The “What ifs” of Living in Fear of a Recurrence
I loved reading the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books growing up—the books where you as the reader are able to step into the role of the protagonist and make choices to determine the outcome of the story. But in all fairness, I always looked at all the options then made the best choice. Unfortunately, in real life, we rarely get a glimpse of what the outcomes might be and how they will affect our future. We live a in a world of “what ifs.” What if I had chosen a different major in college? What if I had married a different person? What if I had taken better care of myself? What if the cancer comes back?
Because we have come a long way in cancer treatment, a cancer diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. But for many, it becomes a life sentence. Even when you beat it and go into remission, the anxiety of the 6-month appointment or the yearly scan can be all-consuming. The fear of cancer recurrence is a weighty burden that everyone with cancer has to carry. Some personalities lend themselves to dealing with the anxiety better than others, but the truth is that we are not born knowing how to cope with cancer. It’s a very specific type of coping that no one ever chooses to learn—it’s only out of necessity that one must acquire these skills.
I have met many cancer survivors who have been cancer free for years but still say that there is not a day that goes by that they don’t think of the cancer coming back and the “what ifs” of it all.
So how do you live a world of “what ifs”? I talked with a few patients about this very thing and they had some good advice:
Ignoring your fears of recurrence is not realistic. You have to find a safe place to give those feeling space, whether you seek out professional help, find a support group, or meet a friend for coffee on a regular basis, you need an outlet without judgment. Your family and friends can provide great emotional support, but finding support from those who have gone through the same experiences can be very comforting.
Find Some Control.
Even after cancer treatment is over, many survivors still feel very out of control. You can’t see what is going on in your body, and you’re at the mercy of your blood work, scans, and follow-up appointments to get reassurance even if you are feeling well. Take back some control in other parts of your life. Decide how you want to spend your time. What makes you happy? Spending more time with family, learning how to play a musical instrument, cooking, or exercising. Dwelling on the fear can take so much enjoyment from your life, so find purposeful ways injecting enjoyment everywhere you can!
Focus on Overall Wellness.
You already know the importance of eating right and exercising regularly, and although nutrition and exercise are very important, there are more aspects to maintaining overall wellness. Emotional wellness could mean reconnecting with your faith, regular massages to decrease anxiety, practicing meditation, or even acupuncture. With all of the resources we have today, try something new and find out what works for you. As a survivor, there are many complimentary programs available through places like Cancer Support Community or here at Tunnell Cancer Center.
You are adjusting to a new normal. Your life and outlook have changed, and you need time to adjust. Many patients I’ve talked with say that the fear of “what if” never goes away but it can decrease over time. As you move farther away from the actual cancer treatment, the stretches between your follow-up appointments will become longer and longer. Hopefully, the anxiety of those approaching appointments will lessen. Be patient with yourself.
We can’t predict the future or even choose the outcome of certain situations, but we can make choices that direct our steps. Try to stay present in every moment and make choices to enjoy your life. Maybe you can choose your own adventure.