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Life After Cancer: Understanding Cancer Recurrence 

Cancer recurrence is when the cancer you were treated for comes back after a period of time when there was no sign of cancer in your body. It may happen any time after your treatment has finished. It may come back in the same place as the first time. Or it may be in a new part of your body.

Why does cancer come back?

Cancer can come back if it wasn’t fully gone after the first treatment. Cells may be left behind that aren’t found until they grow.

Cancer that comes back less than a year after treatment is sometimes called progression instead of recurrence. This means the cancer was likely not ever fully gone. Or some of the cancer cells didn't respond to treatment. With time, they grew to a point where they could be found.

What is my risk for the cancer returning?

Healthcare providers have no sure way of knowing if a person’s cancer may come back. Your risk of cancer recurrence depends on the type of cancer, your overall health, your age, the treatments used, and many other things. Your healthcare provider can tell you more about your personal risk and if there are treatments that can help reduce your risk for recurrence.

How cancer comes back

Cancer can come back (recur) in these ways:

  • Local recurrence. This is when the cancer is growing in the same place it was before.

  • Regional recurrence. This is when the cancer is growing close to the first place it grew.

  • Distant recurrence. This is when the cancer is now growing in another part of your body.

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 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 is chosen 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.

Can I prevent the cancer from coming back?

You can do many things to stay healthy, but there's no guarantee that anything will help prevent cancer from coming back. Still, staying healthy can help make sure that if cancer does recur again, you'll be in good shape for treatment.

To be as healthy as possible, you can:

  • Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

  • Limit the amount of processed and red meat in your diet.

  • Get to or stay at a healthy weight.

  • Get exercise every day.

  • Don’t use tobacco.

  • Limit alcohol to 1 drink a day for women, 2 for men.

Checking for returning cancer

You'll see your cancer treatment team regularly and get tests to check for signs of cancer recurrence. This is part of your follow-up care plan. These visits may be every few months at first, and then more spread out as time goes by. Make sure to keep these appointments. Your healthcare providers will ask you how you're feeling and what, if any, symptoms you have. Physical exams and blood tests will be done. Imaging tests such as ultrasound, MRI, or CT scans may be done, too.

Talk with your healthcare team about what symptoms you should watch for that may mean the cancer has come back. Tell your healthcare team if you have a return of cancer symptoms you had before. And tell them if you have new symptoms that don’t go away, such as:

  • Pain

  • Trouble breathing

  • Lumps or swelling

  • Weight loss

  • Easy bleeding or bruising

  • Fevers

  • Blood in your urine or stool

  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea

  • A cough that doesn’t get better

Keep in mind that these symptoms may can be caused by many other things. They could even be late side effects of cancer treatment. And you'll still have problems that have nothing to do with cancer, like colds, aches, and sprains. So you may have an infection or other problem that can be easily treated. But the only way to know for sure is to see your healthcare provider.

If your cancer comes back

Your healthcare team will work with you on a treatment plan. You may have treatment that's a lot like the first time, or your treatment may be different. The type of treatment will depend on:

  • The type of cancer and where it's growing

  • The type of treatment you had before

  • How well the first treatment worked

  • Side effects that you had before

  • The goals of treatment

Coping with cancer's return

Learning that your cancer is back can be very upsetting. You may feel fear, anger, sadness, and worry. You may have doubts about your original treatment, or the choices you or your healthcare provider made. You may wonder whether you should have done something different or could have done something to keep the cancer from coming back. It’s important to know that there’s nothing you can or can’t do to prevent cancer recurrence, and no one can predict if it will happen.

Keep in mind that because you have been through cancer treatment, you already have many tools for coping with cancer again. These include:

  • Support systems in place, such as family, friends, and cancer support groups

  • Experience working with your healthcare providers for treatment

  • Knowledge about treatments and how to manage side effects

Working with your healthcare team

The most important thing about watching for and coping with cancer recurrence is working with your healthcare team. Your team can give you information and support, help you stay healthy, and guide you through the treatment process as needed.

Getting support

It’s normal to worry about cancer coming back. But, if you have a lot of stress and worry about whether your cancer may return, ask for help. For instance, it can help to join a support group. Talk with your healthcare team about nearby groups or online support. Talking with people dealing with similar issues can be comforting and give you a chance to express your worries to people who really know how you feel. Your team can also refer you to a counselor. Get help. Don't let your fear of cancer recurrence keep you from enjoying life.

Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: Lu Cunningham
Online Medical Reviewer: Richard LoCicero MD
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2019
© 2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.
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