Fears about Breast Cancer Recurrence: 

Interviews with a Diverse Sample


  • Suzanne M. Johnson Vickberg phd

    1. Suzanne M. Johnson Vickberg, PhD, Department of Social-Personality Psychology, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and Derald H. Ruttenberg Cancer Center, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, New York.
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  • This research was supported by an Individual Pre-doctoral National Service Award from the National Institute of Mental Health (MH11886-02) and a grant from Sex Roles: A Journal of Research.

  • A portion of these data were presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Behavioral Medicine (March 1998).

Address for correspondence: Suzanne M. Johnson Vickberg, PhD, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, 810 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10019.


Purpose: Prior research shows that the majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer experience ongoing fears about recurrence. These studies primarily have used Likert scales to determine the extent to which women fear recurrence but have not presented details of women's experiences or addressed the nature of women's fears. This report describes a pilot study designed to capture women's diverse experiences related to the possibility of recurrence.

Description of study: Sixteen women participated in semi-structured interviews about their thoughts and feelings regarding the possibility of breast cancer recurrence. Thematic content coding was used to categorize women's responses.

Results: Although some women indicated strong fears about recurrence, the majority expressed more moderate fears. Fears revolved around the possibility of death, further treatment (particularly chemotherapy), emotional difficulties, pain, advancement of the disease, suffering of family members, and loss of the breast. Many women spoke about life circumstances that were more salient than the possibility of recurrence. Women also described events/situations that triggered fears and strategies used for coping with fears.

Clinical implications: Results suggest that more systematic investigation of women's fears about breast cancer recurrence is warranted and that clinicians should address the multidimensional nature of women's fears as they relate to other psychological processes and events in women's lives. Moreover, women's life circumstances should be considered when attempting to determine whether a social support intervention might be beneficial or detrimental.