Fear of the cancer coming back
On this page: Ways to manage the fear of recurrence | Will the cancer come back? | Survival statistics | Fear of getting a different cancer | Checking for signs of a new cancer | Key points
Feeling anxious or frightened about the cancer coming back
(recurrence) is one of the most common challenges and greatest
concerns for cancer survivors. Most cancer survivors are likely to
experience this fear to some degree.
This fear may affect your physical wellbeing, as well as your
ability to enjoy life and make plans for the future. Some survivors
describe it as a dark cloud or a shadow over their life.
Many people find that their worry is worse at certain times, such as:
- special occasions (e.g. birthdays or holidays)
- anniversaries (e.g. the date you were diagnosed, had surgery or
- before follow-up appointments
- hearing of others diagnosed with cancer
- experiencing symptoms similar to those when you were first
- the death of a friend or family member
- passing by the hospital where you had treatment, or visiting
someone in the same hospital
- hearing media reports about cancer, new treatments and
celebrities with cancer
- seeing related fundraising campaigns or advertisements
(e.g. a graphic cigarette or melanoma warning).
"The fear is always there. It never goes away completely." — Maria
Ways to manage the fear of recurrence
- A number of psychological
address the fear of cancer
recurrence and have been
shown to be effective. Ask
your GP for more information
or call Cancer Council
13 11 20.
- Learn to recognise and
manage the signs of stress
and anxiety, such as a racing
heartbeat or sleeplessness.
- Mindfulness, meditation and
yoga have been found to
help in managing this fear.
- Talk to your specialist about
your risk of recurrence and
educate yourself about your
type of cancer.
- Focus on what you can
control, e.g. being actively
involved in your follow-up
appointments and making
changes to your lifestyle.
- Social support is important
and has been found to play
a protective role in the fear
- Joining a support group
- Not all symptoms are a sign
of cancer, they may indicate
other health problems e.g.
diabetes, arthritis, high
blood pressure etc.
- See you doctor if you
notice any new symptoms,
or symptoms that have
returned. Don’t wait for your
Will the cancer come back?
You may wonder how likely it is that the cancer will come back
or how long people with the same type of cancer survive. The risk
of cancer coming back (recurrence) is different for each person
and depends on many factors including cancer type and stage,
genetics, type of treatment and time since treatment. Talk to your
doctor about your risk of recurrence. Generally, the likelihood of
cancer recurring decreases over time.
Cancer is most likely to recur in the first five years after
treatment ends. Risk of recurrence depends on the type and
stage of cancer, type of treatment and time since treatment.
See information on how to take control of your health and reduce
your risk of cancer recurrence.
Many doctors are wary of using the term ‘cure’ because
undetected cancer cells can remain in the body after treatment,
causing the cancer to return. Instead they may use the term
‘five-year survival rate’. Australia has among the best survival
rates for cancer in the world.
The five-year survival rate is determined by the percentage of
people alive five years after diagnosis.
These statistics are usually adjusted to account for other
causes of death in the general population (called ‘relative
survival rates’), and thus refer to the percentage of people who
would have survived if cancer was the only cause of death.
For example, it is estimated that 10 out of every 100 people
diagnosed with breast cancer will die from the disease within
five years. Another way of saying this is that the relative survival
from breast cancer is 90%. Many of these people live much
longer than five years after diagnosis.
How accurate are the statistics?
Five-year cancer survival rates are only a guide. They include
everyone with a particular type of cancer, at all stages and grades
of the disease. However, people diagnosed with early stage disease
(small cancer that has not spread) are likely to have a much better
outlook than people diagnosed with late stage/advanced disease
(larger cancer that may have spread).
Statistics take many years to calculate and are usually slightly
out of date. For example, if you were diagnosed with cancer in
2014, the doctor may use survival rates for people diagnosed in
2007 (followed for five years until 2012). With cancer treatments
improving all the time, your outcome (prognosis) is likely to be
better than it would have been in 2007.
Asking your doctor how your risk has changed at your
check-ups can be a good way of learning what the latest
statistics are, or how much your risk has reduced since your
"Survival keeps on going; every day brings a new
challenge. I think it’s been both a curse and blessing." — Neil
Fear of getting a different cancer
Some survivors worry about developing a different type of cancer.
While this is not common, approximately 10% of cancer survivors
will develop a second primary (new) cancer.
See 'ways to manage the fear of recurrence' above for useful tips that
may also assist with the fear of developing a different cancer.
The following factors may increase your risk of developing
another type of cancer:
- being born with an inherited gene that increases your tendency
to develop cancer (accounts for 5–10% of all cancers)
- exposure to cigarette smoke or other cancer-causing agents
- skin damage caused from overexposure to the sun’s UV rays
- undergoing some forms of cancer treatment, particularly as a child.
Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your risk factors.
"It helps to focus on what is happening now, what
is actually known – not all the possiblities. One step at
a time." — Jane
Checking for signs of a new cancer
It’s important to know what is ‘normal’ for you. If you notice any
unusual changes in your body or have any concerns, see your doctor
as soon as possible. Don’t wait until your next scheduled check-up.
The main signs and symptoms to look out for include:
- a lump, sore or ulcer that doesn’t heal
- a mole that bleeds or has changed shape, size or colour
- a cough or hoarseness that doesn’t go away, or a cough that
- a change in bowel habits (e.g. diarrhoea or constipation for more
than six weeks)
- urinary problems or changes
- unusual changes in your testicles (for men) or breasts (for women)
- persistent abdominal pain or bloating
- abnormal bleeding
- unexplained weight loss
- unexplained fatigue.
To help detect cancer early, national screening programs are
available for breast (women aged 50–69), cervical (women aged
18–70) and bowel (men and women aged over 50) cancers.
For more information, talk to your doctor, call Cancer Council
13 11 20 or visit www.cancerscreening.gov.au.
"Having cancer has meant I’ve learn a lot more
about my body and about life than a lot of people
ever learn." — Petronella
- Many cancer survivors
worry that the cancer will
- This concern may be worse
at certain times such as
special occasions, followup
hearing about other people
diagnosed with cancer.
- Many find the fear of
recurrence lessens with
time. However, this is not
always the case.
- To help detect cancer early,
people of certain ages can
take part in free national
screening programs for the
early detection of bowel,
breast and cervical cancers.
- You can reduce your cancer
risk through healthy lifestyle
choices such as quitting
smoking, eating healthily,
limiting or avoiding alcohol,
staying SunSmart every day
and taking time to be active.
- The risk of recurrence
depends on cancer
type and stage, type
of treatment and time
- Doctors use five-year
survival statistics to refer
to the number of people
who are alive five years
- Most people who get
cancer only get one type.
10% of cancer survivors
will develop another type
- If you notice new or
make an appointment
with your doctor.
Reviewed by: A/Prof Jane Turner, Department of Psychiatry, University of Queensland;
Polly Baldwin, Cancer Council Nurse, Cancer Council South Australia; Ben Bravery, Cancer Survivor, NSW;
Helen Breen, Oncology Social Worker, Shoalhaven Cancer Services, NSW; A/Prof Michael Jefford, Consultant
Medical Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Clinical Director, Australian Cancer Survivorship
Centre; David Larkin, Clinical Cancer Research Nurse, Canberra Region Cancer Centre; Miranda Park, Clinical
Nurse Specialist, Cancer Information and Support Service, Cancer Council Victoria; Merran Williams, Nurse,
Bloomhill Integrated Cancer Care, QLD; Iwa Yeung, Physiotherapist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD;
Danny Youlden, Biostatistician, Viertel Cancer Research Centre, Cancer Council Queensland.