Cause or Effect? The Role of Prognostic Uncertainty in the Fear of Cancer Recurrence
BACKGROUND: Fear of cancer recurrence (FCR) is an important cause of suffering for cancer survivors, and both empirical evidence and theoretical models suggest that prognostic uncertainty plays a causal role in its development. However, the relationship between prognostic uncertainty and FCR is incompletely understood. OBJECTIVE: To explore the relationship between prognostic uncertainty and FCR among patients with ovarian cancer (OC). DESIGN: A qualitative study was conducted utilizing individual in-depth interviews with a convenience sample of patients with epithelial ovarian cancer who had completed first-line treatment with surgery and/or chemotherapy. Semi-structured interviews explored participants' (1) understanding of their prognosis; (2) experiences, preferences, and attitudes regarding prognostic information; and (3) strategies for coping with prognostic uncertainty. Inductive qualitative analysis and line-by-line software-assisted coding of interview transcripts was conducted to identify key themes and generate theoretical insights on the relationship between prognostic uncertainty and FCR. RESULTS: The study sample consisted of 21 participants, nearly all of whom reported experiencing significant FCR, which they traced to an awareness of the possibility of a bad outcome. Some participants valued and pursued prognostic information as a means of coping with this awareness, suggesting that prognostic uncertainty causes FCR. However, most participants acknowledged fundamental limits to both the certainty and value of prognostic information, and engaged in various strategies aimed not at reducing but constructing and maintaining prognostic uncertainty as a means of sustaining hope in the possibility of a good outcome. Participants' comments suggested that prognostic uncertainty, fear, and hope are connected by complex, bi-directional causal pathways mediated by processes that allow patients to cope with, construct, and maintain their uncertainty. A provisional dual-process theoretical model was developed to capture these pathways. CONCLUSION: Among patients with OC, prognostic uncertainty is both a cause and an effect of FCR-a fear-inducing stimulus and a hope-sustaining response constructed and maintained through various strategies. More work is needed to elucidate the relationships between prognostic uncertainty, fear, and hope, to validate and refine our theoretical model, and to develop interventions to help patients with OC and other serious illnesses to achieve an optimal balance between these states.