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Worrying that cancer will come back

It’s normal to worry about the cancer coming back (recurring) and wonder how you would react and cope if it did. While you’re in treatment, you know that something is being done to stop or slow the cancer. But when treatment is over, it can seem as though nothing’s happening and the cancer could return.

At first you may think that every ache, pain, runny nose or feeling of being unwell means that the cancer has returned. You may worry so much that you find yourself at the doctor’s office more than usual. Remember that not every symptom means the cancer has returned.

As time goes by, most people find that their fears fade and they worry less. But sometimes life events or reminders of past experiences can make you very anxious again. These reminders include:

  • follow-up visits to your doctor
  • having symptoms like the ones that led to your diagnosis
  • dates such as the date of diagnosis or surgery
  • hearing of someone’s new cancer diagnosis
  • the death of someone who had cancer
  • visiting or driving past the hospital where you had your treatment

How likely is it that the cancer will come back?

No one can say for sure that cancer will or won’t come back.

Your healthcare team can’t be sure that the cancer is completely gone, so they may not use the word “cure.” They may tell you that you are in “remission,” which means that there are no signs of cancer in your body.

In general, most cancers that are going to come back will do so in the first 2 or 3 years after treatment has finished. The risk of recurrence becomes lower after 5 years.

Unfortunately, some cancers can come back many years after treatment has finished.

While you can’t control whether or not your cancer comes back, there are some things that you can do to help you cope if you’re worried.

  • Talk to your doctor about regular follow-up care. Your doctor can also give you information about the chances of cancer recurring and the symptoms to watch for. This kind of information can help you stop worrying that every ache or pain means that cancer is back.
  • Be informed. Understanding what you can do for your health now and finding out about the services available to you can give you a greater sense of control.
  • Accept and talk about your worries. You will probably find that it’s easier to let the feelings go once you’ve expressed them. You can talk to friends, family, other people who have had cancer or a counsellor.
  • Try to use your energy to focus on wellness and what you can do now to stay as healthy as possible. You might try eating a healthy diet, being active and getting enough sleep. All these activities can help you feel better physically and emotionally.
  • If you smoke, get help to quit. Research has shown that people who keep smoking after being treated for cancer are at a higher risk of the cancer coming back or of developing a second cancer.

second cancer

A new cancer that has started in the body in someone who has already been diagnosed with cancer. It is unrelated to the first cancer. It may start in the same organ or in a different place in the body.

Second cancers may be caused by previous cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy. The most common second cancer caused by treatment is leukemia.

Also called a second primary.

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