A few years ago, a young woman was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was an oncology nurse and the mother of four children under the age of 10.
Luckily, they caught her cancer early. Just a few short months later, she was pronounced cancer free.
This should have been a joyful time in her life, right? SHE BEAT CANCER!!
A quick search of the hash tag #NoMoreChemo brings up thousands of celebration pictures.
But along with remission comes a struggle that often goes undiscussed.
Oftentimes, the cancer survivor lives with a constant fear of their cancer returning.
One of our patients described it as being “alone and naked and in the woods”.
Maybe you can identify with feelings like that?
The woman I mentioned above sure could. Every day, the fear of her cancer returning paralyzed her. In her brain, she knew her cancer was not aggressive. She knew it was gone from her body. She knew she had a good prognosis.
But she could not get past the fear and anxiety. She felt it every single day. She sought professional help, to no avail.
Less than a year later, she took her own life.
What is cancer remission? Why not just say someone is cured?
Very rarely will a doctor ever say someone is “cured” of cancer. Rather, the patient may go into cancer remission, which is a decrease or disappearance of the signs and symptoms of cancer. However, because cancer is considered to be a chronic disease, the patient will continually need to check back with their oncologist to see if it has returned or not.
There are two types of remission:
- Partial Remission: The cancer is still there, but the tumor is smaller. In the cases of liquid cancers, like leukemia, there simply may be less of that particular cancer in the body.
- Complete Remission: There is no evidence of cancer in the body.
In the case of complete remission, some patients question why they are not considered “cured” of their cancer. The reason for this is because there is no way for an oncologist to know if all the cancer cells in the body are gone. Some may remain undetected for years after the cessation of treatment.
If cancer returns after a period of remission, it is called a cancer recurrence. Generally, if cancer does come back, it typically happens within the first five years following the first cancer diagnosis.
Why does remission bring about so much anxiety?
Typically, while a patient is in treatment they have several different doctor’s appointments every week. There are treatment schedules to keep track of, along with scans and tests.
Yet, during remission, doctor’s visits are few and far between. Treatment all but comes to an end. Months might go by before the next scan or test.
While many patients live with the relief of beating cancer, there are still a large percentage of those who live in fear of their cancer returning.
For them, not a single ache and pain or lump or bump goes unnoticed.
Is there anything that can be done to help relieve the anxiety that comes with remission?
Is there anything that I can do to STAY in remission?
Unfortunately, there is no sure thing. Nothing will guarantee that your cancer will never come back.
However, there are many things you can do to be proactive about your health! This will increase the likelihood that you will stay in remission!
Try these tips:
Stay active! Exercising regularly improves fatigue symptoms, reduces stress, and impacts long-term overall health. In fact, the ten-year survival rate is higher in patients who exercise regularly than in patients who do not. We recommend that you engage in moderate exercise at least 3-5 hours per week.
Eat a healthy diet! Research has shown that a diet high in fat and calories increases circulating estrogen in the blood. Consuming a low fat and low calorie diet after cancer can improve your overall health and wellness. Here are some dietary suggestions:
- Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables (at least five servings a day)
- Choose organic foods whenever possible
- Wash produce thoroughly to minimize pesticide exposure
- Limit red meat intake
- Consume 2-3 servings of fish weekly. Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon or sardines, are especially beneficial
- Increase fiber intake
Quit Smoking! When you stop smoking, you can reduce your risk of cancer recurrence, or even developing a second cancer.
Limit alcohol! Research has shown a link between moderate and heavy drinking and certain kinds of cancer. High alcohol intake has also been shown to increase circulating estrogen levels in the body. Cancer survivors should limit their alcohol intake to a maximum of one drink a day to reduce the chance of a recurrence.
Take care of yourself emotionally! Communicate with your doctor about fears or concerns. Attend a support group or find a cancer survivor you can talk with.
Reduce stress! Finding ways to limit or cope with stress has been shown to improve overall survival. Just as every body is different, so is our ability to cope with stress. It is important that you find practical ways to cope with stress that work for you and your lifestyle.Some helpful techniques for relieving stress include journaling, mental health counseling, massage therapy, yoga, and exercise.
How can I support my friend if they are struggling in remission right now?
If you have a loved one who is struggling through remission, you can offer them support in many simple and tangible ways! Give these a try:
- Call the patient to see how they are doing.
- Pray over the patient for continued healing.
- Send cards/texts of encouragement to the patient.
- Acknowledge that it may be a hard time emotionally for the patient, and ask if they need to talk about it.
- Emphasize the positive things in the patient’s life
- Ask when scans and tests are and let the patient know you are praying for a positive result.
- Use Scripture to encourage the patient to persevere when their faith is weak.
If you are struggling with fear and anxiety in remission right now, take a minute to reflect on how far you have come! It has been a long road, but you’ve made it this far! You can handle the next challenge that comes your way!
Remember, you are braver than you think, stronger than you know, and more loved than you could ever imagine!