways we all know are good for us.
Resources for complementary therapies :
Macmillan has detailed and knowledgeable resources on cancer and complementary therapies.
Cancer research has useful information on acupuncture, which may help with some symptoms and side effects of cancer.
MIND is a great place to find tips on relaxation and mindfulness.
Please note that it is important to check with your care team or GP before starting any alternative therapies.
4. Reach out for professional guidance
Your care team or GP will well understand that the fear of recurrence is a legitimate part of navigating life after cancer. They will be able to help you develop strategies or signpost you to additional resources to help you cope with your fears moving forward.
Sources of additional professional help may include :
Counselling or talking therapies - Talking about thoughts and feelings can help people cope with stress, anxiety and difficult feelings. Macmillan provide 6 weeks of free cancer counselling through BUPA.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) - A form of psychotherapy that has been shown to help reduce anxiety and depression. It teaches you to bring negative or disruptive thoughts back to reality before they spin out of control.
Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) - ACT aims to change relationships with thoughts and feelings to enable you to become free from their grip.
Life after Cancer - We offer one-to-one coaching sessions with an ICF Coach / NLP Practitioner.
5. Give yourself permission to look ahead
Feelings of uncertainty and worrying about the future are present in most people who have been diagnosed with cancer, but it is important that you are not afraid to look ahead to your future.
For many, the fear of recurrence is complicated by their desire to make plans for the future but fearing that doing so will tempt fate. People may never allow themselves to believe that they are truly cancer-free, using this as a protective strategy so that they are not hit as hard emotionally if cancer does return.
The truth is that having something to look forward to and a sense of purpose can be a good focus from your worries and help to increase self-esteem and confidence.
Cancer forces a level of introspection on many of us, encouraging us to embrace the unknown by asking ourselves ‘what do we want now?’.
If a cancer diagnosis derailed your plans and treatment forced you to put your life on hold, take time to think about what matters most to you now and start making plans to move forward with any new goals and hopes you have for your future.
If you would like help setting goals, Life after Cancer runs a free monthly goal-setting workshop where you will be paired with an accountability partner from our peer support community.
If you are looking for guided support in moving forward with your life after cancer, we would love to invite you to our free 6-week coaching programme where we encourage you to trust your whole self and to support you to live in a way that is in line with who you are after cancer.
Be patient with yourself, time is a healer.
Life after Cancer volunteer, Kirsty, has shared her experience on the fear of recurrence after her own cancer diagnosis in 2019.
" Two years on from treatment, my worries are less frequent and I am able to go through my day without fearing the cause of every ache and pain. The fear of recurrence has not completely disappeared but I feel more confident now in advocating for myself when I have concerns and my fear for the future has been replaced by hope."
If you are struggling to control your fears and you are finding it difficult to manage day-to-day tasks and activities, we would encourage you to speak to your care team or GP about accessing further help. You do not have to struggle with this alone.
Life after Cancer provides those who have finished cancer treatment with access to a free 6-week coaching programme
The programme aims to help you to fulfil your potential after cancer by dealing early on with some of the issues that may have arisen by your diagnosis. We will encourage you to trust your whole self and to support you to live in a way that is in line with who you are after cancer.
Amongst other topics, we cover how to manage emotions to increase confidence and decrease fear. Our services are here whenever you are ready to take those next steps, if you want to find out more information, you can read more about our programme here.
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