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Cancer Anniversaries: Will Fear of Recurrence Ever Go Away?


Fear of recurrence can linger years after diagnosis.

For many years after my diagnosis, the fall and winter months were hard to live through. My cancer-related anniversaries all fall in October, November and December. I was diagnosed with breast cancer on Oct. 15, 34 years ago. I watched my daughter take her first steps on Nov. 1, two weeks after I was diagnosed.

Thanksgiving came three weeks later. I had always loved cooking, but, quite frankly, I don’t even remember that Thanksgiving, except that the day before my husband shaved my head. I had started chemotherapy, and I am sure my family was around, looking at me with pitiful eyes. OK, I was pitiful — bald and with a mouth full of blisters that meant I couldn’t enjoy the food I could smell, and nausea that guaranteed I was a lovely shade of green.

Christmas, my daughter’s second, almost did me in. I bought her things she would not play with for years, mostly my favorite books as a young girl.

The looming question on those days and many others was:

Is this the last time I will do this? Would I be here the next year? Was this my last Thanksgiving and Christmas with my daughter?

When February arrived, the black cloud began to lift. Chemotherapy ended, and I bought a wig and went back to work teaching college sophomores that accommodate has two Cs and two Ms.

It took me years before I realized that in those early days, I didn’t know anything about what it looked like when cancer came back. I had just enough information to be dangerous. I can even remember calling my nurse at one point when I was sure I was dying and that the cancer was back in my spine. It really did hurt, but I chose not to look at what could be other causes, such as lifting a plant that was too heavy. Instead, I was focusing on the friend I talked to that week whose breast cancer came back in her spine. All of a sudden, my back pain was recurrence.

I asked my nurse for a bone scan and she set one up. When I went in to get the results I was sure I was dying. My back was worse, and I had told my husband it was just a matter of time. When the nurse came in with the results, she said, “Everything is fine, why did you want this anyway?”

I could feel myself unclench my back as my husband said, “Don’t ever do that to me again.”

As time passed and I learned more about the realities of metastatic disease, I was somewhat reassured. I still had those panic attacks that sent me to the oncologist for blood work, and the causes are still the same: if a friend has a recurrence, if a famous person is diagnosed, or if I have an ache or pain that does not go away in a few days.

We all have to find our own timeline to stop worrying. I remember specifically my visit on the 10th year of survivorship. I saw my oncologist on an annual visit and said, “Guess what today is.” He replied that it couldn’t be five years, so it must be 10.

“When can I stop worrying about it coming back and killing me?” I asked him.

“When you die of something else,” was his reply.

So, I continue to be wary of strange aches and pains or another symptom of recurrence, but I have to admit that most of the problems I have now are from aging.

Oh, and my daughter, who I thought I would never see grow up, lives in New York City and celebrates her 33rd birthday this month.

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