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Fear of Recurrence

One of the most common feelings reported by survivors is the fear that their cancer will return. It can interfere with every aspect of your life—eating, sleeping, working, and playing. It can be triggered by reminders such as follow-up visits, birthdays, someone else’s diagnosis, an ache in your body, or a bump on your skin.

Tips for coping with stress and fear of recurrence

  • Learn the signs of recurrence for your type of cancer—be informed.
  • Keep up with any medical tests or appointments your doctor recommends
  • Talk about it—express your feelings.
  • You do not have to be upbeat all the time, but look for the positive.
  • Be Patient Active—take control of what you can, make a plan, know what you cannot control.
  • When you have questions, write them down and bring them to your office visits.

Fear of Death and Dying

For most people in our culture, the thought of dying is frightening. Thinking about talking with others about this subject can also be very scary and stressful. You may find that some people do not want to talk about it. But there also will be others who will. Taking time to have important conversations about death and dying with your friends, family members and healthcare team can lessen your anxiety and reduce the isolation. Many of your fears about death and dying can be addressed by using three steps:

Acknowledge Your Specific Fears

You may find it helpful to try and identify your specific fears rather than remaining stuck with a generalized sense of fear. Below are some of the most common fears that people have about death and dying.

  • Fear of the unknown: It is normal to be afraid of the things we can’t imagine. If you have been involved in a faith community or other spiritual involvement, you may find some answers there that will be helpful to you.
  • Fear of pain and suffering: Many people fear that pain and suffering at the end of life cannot be avoided. Talking with your healthcare team about your concerns is very important. They will help you to understand the advances in medicine that can minimize pain and lessen anxiety and depression.
  • Fear of punishment: People from every religious point of view and those with no religion at all may fear that they will be punished for what they did or did not do. Each of us has things we would do differently if we could go back in time. Sharing your regrets openly with those close to you or with someone from a faith community can help you to feel less burdened.
  • Worry about what will happen to your loved ones: Most people worry about what will happen to those who are dependant on us. Making plans in advance for guardianship and financial planning can help lessen these kinds of worries.
  • Loss of control: It is our nature to want to be in control over our lives but recognizing what is out of our control can help to focus attention on the things we can control.
  • Isolation: Being open about what you are really thinking and feeling with those close to you will help them feel more comfortable being around you. Let them know that you still want to know what is happening in their lives and that it is okay to joke and talk about trivial things as well as some of the more serious things on their minds. 
  • Fear of non-existence: Many people, including those who are not religious, believe in an afterlife. When facing death it is not unusual to question this belief. We cannot know for sure what will happen, but you may find it reassuring to talk about this with others in your faith community or with your loved ones. 

Share Your Fears with Others

Sometimes there may be no specific answers or solutions but sharing your fears with your loved ones, healthcare team, members of a faith community, mental health professionals, or others can be very useful in helping you to feel less afraid and less alone. Some also find talking to others who have cancer, such as in a support group at the Cancer Support Community to be vey helpful in reducing fear.
Opening up the lines of communication can be challenging. Concerns about upsetting others, not knowing how to begin, fearing that you will feel helpless, and thinking that if you say it out loud you will cause it to happen are just some of the reasons we struggle to have these conversations. While these concerns are valid, having the chance to share your feelings or ask practical questions can help lessen anxiety and the isolation that many people experience at the end of life. Some people find it helpful to talk with other cancer survivors about how they started these conversations. Here are some tips for opening up the lines of communication that we have learned from members of the Cancer Support Community:

  • Find an example from when someone in your own family was dying. For example: “Do you remember when grandma was dying and in the hospital? I wish I hadn’t been afraid to tell her how much I love and would miss her.”
  • Find an example from the news. For example: “Wasn’t that a sad story about that professor who died? I really admired the way he was able to speak publically about his experience. It seemed to mean a lot to him and his family.”
  • Use popular cultural references such as TV shows, movies or books. For example: “Doctor, on TV the other night I saw a show and the character who was dying was suffering so much. Was that just for TV or does that happen in real life?”

Focus on Your Quality of Life

No matter what the future may hold, it is important to remember that you can live fully in the moment. Focusing on the here-and-now can help shift your thinking, even if temporarily, away from fears and worries. Focusing on the emotional, social and spiritual aspects of your life should not be overlooked. Try to do the things you normally do that bring you pleasure even if adjustments need to be made. Make plans for the future that is meaningful for you. Playing with a grandchild, listening to a favorite piece of music, taking a walk or sharing a special meal with a friend can help you to remember to enjoy life today.