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Your treatment is over, and your life finally is back to normal. It may be a new normal, but you’re glad to be alive. You look fine, and you feel good, physically. Everyone else is relieved that the worst is behind you. So why are you feeling so scared now?
Relax. You Aren’t Alone. It’s not uncommon for women to feel anxiety when treatment for breast cancer stops. When you first started treatment, regular medical appointments, clinic visits or hospitalizations probably seemed disruptive. After a while, though, they became an ordinary part of your schedule, and the members of your healthcare team began to seem more familiar than many of your friends. In addition, there was something reassuring about the constant monitoring of your health. Now all that is ending, and it’s really not surprising that, on some level, you not only miss it, but worry that something will be missed if you don’t remain as vigilant.
One of the biggest fears you may face during this period is that you will have a recurrence of your cancer. Little aches and pains that you barely would have noticed before suddenly may seem to take on huge significance. It’s natural to be afraid that your cancer might return. However, it may help to remind yourself that everyone has minor symptoms now and then. If you have a symptom that is urgent or severe, or one that lasts for several days, by all means see your doctor. But keep in mind that most breast cancer survivors never have a recurrence.
“It’s not uncommon for women to feel anxiety when treatment for breast cancer stops.”
These are some more tips for managing your fear of cancer returning:
Don’t neglect your medical care once cancer treatment is over. Make sure you know who is in charge of your care now and when your next checkup should be.
Discuss your worries with an understanding friend. Or join a support group, where you can talk about your feelings with other women who have been there.
Find other things that help you keep anxiety at bay. Try reading a good book, working in the garden, going for quiet walks, starting something calming like yoga, or life affirming like watching a funny movie—whatever works for you.
Know that your anxiety is likely to fade with the passing years. Eventually, cancer will stop being the center of your life and start receding to the background.
When to Seek Help
As you move into the post-treatment phase of your life, it’s normal to feel a little uneasy. If your anxiety starts to spiral out of control, however, you may begin to feel overwhelmed by constant fear or worry that doesn’t go away and that just grows worse with time. For some women, the anxiety itself may get so bad that it causes disturbing symptoms, such as insomnia, fatigue, muscle tension, trembling, headaches, hot flashes, or irritability. In addition, it may start to interfere with the ability to function at home or work. If your anxiety reaches this point, it may be time to consult a mental health professional. Today, we understand that not just war veterans or victims of violet crimes suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, you may be experiencing PTSD:
nightmares or flashbacks about the cancer experience
continuously focusing on the cancer experience
avoiding people, places, and events that remind you of the experience
intense feelings of fear
being overly excitable
feeling helpless or hopeless
shame or guilty feelings
bouts of crying
feeling emotionally numb
sadness or depression
loss of appetite
trouble maintaining personal relationships
self-destructive behavior (alcohol or drug abuse, for example)
being startled or frightened easily
getting no joy from activities you used to enjoy
Ask your doctor, nurse, or minister for a referral. Today, most people with severe anxiety can be helped by counseling, medications, or a combination of both.
Resources for You:
BreastCancer.org http://www.breastcancer.org —This website provides an amazing array of helpful informationfor breast cancer patients and survivors. There are numerous links to articles and PDFs on fear of recurrence.
Living Beyond Breast Cancer http://www.lbbc.org —This nonprofit organization, founded by Dr. Weiss, sponsors conferences, a newsletter, online message boards, and other educational materials for breast cancer survivors. They also operate a free survivors’ helpline: (888) 753-LBBC that’s (888) 753-5222
U.S. National Institute of Mental Health http://www.nimh.nih.gov —This government institute publishes fact sheets about anxiety disorders. It also has an information line: (888) 8-ANXIETY that’s (888) 8-269-4389
Love, Susan M., with Karen Lindsey. Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book, 5th edition. A Merloyd Lawrence Book, The Perseus Books Group, Da Capo Press, September 2010. Long-time “bible” for the newly diagnosed. In this completely revised fifth edition, it also becomes a guide for those at risk of getting breast cancer, survivors interested in the consequences of their treatment, and anyone who wants to understand the new research about how the local environment influences the manifestations and treatments of many different kinds of breast cancer. Major advances being made in genetic research today mean that prevention and treatment can work not only to get rid of mutated cells (through chemo or surgery), but also to change the environment around the cells (through hormone therapy, exercise, and stress reduction). Among other promising developments discussed are advances in imaging, recognition of breast density as a risk factor, and a section focused on “personalized medicine” to help determine what kind of cancer you have and how best to treat it.
Breast Cancer Clear and Simple, the American Cancer Society, Atlanta, GA. Aimed at easing fears and encouraging informed health care choices, this practical and reassuring book provides all the essential facts, behavior guidance, and support about cancer-related decisions. Created by leading medical authorities on breast cancer in collaboration with editorial and design experts in health literacy, the book offers readers a streamlined, step-by-step approach to dealing with a cancer diagnosis.
Quick Facts from the Experts at the American Cancer Society: Breast Cancer, What You Need to Know – NOW , the American Cancer Society, Atlanta, GA. Covering everything from breast cancer risk factors to living well after treatment, this pocket-sized reference provides critical questions to ask a health-care team; presents the latest guidelines for diagnosis, staging, and treatment; and details what to expect after treatment. This comprehensive yet concise guide is the fastest way to get evidence based content on the disease and includes an advanced dictionary of breast cancer-related terms. It educates and empowers both patients and their caregivers to combat breast cancer from the start.