Coping With Fear of Recurrence

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 01/2019

Listen to the Cancer.Net Podcast: Coping With Fear of Recurrence adapted from this content.

After treatment ends, one of the most common concerns survivors have is that the cancer will come back. The fear of recurrence is very real and entirely normal. Although you cannot control whether the cancer returns, you can control how much the fear of recurrence affects your life.

Tips for coping with the fear of recurrence

Living with uncertainty is never easy. It is important to remind yourself that fear and anxiety are normal parts of survivorship. Worrying about cancer coming back is usually most intense the first year after treatment. This worry usually gets better over time.

Here are a few ideas to help you cope with the fear of recurrence:

  • Recognize your emotions. Many people try to hide or ignore “negative” feelings like fear and anxiety. Ignoring them only allows them to become stronger and more overwhelming. It often helps to talk about your fears with a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional. Talking out loud about your concerns may help you figure out the reasons behind your fears. This might include the fear of having to repeat cancer treatment, losing control over your life, or facing death. You can also try writing down your thoughts.

  • Don’t ignore your fears. Telling yourself not to worry or criticizing yourself for being afraid will not make these feelings go away. Accept that you are going to experience some fear, and focus on ways to manage the anxiety. Be aware that your anxiety may temporarily increase at specific times. These may include follow-up care appointments, the anniversary of your diagnosis, or someone else’s cancer diagnosis. Sometimes, what you are worrying about may be unlikely. Talking to your health care team may help you figure out if your fears are likely.

  • Do not worry alone. Many cancer survivors find joining a support group to be helpful. Support groups offer the chance to share feelings and fears with others who understand. They also allow you to exchange practical information and helpful suggestions. The group experience often creates a sense of belonging that helps survivors feel less alone and more understood.

  • Reduce stress. Finding ways to manage stress will help lower your overall level of anxiety. Try different ways of reducing stress to find out what works best for you. This could include:

    • Spending time with family and friends

    • Focusing on hobbies and other activities you enjoy

    • Taking a walk, meditating, or enjoying a bath

    • Exercising regularly

    • Reading a funny book or watching a funny movie

  • Be well informed. Most cancers have a predictable pattern of recurrence. But no one can tell you exactly what will happen in the future. A health care professional who knows your medical history can tell you about the chances of the cancer returning. He or she can also tell you what symptoms to look for. Knowing what to expect may help you stop worrying that every ache or pain means the cancer has returned. If you do experience a symptom that does not go away or gets worse, talk with your health care team.

  • Talk with your health care team about follow-up care. One goal of follow-up care is to check for a recurrence of cancer. Your follow-up care plan may include regular physical examinations and/or medical tests to keep track of your recovery. Having a regular schedule of follow-up visits can provide survivors with a sense of control. Find more information on developing a survivorship care plan.

  • Make healthy choices. Healthy habits like eating nutritious meals, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep help people feel better both physically and emotionally. Avoiding unhealthy habits, like smoking and excessive drinking, helps people feel like they have more control over their health. Read more about healthy living after cancer.

When you need more help

You might find yourself overwhelmed by fear or anxiety even after your best efforts to cope with it. The following feelings may indicate more serious anxiety or depression:

  • Worry or anxiety that gets in the way of your relationships and daily activities or prevents you from going to your follow-up care appointments

  • Feeling hopeless about the future

  • Having trouble sleeping or eating well

  • Not participating in activities you used to enjoy

  • Having trouble concentrating or making decisions

  • Feeling that you have nothing to look forward to

  • Being unusually forgetful

If you are concerned about anything on this list, talk with your health care team. You may also want to consider counseling.

Related Resources

Dealing With Cancer Recurrence

Telephone and E-Mail Helplines

What Comes After Finishing Treatment: An Expert Q&A

More Information

National Cancer Institute: Facing Forward Series: Life After Cancer Treatment

American Cancer Society: Understanding Recurrence