7 Strategies to Help Deal With the Fear of Cancer Coming Back
The fear that your cancer may return is a very common feeling among cancer survivors. Roughly one-half of all cancer survivors and 70 percent of young breast cancer survivors say they worry about cancer recurrence, according to a 2017 study by the American Society of Clinical Oncology1.
Fear of cancer recurrence can creep up in particular when your treatment ends, right before check-ups and follow-up scans, or on the anniversary of your diagnosis. Following these seven strategies may help you avoid letting this fear cast a shadow over your life.
1. Be informed
“Anything that re-empowers you is going to help you stand up to fear,” states Dr. Shani Fox, a naturopathic doctor, cancer survivorship expert and coach in Portland, Oregon.
Knowledge is power. Educate yourself about the specific risk that your cancer might return, the symptoms to look for, and things you can do to stay healthy. Researching these topics on your own is fine, but in case you feel anxious about information overload, talk to your doctors and treatment team. They are your best sources of information.
2. Stay present
“On an emotional level, fear seems like a very large and overwhelming thing,” added Fox. “But the fact of the matter is that it will yield if you’re able to replace it with something more positive in your life.”
One way to replace fear—especially about the unknowable future—is to find ways to bring your attention back to the present moment. That’s where you have control. Mindfulness meditation, a walk in nature or yoga are all great ways to stay in the present.
“If we learn to anchor ourselves in the present moment, then that will automatically replace fear to a great extent because you can’t be in the present and future at the same time,” Fox said.
3. Cultivate gratitude
When you think about what you’re grateful for, it is harder to feel fearful at the same time. Research suggests that regular gratitude practice—the act of approaching gratitude as something to practice and nurture along—can help improve your emotional and physical wellness2. A small study of women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer who participated in a 6-week gratitude practice had a significantly lower fear of recurrence, according to a study in the journal Health Psychology3.
A gratitude practice can be as structured as writing your thoughts in a journal each day, or simply thinking about what you can be grateful for at any given moment. Instead of focusing on the places in your body affected by cancer, try feeling grateful for how strong your heart is.
4. Face fear
Fear and anxiety are uncomfortable, difficult emotions. Fighting them will only make those negative feelings stronger. Embracing fear, however, can help you to cope with the emotion. “It’s when we stop running and we can turn around and have some sort of conversation with fear, that fear becomes more manageable. It’s not this monster chasing us anymore,” Fox said.
If your fear is overwhelming and difficult to manage, consider seeking a professional counselor who can help you understand why you’re feeling that way and offer coping strategies. One tactic is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of therapy that challenges difficult thoughts and behaviors so you can change your feelings. In fact, CBT delivered in person and online significantly reduced the fear of recurrence in cancer survivors, according to a study in the Journal Of Clinical Oncology4.
5. Talk about it
Reach out to family members or trusted friends to talk about your fears. You may figure out why you’re fearful, or get advice on ways to feel better. Since other people may not understand your fears, however, make sure you talk to people who will lift you up, not brush off your concerns.
Exercise is an effective way to help calm your body and your mind because it reduces adrenaline and cortisol—two stress hormones—and releases endorphins, chemicals in the brain that boost your mood. A regular exercise program can also help you sleep better if worries creep up at night.
In fact, a 2011 study published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity found that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week improved sleep quality by 65 percent5. Talk to your healthcare professional about what type of exercise is right for you.
7. Reduce stress
It’s important to continue to do things that will help improve your overall health and well-being and keep stress at bay. A healthy diet, massage, acupuncture, spirituality and making time for hobbies and fun are all tactics for coping with your worries, embracing a positive attitude in your life, and making fear a thing of the past.
American Society of Clinical Oncology. Psychological Intervention Lowers Survivors’ Fear of Cancer Recurrence https://www.asco.org/about-asco/press-center/news-releases/psychological-intervention-lowers-survivors-fear-cancer. Accessed November 12, 2017.
Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Gratitude Practice Explained. http://ei.yale.edu/what-is-gratitude/. Accessed November 12, 2017.
U.S National Library of Medicine. Effects of a Randomized Gratitude Intervention on Death-Related Fear of Recurrence in Breast Cancer Survivors. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/articles/27513475/. Accessed November 12, 2017.
Journal of Clinical Oncology. Efficacy of Blended Cognitive Behavior Therapy for High Fear of Recurrence in Breast, Prostate, and Colorectal Cancer Survivors: The SWORD Study, a Randomized Controlled Tria. http://ascopubs.org/doi/full/10.1200/JCO.2016.70.5301. Accessed November 12, 2017.
ScienceDirect. Association between objectively-measured physical activity and sleep. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1755296611000317. Accessed November 12, 2017.
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