This is the first entry in our fear of recurrence series and was written by one of our volunteers, Linda Oken:
Of course I am afraid of my cancer coming back again. Don’t you think that everyone is, at least sometimes? Aren’t there times when you have that nagging fear that you will feel a lump, or that a test will turn up positive?
So the question for us is how to live with that fear. If I spend a lot of time worrying about it, if the fear keeps me from enjoying my life, then I’m sunk. Thinking with reason (instead of blind emotion) I see a couple of possibilities ahead of me. One, there is never any recurrence and I die sometime in the future of something else besides cancer. In that case, fear and worry would spoil the time I do have. Forget that!
In the second case, the cancer does come back, at which time I will have to deal with it. But that could be several years in the future. If so, I don’t want to spend a lot of time and energy right now tossing and turning in bed, losing sleep, and feeling miserable.
But how to keep the fear at bay? In my case, I make an appointment to worry. I choose to think about the possibility of recurrence when I go for follow up tests or doctor visits. That is the time to think about “what might happen” if they find something.
If my next appointment will be in six months, then I know that I have six months of time without fear. That’s six whole months to focus on other aspects of my life.
The rest of the time, I talk myself into putting the fear aside. When I find myself starting to think about the unpleasant “what if” (and of course I do-it’s only human), I remind myself, this is not the time I have scheduled to focus on the fear. That time is on my appointment calendar and I must wait until then. Would you show up two months early for a mammogram or CAT scan? Of course not! So don’t waste your time and energy when it is too soon.
Try it yourself. If you are a person who tends to spend too much time thinking about the unpleasant possibility of recurrence, make an appointment to worry. Write it down. Say something like, “I will think about this on Tuesday morning at 10:30.” Then, when you find your thoughts drifting in that direction, remind yourself that it is not time for your appointment. Put those thoughts aside for now. Focus on other things to distract yourself.
Give yourself the gift of living fully for the time you have now.
P.S. Since I was first diagnosed with breast cancer more than 10 years ago, I have not had a recurrence. But I have met a number of women who are still living with advanced breast cancer, several years after their cancer came back. Right now there are so many wonderful treatments available for women whose cancer has returned. Knowing this has helped me to be less afraid of the future.