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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.

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"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, though."

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.

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