Survivorship Center: Managing Uncertainty/Fear of Recurrence

Being diagnosed with cancer often leads to changes in how people feel about many aspects of life that can be difficult for family and friends to understand. Continue reading for advice about how to explain these changes to those around you.

Why do I sometimes feel sad and overwhelmed now that I am finished with my cancer treatment?

Videos

MSKCC expert Jimmie Holland talks about the emotional impact of completing cancer treatment.

Many survivors experience periods of sadness once they are no longer on treatment. This can be extremely confusing. The expectation is often that you will feel elated at the end of treatment and this, of course, does happen for some people; but others tell us about unexpected feelings such as sadness, anxiety, and even fear about an unknown future. Sometimes these feelings can be about the cancer coming back, and other times they aren't related to the cancer experience at all.

This range of feeling is perfectly normal, and we have found that when people talk about what they are experiencing it can alleviate some of the intense feelings during this time of major transition. For most people, there is immense comfort in talking with others about their feelings at our educational meetings or support groups. Just knowing that others are experiencing similar feelings can be normalizing during a period that can feel isolating and unfamiliar.

How do I deal with thinking that every ache or pain I feel in my body is the cancer coming back?

Post-treatment marks the beginning of less scrutiny by the medical team. People are no longer required to attend clinic on a weekly basis, during which they can ask their medical team about any changes they are feeling in their bodies. An individual may often wonder what it means when they feel unusual pain — what is something to report and what is something that is “normal adjustment”?

This is a time when survivors make a new relationship with their bodies. They have to relearn what is “just a pain” and what is a potential recurrence. This takes time and continued communication with your medical team. It is important to know that even though you are not in as close in-person contact with your medical team, you can still call them about issues that are of concern to you. You can also assemble a list of questions and go over them with your nurse and doctor at your next follow-up visit. Through this form of ongoing communication, you will begin to regain familiarity with your body.

How can I manage the fear and anxiety I feel prior to a scan or follow-up appointment?

It is normal to feel anxious before your follow-up tests and appointments. There are several ways to ease pre-appointment anxiety. Write down questions you have about any issues you are or have been experiencing — this could be about long-standing symptoms, emotional aspects of survivorship, or practical issues such as questions about health insurance. You may want to ask a friend or family member to sit with you while you wait for your scans.

In the days before your appointments, schedule activities that can help distract you from worrying, such as going for walks, talking with friends and family, or doing yoga. These practices can help alleviate some of the anxiety you may be experiencing, and you may find that your anxiety lessens or disappears over time.

If your anxiety becomes overwhelming, persists for many weeks, or makes it difficult for you to keep your appointments, please consider consulting a mental health professional.