A breast cancer survivor shares ways she copes with fear of recurrence while waiting for her latest mammogram results.
Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools–We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at www.cancersurvivorshipcopingtools.com,or www.clutterclearingchoices.com.
Cancer survivors live with uncertainty. It just makes sense — not certainty, just sense. As a breast cancer and melanoma survivor, I live with uncertainty. I just had my five-year mammogram, and I am afraid my cancer will come back. Five isn't a magic number — being five years out is good, but it doesn't mean the cancer won't come back later. Still, I won’t live my life bound up by my fear, and I can’t make that fear go entirely away either.
It isn’t even prudent to completely let go of fear of recurrence when I need to remain vigilant about my health and my self-observation. After active treatment ended and as the weeks and months moved forward, I wished there was more discussion and information about the ongoing fear of recurrence. I recently joined a study that is trying to address this issue for cancer survivors.
I learned and am still learning how to handle my fear of recurrence. It really is an ongoing process. Time helps. It is also helpful to focus on the positives in my life. It is healthy and helpful for me to practice gratitude. It also helps me to focus on my loved ones and nurture my relationships. I also try to distract myself when needed, meditate and connect with nature. All of these things help, but none of these things make the fear of recurrence go entirely away. Part of it is the nature of the disease. Doctors usually don’t say cured. Instead, they say 'wait and watch.'
Sometimes, I think that I, and maybe we, as a society, are a little spoiled. We are used to instant information, instant results and instant gratification. Nature isn’t that way. Cancer isn’t that way. Maybe just realizing this helps me — just a little.
There are pros and cons to the emotions that fall under 'fear of recurrence.' Here are some of the cons that I work to resolve: The negative voice. The uncertainty. The worry and stress around health issues that pop up and upcoming routine tests, doctor visits and mammograms. The isolation that sometimes comes with being a cancer survivor. I try to remember that every coin has two sides. I work to focus on the positive side of the coin.
The negative voice can be responded to with a positive voice — practicing gratitude by focusing on what I have (instead of what I don’t have) helps me. Focusing on what is currently happening at this moment in my life instead of what might happen at some future point helps too. I also am learning to redirect myself when that negative voice pops up. Distractions help here — an activity, an entertaining show, keeping my hands busy with a task all help at times.
The uncertainty can be addressed with focusing in on the moment and living life deliberately. Uncertainty is wearing on humans. I recognize this now more than ever and cut myself some slack that I never did before my two cancers. When I realize that I am edgy or weary or snippy, I stop and figure out if it is a cancer health worry that is nibbling at my reserve. Just realizing that cancer worry is what is happening helps me to not take it out unconsciously on my loved ones. I try to hang loose — to float and to be flexible in my expectations.
The worry and stress around medical concerns and medical testing can be acknowledged. It is part of the reality of a cancer survivor. It is also possible to refocus my attention elsewhere sometimes, and it helps to deal promptly with any health worries rather than to let them linger.
I am still adding techniques to manage fear of recurrence to my repertoire. If you are also a survivor, please consider sharing what helps for you!