09 SEPTEMBER 2021

Dealing With Fear Of Cancer Recurrence

Contributed by: Jaime Yeo

Fear of cancer recurrence is a very common experience that many patients with cancer have, says Jaime Yeo, Counsellor at Parkway Cancer Centre. This HealthNews, we speak to her to understand some of the common symptoms and support tools available for patients who face such fears along their cancer treatment journey.

  1. What is fear of cancer recurrence? Do many patients experience it?

    Fear of cancer recurrence is a very common experience that many patients with cancer have.

    This concern can be something they face at any time during their treatment journey—whether they were recently diagnosed or have completed treatment for a while.

    To some extent, this fear is normal, and in fact motivates many patients with cancer to make healthy lifestyle changes and develop healthy habits to do what they can to prevent the cancer from recurring. In some cases, many of these patients become more enthusiastic and inspired to live life differently and healthily, which is always a good thing.

    However, if the fear becomes debilitating, and prevents them from functioning well on a daily basis and living life fully, it needs to be addressed.

  2. What are some worries commonly faced by these patients?

    Typically, events connected to a potential discovery of cancer recurrence, such as collecting PET scan results, will naturally trigger a lot of anxiety, worry and nervousness.

    One of the most common worries faced by those affected is having to undergo chemotherapy and treatment all over again. After undergoing any form of intensive treatment, most patients hope to put the whole treatment experience behind them and return to normalcy in their lives. As a result, the thought of having to go through treatment again can sometimes be scary.

    Another common worry is whether the cancer will return more aggressively and whether the treatment will be effective this time round. For some, there is also a fear of death and what this would mean for themselves or their loved ones.

  3. How can patients recognise that they are dealing with fear of cancer recurrence?

    This fear or anxiety can manifest in the form of intrusive thoughts. For example, they may find themselves worrying and ruminating over the same thoughts again and again (e.g. “what if the cancer comes back?”). When such worries happen frequently or intrusively, it may be difficult for them to focus and concentrate on their daily tasks.

    Some patients may also feel low and depressed when the anxiety becomes consuming and makes it difficult for them to live life normally. Other related emotions may include irritability or an impending sense of dread and doom.

    Anxiety can also manifest physiologically, through symptoms such as headaches, tension in your body, increased heart rate or blood pressure, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, change in sleep patterns, etc.

    Due to past experience of cancer, patients may also become more sensitive or hypervigilant to any physical discomfort, sensations or pain in their body. This can cause them panic whenever they experience something unusual or different in their body.

  4. What support is available for patients who experience fear of cancer recurrence?

    If you are fearful about cancer recurrence, talk to your doctor about it. They may prescribe some medication for you, refer you to a psychiatrist, or recommend you to talk to one of our PCC counsellors.

    Our counsellors are always here and ready to support you. Counselling provides patients with a safe holding space to talk about what they are experiencing and feeling without being judged.

    In our counselling sessions, patients can work with our counsellors on their fears, and gain more self-awareness, coping skills, perspectives and tolerance to sit through uncomfortable emotions.

  5. How do counsellors assist patients in finding the right tool to manage their fears?

    In their sessions, counsellors will typically explore with the patient their needs, coping styles, resources, and what has worked or hasn’t worked for them before.

    Sometimes, learning to cope with anxiety requires learning some skills and practicing them, and we guide patients through that process in our sessions. We also tap on patients’ existing unique strengths. In that sense, counselling becomes a working partnership between the counsellor and the patient. It is a process that takes time rather than being an instant quick fix.

    This may not necessarily mean a complete elimination of the anxiety being experienced, but being better equipped to handle it, experiencing it in a less intense way, or changing our understanding of and relationship to that anxiety.

  6. How can caregivers and family members support loved ones facing this fear?

    Caregivers and family members may support their loved ones by being understanding towards their fears and not dismissing them; their experience of fear is very real to them. Often, talking about their fears can help them feel better, so support can also be given by taking time to listen and allowing them to express their feelings.

    It may also be helpful to find opportunities for agency and control in your loved ones’ lives. When a patient has gone through cancer and there is a chance they may get it again, they may feel helpless and feel as if they have lost control over their lives. So helping them build up their confidence by encouraging them to make decisions and exercise independence and agency in different areas of their lives may help reduce feelings of helplessness and loss of control.

    Finally, encourage them to talk to a counsellor if you notice or feel that their anxiety is difficult for them to cope with and is beginning to affect their daily life.

POSTED IN Exercise, Life after Cancer, Psychological Health
TAGS cancer counsellor, cancer diagnosis, cancer relapse, cancer tips, managing emotions