How to control fear and anxiety about cancer returning

How to control fear and anxiety about cancer returning

How to control fear and anxiety about cancer returning

A normal and common response to the stress of a cancer diagnosis—especially after treatment completes—is to worry about it happening again. When cancer comes back it is called a recurrence, and fear and anxiety about recurrence can take many shapes and strike at any time.

It just seems to happen: All of a sudden you are thinking, even obsessing, about the worst-case scenario. Fear of recurrence (FCR), the formal name for this phenomenon, is experienced by most people who have had cancer. In addition, people can experience moderate to severe FCR no matter their stage of diagnosis. In other words, FCR is not reserved for those with advanced stages of disease.

Think about FCR in terms of weight management. For many of us, it doesn’t take much work to gain weight. On the other hand, maintaining a healthy weight takes practice, consistency, and hard work. It’s the same for managing FCR. When your brain is on autopilot, cruising through the routines of the day, it can easily end up in worryland.  

Here are a few tips to help you take back control of your thoughts and stay present, focused on facts:

  • Thoughts about recurrence are just thoughts. Thoughts are not dangerous, just uncomfortable. Practice mindfulness to stay in the present moment.
  • Consider a teeter-totter. Take stock of how often you are experiencing distress about FCR. Give yourself the chance to think about the best-case scenario enough to balance the teeter-totter.
  • When you find yourself obsessing about the worst-case scenario, consider replacing your thoughts with affirmations that are true no matter what the outcome of an upcoming scan. Some examples:
    • I have family and friends whom I love and who love me.
    • I trust my medical team.
    • I am capable and resilient.
    • I make choices that prioritize my quality of life.
  • A survivor told me that she always hoped for the truth to be revealed in her follow-up scans. Instead of focusing on the worst-case or best-case scenario, she focused on wanting the scans to be the truth about what was going on in her body. She found that this helped her to see the scans as allies in her fight against cancer; knowing the truth would allow her and her medical team to make the best decisions possible.
  • Mental health therapists are trained to help people manage worries and fears. There are some powerful interventions shown to significantly reduce distress around FCR. Talk with your oncology team about a referral to a mental health therapist who specializes in cancer-related experiences.
  • Learn tips and tricks from those who have been there and know that you’re not alone. Search “fear of recurrence” and “scanxiety” in our Facebook group, Blue Hope Nation.
  • Get Support! Call our helpline and talk with a patient and family support navigator.


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