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Breast Cancer Recurrence: What You Should Know

When women quit breast cancer treatment early, they take a big risk.

Lifestyle Changes to Improve Your Chances continued...

Low-Fat Diet: One large study showed that, with a strict low-fat diet, a group of postmenopausal breast cancer survivors cut their recurrence risk. The study involved more than 2,400 women, all with early breast cancer. Those who cut their dietary fat from 29% to 19% of their total calories were about 21% less likely to have a recurrence or die over the next six years, compared with women who continued eating their typical foods.

Just remember, nothing is certain, Vogel says. "Just like taking pills, a healthy lifestyle doesn't guarantee it won't recur. It may make it less likely. But you have to be realistic about your expectations."

Follow-Up: Watching for Recurrence

Once treatment has ended, it's important to stay in contact with your oncologist and surgeon.

Get Regular Exams. Oncologists typically follow patients every three months during the first two years, then every six months after that. During this time, women should have regular mammograms, even if they had a mastectomy, says Vogel.

Pay Attention to Your Body. When breast cancer returns, it will be one of three types -- local, regional, or distant. A local recurrence in the breast has "a high likelihood of cure," Vogel tells WebMD. But a regional recurrence in the chest wall or skin -- or a distant metastasis in the bones, brain, liver, or lungs -- becomes life-threatening.

It's important to watch for symptoms, says Pegram. "The most important thing, be observant. Know your body, know what's normal for you. The symptoms can be very subtle. If anything is out of the ordinary -- distinctly unusual and won't go away with the usual over-the-counter remedies -- get it checked out."

Symptoms to watch for:

  • A breast lump or skin changes, redness, nipple discharge
  • Swollen lymph glands
  • Unexplained bone pain or tenderness that does not go away. "We all have aches and pains, but it's not everyday aches and pains I'm talking about," Pegram says. "This is unrelenting pain that keeps you awake at night, that doesn't respond to analgesics [pain medications], that is in the spine, skull, or ribs."
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin, whites of the eyes)
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Breathing difficulty, a new cough, pain with breathing
  • Persistent abdominal pain, weight loss, uterine bleeding

Don't Over-Think It

Your emotional well-being deserves top priority during this time. Finding activities you enjoy can boost your mood and your self-confidence, and reduce stress. If you exercise, you will get fitter and stronger -- plus reduce fatigue.

"Don't worry incessantly," Pegram says. "It takes some judgment and tincture of time to sort these things out, to know what's a symptom of recurrence and what is not."

Vogel is optimistic. "Most people are going to do OK with breast cancer. They get mammograms, get an early diagnosis, then follow their doctor's advice on treatment. Most people are going to do fine, most won't die of breast cancer. Remember, breast cancer mortality rates have been steadily going down for the last decade -- steadily."

Reviewed on September 26, 2007

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