Breast Cancer Survivors: Coping with Fears of Recurrence
Fears of breast cancer recurrence are real but
can be placed in the context of the rest of your life after breast cancer.
"Whenever I read about anyone dying of breast cancer, I take it
personally," says Jami Bernard, a New York film critic who battled breast
cancer successfully in 1996, then wrote Breast Cancer: There and Back
to help other women facing the disease.
In April 2002, when the doctor told us my wife, Chris, had breast cancer, the first two words out of my mouth were "Oh" and a four-letter word. I felt shock and disbelief -- that this kind of thing happens to other people, not to us. I had no idea how I would handle this -- do all the caregiving, plus make a living. Right away, my attitude was, "It's her job to get better, and it's my job to do everything else." But it still seemed impossible.
As it turned out, Chris had stage 3 breast cancer and...
"I heard that Linda McCartney died of breast cancer, and I immediately
thought, 'I'm in trouble.' Whenever I get some sort of ailment, I always think
it's related to cancer. I was lying in bed one night two weeks ago, and my
throat hurt, and I thought, 'Oh, I have throat cancer.' It goes away quickly,
Most women were just walking along, living their lives, when they were
blindsided by breast cancer. Unless you had a strong family history of the
disease, you' probably said, "I never thought it would happen to me" at
least once. But after treatment, now that you've learned in a very painful and
immediate way that it can happen to you, you may find yourself overwhelmed by
fears that it will happen again.
"Fears of recurrence are very common," says oncologist Marisa Weiss,
MD, founder of Breastcancer.org and the author of Living Beyond Breast
Cancer. "They're particularly persistent as you're first leaving
active treatment, when you go from seeing an oncologist of some kind every week
or every other week to checkups every three months, and then every six months.
You may expect that you'll want to throw yourself a party on your last day of
chemo or radiation, only to find that you're a little melancholy or fearful,
thinking, 'Maybe I should be getting more treatments just to be sure?'
"Treatments keep you busy and occupied and they take a long time,"
says Bernard. "When you finish treatment you're at loose ends, wondering if
it will come back. I was having six-month checkups, and then my oncologist
said, ''I'll see you in a year.' I said, 'What? Are you sure you don't want to
see me before then?' I told him I'd start camping out in the hall waiting for
appointments. You want to think that someone's still watching."
So how do you handle these fears? First, understand that what Weiss calls
"separation anxiety" is normal. "It's hard to shift back to a life
where treatment is less in your face than it was before," she says.
Next, give yourself -- and your treatment plan -- credit. "You worked so
hard to identify a plan of action and worked so hard to make it happen,"
says Weiss. "At the end, you have to stop and give yourself credit for what
you've just achieved, then pause and shift to a different phase in your life:
surveillance." You're still being watched, she reminds her patients -- the
intervals are just a little longer.