Fear of Recurrence: Practice Makes It Better


Breast cancer and melanoma survivor faces her fear of recurrence and offers two benefits of living with constant uncertainty.

“I am afraid of my cancer coming back.”

Every time I say it or think that, it is an acknowledgement of a fundamental truth for me — uncertainty. Every time I choose to face it, a little bit of cancer’s power over me is reduced. “Fear of recurrence” is the technical name. I learned that the doctors’ jobs were to save my life. My job was to cope with the fear and uncertainty … for life.

It is the ongoing fear and uncertainty that impacts my thoughts and emotions. A cancer diagnosis means being sentenced to a lifetime of conscious uncertainty — whether someone is diagnosed in their 20s or up into their 80s and beyond.

The uncertainty is difficult because most humans don’t live well with uncertainty. We are creatures of habit and routine. We are planners and organizers who like to operate with an illusion of control in our lives. Living with cancer is living with an acute awareness of our own mortality that probably wasn’t there with that mental and emotional intensity and frequency before cancer.

Intellectually, we all know we are mortal, but even our society doesn’t deal with death and dying very well yet. We don’t talk about it. We don’t collectively look at it and discuss it. Many of us, faith and belief systems aside, are not taught how to face our mortality. When an event like cancer thrusts this awareness of uncertainty upon us, we can choose to use it as an opportunity to learn. I am still a student in progress.

The chance to learn is the good part of my fear of recurrence because the truth is that we all live with uncertainty, but cancer patients are just more aware of it. Practicing the art of coping with an uncertainty that shakes us to the very core of our being helps us to manage our cancer diagnosis and offers an opportunity for us grow as individuals. While a cancer diagnosis stinks, some good comes from it too — a little bit, anyway.

I was terrified and shaken to my very foundation when I was first diagnosed in my mid-forties. Though less intense than it was in the first weeks and months, this uncertainty and fear of recurrence remains with me years later. Before cancer, I had sort of gone along in life with the emotional belief that all the really bad stuff happened to other people. Ha! My perspective isn’t the same any more, but that change, that lifetime of uncertainty and fear of recurrence, is not all bad as the weeks, months and years from my diagnosis have passed.

There is gratitude. I don’t take life for granted. I am more grateful for so many more things, big and small, in my life now. My head isn’t in the sand, though some days I would like to put it back if I could. I appreciate feeling well on the days I feel well. I appreciate good weather when there is good weather. I truly enjoy a brief moment of connecting with a friend or a stranger. Many life moments really are amazing. Life is good, and I am afraid my cancer will come back.

There is perspective. In some ways, I am more awake since given this life of uncertainty. I don’t sweat the small stuff so much. I try to live more honestly with myself. I listen to my emotions. I try to be conscious of my thoughts and what I am saying to myself. I have clarity in my life priorities that I didn’t have before cancer. It truly is time to grow my faith, to make the people in my life my ongoing priority, and to make and actively pursue my bucket list. And I am afraid my cancer will come back.

Don’t underestimate or shrug off the gifts of gratitude and perspective. They may be very internal changes or you may use them to change your life. I am grateful and I am growing my perspective and I am afraid my cancer will come back.

It is your choice, not cancer’s choice, what you decide to do. I make myself try and try and then try again.

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