Suffering in Silence After Cancer Treatment?

Jeff Kendall, Psy.D.
Jeff Kendall, Psy.D.

Sara is a 55-year-old breast cancer survivor who completed her treatment more than 18 months ago. Instead of feeling completely recovered from her cancer experience, she finds herself constantly worrying about whether her cancer will return. She says the worry can come to her at any time—when she is driving, when she wakes up in the morning, or whenever there is a story about cancer on television. Sara also believes that she is the only post-treatment cancer patient who is experiencing fear of recurrence.

Fear of recurrence is when cancer patients who have finished their cancer treatment worry that the cancer will come back. For some cancer patients, the worry is so strong that it interferes with their ability to resume their life. Fear of recurrence has been reported by cancer survivors with every type of cancer diagnosis, and survivors have cited it is a primary cause of negative emotions such as depression, anxiety, or irritability.

Many cancer survivors experience fear of recurrence for years after treatment completion, though it varies. For example, bone marrow transplant survivors reported high levels of fear of recurrence for up to three years post-treatment. Over 20% of gynecological cancer patients reported experiencing difficulty with fear of recurrence for as long as six years post-treatment. Men treated for prostate cancer reported experiencing fear of recurrence up to two years post-treatment. It is important to emphasize that these data include both genders and both solid tumor and hematological cancers.

In spite of the frequency, intensity, and duration of this problem, few clinical resources have been directed toward helping patients overcome their fear of recurrence until recently. To help cancer patients cope with the emotional burden of fear of recurrence, cancer centers are employing supportive care professionals, such as psychologists and social workers. These supportive care teams use educational and behavioral treatments to help cancer patients reduce the emotional upset and enhance coping with the stress associated with cancer. These professionals have many different types of interventions, such as relaxation training, guided imagery, thought restructuring, problem-solving training, and coping-skills training. Emotional side-effects of cancer, such as fear of recurrence, can be treated within a support group structure or with one-on-one appointments.

The most important thing for people with cancer to know is that there is help for the emotional aspect of cancer. Call and ask to speak with someone if you feel that this is a problem for you.