When cancer comes back

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology Social Work

APRIL 17, 2019

Your worst nightmare has come true. Whether it has been a few months or many years since cancer was first diagnosed, it has returned. Whether you have been worried every single day about this possibility or whether you believed that the cancer was gone forever, you now have to face this new reality. Assuming that, when the cancer was initially diagnosed, you followed your doctors' recommendations and went through the prescribed treatment, you did all that you could possibly do to prevent this recurrence. There is absolutely no evidence that diet, exercise, stress management, positive thinking, or wonderful social support make any difference in the likelihood of cancer's return.

Allow yourself time to rage and weep and even stay away from people or in bed for a day. It is likely that you will fairly quickly begin to settle down and into this phase. If these intense feelings persist and you are unable to participate in your life, ask for help.

You are NOT responsible for this recurrence. Cancer is a biological process, and the success or failure of the first treatment (whether it was surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy or some combination) is biologically determined. Some cancers are resistant to chemotherapy drugs or radiation, and sometimes treatments don't succeed in eliminating all of the cancer cells in the body. Again, the significant fact is that this is not anyone's fault. You did all that was possible in the beginning, and now you and your doctors will do everything possible to fight the cancer that has returned.

The second most important reminder is that this is not an immediate death sentence. No one drops dead from cancer. Indeed, many people live many years with metastatic cancer, and continuing discoveries of new and better treatments are making this increasingly true. Collect good and hopeful stories of people who are living long and well with metastatic cancer.

Finally, be aware that you will feel a little better in a couple of months. Just like the first time with cancer, you will adapt to the situation, develop a good working relationship with your doctors, and a routine will evolve. In my experience, it often takes a year for people to settle into this new situation. Of course, this will continue to be a serious problem, but it will feel less like an acute crisis after some time has passed. You will, as hard as this is to believe, learn to live and to live well with this new reality.

Have you learned to live with recurrent cancer? Share your story