By Deborah Seagull, Ph.D.
Fear of recurrence is something that most individuals diagnosed with breast cancer struggle with. Oddly, many times it doesn’t matter if it is an early or late stage cancer, the fear of the cancer coming back or metastasizing is forefront in the minds of many women. It can be overwhelming, as oncologists can give statistics and likelihoods, but no one can ever give you certainty.
For many women, a pain, a twinge, or even a cold can signal a sign that the cancer may be back, and that these fears are going to be realized. It’s always there as a possibility, and can make it hard to settle back into a normal life. One hallmark emotional feature of individuals with cancer is that there is a puncturing of life’s security. We all walk around knowing that there is the possibility that we could die, but when you are diagnosed with cancer, the possibility becomes much more real. Most people have the luxury of leaving death in the background, and living their life as if there is no limit. When the bubble is punctured, and it is possible (even if it’s not likely) that you could pass away, feelings of insecurity surface. It takes time to regain a sense of stability, and to feel like you can return to enjoying the things you used to. Things may feel mundane in the face of this loss of security, and it may be hard to find meaning or joy in the things that you used to.
In my practice, it is important for my patients to understand this process. It is very natural and normal to react with worry and sadness when one’s life and security is changed. Knowing that others feel the same is generally a source of comfort to my patients. There is a grieving process associated with being different than the person they were before, and having to accept a ‘new normal.’ They cannot go back to being a person who was never diagnosed with cancer, and so, in some ways, life can’t be the same again.
Being able to express these feelings authentically, and finding ways to manage these emotions as well as creating ways to cope with uncertainty, goes a very long way. Sometimes the most difficult thing is to be honest about the fears and share them with others to know that you aren’t alone with this. It is also important to know that you have power and agency in your life, and many choices that you make. Your choice of diet, exercise, assertiveness with your physicians and family members go a long way to push away feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness. You also have resources to reach out to others in a similar situation, which can be a tremendous source of comfort.
You can listen to an archive of a presentation where I explored some of these difficult feelings, as well as ways that you can combat the fears of recurrence that plague so many survivors. This will be a chance to learn techniques, explore feelings, and connect to others that can relate to these fears.
About the author: Deborah Seagull, PhD, earned her doctorate degree from the Derner Institute at Adelphi University in N.Y., specializing in psychoanalytic and health psychology. She worked at the cancer center at Pennsylvania Hospital for the 8 years, helping people diagnosed with cancer and their families cope with the illness. She is currently in private practice in Center City Philadelphia and continues to focus on this population.