How to Cope with Fears of Recurrence?

How to Cope with Fears of Recurrence

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: November 2017 | Last updated: December 2021

Unfortunately, successfully battling cancer does not ensure that you will never have cancer again in your lifetime. Regardless of what kind of cancer you have, how advanced the cancer was, or what treatment options you used, there is always a chance of recurrence or second cancer.

What’s the difference between recurrence and second cancer?

Cancer recurrence and second cancer are two different issues. Cancer recurrence occurs when the original cancer an individual was treated for returns. It can return at an early stage, or can come back as an aggressive form of cancer, however, as long as it is related to your original cancer, it is considered a recurrence. Second cancer occurs when an individual who is currently battling, or has previously battled, cancer has a completely new, unrelated cancer develop in a different location of the body. Although a primary cancer can increase the risk of developing a second cancer, the two are not directly related, and a second cancer develops on its own.

What’s my risk of experiencing recurrence or second cancer?

Everyone’s risk of cancer recurrence or second cancer can vary based on many factors. Some of these factors include what treatment options were used, stage or location of the initial cancer, family history, and more. Typically, the more aggressive a primary cancer is, the higher the chance it could recur. The risk of developing a second cancer can strongly depend on an individual’s personal or family medical history, genetics, and any risky behaviors they participate in, including excessive alcohol consumption or smoking. Aside from these factors, men who have prostate cancer have a higher chance of developing the following secondary cancers:

Additionally, men who have had radiation therapy are considered to have a higher risk of developing colon or rectal cancer or acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Each man’s risk of prostate cancer recurrence and development of second cancer can vary. Your healthcare team will provide you with the most accurate risk assessment for your specific situation.1

How do I prevent recurrence or second cancer?

There is no guaranteed way to prevent cancer recurrence or the development of second cancer, however, there are lifestyle changes you can make and behaviors you can practice in order to reduce your risk as much as possible. These healthy choices include:

  • If possible, quit smoking/avoid all tobacco products
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat a healthy diet with plenty of vitamins, nutrients, and plant-based food sources (like fruits and vegetables)
  • Exercise regularly (within reason and once cleared by your doctor)
  • Limit alcohol intake to no more than two glasses of alcohol a day
  • Attend all follow-up care visits outlined by your doctor, and complete any testing or screening recommended for you

Although following these behaviors does not guarantee that you will never struggle with cancer again, they may help decrease your risk or allow for faster detection. Specific follow-up schedules and recommendations, as well as any additional lifestyle change suggestions that may be beneficial, will be included in the survivorship care plan created by your cancer care team.1-3

Coping with the emotional weight of cancer

Battling cancer at any stage in life can be incredibly draining, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Although it may seem like these burdens should subside after completing treatment, especially if treatment was deemed to be successful, for many, life post-cancer can continue to be stressful. Since it is hard to predict the chances of recurrence or second cancer development, many cancer survivors may find themselves feeling anxious, depressed, or fearful daily after treatment.

While these feelings may be tolerable for some, for others, they can escalate and cause severe impacts to an individual’s quality of life. It is recommended that you reach out for emotional or mental support if you feel like your concerns about cancer recurrence or second cancer development are growing too strong to handle. If you choose to talk to your doctor about these feelings, they may be able to point you towards a mental health professional or support group in your area. Additionally, online support groups and communities like ours are also a good place to seek comfort and support for feelings of depression, anxiety, or fear.1,3

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