For most of us, this is the central issue about living with breast cancer. What if it comes back? Certainly the early months after diagnosis are often dominated by this fear, but it never completely goes away. Slowly, over time, most women find ways to compartmentalize the anxiety, but it pops up in ways both anticipated and surprising.
Most women are anxious in the days before an annual mammogram or doctor's appointment, but there are also the surprise moments when you hear of someone whose cancer has recurred or read an obituary or have a cough or back ache that seems to linger. In the case of physical symptoms that are scary, remember the "Two Week Rule": you don't need to call your doctor unless something persists for more than two weeks. Most aches and pains don't last that long. Clearly there are exceptions to this rule; anything potentially life-threatening (think heart attack or stroke) needs to be reported immediately. I am talking about a low grade headache or a cough after a cold or a sore back. Most things aren't cancer-related and will heal on their own. But we worry.
The absolute goal is to somehow learn to live as though the cancer is never going to return. If it does, worrying about it won't have helped and will have just compromised our happiness, If it does, we will deal with it then. This is an article from LBBC that I helped write about this:
What if? Coping With Fear of Recurrence
Published in the Summer 2014 issue of LBBC's Newsletter, Insight
Written By Nicole Katze, MA, Editor and Manager, Publications
Carol LaRegina, 60, of Raleigh, North Carolina, was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer at age 47. She would be diagnosed with a second new breast cancer 4 1/2 years later.
“The first time around, my ‘what ifs?’ weren’t as strong as the second,” she says. “But I was so worried about the cancer coming back that I was constantly doing self-exams. When you’re in treatment, life goes on and you see the light at the end of the tunnel. Then, all of a sudden, you’re done. It’s like being a child thrown out into the streets.”
Carol’s ‘what ifs?’ — commonly called fear of recurrence — are a normal part of coping with breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. It’s natural to worry about breast cancer coming back or getting worse, and also for those concerns to last months to years after treatment.
Though fear can be strong at times, you can take actions to get through it in the moment, keeping it away for periods of time.