Everyone assumes that receiving a cancer diagnosis is the most shocking, frightening, upsetting and life-changing news you can get. But I can think of a worse diagnosis: recurrence.
Like the tunnel vision preceding syncope, my future disappeared. In that instant I knew I wasn't cured and would surely die of cancer. The only thing I remember saying to my doctors is ‘Don't give up on me.’…In the wee hours of that first night, I stood shivering in my bedroom after being awakened by incisional pain. All my life until then I'd been misusing the word ‘terror.’”
You see, recurrence means facing a new cancer diagnosis without the shock that made the first diagnosis feel surreal. It means returning to the too-familiar needle sticks and pills, side effects and scans, and eternal waiting.
Patients wrestle with worsening statistics that are reflected in the faces of friends and family members who responded to the original diagnosis with optimism and now exude palpable pity… or disappear from their life altogether.
If recurrence develops after a short remission, it can feel like beginning another long journey on a quarter tank of gas. The body hasn't had quite enough time to fully recover and the psyche hasn't yet regained confidence in the body. In that sense, a first recurrence is better after a nice, long remission (not that one can choose). Still, “late” recurrence doesn't mean “easy”—it means terrible in different ways.