Worried Your Disease Will Return? How to Break Free From the Fear
When you’ve survived cancer or another serious illness, don’t let the fear of dying distract you from living.
A serious illness like cancer can be “a real whirlwind diagnosis,” says Dr. Michael Ryan, Psy.D., a senior staff psychologist with Henry Ford Health System. When treatment ends and medical appointments no longer fill your week, the reality of what you’ve been through often sinks in, she says.
Even with a positive prognosis, many struggle with the fear their illness will return. “It’s not uncommon, for women in particular, to experience increased anxiety and depression when treatment is complete,” Ryan says. For men, such feelings may be hidden under increased irritability and anger, she says.
Fortunately, the fear of recurrence usually diminishes with time, especially after the first year. “Remind yourself you aren’t always going to feel like this as long as you continue to live your life and move forward,” Ryan says.
In the meantime, try to accept your feelings and expect to have good and bad days, she says. “Telling yourself not to worry won’t make the emotions go away,” Ryan says. (If your feelings significantly interfere with your routine, contact your doctor.)
Here, Ryan offers 10 strategies for tackling the fear of recurrence.
Schedule daily worry time
Put it on your calendar, set your timer for 15 minutes, and indulge, Ryan says. “As soon as the alarm goes off, wipe the tears away, and go about your day,” she says. “If the worry comes back, you say, ‘Stop. I already worried today. I can worry again tomorrow.’” This exercise can help you gain control over your thinking, she says.
Keep a journal
Writing about your experiences and emotions helps you process what you’re thinking and feeling in a different way, Ryan says, and can offer important insights when you review your entries later.
Prepare for worry triggers
Follow-up appointments, scans and anniversaries are prime examples. Ryan recommends figuring out ahead of time how you’ll cope. “What are you going to do instead of panic?” she asks. One size doesn’t fit all. For a diagnosis anniversary, for example, you might want to schedule a fun, distracting outing or you may prefer celebrating “an anniversary of life,” reflecting on the good that has come from a bad situation, she says.
Prepare for surprises
When a loved one is diagnosed with an illness or dies, the news can blindside even the most determined optimist. Ryan recommends having a plan for that, too. It can be as simple as deciding that, if you hear such news, you’ll calm yourself with exercises such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness exercise, prayer or meditation.
Think of yourself as partnering with your doctor in your health care, Ryan says. Ask about the risk of recurrence and specific symptoms to look for. You want realistic expectations about potential symptoms, she says. “Not every ache and pain means the cancer is back or has shifted.” Get a summary of your treatment and a personalized schedule for follow-up care. Also, ask about immediate and long-term effects your illness may have on your health and lifestyle.
Ignore 'Dr. Google’
“Always, always, always use reliable resources for information,” Ryan says. “Googling can be helpful – and misleading.” Everyone’s medical situation differs and getting medical information from an unreliable source may only contribute to distress and worry.
Take care of yourself
“A healthy diet and regular exercise absolutely help the body work the way it’s supposed to work and reduce the risk of recurrence,” Ryan says. Get enough sleep, too. Keep your follow-up appointments and complete recommended tests. Avoid tobacco and excess alcohol.
Do everything possible to reduce stress
We’ve all heard that stress is bad for us, but it’s no joke. While there’s no evidence to link stress as the cause of cancer, studies do suggest that stress may affect an existing cancer’s ability to grow and spread, Ryan says. Be sure to enjoy plenty of stress-busters such as quality time with family and friends, warm baths and exercise (as appropriate for your condition). Avoid social drama and don’t overschedule yourself, she says.
Don’t go it alone
Social and emotional support is available through many sources. Family and friends are usually a good resource, while in-person or online support groups can offer valuable perspectives from people with similar experiences. Don’t be afraid to reach out, Ryan says.
Focus on living
Sometimes worrying can feel like taking action when, in fact, it “doesn’t do anything to fix the problem,” Ryan says. “How do you want to spend your time?”
If you need help managing stress or any other issue, contact HAP's Coordinated Behavioral Health Management Department at (800) 444-5755.