What Is Cancer Recurrence?

Cancer is a complicated illness. Sometimes, even when you follow treatment plans and have great care, it may come back. If you take away 1 thing from this article, let it be this: It’s not your fault if your cancer comes back.

Cancer recurrence is when previously treated cancer returns after a period when there was no sign of cancer in your body. Recurrences can happen any time after your treatment has ended.

Cancer can come back in these ways:

  • Local recurrence. When new cancer growth happens in the same place it was before.

  • Regional recurrence. When cancer grows somewhere it wasn’t before but is still near where the original cancer was. It may come back in the lymph nodes or other nearby tissues.

  • Distant recurrence (metastasis). When the cancer is now growing in a part of your body farther away from where it originally was. Metastasis most commonly happens in the liver, lungs, distant lymph nodes, or the bones.

No matter where it’s growing, cancer that has recurred is still called by the name of the original cancer. Lung cancer that's come back and is growing in bones is called recurrent lung cancer, not bone cancer. Ovarian cancer that comes back in the liver is still called ovarian cancer. It’s not a new primary liver cancer.

In cancer recurrence, the cancer cells that come back in the new place look a lot like or even the same as the cancer cells in the original cancer.

This means treatment for recurrent cancer is based on what works best for the first type of cancer. So recurrent lung cancer in the bone is treated like lung cancer, not bone cancer.

Seeing your healthcare team

Seeing your cancer team regularly will help keep an eye out for recurrence. You may see them every few weeks at first, and then every few months. The frequency of visits may decrease over time. But you can always make appointments in between routine visits. That way, you get the level of care and attention that you need.

During your visits, your healthcare team will ask questions about how you’re feeling. You should describe any symptoms or issues you’re having. Try to be as honest and detailed with your healthcare team as possible, even about symptoms that seem small. Any unusual or new symptoms are worth mentioning.

Your healthcare provider should give you specific symptoms to look out for. Try keeping a journal between visits to keep track of all symptoms. When speaking with your healthcare provider, provide as much detail as possible about any of the specific symptoms that may be signs of a cancer recurrence. Common signs that healthcare teams look for are:

  • New or unexplained pain

  • Trouble breathing

  • Lumps or swelling (particularly around lymph nodes)

  • Sudden and unexpected weight loss

  • Easily bleeding or bruising

  • Fever or chills

  • Blood in your urine or stool

  • Excessive nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea

  • A cough that doesn’t get better

  • Breathing problems or shortness of breath

  • Headaches

Tell your healthcare provider about occasional symptoms. But be sure to highlight persistent new symptoms that don’t go away. Keep in mind that symptoms can (and often are) caused by other things besides cancer. If you’ve just finished treatment, these could even be late side effects from that.

As hard as it can be, try not to worry about your symptoms but do tell your healthcare provider about them.

In addition to your regular follow-up appointments, physical exams and tests, such as blood tests and biopsies, will help spot signs of cancer recurrence. You may also have more imaging tests, such as ultrasounds or CT or MRI scans.

If you need to miss a follow-up appointment or test, reschedule it right away. Your healthcare team wants to make sure you stay well—and part of that is showing up for visits.

A healthy lifestyle

Unfortunately, there is no way to completely prevent cancer from coming back. But there are several things you can do to improve your overall health and lower the likelihood of cancer returning. Focus on the following:

  • Increase the amount of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains you eat

  • Strive for and maintain a healthy weight

  • Decrease the amount of processed foods and red meat you eat

  • Be physically active

  • Don't use tobacco

  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink

Why does cancer come back?

It’s sometimes hard to say why cancer returns. Cancer cells can hide during surgery or are too small to show on scans and bloodwork. No single factor is solely responsible for cancer coming back. But the following can affect the chances of cancer recurrence:

  • Age

  • Overall health

  • Cancer type and subtype

  • Cancer stage

  • Type of treatment

  • Length of time since initial treatment

If cancer does come back, know that it doesn’t necessarily mean that your previous treatments didn’t work. Of course, it’s normal to feel a variety of emotions. You may blame yourself or your healthcare team. You may even feel betrayed by your body. Maybe you have doubts about your original treatment or the choices that you or your provider made. It can be really hard to handle cancer returning. But know that many of the reasons why cancer comes back are out of your control. And that it’s important to acknowledge everything you’re feeling.

When you’re ready, work with your healthcare team to develop a plan on how to deal with the cancer coming back. This can help you feel empowered and focused on the future.

Going through cancer and treatment again can feel overwhelming and defeating. But you’re not alone. Your healthcare team and loved ones are here to help you.

Coping with cancer recurrence

If you’ve found out that your cancer is back, you’re probably dealing with a range of emotions, such as anger, anxiety, disbelief, fear, grief, and shock. Know that whatever you are feeling is valid and completely normal.

Because you have been through this before, you likely know some of the ways to cope. These include:

  • Relying on your support systems

  • Understanding how the medical system and health insurance works

  • Knowing how to work with your healthcare providers

  • Knowing about treatments and how to manage side effects

  • Using stress management techniques that work for you

Cancer recurrence and your healthcare team

If cancer comes back, remember that you have help. Your healthcare team will work with you on a treatment plan that suits your needs and goals. You may have treatment that’s like your initial treatment. Or it may be entirely different. Your treatment options will depend on:

  • The type of cancer, its location, and the amount of it

  • The type of treatment you had before

  • The length of time since you finished treatment

  • The results of the first treatment

  • Previous side effects and their impact on you

  • Your new goals for treatment

  • Your overall health

  • Your personal preferences

Keep in mind that types of treatment may have improved since the first time you had cancer. New treatments can sound intimidating because they carry a lot of unknowns. It may be tempting to go with a type of treatment you’re familiar with. But some treatments are too intense to have more than once. And sometimes repeating the same treatment won’t get the results you want. Listen to what your healthcare team has to say about your situation. And take time to weigh the pros and cons of all available options.

Depending on the type of cancer recurrence, your healthcare provider may also suggest clinical trials as an option for treatment. Discuss the potential benefits and the possible risks and side effects with your healthcare team.

Having a cancer recurrence is challenging. Trust in the support from your healthcare team, friends, and family. Engage with your network of people to help you through this tough time.

© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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