Breast Cancer Patients on Coping with Recurrence

Women who have experienced a breast cancer recurrence tell you how to cope — and hope.

By Ginny Graves

Getting Your Head Around the Diagnosis

Once you beat breast cancer, you just want to put the illness behind you. But it’s hard to shake the fear of a recurrence. The greatest risk is in the first three to five years, but beyond that there’s always a chance it will return — or that you’ll develop a totally new cancer. Here’s what it’s like when it happens and how to handle it, from 12 women who have faced that very scenario.

No woman expects to be diagnosed once, much less once again.

  • "I was furious when I was diagnosed because I’d done everything I could to get rid of it the first time: a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and five years of tamoxifen," says Deborah Hampton, 55, a writer in Hixson, Tennessee. "But I didn’t want to be angry for the rest of my life, so I told myself that while I didn’t have control over what happened, I did have control over how I responded."
  • "I thought I had maybe two weeks," says LuAnn Hudson, 44, a database administrator in Cincinnati who was diagnosed with a recurrence in July 2006, eight years after her initial bout. "My 19-year-old daughter and I cuddled and cried all night. But then I figured, even if there’s a two percent cure rate, someone is getting cured. It might as well be me."
  • "I accepted the diagnosis but not the prognosis," says Carol Silverander, 60, of Santa Barbara, California, author of With the Help of Our Friends from France: Stabilizing and Living with Advanced Breast Cancer. "After my recurrence in 1999, my oncologist told me she thought I had two years to live, which was way too frightening and overwhelming. Fortunately, I knew from Lance Armstrong’s story of advanced testicular cancer that a metastasis isn’t necessarily a death sentence."

Shifting from "Curable" to "Chronic"

If you’ve had breast cancer, you’re likely on a stepped-up surveillance program, so many recurrences are caught early. But for those with a metastasis, the focus of treatment shifts from attempting to cure the disease to controlling it.

  • "My doctors are no longer trying to hit my cancer with everything they’ve got, and at first I wondered, why aren’t they doing more?" Hudson says. "Now I understand that the focus of treatment is on quality of life and preventing side effects, so my job is to stay as positive as I can."
  • "I distinguish cure from healing," Hampton says. "Cure means the absence of disease, and some of us are never going to get there. But healing — as in to be whole, authentic, and open? By that definition, breast cancer has brought healing to me and my life."

Telling the News

Trust your instincts about how — and with whom — to share the news.

  • "I was so shocked by the second diagnosis that I didn’t tell anyone except my husband for at least a week," says Robyn Eley, 48, a marketing communications specialist who lives in Franklin, Indiana. "I wasn’t ready to face other people’s reactions until I had worked out my own."
  • "After my first diagnosis, I told pretty much everyone, but the second time, I was more discriminating," says Cynthia Gaylord, 45, a yoga instructor in Chatham, New Jersey. "After my third diagnosis, I told almost no one. Although people mean well, constant phone calls can be annoying."
  • "I didn’t want to tell my friends at first, because I felt almost guilty," says Nancy Wellborn, 62, who’s retired and lives in Peoria, Arizona. "I remember thinking, how can I do this to them again? They must be tired of hearing about my cancer. But people have been just as great this time around."

Dealing with Friends

Their worry and concern can add up to a lot of uneaten casseroles — and unhelpful advice. These veterans have found ways of handling it.

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