When cancer comes back
Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology Social Work
JANUARY 07, 2020
Your worst nightmare has come true. Whether it has been a few months or many years since cancer was first diagnosed, the cancer 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 chapter.
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 anything you did or did not do brought back the cancer. Please believe that.
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.
Finally, be aware that you will feel a little better as some time passes. 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. Of course, this will continue to be a serious problem, but it will feel less like an acute crisis after some time has passed. My experience has been that it often takes many months, maybe a year, to settle into this situation. You will learn to live with this new reality.
Consider joining a support group for people with Stage IV cancers or talking with an oncology social worker or other therapist with relevant experience. Living with recurrent cancer is a little easier in the company of others and with understanding support. Read about BIDMC's Cancer Support Services.