I’ve heard reports of people who’ve had cancer saying it came as a relief when they were told – perhaps many years after their initial treatment – that their original cancer had come back and was now incurable.
The reasoning behind this sentiment is that some people have such a bad time worrying that they might suffer a recurrence that when it actually happens, they’re relieved as it means they can at last stop worrying about it.
I don’t know if the accounts are true. As someone recently diagnosed with metastatic cancer, I really hope they’re not. It’d be too sad if they were.
Not everyone suffers from it, but fear of recurrence after you’ve been treated for primary cancer is totally normal. As everyone reading my blog should know, it’s broadly true that once cancer spreads beyond its original site, it can no longer be cured. Secondary cancer can be treated and held at bay for a certain length of time but you won’t get better. For as long as you are alive, you will be living with incurable cancer and everything that entails – psychological as well as physical. You’ll die of it or at the very least with it. So of course you’d be scared it might happen.
However, if your anxiety is so bad that you genuinely feel you’d be relieved to be told you have incurable cancer, I would urge you please to seek help. Actor Kathy Bates told a major cancer conference recently that “life after cancer is a precious gift”. If your anxiety around fear of recurrence is preventing you from seeing that, you owe it to yourself to do something about it.
So-called cancer survivors – I never liked that term – talk about “waiting for the other shoe to drop”. That’s the feeling that at some point down the line – five, 10, 20 (or in my case just over three) years – you’ll be told your cancer has come back and can’t be cured. I completely understand the waiting-for-the-other-shoe analogy, but fear of recurrence shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying the currently “no-evidence-of-disease” life you do have.
Let’s be frank. With metastatic cancer or “mets”, the issue is how much longer you’re going to be alive. With fear of recurrence, regardless of your risk, you’re worrying about something that might never happen.
After my treatment for primary breast cancer ended, I never suffered from “survivor’s guilt”, that feeling that some people have at having survived a life-threatening event that has taken and continues to take the lives of so many others. However, I suffered very badly from fear of recurrence. For a while I could think of little else. I wrote about it extensively. Eventually, I sought help.
As I’ve written before, I realised that if my breast cancer did come back, I’d far prefer to look back and see I’d made the most of the “in between” time than to look back and regret that I’d spent that time worrying. I went on two courses, run by two breast cancer support organisations, Breast Cancer Care and The Haven. I learned strategies for coping with anxiety that I still find invaluable. I also talked to a counsellor. I learned to stop worrying. If that hadn’t worked, the next stop would have been my GP.
“Moving forward” after your initial treatment has finished is not easy, but you have to try. While it’s totally normal to go through a period or periods of anxiety, it shouldn’t be a permanent state of affairs.
There’s a saying that no-one on their death bed looks back and wishes they’d spent more time in the office. I think it’s the same here. Surely no-one diagnosed with incurable cancer – or indeed any life-limiting illness – looks back and wishes they’d spent more time worrying that one day the event they were dreading might in fact happen.