For most cancer patients, remission is a time of renewal. With treatment behind them, they can ease back into the life they knew. But with survivorship can come a new fear — the fear of cancer returning. And worse, some see that fear come true.
In February of 2020, actress Shannen Doherty shared heartbreaking news: after three years of remission, her breast cancer had returned. It left many wondering, why does cancer come back? And more importantly, how does one face it again?
When cancer comes back, it’s considered a recurrence. It happens when some cancer cells — no matter how aggressively they were targeted — never truly go away. They can grow in the same spot or spread somewhere else. And sadly, they aren’t always easy to detect. Some appear in routine follow-up scans. Some make their appearance through symptoms that are achingly familiar. But one thing is for certain: The news is never easy to hear.
“Emotionally, a cancer diagnosis is harder the second time around,” says Linda Hutkin-Slade, a clinical oncology social worker at Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “In addition to feeling the same disbelief and fear, some patients feel a sense of resignation. They may doubt their treatment decisions, or even experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress. These are all very normal responses.”
If you’re facing a cancer recurrence, it’s important to remember that your previous experience will better prepare you for the challenges ahead. Cancer care is constantly changing and treatment won’t necessarily be the same. But your strength and resilience are still very much there. Hutkin-Slade offers the following five tips to help you push through.
- Learn about your cancer.
Knowledge can help reduce fear and anxiety related to the unknown, and make you feel like you have some control.
- Lean on your team.
Rely on your relationship with your medical team of navigators, doctors, nurses and social workers. They are your first line of support and information.
- Review what worked last time.
Revisit strategies that helped you the first time around, especially those related to reducing side effects. It can help to take an inventory of your medications, note how they affected you, and stock up on supplies to help ease any nausea or constipation.
- Gather your support system.
Family, friends and faith communities can help provide emotional support. Seek out therapists with experience in cancer-related concerns, and stay connected to your medical team.
Sharp offers a range of cancer classes and support groups — safe, supportive spaces for you to meet others with similar stories. There are groups specific to men or women; groups for your kids or partners; and classes to help you eat right, stay active and quiet your mind.
- Practice relaxation.
Stress management looks different for everyone, but it’s important to find a relaxation technique that works for you. Try deep breathing, meditation, progressive relaxation, yoga, walking on the beach or spending time with friends.
“Many people live a long time with recurrent or advanced cancer,” says Hutkin-Slade. “The trick is not getting stuck in one place mentally so you can keep living your life. Cancer brings with it fear, anxiety and worry for the future. But it also brings silver linings — the understanding of what is important and valuing the gifts of community and love.”
For the news media: To talk with Linda Hutkin-Slade about cancer returning for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at email@example.com.