Fighting the Fear of Recurrence


The fear of metastatic cancer is a constant challenge. Even years after an initial diagnosis, cancer can return.

Listening to a news report last night, I learned that one of my favorite actresses, Olivia Newton-John, has experienced a recurrence of breast cancer. Initially diagnosed 25 years ago, Ms. Newton-John went through treatment and made significant changes to prolong her life. The cancer, according to an article in the Boston Herald, has metastasized to the sacrum, a bone in the lower back.

Metastasis is the development of malignant growths that stem from a primary breast cancer site. These growths are considered secondary. When there is a recurrence of cancer, to an area of the body distant from the original site, it is usually metastatic. Cancer can metastasize to various areas of the body including the bone, liver, lungs or brain.

The fear of recurrence is very real to most breast cancer survivors. Having gone through one round of cancer is more than most women ever want to face. Usually, doctors expect breast cancer to recur during the first five years after a diagnosis. They watch their patients carefully during that time frame frequently performing tests to monitor new instances of disease. For some women, reaching the five-year mark seems magical. A sigh of relief comes and the fear of recurrence wanes. As time marches on, and no recurrence materializes, the survivor may celebrate a status of NED (no evidence of disease.) This is a major milestone and one many long to reach. But after a very long period, like Ms. Newton-John’s 25- year stretch, it seems unfathomable for cancer to recur. But it does happen.

How do those diagnosed with breast cancer get past the fear of recurrence? I’ve been counting down the days to my five-year mark. In July, I’ll celebrate three years since my initial diagnosis but every single day, I can’t help but wonder when or if cancer will find me again. This wondering becomes a type of obsession. Every little ache or pain could signal a recurrence. I often wonder if my oncologist tires of me mentioning some new concern at my appointments. Of course, he always orders the appropriate test to rule out anything significant but I can’t help but feel like I’m too obsessive.

I can only imagine the trepidation Ms. Newton-John faced when she was told her cancer had come back. I wonder if she felt she was home free after all those years of living without any evidence of disease. My heart breaks for her as she starts a new fight all over again. While this round of cancer is vastly different from the first, I’m sure her memories are just as fresh as they were at her initial diagnosis.

I applaud Olivia Newton-John for being so open and honest about her journey. I’ve noticed many women who’ve traveled the breast cancer road do the same. It seems we want to help others understand all aspects of breast cancer. Sharing the challenges breast cancer brings can be cathartic, as well.

It seems so unfair for someone to experience a second round with cancer. After surgery and treatment to kill the first round of cancer, isn’t that enough? And really, isn’t the first round more than anyone should expect? No one should ever have to experience cancer of any kind, but in our world, cancer is a horrible reality.

I keep hoping I’ll live to see a cure for cancer. There are scientists working around the clock to find a way to beat it, so I’m sure the cure is coming. Research is making progress. In fact, a drug called Keytruda, is promising hope to those suffering non-small cell lung cancer. We have to hold onto hope. It’s all we’ve got. I’m keeping my fingers cross for Olivia Newton-John. Let’s pray her battle this second time around will be a short and successful one. She deserves that.

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