Recurrence is something that causes me anxiety even though my latest CT scans show no progression. My mind rushes to the fearful thoughts first, “How long will this last? Will I see my children reach adulthood?” Past trauma has me on alert; I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop. There’s a need to process the fear before enjoying the good results.
These fears are not uncommon among people living with early-stage and metastatic breast cancer (MBC).
What is a recurrence?
It’s cancer that has recurred or come back after a period of time during which cancer couldn’t be detected on scans and other screening tools. Cancer may come back to the same place as the original (primary) tumor or to another place in the body.
Currently, I am at a NED status, which means “no evidence of disease.”
There’s no cancer currently detectable in my body. This is the best outcome you can get when living with metastatic breast cancer. I am happy that my first line of treatment is still working but also aware that one day it will fail. The reality is 115 people die from metastatic breast cancer every day in the United States, according to the Metastatic Breast Cancer Research, Support, and Awareness organization.
It was an emotional moment when my oncologist looked me in the eye, back in 2018, and told me the cancer will come back. She said, “I cannot promise you decades, but I can give you more years.” I respected that honest answer.
Since then, I hold my breath around scan time. “Scanxiety” is something many of us in the cancer community go through. It is common to feel stress before and during medical tests, as well as the time period of waiting for the test results.
Those of us who live with mental illness and metastatic breast cancer have additional struggles. Bipolar disorder symptoms amplify and exacerbate my cancer-related anxiety. Emotions range from avoiding my cancer diagnosis to being super aware of this disease infiltrating my body. Unchecked anxiety can consume you, so it is important to cope with it in a healthy manner.
After a few years of dealing with this breast cancer diagnosis, I went looking for those who are living longer than expected with MBC. They’re out there living their best lives, proving that metastatic breast cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence. People are living with this disease for much longer and with a better quality of life. This brings me so much hope and makes those overwhelming anxious feelings more tolerable.
Another way I cope with fear of recurrence is by making sure I keep my therapy appointments where I’m learning new techniques to manage both my mental and physical health. I take medications to treat breast cancer and serious mental illness. There’s no shame in taking medication to help you along your journey.
Education assists in reducing anxiety. At a recent webinar that I attended through Living Beyond Breast Cancer, some ideas were presented to help deal with the fear of recurrence.
A key takeaway was to focus on wellness and what you can control. I choose to focus on manageable wellness goals like drinking more water and taking daily walks. I’m also conscious of what foods I am putting into my body.
It is also beneficial to be mindful of our surroundings. Observing carefully what we’re feeling and thinking can help us be aware of triggers that bring on anxiety.
Another tool mentioned is one that I do every day, which is to practice gratitude without toxic positivity.
Keeping a journal and spending time writing is also a way to untangle those difficult thoughts. Feel the feelings, and then replace them with gratitude.
Thinking about breast cancer on a day when I am struggling with regulating my emotions can push me into a depressive episode. The skills I learn to manage mental illness help me when the fear of recurrence pops up in my mind. If I find that these are becoming ruminating thoughts, I talk to my provider about it.
Although fear of recurrence sometimes gets in my way, hope guides me through. There’s so much research and targeted therapy on treating MBC, and that gives me hope.
People are living more disease-free years, and I am one of them.
I am still here.
To connect with other breast cancer survivors, join our Breast Cancer Facebook Support Group.
Photo Credit: Ezaka RAKOTONDRAMANANA / iStock via Getty Images Plus
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