Fear of cancer returning - Maggie's Centres

Fear of cancer returning


You may find that you’re worried about your cancer coming back (recurrence).  These feelings often develop as treatment finishes, and regular contact with the hospital stops.

New aches or pains can trigger thoughts that your cancer has recurred. You may feel increased anxiety around follow up appointments, scans and tests, or when someone else’s cancer returns. It’s normal to feel this way - and it takes time for these feelings to settle down.

The information on this page will help you to find out more about the fear of cancer recurrence, and suggest ways to help reduce your anxiety, during and after cancer treatment.

Fear of cancer returning

Having cancer causes a huge mix of emotions. At first, you may have been focused on having treatment, and getting rid of the cancer. However, it is often as treatment finishes, that new uncertainties begin. Whilst you may be relieved that the cancer treatment has finished, you may be wondering what the future holds.

One of the uncertainties is that doctors rarely say that a cancer is ‘cured’ - even when people are seen to be cancer free. This is because of the chance that microscopic cancer cells are still present. For many people the cancer will not return, but the fear that it might, is a common concern. This is a normal reaction - various studies have shown that  between a third and two thirds of people with cancer have anxious thoughts about their cancer coming back in the future.

You may find certain things trigger the fearful feelings. It might be a new ache or pain, a follow-up scan or appointment, or you may feel more anxous around the time of the cancer diagnosis anniversary. Many people’s anxiety intensifies with media reports of cancer, or if a friend’s cancer returns (recurrence). 

Generally, the first year post cancer seems to when the feelings are more intense, and they gradually subside, as time goes on. However, some people find that the fear of recurrence lasts for longer, and the feelings rarely go away entirely. It’s more about learning to manage the uncertainty, as part of living beyond cancer.

Ways to manage fear of cancer returning

Here are some tips to help you feel more in control and less vulnerable:-

  • Accepting that what you’re feeling is a normal reaction: can help things feel more in control. Recognise and acknowledge your emotions - tell yourself that to be scared is natural, and that these feelings will lessen over time.
  • Learn your triggers: you may soon recognise that future appointments set emotions spiralling.  Having a new pain, headache or symptom may make you feel panicky and anxious - remind yourself that many aches and pains are part of daily life, and doesn’t necessarily mean your cancer is back.  The anniversary of events around your cancer and it’s treatment can be stressful too. Being aware of your triggers means you can prepare for the surge in emotions, and not be caught unawares.
  • Plan ahead: ask your doctor or health care team what to look out for as signs that the cancer may be back. Find out who you should call if you have concerns, or symptoms you’re experiencing. Check out what the follow up process is, including any tests, scans and appointments. Think about ways to get through the build up to appointments, and how you might reward yourself after the stress of the day is over.
  • Think about support: Talk to your family and friends about how their continued support is helpful, as when treatment finishes, you may still find things hard. Being part of a group, whether it’s online or face to face can help you feel less alone, and realise that much of the anxiety you may be experiencing is similar to other people with cancer. It might be at your local Maggie’s Centre, or finding support groups in your area.
  • Learn how to de-stress: this might be through exercise, meditation, mindfulness, hobbies, relaxation techniques and other therapies. Maggie’s centres provide stress management courses and a range of other activities to help learn to manage the uncomfortable feelings.
  • Control the controllable: there are things you can do, to help keep yourself as well as you can. For example, attending your appointments, and check ups helps keep a regular eye on things. If a new symptom is troubling you, then tell your doctor. Eating healthily, and building up your exercise can help keep your body well. 

When to seek further help

There may be times when trying to manage the fear of your cancer recurrence yourself starts to feel difficult. Don’t hesitate to contact your doctor or nurse or drop into a Maggie’s centre if you’re finding that you’re:-

  • Constantly checking yourself for new signs and symptoms, and seeking reassurance that your cancer is not back. Finding that the reassurance doesn’t last long, before your anxiety returns.
  • Becoming anxious, agitated, irritable, not sleeping or low in mood, over a period of time. 
  • Feel hopeless about the future.
  • Find you’re withdrawing from normal activities, or avoiding hospital and doctor’s appointments
  • Recognising  that you may need counselling and further support.

Your healthcare team will understand how worried you may be, about the possibility of your cancer coming back - and will be keen to help you adjust to life after cancer treatment.


What now?

If you’re worried about possible symptoms or are struggling emotionally, do let your doctor know.

Have a look at our blogs and links on this page to find out more about living with the fear of recurrence.

Talk with others about what you are experiencing. It can help to hear that what you’re feeling is not unusual, and help you feel less alone.  Call into your local Maggie’s Centre, or join our online forums to talk to our professional teams and connect with others in a similar position to yourself.


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