Breast cancer survivor shares how she copes with fear of recurrence while coping with her mom's breast cancer death and other life changes.
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.
Most cancer survivors must live with and deal with uncertainty. As a breast cancer and melanoma survivor, I, too, live with uncertainty. My 3D mammogram at seven years was fine, but my mom died this year from a different type of breast cancer than I had. I am afraid my cancer will come back. I won’t live in oppressive fear each day, and I can’t make fear completely go away either.
It isn’t smart to completely let go of fear of recurrence when I need to remain vigilant. I work on managing my fear of recurrence. It is an ongoing process. Time helps. I also focus on the positives in my life and find it helpful to actively practice gratitude. I try to focus on my loved ones and nurture my relationships. When needed, I distract myself, meditate or connect with nature. All of these things help, but nothing makes the fear go entirely away. Doctors usually don’t say “cured from cancer.” Doctors say, “wait and watch.”
The word “and” is helpful. I am afraid and I move forward with my life. I worry and I celebrate. I read updates on my cancers and I read fiction. As a group, we as people may be a little spoiled. We expect instant information, instant results and instant gratification. Nature and real life really aren’t that way. Cancer isn’t that way. Keeping that in mind helps me – at least a little.
There is good and bad to this “fear of recurrence.” The whispering negative voice. The life of uncertainty. The worry and stress around health issues, especially when there are upcoming tests, doctor visits and mammograms. The isolation that comes with being a cancer survivor. Those are some of the negatives.
Still, there also are positives—practicing gratitude by focusing on what I have instead of what I don’t. Focusing on living in the moment. Redirecting myself when worry pops up. Distractions—a walk, a good book, a fun show or something to keep my hands busy. These all help.
Uncertainty can be managed by focusing on the moment and by living life deliberately. Still, uncertainty wears people down. Recognizing this, I now cut myself more slack – something that I never did before my cancers. When I am edgy or weary or snippy, I stop to figure out if there is a cancer worry nibbling at my reserve. If I am gentle with myself, I hope I am less likely to take my worry out unconsciously on my loved ones. I work to hang loose—to float, to be flexible in my expectations. Sometimes I just take a breath.
Worry and stress around health issues and tests is part of the reality of a cancer survivor and survivors of other diseases as well. We are not alone. My worry will never completely go away and it is possible to refocus my attention elsewhere. It also helps me to deal promptly with health worries by seeing a doctor rather than to let them nibble away at my mind and energy. As cancer survivors, we do learn to manage fear of recurrence and live our lives. You can do this!