Fighting Fear of Breast Cancer Recurrence


INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Ivanhoe Newswire)— Three point-eight million women in the U.S. are breast cancer survivors. They’ve either heard the words, “You are cured”, or they are still being monitored and treated for the disease. But for many women, there’s overwhelming fear or breast cancer recurrence.  Now, researchers are working to determine the best way to help survivors face those fears.

There’s always something happening in the Lyons family backyard. Kristen fought hard for her family to get to this point.  She was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 39.

Lyons shared, “I was thinking about my kids and oh my goodness, what does this mean for our future?”

Kristen had treatment and beat the cancer. She rang the clinic bell signaling the all-clear. But that started an internal battle that got worse.

“I thought I should have a new lease on life because here we are cancer-free, you know, and instead I found myself getting more and more worried and anxious,” recalled Lyons.

“The number one problem that almost every cancer survivor that I work with has dealt with is the fear that it’s going to come back,” explained Shelley Johns, PsyD, clinical health psychologist, at Regenstrief Institute, Indianapolis.

(Read Full Interview)

Johns and her colleagues conducted a clinical trial comparing three interventions for people struggling with fear of cancer recurrence. The researchers found one method produced significant reduction. It’s called acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT.

“We’re all going to have thoughts and feelings that are uncomfortable. They just kind of naturally come into our mind. So, it’s about accepting those thoughts and feelings without necessarily getting hooked by them,” elaborated Johns.

Johns and her team met with survivors for six weeks and used mindfulness practices, like meditation, to help them focus. Then patients developed a personal plan to give priority to their values, activities, and people important to them. Kristen calls ACT life- changing.

“I go down the worry path, but I now have the tools to reign it back in, and that’s made all the difference,” Lyons shared.

Acceptance and commitment therapy has been around for two decades, but Shelley Johns says it has never been used to help people struggling with fear of cancer recurrence until now. Researchers tested the interventions in a sample of 90 breast cancer survivors. Johns says she would like to conduct a similar trial involving a much larger number of survivors.

Contributors to this news report include: Cyndy McGrath, Executive Producer & Field Producer; Kirk Manson, Videographer; Roque Correa, Editor.

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REPORT:       MB #4799

BACKGROUND: Breast cancer is a type of cancer that starts when cells in the breast begin to grow out of control. The cells usually form a tumor that can often be seen on an x-ray or felt as a lump. It occurs almost entirely in women, but men can get it, too. Most breast lumps are benign, or non-cancerous. These tumors are abnormal growths, but do not spread outside of the breast. They are considered not life-threatening, but some types of benign breast lumps can increase a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer. Most breast cancers begin in the ducts that carry milk to the nipple, while some start in the glands that make breast milk. There are also other types of breast cancer that are less common like phyllodes tumor and angiosarcoma.


COPING WITH FEAR OF RECURRENCE: For cancer survivors, fear of cancer recurrence is a common concern. There are ways to manage this anxiety to live a full and meaningful life. The first step is to allow yourself to acknowledge and accept your feelings. Developing ways to manage these feelings is important as well as to be kind to yourself. Try to relieve stress by finding things to do that are comforting such as meditation, a yoga class, writing in a journal or spending time with a pet. Getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy diet and engaging in physical activities can also provide a sense of control. Sharing your concerns with a friend you feel comfortable with is a powerful way to get some relief. Reflect on what makes your life meaningful, both before and after cancer. Ask yourself what values and activities are important? And how can you continue to honor those things? Most importantly, be informed. Stay actively involved in your follow-up care by asking your doctor specific questions about the likelihood of recurrence.


ONGOING RESEARCH FOR RECURRENT BREAST CANCER: Vanderbilt University Medical Center is investigating changes from breast cancer tissue and blood samples, before and after treatment, in people with triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). They hope to identify factors that predict chemotherapy resistance, recurrence, and relapse-free survival. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is evaluating how genetics and immune cells change in people with TNBC over time. The results of this study could lead to new ways to identify these patients at risk for developing treatment resistance, tumor recurrence, and metastasis and Virginia Commonwealth University is studying different combinations of FDA-approved drugs for their ability to kill breast cancer cells and stop breast cancer recurrence and metastasis.





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Doctor Q and A

Read the entire Doctor Q&A for Shelley Johns, PsyD, ABPP, Associate Professor of Medicine and Board Certified Clinical Health Psychologist, Research Scientist

Read the entire Q&A