Fear of your cancer coming back

Feeling anxious and frightened about the cancer coming back (recurrence) is the most common fear for people after cancer, especially in the first year after treatment.

For some people, this fear may affect their ability to enjoy life and make plans for the future.

Many people who have had cancer say that, with time, they feel less anxious. You may feel more anxious at times like the anniversary of the day you were diagnosed or hearing about cancer in the media.

"Cancer will always leave a scar. The scars are internal, they're emotional, they're intellectual, and they are physical. The physical scars are probably the least of my worries. I found the emotional scars the hardest to cope with." Jill

You may wonder how likely it is that your cancer will come back, or how long most people who have had your type of cancer live for. Your cancer doctor is the best person to talk with about your situation, but they still won't be able to tell you for sure what will happen. You may find this hard to accept and want someone to be able to give you definite answers. This is natural.

How your body is affected by your cancer and its treatment won't be the same for everyone. We are all unique: for example, the same type of cancer can respond differently to the same treatment in different people. Your doctor will be able to give you some answers based on research and from their experience with other patients, but there is always going to be some uncertainty. Try not to let it get you down.

As well as worrying about your cancer coming back, you may also worry about getting a different cancer. Most people who get cancer only get one primary type. It is less common to develop another, different cancer, but, like most things in life, it is possible. Your risk may be higher if:

  • you were born with genes that increase your chance of developing cancer. This affects fewer than five out of every 100 people (less than 5 percent)
  • you have previously been exposed to cancer-causing agents such as tobacco smoke
  • you have not used sun protection or have been exposed to the sun regularly
  • your cancer treatment has increased your risk. For example, radiation treatment and chemotherapy can, sometimes, increase your risk of getting a different cancer later in life, particularly if you were treated as a child.

If you are worried about getting a different type of cancer, talk to your doctor. They should be able to tell you about your risk.

"People have recovered from every type of cancer, no matter how gloomy the first reports. Yes, we're all going to die someday of something. But I plan to push that day back as far as I can." Betty

Managing your fears

For some it can be helpful to reflect or write about their cancer experience. You may wish to talk to someone else who has had a similar experience or a counsellor. (Contact your local Cancer Society to talk to someone who's been through a similar experience through the Cancer Connect telephone peer support service.)

Some people find learning more about the cancer they had is helpful. Call the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237).

"Make fear of recurrence a 'back seat passenger' in your life rather than letting it sit up front and annoy you all day and night. You can also book an appointment time for your recurrence fear, say 30 minutes a day. You can worry as much as you like during this time but after that you have to send it to the back seat and tell it to be quiet." Sue (GP)

Ideas that might help with fears

  • Live one day at a time.
  • Set realistic and manageable goals.
  • Start learning to trust your body again.
  • Learn positive self-talk.
  • Find ways to enjoy yourself.
  • Do the things you want to do instead of the things you ought to do.
  • Make plans for the future.
  • Distract yourself and take steps to take your mind off fear.
  • Take time to relate to and enjoy your environment.

Knowing what to look for: the signs of a recurrence or a new cancer

Below is a checklist of possible signs of a cancer coming back or a new cancer. You should contact your doctor if you have:

  • a lump anywhere in your body that won't go away
  • a mole or skin spot that changes shape, size, colour or itches
  • a cough or hoarseness that won't go away
  • a change in bowel habits: diarrhoea or constipation for more than six weeks
  • any abnormal bleeding (in bowel motions, in urine, or if you cough up blood)
  • pain that doesn't go away
  • unexplained weight loss
  • unexplained fatigue
  • breathing problems.

Remember: This is only a guide. If you have any symptoms that you are concerned about, see your doctor. 

"The more you know, the better your chances are … you make better choices, you feel more confident." Jason

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